Touch and Go

Whether you're hitting the high seas or your local lake, there's an ocean of software that can make you a better—and smarter—captain.

Welcome to the 21st century. You tote your laptop with you everywhere you use it at the office, of course, but you can also be seen tapping away while stuck in traffic or on a delayed flight. You've even been known to send an e-mail during your kid's dance recital. But what about your boat? Why are you struggling to learn to operate a new piece of equipment when you're already comfortable with a major boating tool?

In this survey of boating software, we look at some computer programs that are perfect for your PC, whether it's onboard your boat or back at the office. According to Mike Reischmann, a manufacturer's rep who works with Sea Ray Boats installing dedicated computers and boating software, "People use software because they're more comfortable with computers, which have become easier to use." In fact, some of the software will let you plot your course at home before you head out. Then just boot up and shove off.

THE PROGRAMS

So you've decided to get into the swing of things and start boating by PC. Here are our favorite programs that will let you plot your course and avoid any head-on collisions. Although you can't operate everything onboard from your laptop yet, the century is still young.

ChartView Odyssey Navigation Software

With large function buttons and a smart navigating bar that delivers real-time GPS and vessel positioning, you can set active targets, plan your route, and make notes for each destination point. It works with all CD-ROM chart formats and comes with a copy of Tides & Currents Lite as well as a serial cable to connect your GPS to your high-tech helm. Price: $130. For more information, contact Weems & Plath at 410/263-6700, www.weems-plath.com.

Maptech 3.0 Professional Edition

Need the latest charts? Here you can get a detailed series of digital charts on CD-ROM plus up-to-the-minute Internet updates from the Coast Guard's Local Notices to Mariners, which warn you of every buoy that's unlit or out of service. Price: $499. For more information, contact Maptech at 888/839-5551.

Maptech Contour Professional

This 3D program enables you to view the ocean floor, pinpointing shipwrecks and obstacles so you can track them on your monitor. Get close-up sights and more with zoom, spin, and tilt controls. Working with other Maptech charting programs (see above), Contour Professional focuses on specific regions. Price: $69 to $400. For more information, contact Maptech at 888/839-5551.

Offshore Navigator

Imagine setting your course on your PC at home, uploading it to your GPS, boarding your boat, plugging in your GPS, and activating your autopilot. Gentlemen, start your engine(s). Works best with Maptech 3.0 Professional Edition. Price: $200. For more information, contact Maptech at 888/839-5551.

Visual Navigation Suite 6.0 with 3D

With this electronic charting solution and a subscription, you have access to anything you need to hit the open seas. You can get a weather overlay, which displays the weather conditions over your GPS maps; 3D charts; tides and currents updates; and more. And the software comes with all the requisite charts and maps. Each new region you need activated is unlocked with a special password that can be purchased directly from the manufacturer. You control map colors as well as how many data layers you need to view at any one time. Price: $489. For more information, contact Nobeltec at 800/598-4976, www.nobeltec.com.

Visual Mariner

A moderately stripped-down version of Visual Navigation Suite 6.0 that gives you real-time navigation but no autopilot features or tides and currents updates. Visual Mariner lets your GPS display your position on digitized NOAA charts. Not interested in loading and storing your charts? Geodraw, a feature within the program, will take care of it for you. Price: $269. For more information, contact Nobeltec at 800/598-4976, www.nobeltec.com. Visual GPS Planner Less adventurous boaters often need to do simple jobs and not much more. Here you can upload and download routes and waypoints to your GPS. Though you'll still need current charts, you can plan your next nautical outing from your home or office PC. Then it's a couple more easy steps: Upload your route to your GPS and print a chart plan. Price: $169 for the first region; $249 for each additional. For more information, contact Nobeltec at 800/598-4976, www.nobeltec.com.

RADARpc

Sure, a GPS can tell you where you are, but you need radar to tell you what's in your way. Nobeltec's new RADARpc combines Visual Navigation Suite 6.0 with radar abilities. In action, this program transmits radar data directly from the radome to your boat's computer and displays it with Visual Navigation software. Price: $2,995. For more information, contact Nobeltec at 800/598-4976, www.nobeltec.com.

THE CLASSES

Want to know who has the right of way when two boats meet face-to-face? Need to figure out just what "red sky at night" really portends for your morning weather? Planning on keeping a log of all your trips? Fret not, there's even more software at the ready.

Chapman Hands-On Powerboating CD-ROM

For the new boaters in your family, this wide-ranging CD-ROM tutorial will teach them the ropes-and how to tie them. Included are safe boating rules and techniques as well as tips on how to dock every imaginable type of boat. With interactive videos, you'll learn to run a challenging inlet by controlling your boat speed, ride out storm waves while listening to expert handling instructions, and the proper way to signal for a rescue. In addition, from proper hailing techniques with your VHF to getting the drawbridge operator to open up to viewing obscure chart symbols, this program will prepare you for almost any situation. Price: $60. For more information, contact Interactive Marine Publishing at 203/857-5115, www.chapmancd.com.

