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Over the last thirty years, marine GPS systems have gone from an advanced direction finding resource reserved for the Coastguard and US Military to one of the most important pieces of gear on any civilian vessel. Whether you’re close to shore, on a lake or river, or out on the open ocean, it’s almost unheard of for boaters to travel without at least a basic global positioning system onboard.

It’s a sign of the times that even midrange smartphones contain GPS systems that are more accurate than top-of-the-line GPS devices from a decade ago. Satellite navigation has entered a new era where the systems can be produced and integrated into any device, even if it wasn’t originally designed to be a GPS. It’s important to remember that even the most advanced phone-based GPS units can’t beat the trusty, standalone GPS. Even now, a dedicated nautical navigation system stands head and shoulders above competing devices in accuracy and reliability. The Marine GPS offers 24 hour, worldwide coverage, and it can be relied on to safely guide you to your destination.

Why You Should Have a GPS on Your Boat

Having a marine GPS system is as important as wearing a life vest or having fuel in the tank. The safety and success of any trip relies heavily on knowing exactly where you’re going. Before GPS devices could be mass-produced and sold to the public, people would have to rely on maps, a compass, and their own sense of direction to get them to their destination. Nautical navigation systems changed the way people travel for the better. Now anyone can safely and easily traverse the open water without fear of getting lost or being stranded. Even experienced sailors can appreciate the amount of time, effort, and frustration a nautical GPS can save.

How Does a GPS Work?

A GPS navigator uses orbiting satellites to determine your position based on where you are relative to the satellite’s signals. The orbiting satellites continuously transmit radio signals containing precise position and time information that is then analyzed by your GPS device and displayed as a position. By receiving signals from three or more satellites, the device triangulates your position relative to the origin of the signal, which also determines your bearing and speed.

A GPS is a very powerful tool, and it has many operational capabilities. A nautical GPS device is primarily used for navigating from one place to another, and for calculating the distance relative to your destination. A GPS also offers the secondary function of displaying your unique location using the latitude and longitude coordinate system. Many navigational devices also allow you to set waypoints that you can recall for future use, even if there are no physical landmarks. Along with some other basic functions, the GPS device will also display a digital map that shows your relative position, your bearing, and display your course.

The Types of Marine GPS Systems

Every GPS unit uses signals received from satellites put into orbit by the United States Government, and uses the signals to pinpoint the user’s latitude, longitude, and altitude. While there are many competing brands and models of nautical GPS devices, they all work off the same principle, and are all exceedingly useful. There are three main types of GPS devices that are available for purchase:

  • Handheld – Also referred to as a battery operated GPS, the handheld GPS is typically used for smaller boats because it doesn’t need to be mounted to the console, so it avoids taking up valuable space. People who sail and fish for recreation use handheld GPS systems because they are relatively inexpensive and can easily fit in a pocket. Many people purchase a backup, handheld GPS device on the off chance their main GPS is damaged or has a malfunction. A popular brand of handheld waterproof GPS systems are Garmin and Magellan. Magellan manufactures for instance the eXplorist in a special marine model.

  • Mountable and Portable – Typically, mountable GPS devices have larger display screen and more features than simple handheld GPS systems making them more desirable for bigger boats. Many mountable GPS units operate off external 12-volt power along with batteries, so they can be used on longer voyages without having to be recharged. Mountable nautical navigation devices come with brackets to hold the GPS in place on choppy water, and can be removed for safekeeping when you dock. This is the most common type of GPS device you will find on a boat and its versatility makes it an excellent choice for anyone looking for a serious navigation device at a reasonable price. The Garmin GPSMap is bought a lot since it’s affordable and small.
  • Fixed Mount – These GPS receivers are built with large displays and are permanently affixed to the ship’s center console. They offer a wide range of features beyond regular GPS navigation, including fish finding, communication, and marine radar. These devices are sometimes referred to as chart plotters are a considered very high-tech. The average chart-plotter will cost you a great deal more than a regular handheld GPS system, but they offer a host of other capabilities that makes them the best choice in the long run if you’re on a larger vessel. Because the device is permanently installed, it minimizes the risk of theft or damage leaving the user free to enjoy the open waters. Lowrance Elite-4 is one of the popular marine GPS devices which has an optional fish finder transducer available as well.

A Few Other Things To Consider

When purchasing a marine GPS device it’s important to keep some things in mind. Every GPS system is built to improve the ease of navigation, but not all GPS devices are made equal. Check how many satellites the unit connects to at once, because that directly affects the quality and accuracy of the signal. A nautical GPS device needs to connect to at least twelve satellites to function properly. High-end marine navigation systems can use up to twenty-four satellites to give the user the most accurate readings.

It’s also important to see what safety features come included with your GPS system. Even the least expensive nautical GPS devices come with some form of low battery alarm, so the user has a warning to turn back or replace the batteries before the device dies entirely.

Other devices also operate as a communication array with a 12-channel receiver to send and receive distress signals. Even when far from shore, the GPS can send out a distress call or warning message to the local Coastguard. Some devices that include radar and fish finding will have an incorporated collision alarm. This alarm indicates when an underwater object is getting too close or the boat is veering too close to shore.