kate at navigation station in sweet ruca

What is the Best Navigation Solution for Sailboat Cruising?

What is the best navigation or chart plotter solution for sailboat cruising? Is an iPad with Navionics good enough for bluewater sailing? Are there such things as free charts? What is the best low-cost navigation system?

These and other similar questions many ask when beginning to contemplate navigating outside of their local area, are important to answer. I think the answer depends on your needs and sailing type to determine what is right for you.

Let’s start by examining the options we have available to us.


Apps & Tablet-Based Navigation

An iPad or Android tablet with Navionics is perhaps the easiest solution that is ready to go out of the box. It is really good and paired with a cell phone/wifi-enabled tablet surprisingly accurate. A bonus is the sonar charts, which we really like and have found to be very helpful in less well-charted areas. We cruised for almost a month in Lake Michigan, North Channel, Georgian Bay, and Lake St. Claire with just that. But, there are some issues, the biggest of which is rain or spray. Most tablets combined with Navionics, or other apps, become worthless when wet, too hot, or too cold. This is generally when you need that nav data most, critical conditions in bad visibility.

Budget: $

Easy Setup
Easy to Use
Lower Cost Charts

Extreme Conditions Loss of Function
No Weather Routing


OpenCPN and Low-Cost PC Navigation Systems

Not quite as plug and play, but also another cheap option. If you happen to have an old laptop lying around your house, this is just about as close to free as you can get. OpenCPN is a really good open-source software that has been developed over many years by real sailors. It can be downloaded online and will run on most laptops. Charts for most areas can also be downloaded for free. It does take a small learning curve, and some of the charts may not be as full-featured of commercial offerings. We use OpenCPN as our backup PC-based nav/chart program aboard s/v Sweet Ruca.

Budget: $

Free to Download
Real Sailor Dev Community
Customizable & Expandable

Higher learning curve (compared to Navionics/iPad)
Still need on deck display solution

what chartplotter is best for my sailboat

Handheld GPS

The Garmin GPSMap 72 or 78 is the tried and true standard here. There are other similar models from other manufacturers. You can pick one of these up on eBay for less than a case of beer! Although the screen is microscopic by today’s standards, this unit is almost bulletproof. It usually comes preloaded with charts for your cruising area. It can slosh around in the bilge and still work on command. I’ve sailed thousands of miles with one of these bashing around the cockpit floor, and still keep one as a ditch bag backup.

Budget: $ – $$

Usable in All Weather Conditions
Fast Learning Curves

Small Screen

raymarine chartplotter

Chartplotters (B&G, Raymarine, Garmin, Simrad, etc.)

Perhaps the most expensive option, but also most reliable when the conditions get snotty. Most chart plotters (Multi-Function Displays or MFDs) by the major instrument manufacturers are pretty much the same these days. Charts are usually more expensive to purchase for these because the manufacturers make everything proprietary. They do work very well though for real-time sailing navigation, especially when combined with radar and a full instrument package.

Budget: $$

Usability in Extreme Conditions
Instrument / Radar Interfaces

Expensive and Require Installation
No Weather Routing

kate at navigation station in sweet ruca

Expedition & Commercial Navigation Software

This is what the big boys use, usually in conjunction with MFDs and instrument/radar packages. We use Expedition and C-Map charts aboard Sweet Ruca as our primary navigation source. This gives us the ability to log everything in one place. It also allows us to use our boats’ polar speeds in conjunction with weather and current information to choose the best sailing routes. This has a high learning curve, but when making multiple week passages, it can cut days off your route and allow you to dodge serious weather. Data is relayed on deck via an iPad running remote desktop and the system is integrated with our MFDs and instrument displays. If you want to up your sailing game or simply want to have the same capabilities as the sailors in the Volvo Ocean Race and Vendee Globe do, this is it.

Budget: $$$

Weather Routing
Commercial Support & Training
Best Capability

Highest Cost
Learning Curve

DIY Systems

There are quite a few that make use of RPi, mini PCs, etc, and combine them with waterproof touch screens. One can build a pretty capable navigation system using DIY parts. Most government charts can be downloaded for free on the web. Combine these things with some open-source software and you can build your own killer app. For us, although it would be really fun to explore this route, there are too many other boat projects to allow time for this.

Budget: $-$$$

Budget Flexibility
Custom Features
Ultimate Freedom

Time, no plug and play
Highest learning curve

expedition navigation software


So what is the best navigation option for you and your boat?

The best thing to start with and build upon is perhaps a small handheld GPS with charting ability such as the Garmin GPSMap78.

If you are a sunny day sailor and don’t venture out of cell phone range, apps such as Navionics on iPad or Android are probably your best bet. If you venture further from land or spend more than a day at a time at sea, a combination of at least two methods provides some redundancy.

If you expect bad weather or cruise in areas of the Northern USA, at least one built-in chart plotter with buttons from a well-regarded manufacturer such as Raymarine, B&G/Simrad, or Garmin would be recommended.

If you are venturing into new anchorages or crossing oceans, a PC-based navigation option, in combination with apps and chart plotter/radar/ais/instruments, allows for the best passage planning, redundancy, and real-time sailing data like wind, depth, and current.

If you intend to race at all, or really enjoy performance sailing, Expedition Navigation Software is where it is at!

If you have a low budget, you can put together a safe, capable, and redundant navigation system for a reasonable cost via DIY. Just don’t expect all of the bells and whistles, and realize it may have its limits in bad weather or if you are less technically apt.

If your budget can afford it, or you are venturing into areas where safety is paramount, get the best system you can.

If you are really cheap and an old salty dog, there are always the tried and true paper charts, ruler, dividers, and sextant! Paper charts and books actually get pretty costly though if you venture far and wide. We do recommend having some type of redundancy wherever you go, but in our opinion, paper charts are a little dated.

For any system, don’t skimp on training time. Read the manual, get screen time, and/or take the training classes. Most navigation failures occur due to user error, it is important to have a good understanding of your equipment before you set sail.

See you on the water!


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