Choosing the Right GPS

After deciding on the boat we were to take, choosing a GPS was perhaps the next most important decision we had to make. Although we only draw three feet with the centerboard up, running aground is still a constant concern in coastal cruising, and most especially in the Bahamas, which are a maze of constantly shifting sandbars that make real-time chart-plotting an absolute must. The GPS that we chose was based on a number of factors, from screen size, to compatibility with the current system to added features, to, ultimately, price.We began our search planning on using the existing GPS that came with the boat: the Raymarine RL70c chartplotter with an overlapping radar display that the boat’s previous owner installed in 2006. While it is an excellent system, we soon learned that purchasing charts (C-MAP) for the entirety of our route was actually going to be upwards of $1000, which seemed a little steep for charts for a system that is six years old. Having just browsed GPS units at our local West Marine, we decided that it would be better to spend our money on a system that came preloaded with charts, along with several extra features that the old unit doesn’t have.

We aimed very high initially, namely by looking at the most recent Raymarine models, the Raymarine c97, and the Raymarine e7. The c97 is an incredible machine, with a keypad instead of a touchscreen, like many other newer models. It works with all kinds of raymarine devices, such as radar, thermal night vision systems, and weather receivers. It also has a built in digital sounder, capable of sounding to depths of 3,000 feet. It was even capable of streaming its display to our various i-devices, of which the crew at Reaching South (with the exception of John) have far too many. The c97 was perfect for just about everything that we needed to do, with just one drawback — or, more specifically, 2,099 drawbacks. While we would certainly love a GPS with all the capabilities of the c97, we were decidedly unwilling to pay upwards of $2000 for that pleasure.

When we started looking at the Raymarine e7, we initially thought that we had found our unit. It was a bit pricier than we had wanted to spend, at $1,549.99, but close enough to our projected budget for a GPS that we were willing to spend a little more for all the capabilities that it gave us. Besides being entirely compatible with our current wind, speed, and depth instruments, its display is controllable by both a touchscreen and a keypad for use in choppy seas, and, perhaps most importantly, weather capabilities. We hadn’t fully considered the advantage that having access to up-to-the-minute weather information would give us in planning our route and remaining safe (or as safe as we could reasonably expect to be). The critical problem with this unit, that ultimately put it beyond our reach, was the requisite SR6 SIRIUS receiver and network switch for this reassuring capability weighs in at a pricey $999.00. Although we ultimately decided against this model, after reviewing weather patterns along our route, we decided that having access to live weather, if reasonably priced, would be worth the investment.

Dropping very little in price, we were simultaneously looking at the Garmin 720. At $1299.00 it isn’t much cheaper than the e7, but acquiring weather capabilities for the unit was not nearly as expensive, and it too had the added option of radar (although we would have had to purchase another unit), as well as compatibility with our existing autopilot. There were only two problems with this unit. The first, which was not necessarily critical, was price. With the addition of the GXM 51 antenna ($699.00), we were looking at a price that was absolutely headed up over $2000, and we didn’t really want to go there. The other issue, which killed any chance of the 720 on our boat was its touchscreen. Touchscreens are very user-friendly, and for larger boats, day cruisers, and boats that have the GPS mounted inside, they work great. Trying to accurately keep track of hazards that we might have to avoid while outside on a sailboat, pounding over waves in a blow, with salt water running over everything from the deck, to the instruments, to the lining of our clothing, getting a touchscreen to register our cold, wet, unsteady hands becomes a rather more difficult task. There is something very secure and reassuring about buttons and knobs–things that you can click or turn, and know exactly how your screen is going to react. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of personal preference, but ours definitely steered us away from units that operated solely by touchscreen.

After days of consideration (and far too many trips to West Marine) we finally decided on the Garmin 441s. While the screen was slightly smaller than we had hoped for, it came preloaded with charts of the entire United States and the Bahamas, had SIRIUS XM weather capability, and, crucially, buttons. The unit itself only costs $599.00, less than half of most of the other units that we looked at, and about a hundred dollars less than the $700 antenna we had to get in order to access weather information. The 441s comes with an included hookup for a fish finder as well, which is a capability that we will sadly be unable to utilize on this trip, as our timeframe doesn’t really allow for adding another through-hull to the boat, and although he kindly offered his services, no one really wanted to let John get near the bottom of the boat with a drill.

We are extremely satisfied with our choice thus far, but it remains to be truly tested out on the water. We will keep you updated on our estimation of our 441s as we progress through the trip, and with any luck at all, we will be able to highly recommend it.