Handheld GPS
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I always use the NOAA and Canadian CHS charts as my primary navigation tool. However, the Garmin GPSMAP 76S handheld GPS is a valuable navigation adjunct.

This is an amazing piece of technology. It took me about a year before I was really comfortable with it. There are several versions of the 76 series including at least two new color versions (GPSMAP 76CX). These latter models have greater memory and longer battery life. Check out the Garmin Website  for more information on the various models. 

 This is one case where careful analysis of your requirements is essential because you really do get what you pay for. If your memory needs are modest, or you don't need all the bells and whistles, go with the cheapest version you can find; but remember the biggest difference between the models is memory and features. 

There a several other good handhelds from Magellan and others but I think you'll find that the Garmin 76 gets a lot of kudo's in the archives of this forum. There are a number of G76 versions, so look at each carefully and match to your requirements. Practical sailor recently did a review on handhelds and gave the 76 series top marks. Fits in the pocket nicely. West Marine has a G76 version that gets PS's #1 recommendation.

The "Plain Jane 76" has only 1 MG of memory while the 76CS has 115MG. In addition, the more expensive GPSMAP76S has a barometer, altimeter, tide tables, alarms, phases of the moon, best fishing times, and electronic compass. If you want to download charts or need to know when and where the thin water is, the more expensive unit might be a better buy. 

Selling prices vary widely. I got mine  from GPSnow.com which has an incredible amount of information on GPS units of all types. You might find a bargain on one of the older, but very capable models.  

gps_mount.jpg (41431 bytes)I believe all the G76 models have the same basemap which have NAVAID info for North and South America, major highways, thoroughfares, rivers, lakes, and borders; however, the GPSMAP 76S has more memory (24 MB) for downloading MapSource® digital charts. It's also waterproof and floats. I've dropped my unit a number of times and it's still ticking. On the otherhand, the stock GPS mount from Garmin shown here is expensive and flimsy.

RAMB138GA6.jpg (29230 bytes)RAP326.jpg (17004 bytes)RAM makes a much better mount for about the same price. Search the internet for RAM-B-138-GA6U mount and the RAP-326 Ezy-mount quick release adapter.

For most local sailing, the ability to download digital charts is probably not necessary -- knowing the Lat & Long and a good chart is sufficient. That said, knowing at a glance how close you are to the entrance of the harbor in a heavy fog is worth a lot of money. 

I did  purchase the Blue Chart CD for Lakes Michigan and Huron and up loaded them to the unit. I did not purchase the Florida CD because our trip to Key West this Spring was a one time thing. This was a good decision because the basemap had every NAVAID on the NOAA charts for Key West and we got along just fine. 

It is theoretically possible to scan a NOAA chart and display a Raster chart on a PC or GPS (Chart1); however, you won't find this level of detail on your screen because this takes up a lot of computing power. The GPS and the BlueChart CD display Vector charts that have less detail (Chart 2 & 3) but have all the important info you'll need. 

As long has you use the NOAA/CHS paper charts as your primary navigation source, Vector charts work fine. Any GPS will give you pretty precise info on where you are; however, you can use the MapSource software to plan your trips and keep a record of your actual track. Here's some comparisons of the different digital chart types of NOAA chart 14881, Mackinac harbor.

Mackinac Harbor, MI
NOAA Chart 14881

Click to expand any chart

Chart 1 
Bitmap scan
NOAA 14881

Chart 2 
Vector Chart

Chart 3
PC Vector Chart

The bitmap scan (
Chart 1) is an exact digital copy of Mackinaw Harbor in NOAA chart 14881. The center photo  (Chart 2) is the vector chart display on the G76S, (Chart 3) is a Vector chart from my PC screen. If you want to know the technical differences between the different types of formats go to gpsinformation.net; you'll get all you ever want to know about GPS formats, models and capabilities. 


One nice feature of the MapSource® BlueChart software is the ability to plan your trips on your PC at home or take a laptop with you on the boat. After I plan my trip, I use the software to print out my route in table form. Click here for examples: 

The G76 also leaves "breadcrumbs" or tracks so you can retrace your trip or race at a later time. Here's some examples of Vector charts with the actual tracks from our North Channel trip as they appear on the PC Screen. Click here for more examples

Other options: A little larger and quite a bit more expensive are the G276/376 and the G378/478 series. Really, nice. Not as portable as my G76, but I'm still hoping Santa will take the hint this year and bring me one. Go to the Garmin website  for more information on these models.