NavRules for Windows 2.2.4

If you need a crash course on the International Regulations for Preventing Collision at Sea, check out this shareware (a type of semiprofessional software, written and distributed by individuals and small software companies). NavRules for Windows 2.2.4 is a training program for learning the 72 Collision Regulations (COLREGS) and the Inland Navigation Rules, with the complete set of light patterns, day shapes, and sound signals that are listed in the USCG Navigation Rules, International and Inland. NavRules ships with a companion program that teaches the international code flags used on many commercial and foreign vessels. Price: $20. For more information, contact NavRules at www.navrules.com.

Marine Log 2000

So how was your voyage? Keep your memories fresh with this software version of the tried-and-true paperbound logbook of yore. It does everything the paper version does but adds such newfangled features as complete vessel descriptions, including photographs and sound files, location and destination entries, crew log, fuel log, fuel economy and consumption, annual boating budget, maintenance schedules, and more. And once you're back in port, you can e-mail the highlights to your family and friends, whether they want them or not. Price: $49. For more information, contact Gus Communications at 360/715-8580, www.boatingsoftware.com.

Mariners Log

Do you need comprehensive vessel management software? Here you get a vessel log, captain's log, crew and guest directories, cruise planner, waypoints, route, and a digital stopwatch to time your boat speed. You'll also manage your aids to navigation (flags, buoys, and lights), emergency directory for ports around the country, and a directory of marine suppliers. Price: $50. For more information, contact South Coast Sailing Team at www.seainnovations.com/nrml01.htm.

Wheelhouse Companion

Remember the DMV handbook you should have studied before your road test? Think of Wheelhouse Companion in the same way. According to the company, this program is recognized as the official training product of the National Safe Boating Council and has earned the Seal of Safe Boating Practices from NASBLA as well as the Excellence in Online Instruction Award by Navigate. Whew! What's offered is a series of exams that challenge you at various competency levels. What you're left with is a thorough understanding of boating rules and regulations. Price: $58. For more information, contact Gateway Multimedia at www.gatewaymedia.com. ****

Starpath Weather Trainer

If your idea of gauging the weather is listening to Al Roker on the Today Show or peeking your head out from belowdecks, this interactive computer course will teach you the skills to interpret high seas reports, real-time satellite photos, weather reports by cell phone, weatherfaxes, faxback text reports, and more. It also demonstrates ways to identify and analyze wind, sea, and sky-key indicators of the quality of your next boat trip. You can determine apparent wind versus true wind, storm avoidance, barometer readings, dew points, and more. Price: $129. For more information, contact Starpath School of Navigation at 206/783-1414, www.starpath.com.

Starpath Radar Trainer

If you're new to using and reading a radar system, your sea daddy has arrived. It turns your Windows PC into a radar simulator so you can learn to control course and speed of all vessels in clear skies and fog, perform an optional trace mode, view target vessels on your radar, and call up the closest point of approach data for any target. The built-in calculator helps you find your course position from ranges and bearings. Price: $89. For more information, contact Starpath School of Navigation at 206/783-1414, www.starpath.com.

Starpath Chart Trainer

The ancient mariners looked to the skies to find their bearings, but you and I now have a computer screen to show us how lost we are. Here is a compilation of all nautical chart symbols, conventions, and definitions compressed into a single program. With easy-to-read symbols and practical explanations by experienced navigators, you'll become an expert in nautical chart reading in no time. Price: $49. For more information, contact Starpath School of Navigation at 206/783-1414, www.starpath.com.

TURN YOUR PC INTO YOUR FIRST MATE

With GPS systems, radar, and depthfinders, your boat is smarter than you. Why not even the score? If you want to bring a laptop onto the open seas, the following sites can point you in the right direction. They also include information on keeping the elements from crusting over your new boating tool.

PELICAN 1470 WATERPROOF LAPTOP CASE

Polyurethane shock-absorbing tray with lock-down Velcro straps and storage area for files, folders, computer accessories, pens, and more ($129; www.sailnet.com).

ROUGH RIDER JR.

Yes, this laptop is slow by today's high-tech standards-Intel Pentium 233MHz chip, 32MB of RAM, and a 2MB, 3MB, or 6MB hard disk. But the Rough Rider Jr. does have something to boast about: It's waterproof, shock resistant, and has an 11.3" sunlight-viewable screen, so fear not if it falls to the deck or into your livewell. (starts at $2,599; www.ruggednotebooks.com).

TOUGHNOTE 2000

Whether you need a laptop like the ToughNote 2000, a tablet PC (a screen with a built-in computer attached to a mini-keyboard), or a handheld device like the Voyager, the TerraLogic Web site can help you make an informed decision. Expect to pay a pretty penny with this British-based company, but it might be worth it (www.terralogic.com ).

SEAFARER I PERSONAL COMPUTER

If you need a full-fledged PC with a fairly fast chip (Intel Celeron 466MHz), a mini-keyboard, and screen, check out the Fulcrum Marine Web site. This nautical computing company also offers waterproof and flexible keyboards ($220) and mice ($129) for your foul-weather days (prices start at $1,649; Fulcrum Marine Technologies, www.boat-pc.com).