Beginners Guide to Marine Navigation Systems

Types of Marine Navigation Equipment

When it comes to effectively monitoring your boating position, a good navigational system is a must.  For new boat owners and beginners to marine navigation, it can seem a little overwhelming to know where to start. 

What’s the best way to chart your position and that of other vessels around you?  Are there any legal requirements when it comes to marine navigation?  These are some of the questions you might be thinking about when it comes to choosing a navigation system for your vessel.

There are chart plotters and lighting to consider, sonar and even auto pilot equipment. 

With the right technology, marine navigation is a lot simpler and easier than you might think!




Marine autopilot systems make it possible for your vessel to steer itself without the need for human intervention.  Autopilots are great at holding a steady course in light to moderate conditions, with minimal control.  They can also help to save you fuel by getting you to your destination faster with the help of a GPS.  Sometimes it’s nice to take a back seat and let an autopilot system do the hard work for you.

A marine autopilot usually works by using a course computer, fluxgate compass and method mechanical drive unit. Using an electric or hydraulic system, the autopilot will apply force to the boats rudder to move in the right direction.

To operate an autopilot you can put your boat on your desired course and set the autopilot to follow that heading.  Modern autopilot systems have sophisticated technology to allow them to detect any course deviations and to adapt to the individual characteristics of your boat for an smooth and accurate ride.

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Most modern GPS systems are similar to chartplotters and may have the same features; they are pretty much the same as each other, however chartplotters generally have larger screens.

As a starting point, a GPS system is a relatively simple and affordable navigational solution.  If you get nothing else, a GPS will allow you to determine your position, wherever you are in the world.  Marine GPS systems vary in price depending on features and size of screen. 



A chart plotter essentially combines GPS data with an electronic chart on a screen so visually see where you are at all times.  A chartplotter also shows the speed and additional information such as where you have already been and where you are heading etc.  They can also be useful for displaying extra information such as water depth and any potential hazards.

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Multi-function display

A multi-function display brings all the technology you need for successful navigating into one place.  As a complete solution, it makes it quicker and easier to make sense of navigational information and effectively monitor your position.

By default a multifunction display should include navigational charts, GPS, chartplotter, vessel tracking, radar, sonar and may include other features such as Wi-Fi! However each system is different and has its own merits.

A very sophisticated piece of technology, a multi-function display provides you wealth of navigational information and are among the most advanced navigational systems available.

If you want a complete solution without the fuss, a multifunction display is a must!

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Navigational Lighting

When operating at night, or during times of restricted visibility, recreational boats are required to have navigational lighting.  Appropriate lighting helps to determine the direction a boat is travelling as well as the size and type of boat.

There are four main types of navigational lighting required for power and sail boats, these include :

·         Green – Starboard side

·         Red – Port side

·         White – Stern side, should have 360° visibility

·         Masthead/steaming light


Depending on the size and type of your boat, you may have a different lighting setup. 

Boats under 7 meters

Power driven ships above 7 meters /23ft should have red and green side lights, as well as a white light which is visible from all directions.

Boats above 7 meters

Power driven boats under 7 meters or 23ft with a maximum speed of less than 7 knots are required to show only a white light with 360° visibility.  However red and green lights should be shown where possible.

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