Google Earth For Sailors and Travelers

tahina-logo.pngA big part of the experience of sailing around the world is meeting up with other sailors doing similar routes. In French Polynesia, we have had numerous opportunities to meet up with the crews of boats we have met along the way, and many new boats as well. As a big fan of Google Earth, I have been making sure to share tips on some of the ways I am making use of Google Earth as we sail. Many of these tips apply equally to many other forms of travel. One thing is apparent, few people realize some of the less-known, but best features of Google Earth for travel.
Here are some important tips on Google Earth’s lesser-known features that every sailor (and many other travelers) should know:
1) Google Earth can be used without an Internet connection – As we are traveling, I actually use Google Earth more without an Internet connection than with. Many people aren’t aware that Google caches the last 2 GBytes (if your cache is set to the maximum) of imagery/layers you last loaded. What I do is visit the places I’m about to travel to (in particular the anchorages) and make sure to load the imagery of those places most important to me. It’s important not to load too large an area or the cache will start forgetting the older stuff. Once we are on a passage (with no easy way to be on the Internet) we can still load Google Earth and view those last places loaded. I can view what the appraoch to an anchorage is like, and the places we plan to visit while reading other guide materials or charts we have. Read more about using Google Earth off the Internet.
2) The Ruler – I frequently make use of the Google Earth ruler to measure distances between places we are going, or the places we have already traveled. You can change the units (I frequently use the “nautical miles” units) to help convert to local measures. Also, you can trace out paths, not just single measurements (look for the tabs at the top of the window that pops up to find the “Paths” tab). This is very handy for measuring routes. As a sailor, I often use this feature to check distances on passages, determine the best places to anchor, estimate dinghy runs, and distances we’ll have to walk to grocery stores and customs offices.
3) GPS Tracks – if you have a GPS, you can take your saved GPS tracks and use many free programs to convert your track to GPX. Some GPS programs will even output your GPS tracks directly to Google Earth’s KML. But, Google Earth will read GPX files as well. Simply open your KML or GPX file of your track. The new Google Earth 5.2 presents you with a new option to save your file as a “track”. This lets you play back the track with some new features like the time slider. I also recommend a free online program called “GPSVisualizer” to generate highly customized GPS tracks for use with Google Earth.


4) GPS in Real-time – Google Earth can connect directly to many GPSes. Look for the option under “Tools->GPS”. If you have a Garmin with a USB connection, it is very simple. You can also use the NMEA option to connect. Read more about that in the Google Earth user guide. Once you have your GPS connected, Google Earth can show your position in real-time. It makes Google Earth into something like a 3D “chart plotter”. Google Earth is not to be used for navigation purposes. The data is not intended for that, so it is not guaranteed to be accurate enough to sail by. However, using it as an additional reference has proven to be very effective. The satellite is often (but, not always) good enough to see underwater obstructions (such as coral heads, rocks, and even sunken ships). It has also been handy for seeing the best route through passes. In fact, I have often found GE imagery is more accurately placed than my electronic charts. You need to remember some of the imagery can be several years old though. The imagery is definitely not real-time (read about Google Earth imagery).
5) Many other uses – I also share our position reports, GPS tracks, and photography using Google Earth. You can share your photos for free with Google’s Panoramio – which lets you map the positions of each photo when you upload them (or you can do the geotagging with another program). The photos will later appear on Google Earth and Google Maps for everyone to see as icons when the Panoramio/Photos layer is turned on. I also take 360 Panoramas and upload them to, which are also viewable on Google Earth, or you can put them on your web site (see example). Most importantly, I often use Google Earth while on the Internet to do research on the places we are going to find information and pictures about popular places to visit. Turning on the Panoramio layer is a fast way to find popular places (more photos in the most interesting spots). I also showed a bunch of sailors how to use Google Earth to show the best place to watch the solar eclipse that occurred over the central Pacific waters on July 11th.
These are just a few of the many ways I use Google Earth while sailing/traveling. They are all free, and easily available to anyone. All you have to know is that they exist, and how to use them.

About Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor started the Google Earth Blog in July, 2005 shortly after Google Earth was released. He worked in 3D graphics for many years and was very impressed with this exciting product. Frank left in 2009 to circumnavigate the earth by sailboat as part of the Tahina Expedition.


  1. I love googleearth, and I didn’t know about the caching.
    But it’s just too big to fit on my phone.
    I’ve only got 28Mb left today, earth takes 25Mb – and it won’t install to sdcard.
    Come on, give us some froyo support! :)

  2. Last year when sailing from Cadiz,Spain, to Lagos,Portugal, I used Google Earth and a cheap USB GPS for navigation purposes, since my chart plotter was dead, and my chart room was too hard to get to, Google Earth worked quite well. Even navigating up through Faro Bay, which is a very complex waterway. All in all, I’d say it was never more than 3 feet from my actual location. I’d definitely recommend boaters using it. And as was said, you can sometimes even see obstructions under water.

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