How to Navigate Fiji - charts and the Google Earth alternative

  How to nav Fiji 150x  

A season in Fiji

How to use the free software OpenCPN and Google Earth charts to navigate around the numerous reefs in the waters of Fiji.


Cruising the waters of Fiji allows you to visit over 300 islands, most of which are only a day trip apart. It really is a sailors paradise, however with one small caveat. We found that our Navionics charts, which were detailed and reliable for French Polynesia, the Cooks Islands and Samoa, were not very helpful in Fiji. A quick online search revealed that these are old (and mostly outdated) British admiralty charts and some Fijian paper charts; the latter didn't get the best reviews either. A short paragraph from the "Fiji Cruisers Compendium 2014" sums it up pretty well: "Armed with our Garmin chartplotter, Navionix charts on the Ipad, two cruising books and one of us on the bow we threaded our way through the reef strewn route . . . there were reefs everywhere but none of the charts could agree on exactly where so it ends up that eyeballing your way through them is just as good as following a chart." Then another report pointed us into the right direction "Having Google Earth charts helped a lot in navigating in this area, as our C-Map and Garmin charts didn't have much details and seemed off a bit".
What we finally ended up doing is ditching our Navionics charts. Well, we still had the chart plotter running to amuse ourselves when it showed Green Panther going directly over a reef (0m depth) while in reality we were in 30m (100ft) of water. Anyway, we shifted our navigation to OpenCPN. This is a free, open source software for marine navigation. It is available for Mac OSX, Microsoft Windows, GNU/Linux, BSDs and Solaris, and can be downloaded here.  A variety of free and commercial charts are available, you can find a summary here.

We found the CM93 charts on OpenCPN to be more accurate than our Navionix GOLD charts, but still there were a lot of question marks and missing details. However, that's where Google Earth charts came in handy. See the example images below, showing the entrance to the famous Blue Lagoon (yes, that's where they filmed the Brooks Shields movie of the same title).

How to nav Fiji Navionix charts
Our Navionics GOLD charts show a solid reef (0m) blocking the entrance to the Blue Lagoon.

How to nav Fiji OpenCPN chart
OpenCPN CM93 charts show the passage is possible with some rocks and questionmarks.

How to nav Fiji Google Earth chart
Finally Google Earth charts make it easy to find your way into the Blue Lagoon. The track is the same as in the OpenCPN charts above.

The good news is that it's easy to create your own acurate Google Earth charts using the free software GE2KAP. Check our blog "Create your own Google Earth Charts" for a stetp to step tutorial. For a quick peek you can also take advantage of awesome fellow cruisers and use for example the Soggy Paws website, where the McCampbells provide a wide range of Google Earth charts for Fiji waters:

You just download the Google Earth charts, deposit them in a folder, then open your OpenCPN. Once OpenCPN is up and running, click on the Wrench Icon, and the Options window opens.

How to nav Fiji wrench icon OpenCPN 700x
Wrench Icon in OpenCPN

Then click the Charts Tab (1) , click on Add Directory (2) and navigate to the folder where you deposited your Google Earth charts. Select the folder (and not the files!). In my example, I select the folder "Chris" and click OK (4). Finally click Apply (5) and OpenCPN will scan your folder for charts and add them.

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How to add new charts in the Options window of OpenCPN.

The quickest way to navigate is to scroll with your up/down, right/left arrow keys and to zoom in and out with the + and - keys. For us the Google Earth- OpenCPN combo was be the best way to navigate Fiji. Well once in a while we found ourselves changing course to avoid an obstacle, only to find after closer examination that is was a small cloud or boat that was present when the satellite image for Google Earth was taken :-). And of course we try to move about on sunny days, because our own eyes are the still the most trustful means of navigation.




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