A Simple DIY Project for Laptop Navigators


Looking for an alternative to installing an on-deck chartplotter? PS reader Bill Boyeson came up with a creative way to use his laptop for navigation, rather than a multi-function display in the cockpit of his J/42. The Kirkland, Wash., sailor designed an enclosure that protects the setup from the elements and that can be easily removed and stowed belowdecks when not in use. Here are the details that Boyeson shared with Practical Sailor.

In lieu of an expensive chartplotter, I use a touchscreen laptop with Coastal Explorer software, along with a separate AIS receiver, which is hidden behind the laptop. The whole assembly can be removed from the boat, and I only need to plug in 12-volt power to make the setup operational.

AIS receiver

Photos courtesy of Bill Boyeson

The GPS sensor and the AIS antenna are part of the enclosure, which is protected from the elements in most conditions.

Before I built the enclosure, I considered buying a dedicated chartplotter, but I quickly realized that it was going to require exposed, above-deck cables for the power, the AIS signal, and the GPS signal. Also, I would need to figure out how to route all these cables to other locations on the boat. I wanted a nice, clean installation, and since I already had the laptop and the charting program, the all-in-one enclosure seemed like a more sensible and less expensive solution.

The enclosure is made from half- and quarter-inch StarBoard (painted grey) and small stainless screws. Using a table saw, it was easy to cut and notch the pieces for assembly; it can easily be cut and assembled in one day.

The enclosure sits on a saddle that straddles the sheets led to the cockpit. Each leg is an inverted T shape, so that it can be screwed into the cabintop in four places. A single quarter-inch bolt connects the box to the saddle and allows the box to swivel.

If you build your own, be sure the box is wide enough that the laptop can be turned on while its in the box and to allow USB accessories to be plugged in. There also should be lip on the boxs top to keep the computer from falling forward.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


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