Google Maps is a fantastic app for navigating in a car.
It combines a complete map of the world’s roads, with real-time traffic information to get you to your destination in the shortest time possible.
But, is there an equivalent option for a boat?
The closest apps equivalent to Google Maps for a boat, are chart plotter applications. They contain a complete map of the world’s oceans, with sufficient detail to navigate any size vessel across the globe.
Google Maps is a universal application, meaning that practically the same product is available on an app for mobile and tablet devices, or on a web browser for any other device.
Very few chart plotter applications contain the same versatility, so you will often find that you need to use a different app on your mobile compared to a desktop.
There are, however, a few that do come quite close to being a universal application in this regard.
Another major feature of Google Maps is its ability to plot a route. You enter your start point and your destination, and the app will find the shortest (or fastest) route between the two.
A few chart plotter applications have started to introduce auto-routing functions that aim to replicate this experience on a boat.
They give you a good starting point for planning your passage, but it is still not good enough to just start navigating straight away.
In a car, Google Maps knows that pretty much any car can drive on any road, but the cars need to stick to the roads.
On a boat, there are no roads. A boat can go almost anywhere, as long as there is enough water.
This lack of constraint means that a boating application needs to think a lot more about what is the most logical path to take.
- Should it follow a depth contour?
- Should it maintain a set distance from the land?
- Should it just go straight from buoy to buoy?
Auto-routing is a good attempt at starting to make sense of all this, but it still is not at the same level as Google Maps is for a car.
In summary, there are some apps and web applications that replicate much of the mapping features from Google Maps, but there is no true equivalence of Google Maps for a boat.
Let’s take a look at some of your options.
Navionics shares some similarities with Google Maps, but is still not a true equivalence:
- Free web app
- Mobile and Tablet app
- Auto-routing function
The Navionics Web App gives you full access to Navionics charts and allows you to plan a basic route either manually or with auto-routing.
As a web app, Navionics offers the closest equivalence to Google Maps out of all the options that I found.
I have tried out its auto-routing function a few times and found that it can give you a basic starting point, but it cannot actually plot a good route yet.
While the route that it gives is technically correct, it is not one that makes much sense for actual navigation.
It will hop you from buoy to buoy, but it will not take account of the bigger picture.
On a boat, fewer waypoints are better because it reduces the need to continuously rely on your GPS position. The auto-routing function gives lots of very short legs around lots of buoys, rather than taking a step back and doing one single long leg that clears them all.
The mobile and tablet apps from Navionics are very similar to their web app, however, you will need to purchase a license to use the charts.
It is very expensive for companies to share nautical data, so the only way of getting good quality data is for the user to pay for it.
With Navionics, you can use a tablet or a mobile phone on a boat, so it makes sense to charge users for that element. The web app, while fun to play around with, would be absolutely no use on a boat with no internet connection.
You can log in to all Navionics products with the same account, so anything you have planned on the web app will be replicated across your mobile and tablet devices.
While Navionics does offer equivalence to Google Maps in many ways, it is still not a true equivalence because it cannot plan your route for you, and you need to pay to get access to use it on a boat.
Although it is not the same as Google Maps, Navionics is still my favourite charting application for use on a boat. You can read full details in my Navionics review: Navionics App Review
C-Map shares some similarities with Google Maps, but is still not a true equivalence:
- Free web app
- Mobile and Tablet app
- Auto-routing function
The C-Map Chart Explorer gives you the best equivalence to Google Maps in terms of a highly detailed nautical chart that you can view online.
You can even go into “relief” mode which adds different shading to different depths, really giving you a great overview of the underwater topography.
Despite the detailed map, you cannot actually plan any passages using the Chart Explorer. All that you can do is explore the charts.
When you download the mobile or tablet apps, however, you then do get the ability to plan passages.
There is a choice between manual or automatic routing, but the automatic mode suffered from the same limitations as the Navionics auto-routing.
It produced a technically correct and acceptable result, but it was not a sensible route to navigate. The user needs to add a fair amount of refinement to turn it into something useful for a seagoing vessel.
The app version of C-Map is almost an equivalence of Google Maps in that you can use it to navigate with your phone, albeit you need to manually make a route rather than just enter your origin and destination.
Unlike Navionics, you can use C-Map on all your devices for free as long as you have an internet connection.
You only need to purchase a subscription if you want to use maps offline and gain access to some advanced functionality.
Of course, the subscription is set in such a way that to actually use C-Map on a boat, you do need to sign up.
