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Navigation Software Trials in Biscay 2012


I am starting a series of live trials of the latest MaxSea TZ software. I reviewed this software in 2010.This was a particular review to do only with the complex subject of routing. It was not intended as a general review of navigation software. In that review I came to the conclusion that the MaxSea TZ software was the overall “winner”. Now two years on I thought I would have another look at the MaxSea TZ software and see if they have come on in their design and functionality.

The context of this review is of interest. I am taking part in the Rally Portugal 2012. A rally organised each year by the World Cruising Club which is aimed at people like my wife and I who have never done any ocean sailing or any passages that really require a disciplined watch keeping rota i.e. over 100 mile non stop passages. The plan is to cross from Plymouth, UK to Baiona, Spain (550 nm) and then cruise down the coast of Spain and Portugal to Lagos. This I thought would be a great opportunity to compare and contrast software and navigation software.

On board I have a number of chart plotting devices – probably far more than most cruising sailors:

1 – Dedicated Plotter : A brand new Raymarine e125 Hybrid Touch plotter with Navionics Platinum charts

2 – Dedicated Plotter : The old Raymarine RL80C Plus with CMap NT charts

3 – Laptop (Windows7) software: MaxSea TZ v1.9.7 with MM3D charts

4 – Laptop (Windows7) software: Neptune v5.0.5 with CMap NT charts

So quite a number of opportunities to compare what these systems have to offer.

The other interesting thing is that it is now June 6th. The Rally should have started on June 3rd. But rather extreme weather in Biscay had lead all the participants and the Rally organisers to delay the start. This is hugely disappointing but it did mean that every day and sometimes more than once I have had to use what facilities I have to re-route and download weather updates using a variety of services.

Weather services being used:

1 – MaxSea TZ – built in weather download (by internet download or by email)

2 – UGrib

3 – zyGrib

4 – Magic Seaweed (using WifI or 3G on my Apple iPhone)

It has been very interesting to see how software helps or frustrates the task of re-routing and re-planning over and over again – so I hope to have quite a bit to say about my experiences in the posts that follow.


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Iridium 9555 mounting for a fiver

I have installed a new sat phone in readiness for the ocean passages that my wife and I are planning. The phone I chose, after much deliberation, was the Iridium 9555. I will be posting my impressions of this phone and the real experiences and costs  of using it soon, but this post is simply about the fact that Iridium sell you a £1,000 phone – but they do not supply a mounting bracket so you can actually mount it securely!

I think this is a really disappointing omission. I realise they want to sell the mounting kit separately and at huge cost – but really – what an omission for such an expensive device.


Iridium9555VMDS_web Docking station Iridium Holder
Docking station for $649 Many more expensive options.. My solution for £5.99 from eBAY

You have to remember most of us are buying this phone to use on a boat on the high seas not in a marina cafe. We are not interested in “hands free” we are interested in robust and resilient designs.

There are some realities to take into account when using this phone on a boat:

1. The phone will just not work effectively unless it has a very good signal i.e. 5 bars. I will justify this in a later post – I am collecting more data….but just trust me – on a boat you MUST connect an external antenna such as the Iridium Tough AD510 .

2. To connect the external antenna cable –which is  a very stiff RST933 cable – you MUST put the phone in its adaptor. This adaptor is a wafer thin piece of plastic with a very thin piece of wire coming out the back and terminated in a TNC connecter.

3. Screwing this fragile cable on and off the very stiff external cable is virtually guaranteed to break the cable… what were Iridium thinking when they designed this !. Is this how you design a rough, tough, satellite phone for use in remote and challenging situations… never mind on a rocking boat far out at sea ?

4. Once the phone is connected by its tiny life line to the thick external antenna cable – there it lies – rolling about the nav table.

Your £1,000 does not get you a cradle that you could fit to a wall or a dashboard – incredible!

So here is a solution that I created for £5.99 plus two screws….


Iridium9555-AntennaAdapter This shows the Iridium 9555 with its adaptor.

The adaptor is well designed to connect the phone’s antenna jack to the supplied desktop antenna….

BUT, it is also the only way to connect the phone to your boats external antenna …

Iridium Holder After some hunting around, I found a car phone holder that could hold the Iridium, without obscuring any of the controls or sockets on the side or at the base of the phone.

Don't forget you will want to connect the mini USB socket to the USB on your laptop to do emails and download GRIB files.

The holder is actually designed to hold the Nokia 5800…but it turns out to be a perfect fit for the Iridium 9555 sat phone…and very cheap…

buy it on eBay for £5.99

E-HOLDER-2 You will need to dismantle the arm from the base in order to drill two holes in it.

This is done easily by taking the knob of the lower part of the arm…just make a note how it comes apart … it took me 15 minutes to work out how to re-assemble it….another senior moment Smile

IMG_0738 …having dismantled the arm

…drill two holes for self tapping screws

….I decided not to glue the holder to the side of the nav table in case I ever wanted to move it or replace it…


…simply fit the holder to a convenient surface at or near your chart table….and your laptop

IMG_0739 this shows a another cable I had made up so that I could avoid connecting the stiff external antenna cable to the phone directly thereby reducing the strain on the cable and the cradle, and allowing me to be able to lift the phone out and operate the keyboard if I wanted to ….

This shows the whole installation

A = the very stiff external antenna cable that runs to the Iridium Tough AD510

B = Short extension cable, shielded, but thinner and flexible, so I can pick the phone up but still have it connected to the external antenna

C = Fragile, thin, cable connecter that comes in the phone adaptor



Final handy tip – buy yourself a spare Iridium antenna adaptor from eBAY for £35…. you are definitely going to break the one that ships with the phone !!


