Sailors today can spend a small fortune on chartplotters and other electronics for their boating applications - or they can be frugal and take advantage of a wide range of free products to enhance their boating. Free products range from paper and electronic charts to full navigation systems and weather and tide products for smartphones and laptops. Check out these free government and private products to see what you might have missed.
For traditionalists who like paper charts, you can easily procure and print your own for just the cost of paper and ink. There are a couple different ways to do this efficiently.
The best method to create paper charts using a regular computer printer with standard letter-size paper is to use NOAA's Booklet Charts. Start here to choose your general area in the US and proceed to the individual chart you need. Each chart is sectioned into pages that comprise a color booklet covering the full chart area in the same scale as the full-size paper chart you'd otherwise have to purchase. The only disadvantage is that you have to flip pages from one section to another, but this is made easier by the cover grid showing which chart section is on which page. The booklet also includes chart notes and Coast Pilot information for the area.
If you want to create your own custom chartlets (letter-size pages with a variable section from a raster chart), use a navigation program (such as the free SeaClear program described below) and the free NOAA electronic charts. Then adjust the screen view to the area and zoom level you want and use the printout function to print your chart section.
Electronic Charts and Chartplotters
NOAA's electronic raster charts are just like the paper ones you buy, but these can be viewed and manipulated on your computer (or smartphone app) or used in a chartplotter program. Start here to learn about and download these free electronic charts. If you're not sure which charts you want, you can use NOAA's online chart viewer to view individual charts, but note the disclaimer that printouts of these screen views should not be used for navigation. Instead, download the full RNC (Raster Navigational Chart).
NOAA's free RNCs require a software program to display and use them with a live GPS chartplotter. Many different commercial programs use these charts; most of these either already include the charts within the commercial package or include a download function. The best free program for working with the free charts is SeaClear II for PCs. As mentioned above, you can use SeaClear II to view and print charts from your computer (along with routes and other information you may add to the charts), or you can connect an inexpensive USB or Bluetooth GPS receiver to your computer and have a working chartplotter.
Not sure what you can accomplish when navigating with your chartplotter while on your boat? Read this primer about chartplotters. Until a few years ago such a system cost a lot of money (and you can still spend a lot on a fancy chartplotter if you like), but now you can have all the basic functions for the price of low-cost hardware.
There are many chartplotter apps for smartphones and tablets, including some free ones and other good ones available for navigation and tides at a reasonable small cost.
Current Marine Conditions
With a smartphone or online computer you can access NWS radar images of approaching storms. Start here, find your area, and bookmark it for use on the water or from your computer before leaving home. Here are ways to be aware of serious weather and be prepared in advance to deal with it.
For coastal sailors, one of the best ways to learn current marine conditions is to consult live NOAA buoy reports. Typically these include wind speed and direction along with other data such as wave height, air and water temperature, and air pressure trending. With an online computer or smartphone, start here and find your specific area and bookmark it. You can also access this data any time with a regular cell phone. Here's an overview about working with NOAA buoy reports.
For near-shore, offshore, and global marine conditions, including wave height and direction, wind speed and direction, and sea surface temperature, try the Oceanweather site.
If all you have is a regular cell phone, you can call for NOAA's recorded NOAA forecast for your region. Find the right number here.
With a smartphone, start at your bookmarked buoy report for your area (described above), and follow its link to the local NOAA forecast. This is the equivalent of the NOAA forecasts broadcast on VHF weather channels.
For more detailed present and forecast wind data using an online computer or smartphone, PredictWind.com gives very good present and 1-day forecasts free (5-day forecasts with an upgrade). Start here to learn more about the app for both Apple and Android devices.
You can obtain even more sophisticated wind data and analysis and make your own forecasts using grib files, a worldwide meteorological standard. Download the free Ugrib software for PCs to get started.
Note that many of the apps available for Apple and Android smartphones and devices provide current and forecast weather and wind information.
In addition, many boating apps now import NOAA buoy data into their weather reports, which you can then access on your smart phone or other device. As well, you can create your own app-like smart device link to your own most local weather data.
Tides and Currents
If you like paper tide charts or tables, don't buy them when you can print your own for free. Start here to select your area. Then find the best tide station for your area and look for the "Published Tide Tables Format" choices to print tide tables for the whole season or a time period of your choice.
Or download WXTide32, a nifty free Windows PC tide and current prediction program you set for your local tidal information. It provides a graphical representation of tidal depths rising and falling for selected dates. Many free or inexpensive tide apps are available also for smartphones, and some are included within navigational apps.