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Summer cruise coming up? Is it time to install or update your electronic charting system?

If so, here is something you might want to consider – cheap (even free) and easy to install!

by Alex Blackwell

With a laptop and some inexpensive software, you can download FREE up-to-date NOAA charts!
Cruising season is upon us, and for many of us plans for our summer cruise are just getting under way.  Time to go to our favorite local navigation store and buy new (expensive) charts?   “Not so,” say I! You can get all the charts you could possibly want for your sailing area for free!

These charts are high quality, continually updated and accurate, and are intended for navigational use. You may need to buy some software to view them, but the charts themselves are totally free. Yes, you read right. The North American charts will cost you nothing, nada, zip!

Adopted by organizations worldwide, the S57 Electronic Navigation Chart (ENC) standard, defined by the International Hydrographic Organization based in Monaco , is non-proprietary in structure and format, publicly available, and internationally recognized. In the US , the Office of Coast Survey (OCS) and NOAA have developed the NOAA ENC chart suite.

Availability of ENCs

The catalog of S57 charts is continually growing. Coverage of US waters, not to mention the rest of the world, is far from complete, but expanding rapidly. On the positive side, our sailing area on LIS is quite well covered.

Updated information

Free Vector Charts (S57 format) or ENC Electronic Navigation Charts

Free Raster Charts (BSB format) or RNC Raster Nautical Charts

To view the graphical interface the new Java 2 Runtime Environment (J2RE) is required. There is a link on the NOAA charting page that brings you to the Sun Java download page, which can look a ‘bit’ daunting, but trust me that it is well worth the effort. Read down until you see J2SDK/J2RE and click on the ‘Go’ button to the right. Next click on the link to “Download J2RE”. Click on the link for Windows installation, and follow the instructions. If you are on a cable modem or dsl line, this process will not take too long. When done, simply close this window, reload the NOAA page and the chart selection map should work

You can download free S57 ENCs for US waters at:

When selecting charts, make sure they are version 2, as only these are intended for navigation.

The one quirk is that the NOAA server gives the files you download a random name, so it would be advisable to download only one chart at a time, and then rename the file to something you will recognize later – however, make sure you do not change the filename extension (*.000). Alternatively, download the charts you need for a cruise into a new folder and import these as a new library or group; naming the library as you import it.

Software that will display ENCs:                               

You can display a vector formatted S57 ENC chart with a number of different programs on your computer. It is not a file you can view or use without such supporting software. Each has different features.  Depending on the software you use with the ENC, you may be able to plot your course, and combine it with your GPS or Radar. There is some free-ware available, which works quite well, but offers only limited features. The commercial packages, varying widely in price, allow you to do real time navigation – coordinating GPS input and chart data.

Over the past summer we took the opportunity of loading up and testing a few packages, both freeware and commercial, and were amazed with the results. Yes, these free charts really work and yes they are excellent. Each of the programs did have their own quirks. Of the packages we tried out this summer, Fugawi Marine ENC was by far the easiest. At $198 for full retail it will certainly not break the bank and is really worth trying out. Installation was very easy, loading charts is straight forward, but the documentation is fairly lacking.  That is more than offset by the price. Fugawi offers real-time GPS navigation when connected to a GPS input device. Fugawi also has a free ENC viewer.

For more information go to:


GPS mouse bought online for $20 turns your laptop into a GPS that interfaces with your software.

In the spirit of cheap and simple, we used an existing laptop and did not attempt to connect it to our on-board electronics.   For a GPS source, we opted instead for a so-called GPS-mouse; purchased for less than $20 on ebay. The installation was very simple, with self-launching software on a disc, and the operation (with the Fugawi software) was extraordinarily easy.  That’s all it took and we were on our way.  We checked accuracy against our onboard GPS system and found no fault with the unit.  In fact, in checking our position by plotting on paper charts versus the chart plotter software, we were pleased to see that the two remained closely aligned.

For a more complete overview, see Alex's article in the August 2005 issue of Cruising World.

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