Navionics Chart Updates

I must be getting slow..those senior moments are becoming my normal state!

Navionics1I recently bought two Navionics charts for my brand new Raymarine hybrid touch e125 chart plotter (…more posts on that to come…Smile)

Somehow I didn’t realise that I am eligible for chart updates for 1 year. There is an app to install on your PC that gives you access to your charts on the PC as well as on the chart plotter – duh.

Navionics have cleverly wrapped this offer up within the requirement to open an “account” in their online store. Once you download the software, you can insert your chart card into your laptop and copy one of 5 licenced copies of your chart to your laptop for route and waypoint planning. You can then update your chart card with free chart updates for 1 year. After you register you will be sent a zero cost invoice – seems a bit unnecessary but I suppose it hammers home the idea that this is only free for year 1 of your ownership of the chart area.


As Navionics says on their web site..”Buoys change, sand bars shift, new rocks and bottom structures are found, and new detail is constantly being added to our charts by using the latest technology: satellite imagery, airborne laser, sonar, Notices to Mariners, plus hundreds of thousands of changes made by our community members through Community Layer. In fact, we make more updates in one week than the leading hydrographic offices do in an entire year. Freshest Data are delivered to you every day, to make sure you enjoy boating with peace of mind and the absolute best chart content. Freshest Data is free for one year* and must be started within 2 months of product purchase…”






The whole process is fast and clearly described…that’s an innovation in the marine industry in itself Smile

PCApp2 PCApp1
Register your chart Download updates



Use the PC based software to import/export routes & waypoints

Having updated your chart data, you can then use a basic route and waypoint editor to import/export data to a Micro SD card (not your chart card!) and update your new e series chart plotter.

This sort of obviates the need to buy Raymarine’s Voyage Planner for $70 – if you just want to import/export data by SD card.

Raymarine’s Voyage Planner does do a lot more in the sense that it uses the built in WiFi connection in the new e series to carry out the import/export rather than rely on the SD card. Raymarine also offer their new Voyage Xchange web site where you can swap and exchange data with other boaters…

Looks like everyone has discovered “crowd sourcing” years after Active Captain explained how it applied to the boating community, and made a success of it… Smile


Virtual Comm Port …pitfalls, and crazy mouse

IMG_0737Well here we are in 2012, and navigation equipment manufacturers still don’t know that laptops don’t have serial ports anymore. If you want NMEA data fed from your instruments into your chart plotting software you are forced to use USB/serial port converters. This means that you will need to create what’s called a virtual comm port and that in turn needs a special software driver. This is when the fun starts.

Whatever you do don’t but any USB / Serial converters that use Prolific software drivers. Don’t do what I did and ask for or shop for “Windows 7 compatible” converters – that is not enough. Prolific are a good company but unfortunately for them it appears that there are a lot of cheap Chinese converters on the market with hacked Prolific IC’s and useless software drivers that simply do not work…

Here is the warning on the Prolific website: “Please be warned that counterfeit (fake) PL-2303HX (Chip Rev A) USB to Serial Controller ICs using Prolific’s trademark logo, brandname, and device drivers, were being sold in the China market. Counterfeit IC products show exactly the same outside chip markings but generally are of poor quality and causes Windows driver compatibility issues (Yellow Mark Error Code 10). We issue this warning to all our customers and consumers to avoid confusion and false purchase.”

Go for converters that use the FTDI chip set and matching software drivers. The one that I have gone for is the Startech.com FTDI USB to Serial RS232 Adapter Cable with COM Retention. This works perfectly with Windows7 and also as the name implies always comes up with the same comm port number when you re-use it. This helps with configuring chart plotting software to always look at the same comm pot on each use.

There is still something waiting to bite you however. Do you remember “crazy mouse”. That was when the operating system decides that your USB/Serial converter is a mouse – and your cursor and mouse pointer starts careering all over the screen launching program at random. I thought those days were over – until today!

For no apparent reason the perfectly working USB/Serial converters (I have two of them plugged in) were suddenly identified by Windows 7 as a “Microsoft wheel mouse”….and off it went – crazy mouse all over again – I couldn’t believe it! I realise that it is the stream of NMEA or GPS data that gets interpreted by the Windows as mouse data – but really – it is not beyond the wit of man to work this all out…well I guess it is beyond the wit of some programmers at Microsoft.

The solution in my case was to let the crazy mouse happen – unplug the converter (you get mouse/track pad control back then) and immediately go into Device Manager and “Disable” (right click) the erroneous “Microsoft Serial Ball Point” device listed. Generally I tend to boot the laptop with the USB/serial convertor disconnected; wait until all the drivers are loaded and the laptop is just idle (3 mins); then connect the USB/serial convertors. I also recommend creating a shortcut to “device” settings on your desktop – you will be in and out of these a lot checking on the virtual comm port drivers!

If the technique above doesn’t work for you, then I recommend reading this document from Jeppesen; or from CAP’N; or from  Coastal Explorer…and trying the techniques described there.

Good luck!.


New laptop…final verdict

ScreenWell I have been using the Acer Aspire 5750 for 3 months now and apart from MS Office and all the usual other bits of software have loaded quite a bit of sailing software to connect up with the new set up on my boat.

The laptop is fast and has taken everything that I have thrown at it. Some posts will follow about the connectivity challenges I have had – none of which are a problem with the laptop!

So the conclusion of this episode is – great laptop..