How to retrofit a laptop to a nav station

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By Scott Mackenzie

Convergence can mean the capability of a piece of electronic equipment to perform more than one function or activity. For instance, today’s multifunction chart-plotters can function as GPS-driven chart-plotters as well as displays for radar, engine or sailing instrument data. However, all this capability comes with a hefty price tag.

I chose a different route. When loran-C was decommissioned, the nav station on our 36-foot Morris, Salty Spouse, had a gaping hole that cried out for attention before my wife, Inza, and I took our next cruise.

We had an eight-year-old laptop with Maptech software installed that we used to plan routes. After planning, we’d manually transfer waypoints to the helm GPS, sometimes out in the rain.

After snaking 30 feet of signal wire through the boat and adding some crimp fittings and a USB adaptor, I can now connect the laptop to the GPS, see my position on Maptech’s free NOAA charts and transfer routes while staying dry. I added a Tides & Currents software package for cruise planning as well.

Anticipating significant laptop usage, I retrieved a small inverter from the garage and wired it to the 12-volt power used by the old loran unit. This charges the batteries on the laptop, handheld radios, cell phones and our grandchildren’s electronic game devices.

With a wireless USB Internet modem installed, our computer is a live weather station, allowing us to check tropical storm forecasts at the NOAA Hurricane Center. When we aren’t sending or receiving email, we also have access to local and world news. The addition of a USB TV tuner gives us high-definition digital TV. I built an omnidirectional TV antenna from a design I found on the Internet using a length of copper tubing and an antenna transformer. Now we receive 13 stations at our Washington, North Carolina, slip, and on rainy nights, we can put a DVD in the laptop and watch a movie.

On cold winter evenings, I scanned 40 pounds of boat, systems and equipment manuals that had been stored in a hard-to-reach location under the V-berth. Now I can call up the manuals on the laptop any time I need them. The laptop also holds a detailed spare parts list and a comprehensive inventory of everything on board as well as digital copies of personal legal documents and financial records we can print out when needed. Inza even has a personal cookbook on the laptop with some of her favorite recipes she can print out and give to friends. Try getting a muffin recipe off your fancy new chart-plotter.

Now if this setup could make a pot of coffee and deliver it to my bunk, we’d be set!

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