Using your phone or tablet at sea for navigation and tracking
The technologies of cellular data and Wi-Fi, plus an exploding range of mobile devices, means that being tied to the chart table down below every time you need to perform a simple task at sea is no longer the case.
An iPhone or an iPad can be a great tool to take out to sea, and is now a real alternative to an expensive on-board system.
Personal mobile devices, with their seemingly infinite variety of apps (or applications), can now replicate much of the navigation and tracking functionality that until recently you could only get with a complicated onboard device. Easy to use and relatively cheap, apps for tablets and smartphones deliver real value to boaters and sailors today. These apps are increasingly taking advantage of not just their own built-in technologies, but in future they will integrate in a more connected way with the boat’s own systems, increasing the range of what you can do with an app whilst out on the water.
Navigation Apps such as Navionics and iNavX mean that passage planning and navigation en-route can now be done from an iPad and journeys shared between the boat systems and the device itself. Simple and useful apps that help sailors with training, learning knots, navigation aids, flags and so on, are very accessible and now there are many specialist apps for tasks such as weather forecasting, finding marinas, AIS, racing and our recently-launched WaveTrax App for making a comprehensive marine logbook for all boaters and sailor journeys out on the water.
The iPhone and iPad are now in their 5th and 4th generation and globally make up the largest population of users on a single operating system (iOS) with a highly standardised device. For app developers, the simplicity of iOS gives them the assurance that whatever they build, it will work on all devices.
Passionate sailors and boaters are now well aware of the benefits of using their tablet and phone devices and are keen to discover the best ways to maximise the various advantages.
Tips for using your iPhone and iPad at sea
Personal Safety: Do not allow the use of any mobile device to interfere with safety on board
In difficult conditions or heavy seas, it is better not to be distracted by continually using your iPhone or iPad. If heading into rough weather, then place your device in a safe and dry place, such as the cabin, where it can still receive a reasonable GPS signal and power.
Battery Life: Take all necessary steps to conserve power and reduce battery drain
Navigation using GPS and cellular data is a drain on the iPhone and iPad battery reserves, which means the most common frustration with using a device at sea may well be that it runs out of battery power. For most coastal trips and short passages a full charge will be enough for use of most apps, but adopting the following measures will help maintain the charge level of your device.
- Only use your device when you have to
- Don’t keep the app on ‘display’ all the time
- Shut down all non-essential apps
- Dim your screen
- Keep tasks to a minimum if possible
- Connect your device to a suitable charger whenever you can for as long as you can (always carry a good selection of charging cables and units/converters)
- Use battery life extender units that can plug into your device
- Use a good solar charger where possible and safe
GPS Reception: Consider a Bluetooth GPS receiver
On the water, a good GPS signal is normally found when your device is receiving a good cellular signal from your network operator or roaming provider. When out of reach of a cellular signal, the iPhone or iPad (Wi-Fi + Cellular models only) will eventually make a reasonable to good GPS fix. iPhone and iPad (all models) can also connect via Bluetooth to a Bluetooth GPS receiver such as the Dual XGPS150. For minimal outlay, this offers increased choice in how to obtain a good GPS signal and can even allow the use of Wi-Fi only iPad models when not connected to the Internet.
After considering personal safety, ensure your device is always placed where it can receive a reasonable to good GPS signal. In rough weather, place your device securely down below in the boat cabin. If using a Bluetooth GPS receiver, then most of these will be more weather proof than your iPhone or iPad so in certain conditions that usage option is recommended if possible.
Cellular Service Offshore: Remember that the cellular signal will fade further from land
Cellular coverage will weaken faster in coastal areas where there is poor coverage even on land. However, in most locations you could expect to pick up a cellular signal offshore until about 5-10 kilometres out to sea. It is a good idea to make a cache (stored map) of the area you are planning to be in as, for apps which do not store maps in the device memory, you will eventually loose map visibility. When outside of cellular coverage, apps which sync data back to a server will only sync back the saved data when the device is receiving a 3G/4G signal or is connected to Wi-Fi and the Internet.
Complementary Tool: Do not rely on apps as substitutes for the primary on-board systems
Although tablets and smartphones are fast becoming a standard part of the sailor’s or boater’s toolkit, they are complementary in nature and must not be substitutes for the primary navigation, weather, radar and other communications systems on board. By virtue of their primary task of being a communications device, however, they should always be present as safety coverage in the event primary boating systems become immobilised. In doing so, sailors and boaters should take advantage of the devices’ undeniable benefits as a tool equipped with apps that make boating and sailing easier, safer and more fun.
Damage or Loss: Protect your mobile device when at sea
Taking an expensive iPhone or iPad on the water is always a risk for damage or loss so consider appropriate insurance. As previously mentioned, place your device in the cabin if possible. In any event protect your device by use of a waterproof pouch.
This article was written by marine communications expert Paul Cuss, Director of RiverIsle (pictured top), who launched new marine logbook app WaveTrax™ this year.
Paul Cuss has also written an iBook, Marine iPad & iPhone Use On the Water Guide, which is available free on iTunes at: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/marine-ipad-iphone-use-on/id839520018?mt=11