Who Needs Radar?!

Living on a boat requires a significant downsizing of possessions. Before Christmas I warned my family that I can no longer accept physical gifts, but gift cards will be gladly accepted. I was delighted to receive a gift certificate from my parents for the Rosario Resort on Orcas Island. I set out on an early Saturday morning and the conditions appeared perfect: glassy water, a flood tide, not a breath of wind, and warm sunlight glancing off the nearby islands.

No sooner did I poke my nose into Rosario Strait than I was completely enveloped in fog. At first I didn’t think it would be too bad, but then a tug appeared 500 yards away on a collision course with me. I had to circle around, hard to starboard, to let him pass and allow me to cross his wake. Once out of the way, I hoisted my collapsible radar reflector up the jib halyard. As I pushed north, the fog got thicker and thicker and I lost my bearings completely. My hand-held GPS accurately told me my position, but is not too accurate at telling my direction. It also doesn’t have AIS to tell me where the other ships are.

Cutting the throttle back to idle, I jumped into the cabin to fire up my netbook with navigation software. I also started looking on the Google ‘Play’ App store for AIS software while I still had cell service. I’d read an article on Sailing Simplicity about AIS enabled apps. The first app I tried was no help, but the second was simple, fast, free, and accurate. It is appropriately named FindShip and showed me all the tugs, ferries, and cargo ships. My biggest fear is having a huge ship appear out of the fog, close by and bearing down at me. This little app went a long way to easing my fears and keeping me safe.

The navigation software I have loaded on my netbook is made by Maptech. The Chart Navigator Pro version of their software is a little spendy, but I was able to pick up a copy for cheap on the clearance shelf at West Marine. A free copy of the Lite version of their software is usually included when purchasing one of their chart books. For me, the only big advantage to the ‘Pro’ version of the software is the anchor alarm, but now you can get that as a free app on your smart phone. Either way you get it, this software is invaluable and certainly worth its price. It keeps me out of the shipping lanes but still in deep water, and is my primary guide out of the fog.

I loaded the software onto an Acer netbook that I was able to buy second hand for very cheap. These netbooks have a 6+ hour battery life, which is essential for long passages. I typically keep it plugged into an inverter, but it’s nice to know I can unplug it and not have it die on me while in a harry situation. A USB GPS receiver can be found for $10 to $15 online. I heartily recommend this same setup to all boaters on a budget.

My handheld GPS is great at tracking my speed, creating a breadcrumb trail (in case I need to double back), and has topographical maps useful for hiking the islands. Between the three electronic devices, I have a pretty solid navigation suite that goes a long way to replacing radar. I admit, having radar would be nice, but it’s outside my budget and the budget for most boaters. Even as socked-in as this trip was, I didn’t feel like I was missing much.

Head Into Fog

Beautiful morning sunlight glancing off the islands, and an ominous fog bank dead ahead.

Rosario Strait Fog

Visibility is low. The fog is thick and soupy. There is no way to visually keep your bearings.


My handheld GPS is on whenever I’m under way. It’s my speedometer and trip tracker.

Maptech Notebook

My netbook running Maptech charting software. A $15 GPS plugs into the USB port.

Findships App

The FindShips app showing a tug that just left Bellingham Channel.

Cypress Island Fog

Cypress Island and Rosario Strait are completely socked-in by fog. Photo taken from Mount Constitution on Orcas Island.

This video wasn’t from this weekend. I shot it the weekend before when sailing to Friday Harbor along the south end of Lopez Island. It was a great sail!

Related posts:

Full Disclosure – Financing My Liveaboard Life
Heavy Weather Sailing
New Year’s Resolutions
5 Responses to “Who Needs Radar?!”
  1. Alan K says:

    A good cheap navigation charting device is one of the older asus eee net books. They have a long battery life on their own but are running on 12 volts naturally. Sea clear is a free navigation program. A usb dongle and your set. Shows your boat on coast guard chart and will pretty much show your heading and will run all day on your house battery.

  2. Chris –
    Nice improvisation on the fly! I think fog without navigational aids is one of the scariest things. How did the ancient mariners survive (you know, like 30 years ago without computers!)? 🙂 Thanks for all the insights on the equipment you’ve found on a budget. I’m sure we’ll be looking at those options soon enough. Great post and hope we can meet up again soon some day.

    Katie and Mark

  3. Great post! Thanks for the suggestions of those apps. We used my Asus netbook on our trip this summer and I was only marginally happy with the results. Probably the software i was using had something to do with that, but also the fact that I had to keep the thing plugged into the inverter below so really using it for navigation was difficult. i’m looking forward to trying some different apps next time. And yes, being socked in by fog is a scary thing. And it happens so fast in the islands.

  4. ijon says:

    This is very very unresponsible behaviour!

    AIS only reflects the PAST, not the present, not the future. Sometimes an AIS packet might be as old as 3min, if you have a proper AIS receiver on board.

    If one relys on webservices, then the AIS package gets picked up by a landstation, gets processed there, then gets uploaded, stored in a database and then transmitted out to your computer.

    If you loose connection for a couple of seconds you might be missing some packages.

    Nobody can predict, wether the receiving, processing, uploading, storing and sending out through multiple servers and databases takes milliseconds or minutes.

    Dont rely on AIS-apps to navigate in Fog. It is dangerous.

  5. Larry says:

    Hi Chris, I’m a new reader. I have a technical background and I’ve got an idea about radar reflectors I would like to talk to you about.

    Send me a private email if you would and we could discuss it.

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