"Can all these different chart packages be run on the same computer software [or] are you using several software packages? What computer software have you found to work the best?"
It depends, of course...the answer you probably expected. In the Americas, my impression is that the major variable is whether the region under consideration has enjoyed significant commercial interest of some kind. (Examples are the Carib''s eastern island chain and of course all 3 coasts of N America). Areas like these offer one or more raster chart products and, while they are all pretty good, some are exceptional (as e.g. the CYC charts
I mentioned earlier). These typically can be run on the same nav software (e.g. Cap''n) altho'' the market''s moved a lot in the last few years and I''m sure there are changes my comments don''t reflect. The defacto alternative of NIMA charts
provide you with safe navigation but they sure do lack the detail to make thoughtful flight planning and cove-to-bay hops as well planned. Still, in some cases that''s all we''ve had to work off of (e.g. Haiti, DR, Jamaica etc.).
For areas that are less commercially traveled (much of the rest of the Caribbean other than the U.S. territories) and/or regions that span many separate govt''l entities in a small space (N Europe is a good example), vector charts
seem to make the most sense. They ''look'' different but also offer customzing of the look to suit the needs of the navigator on any given day or area. These are typically offered along with a specific nav software program (MaxSea and CMap
are both examples), and areas are ''unlocked'' on the CD as a result of what you pay and the codes you get. This tends to be more cost effective than e.g. buying BA, then Dutch, then German, then Swedish and finally Norwegian electronic charts
(which is what we had to do when purchasing the paper charts for this last summer''s run).
I''ve tried to use a variety of these programs because, somewhat contrary to your statement, I do think the nav software is part of the ''steak'' and not just the ''sizzle''. For our current cruising (Europe), I favor using CMap
''s nav software because the NIMA electronic charts I have, running on Cap''n, are IMO quite inferior and our budget doesn''t allow me to buy every individual country''s CD(s). Ironically, I so far haven''t been able to buy a copy of CMap
''s nav software as they apparently don''t want anything to do with nav liability and prefer to just market the charts. Quite strange but a good illustration that product liability has a heavy influence in Europe these days, as well.
Keep in mind that, for copy protection purposes, dongles are now sold with some of these nav software packages. Perhaps it''s not a concern for the coastal sailor, but the thought of heading across an ocean while solely dependent on one dongle working (what if the laptop craps out? or the dongle?) bothers many of us. The software mfgr. is unimpressed by this concern (even Dashew''s outfit, which I would have thought would be sensitive to long-distance sailing issues) and tells you to just call them for a new code if e.g. you have to move to your back-up computer. Whether one is 300 NM from the Azores or ''only'' off the N coast of Hispaniloa, that isn''t a reassuring suggestion.
"...using strictly paper charts is ignoring beneficial data derived from gps..."
Not necessarily. Perhaps it''s just my own view of things, but what I find in the real world of cruising navigation is that people are so dependent on GPS and charting software (and therefore so rusty and usually also lazy re: paper charts), that they simply aren''t prepared to deal with paper charts effectively should the need arise. And besides, if one COULD use GPS in concert with paper charts, it would surely be far safer than the way we used to use paper some years ago when going down island, pre-GPS. It''s for that reason that we use a Yeoman plotter (not a CRT or LCD screen but rather a flat graphics pad on which the relevant paper chart always sits, with route plan laid out). Sliding a ''mouse'' around the chart, one can update the plot, route plan, take bearings, etc. with the accuracy of GPS because it takes a GPS NMEA input. It''s a great aid to paper navigation, and takes the desire to have back-up paper navigation from a nice thought to a practical but also accurate reality. Just something to think about...