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Free Range Human, Sailor, Writer, Artist, Videographer  

Monday, June 3, 2013

Garmin GPSMAP640: A Review From a Pocket Cruiser

Think You Might Need A Chart Plotter?
Clearwater Harbor FL Spoil Island
 Late in the last millennia at the very beginning of Sailing HideAway, a spanking new Garmin 120 GPS joined the equipment list of the SV hideaway.  Strangely, the main screen featured a highway complete with lanes that pointed towards the next waypoint.  If there was no waypoint, another screen provided track, position, altitude, and time. All the basic information needed for cruise navigation or day sailing was at hand. Without question a good chart and tools to plot it with were required.

Over the years the durable 120 became difficult to wake up in the morning, usually taking its time to find satellites and it could not plot a route to save its processor.  After Sixteen years of adventures a dark circle formed in the exact center of the display and grew in area ultimately becoming a total eclipse.

16 Years of Service 
The capt will admit to a certain reluctance to search for a replacement for the venerable 120.  The unwelcome discovery that an affordable GPS with a reasonably large screen unencumbered by other even more expensive toys has become an endangered species.  Many of the fully integrated units cost more than the boat is worth while providing too much information to be processed on a small sailboat.  Some units had screens so large they would distract the crew from actually sailing the boat.  An affordable GPS suffered from a screen too small to be helpful during the more exciting moments of the sailing experience.   No doubt there are plenty of handheld units that would work fine on a mountain trail but are useless on a heeling sailboat with a nearsighted navigator.


Surely this year’s spring cruise to the distant Anclote Key could be made without electronic wonders.   Or so the capt believed until a sunny afternoon day sail became a sudden sea fog slog.  The HideAways had to admit navigating the shallows along Pass-A-Grill Channel at the tip of St Pete Beach in a dense fog without benefit of an electronic wonder may not end well.  The search began in earnest and since many of our escapades occur on the hard as well as water, the dual purpose Garmin GPS640 MAPS held particular interest.

It was difficult to justify the price until West Marine offered the unit at a couple of hundred dollars off the lowest price available at the time. 

Our new Garmin GPS640 Maps arrived in a large box of some heft.  This is significant because as we all know anything expensive must have these qualities in direct proportion to their cost to have real value.  The large hefty box included important documents, books, parts and accessories in impressive plastic bags that further justified the cost.  A word of caution is in order.  Offerings from some providers included remanufactured, refurbished or open frame units at a lower price. The fine print explained that while the unit would function properly some accessories may be missing.  Given all the parts, pieces and paraphernalia shipped in our box the risk was not worth taking and well worth the $40 difference.

First Impressions

The unit fits perfectly on a swing arm in HideAway’s companionway.  The nautical mount has a feature that scared the ptooohies out of us when first used.  One of us bumped the GPS pretty hard causing it to spin to almost vertical!   Turns out the mount has a clutch that allows for such impact. A nice amenity on a heeling sailboat.  

Garmin GPSMAP640
The mount has protected gold contacts and is of solid well thought out construction.  As reported by others, there is a significant glare issue with the screen.  We found tilting the unit slightly helps fend off the dreaded glare but some sort of shadow casting device would be helpful. The 640 comes with an impressive cover to guard from what I don’t know but it would be nice if it wouldn’t fall off if moved from horizontal.  We have to band it to the machine to transport.

View From the Helm

While I can see the screen from the helm the stats are difficult to discern.   Unless the sun is direct I could see our progress down the ICW and anticipate markers.  After all these years I can estimate speed, however those with better eyes may be able to recognize the speed data.   Note the designation print between mph and nm is too small to see on the screen at any distance.

The Touch Screen

The touch screen allows for a larger viewing area and is easy to use.  The panning function took some getting used to for the HideAways.   Be careful though, if you inadvertently touch the screen something on it will change.  In finding your way back to the right screen you may have to employ language some may feel inappropriate.  Interestingly it takes some effort to use the on/off switch.

As we sailed out of Pass-A-Grill channel entering crucial waypoints the 640 could not find marker G7A.  That might not mean much to you, but G7A is the closest marker with adequate water depth to afford the south bound intentions of the HideAways.  Full magnification was required to find the channel marker in a water way where 4 foot wakes are common.  How much fun can one sailor stand? After the waypoint is entered the mark will show at any magnification.

A Most Annoying Feature