Boat Navigation Systems: Understanding Modern Onboard Tools

You might be surprised to learn how many different boat navigation systems exist in 2021. However, when you consider all the techniques, including electronic navigation, old school celestial navigation, inertial navigation and dead reckoning, it starts to make more sense how we’ve arrived here.

Dead reckoning determines location using a previous location, while the other navigation methods determine a location based on an object, such as a buoy, landmark, or star. Some of the boat systems from ancient to modern times include a sextant, compass, radar and GPS.

While a sextant might be a bit difficult to find today, that doesn’t mean it can’t provide navigational information. However, modern solutions tend to be much better at pinpointing your location rather than giving you an idea of where you might be. That makes a huge difference in an emergency or another situation where precision matters. Let’s take a look on modern boat navigation systems and help you understand them.

How Boat Navigation Systems Work

Boat navigation systems work differently depending on the technique they employ. However, they all work to make navigation easier. Navigation consists of determining where you are, deciding where you are going, monitoring your path, and then starting at the beginning again.

Below is information about how several types of navigation work for vessels like sailboats and yachts.

Celestial navigation – Acts as one of the most ancient forms of navigation and uses the stars and other celestial bodies to determine location.

Coastal navigation – This method involves looking out at the shapes of coastal landmarks and paying attention to the direction of the coastline to decide where you are.

Inertial navigation – A technique that uses motion sensors to calculate your position by looking at it in contrast to your starting position. This is also one version of dead reckoning.

Pilotage – This refers to fixing your position with a high frequency and is most commonly associated with restricted waters and harbors.

Radio navigation – Radio waves are utilized to measure the direction of a radio source. This requires a variety of radio towers near the location, which isn’t always a possibility.

Radar navigation – This is typically used to avoid accidents like collisions when close to other ships or land.

Satellite navigation – This is the most common navigation used today. It makes use of several satellites to determine the location of your boat.

While some navigation techniques are better than others, having several methods at hand is a good idea. Both electronic and analog equipment can be used to find your location and plot it. Most electronic devices are simply replacing older tools and doing the same thing but with faster speed and better efficiency.

The older methods won’t be as accurate as GPS, but some of them are close. Proper celestial navigation, for instance, can work better than you might expect. These methods are good as backup and can be interesting to learn. They also are available at all times, even during power outages or other emergencies.

For modern boats today, the most common navigation systems include:

• Chartplotters
• Compasses
• GPS receivers
• Inertial navigators
• Echo and radar sounders


A boat compass for navigation. Image credit: Unsplash/Ian Keefe.

The Top Modern Boat Navigation Systems for 2021

With so many navigation options, choosing the right one for your boat might be a challenge. The rest of this article will focus on some of the best options available for navigation in modern watercraft. From full-featured GPS devices to chartplotters and compasses, we’ll share our thoughts on which are worthy of sitting on your boat.

Ritchie Navigation Explorer Surface Mount Compass

Ritchie Navigation Explorer is a popular name in the world of compasses and offers various options for recreational and commercial boats. This compass mounts on your boat and offers excellent reliability. It comes with high gauss magnets customized for several compass specifications that lock on to magnetic north to keep you on the right track. It also comes with compensators to create the best accuracy and comes with a 12v power light for green light illumination.

Garmin GPSMAP 78S Marine GPS Navigator & World Wide Chartplotter

This is a small chartplotter from one of the biggest names in boat navigational products. It’s simple and easy to use with the power to let you know where you are and how to get home when your journey is over. The handheld unit can be tossed in a suitcase, moved between vessels, and taken on trips. It comes with an SD slot that you should load with a card so you can take advantage of the BlueChart system. Mark locations, upload waypoints, and view your route in a chartplotter that fits in the pocket.

Garmin Echomap Plus 94SV

The Garmin Echomap is an excellent GPS with a nine-inch display and fish fishing technology. It comes with coastal and Great Lakes charts to appeal to both freshwater and saltwater anglers and captains. In addition, this GPS device uses built-in wireless Internet to sync with your phone to let you send texts, write emails, and make calls with ease. It also offers real-time updates about waypoints, weather, and more.

Raymarine 4K HD Digital Radom

If you want a radar sounder, this model from Raymarine is a great choice for any kind of boat. It has a powerful radar that can transmit up to four KW of power. It offers clear and robust HD digital signal processing with a small scanner. It’s compatible with several displays and includes excellent digital receiver technology. In addition, it provides accurate, crisp contact echoes at up to 48 nautical miles.

Wrapping Up

Compasses, GPS receivers, radar sounders, and other devices are all useful for boat navigation purposes in 2021. It comes down to what technology appeals to you and how accurate you want your data to be. For the most accurate and feature-filled option, go with a GPS receiver. Of course, you can always bring along a compass if you find yourself without power.

Each of the models listed here is known for its quality and is sure to be an excellent addition to your boat. Those who want the best of all worlds can even choose a combination chartplotter and GPS. It will ensure you never lose track of where you are and where you’re heading.

Written by: Valerie Mellema

Valerie Mellema is a writer, published author and avid bass angler who lives on the shores of Lake Fork in East Texas — the top bass lake in Texas and the fifth in the nation. For the past 10 years, she and her husband have enjoyed the pontoon boat lifestyle while fishing a lake that not only has bass but beautiful wildlife as well. She holds a BS in Agribusiness/Equine Business and regularly contributes articles to, YachtWorld and Boat Trader.