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The Google Earth Tweak

If you’ve played with the software known as Google Earth, you’ve probably marveled at the ability to zoom yourself from one corner of the world to another at lightning fast speed. Dropping like a superhero from the heavens on top of your choice of destination. I’ve had occasion to look into the usefulness of this software as it applies to training and voyage planning.

Many of us have either referred to or created some sort of “rutter” for our region of operations. Historically, this “rutter” was a book of knowledge vigorously guarded as a precious resource and seldom shared with anyone, especially a fellow mariner, since competition for trade was so intense. It contained courses and distances between ports, local current info, friendly or not so friendly residents, you get the idea. Nowadays its usually a binder with chartlets copied or drawn to locate terminals and local info not readily available to the general public. It’s sort of a personal Coast Pilot. Since Google Earth makes it so simple to create and share data of this nature it was only logical to apply it to my needs for voyage planning and such.

I have a copy of a binder that has been plagiarized by the industry for years without ever fairly compensating the original creator. No one was ever really pressed to pay for the book and it was and has been copied many times over the years. Since the knowledge contained in this book has changed like the weather, it was always out of date. Terminal names change more frequently than one might imagine and constant corrections add to the Mate’s publication burden unnecessarily.

So in an effort to tame this beast I began to create up to date placemarks for my area of operations in Google Earth. It took hours to get the lion’s share of the regions recorded and properly labeled. Once I had completed the initial placemark list I realized that adding pertinent information to each mark would be helpful to a tug or barge. Things like taxi services, grub shopping, pharmacies in the general vicinity, crew muster points for crew changes, and more. Not just what was already included in the database for Google, but my database. Now that I had the US East coast from Maine to Virginia illustrated I broke everything down into regions, then alphabetized everything. I had come to the point where I realized I needed a way to copy all this work to another computer. I didn’t want to repeat the work I had just completed, so I did a little digging. The application file in C:/username/documents and settings/application data/google/google earth contains all the data entries one makes when recording placemarks and local info. It’s called “my places”, a “kml file”. I discovered to my delight that this data file can be copied and emailed. In this case, I could take all of my work and install it on another computer in seconds as opposed to hours. Additionally, the data installs as I have created and organized it.

So I decided to expand my little experiment by sending an email to a few of my colleagues who I believed could give the work a proper test drive. The attachment was sent with instructions on how to enter it into the local database. I found that if Google Earth was up and running, one need only “left click” the attachment and it would install itself. Once the database updates it’s immediately available for use.

For voyage planning this application has proved to be an invaluable aid to those of us seeking berth info from our peers. I had occasion after circulating this Tweak to have a colleague ask me about a particular berth arrangement in Linden, N.J. I created a mark, added the pertinent info and sent it via email. The email was opened and the attachment clicked. The mark appeared where I had created it with the necessary info to answer the question. It was so much easier to explain what needed to be understood with an illustration in hand. Especially since the illustration can be zoomed, panned, or rotated to any degree you can think of. The Coast Pilot includes many photos, but seldom the one you really need. Here it can be tailored to fit an individual need on a case by case basis. Very handy.

Now the next great thing about this is, when the database needs correcting, single corrections can be emailed by right clicking on an edited place-mark and sending it out to the user group. Once the edited mark is received, it can be clicked and installed. Removal of the old mark would be required afterwards. All of the data is local, meaning it resides only on the computer on which it is being viewed. In keeping with security issues while distributing this utility, the database can be limited to selected users as opposed to publishing to Google’s public database. As I said, the database I created has had a limited distribution. It’s basically a tugboat reference, but it can be modified to accommodate any marine transportation application. The good folks at Google have given us a blank slate to make use of. It’s a good thing.

Another piece of software that has complimented this Tweak has been the program Google Sketch-up.  I’ve had occasion to create a 3-D model of a vessel to scale to see how it would fit in a particular berth.  This software has a steeper learning curve and will take a bit of practice to create something useful to one’s needs.

You can download the free Google Earth software here. If you have a questions regarding the Tweak, email me at


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