C-Map does offer a lot of similarities with Google Maps, but it is still not a true equivalence because it cannot plan routes for you, and you need to pay to use it for useful navigation on a boat.
I do really like using C-Map myself and have reviewed it extensively during my passages. You can read my full C-Map review here: C-Map Review.
i-Boating shares a few similarities with Google Maps, but is not a true equivalence:
- Free web app
- Mobile and Tablet app
i-Boating offers free access to their charts and maps through their online viewer.
On the online portal, you cannot use any of the routing functions, but you can browse around and see what the area looks like in terms of maritime navigation.
In this way, it is similar to Google Maps in that they both offer you the ability to explore an area for navigational purposes.
When you download the i-Boating app for either your mobile or tablet device, you gain the ability to add passages and routes.
There is no automatic routing function in i-Boating, so all of your routes must be manual. I do prefer it that way, but it continues to separate i-Boating further from being a true Google Maps equivalent.
To have full access to charts and features, you need to purchase a license, although you do retain some functionality without a purchase.
i-Boating, while still a good app for navigating on the water, is not quite as good as a Google Map equivalent.
Both Navionics and C-Map are more similar to Google Maps for boating than i-Boating is.
The main equivalence between NOAA Charts and Google Maps is that they are both high-quality, free maps around the US. It is still not a true equivalence to Google Maps though as it only shares one main similarity:
- Free charts
Having already covered the closest matches for Google Maps in terms of navigation and app functionality, NOAA charts are similar to Google Maps in other ways.
Primarily, they are free for US waters.
We have already discussed that nautical charting apps are expensive because it is very expensive to operate survey ships to collect data.
In the US, hydrographic surveys are conducted by various government departments and collated together by NOAA.
As it is all US Government work, it is all publicly available with a Public Domain license.
For this reason, NOAA charts are my favourite type of chart to use for educational and teaching purposes.
In common with Google Maps, NOAA charts are free for users to access.
In their raw form, however, they cannot be used as a direct equivalent to Google Maps, but they can be used as the underlying data.
Some apps, like iNavX, give you the ability to load NOAA charts.
The functionality of the app gives similar functionality to Google Maps, and the charts give the app free access to underlying chart information.
OpenSeaMap has the potential to become an equivalence to Google Maps for a boat, but there is still a lot more data and development needed to get it close. It currently only shares one similarity:
- Free charts
As an open-source project, OpenSeaMap has enormous potential to become an equivalent to Google Maps for boating.
Presently, it has information about buoys and navigational marks, but it is still very limited in terms of depth information.
The idea is that users can upload depth data from their own boat’s echo sounder and GPS, and OpenSeaMap can use it to create contours and build up a complete chart.
In its current form though, OpenSeaMap has such limited information that it cannot yet be considered a useful source of navigational information.
Its main similarity with Google Maps is that the map itself is free for users to use through a web browser.
A few apps are also available that allow you to use OpenSeaMap on a mobile or tablet device, but the underlying data still remains the same.
In the future, OpenSeaMap has the potential to become equivalent to Google Maps for boating, but there is still a long way to go.
Can you use Google Maps for boating?
Having now established that there is not a direct equivalence to Google Maps for boating, you might be wondering if it is possible to just use Google Maps instead.
You can use Google Maps for boating, but it can only ever give a general overview. There is no depth information, and most navigational features are not present on Google Maps. It is impossible to use Google Maps for navigating safely on the water, but you can use it to get some information.
The beauty of Google Maps is that you can toggle between the map view and the satellite view.
When you are in the satellite view, you can get some useful information for boating.
Take a look at the map above.
It is a satellite view of one of the harbours along the South Coast of the UK.
You can see the deeper channels that boats navigate along, and you can see the anchorage areas.
While there is no actual information about the depths of water, you can get a rough idea from the colours.
Parts that dry out at low tide are obvious because you can see the drainage rivers that form across them. Parts that remain covered the whole time are much more smooth.
The main channels are blue coloured and are boarded by boats lined up on swinging moorings.
An anchorage near the beach is clearly visible because there are boats sat at anchor.
Zooming in even closer gives you an idea of depth by the size of boats. When you spot a larger yacht, chances are that the water is deeper because the yacht will have a deep keel.
Of course, there is no real navigational information, and I would never say you should use Google Maps for boating.
You can, however, use it to get a general idea about the navigational area you intend to visit before you buy a nautical chart to get the official data you need.