Can Marine Apps And A Smartphone Make You A Better Boater?
By Lenny Rudow
Like it or not, in our modern world cell phones have become as essential to life as clothing, food, and fuel. Unless you're institutionalized, chances are there's a smart phone within reach at this very moment. Current models come GPS-equipped, are far tougher than early versions, and are more convenient to carry around than virtually any dedicated marine-electronics unit. Every day new apps are developed for the communicating multi-tasker in your pocket, and there's a slew of them that can help you run your boat more efficiently and effectively.
Before we go any further, let's make one thing crystal clear: we do not support, promote, or otherwise endorse becoming dependant on a cell phone for onboard navigation, communications, or managing your ship's systems. Despite their improved reliability, cell phones can and do fail with startling regularity. If you rely on one, it will eventually let you down — they don't even cut it as back-up devices. So don't skimp on your marine electronics in favor of a phone. Continue carrying that GPS and VHF, and reliable back-ups for each. And never allow yourself to be lulled into a false sense of security by that cell link to the outside world. That said, the cell phone's widespread availability and undeniable convenience make it a natural assistant to boaters from coast to coast. But, how do you turn your G4 communicator into a gee-whiz marine machine? These apps are just the ticket.
The BoatUS App
Naturally, this is our favorite app in the entire bunch. We've come up with it to make your life at sea both safer and easier, whether you carry an iPhone or an Android. The BoatUS App has three components: "Call For A Tow," "Share Your Location," and "BoatUS Directory."
"Call For A Tow" is the best app feature you'll hope you never have to use. If you break down on the water and need assistance, however, activate this app and our crew will have your critical information (including contact info, boat type and size, location, and whether you have a working VHF onboard), automatically. That can shorten the time it takes to get help, and eliminate the opportunity for errors.
"Share Your Location" will come in handy when there's no emergency, but you want to let your friends know where you are. You want to call your buddy in to a hot fishing spot? Invite him or her to raft up for the evening? With our app you'll be able to send a private text message or e-mail with your latitude, longitude, and a Google Maps link included. Plus, when you activate the app, your lat/long will be displayed at the top of the phone's screen, so you'll always know exactly where you are.
"The BoatUS Directory" will come in handy whenever you need to find out what services are available to members — getting a quote or filing a claim for BoatUS Insurance, contacting the BoatUS Foundation, or even checking the latest BoatUS news are all handy features. Cost: Free | www.BoatUS.com/towing/app
Trailer boaters, this one's for you. It's a free app for both i's and 'droids, from the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation. It gives you the locations of and directions to more than 35,000 boat ramps nationwide. You can search by zip code, city, or current location. Price: Free | www.takemefishing.org
Perfect for long-distance cruisers, liveaboards, and boaters who like to know how much fuel is in the tanks — to the very gallon — this is a logging app that turns your iPhone into a digital filing cabinet with built-in spreadsheets. Logs included are trip, fuel, maintenance, expenses, shopping, and to-do; reports can be organized by date and/or information included. Price: $4.99 | www.boatingcafe.com
This app will be of interest to sailors, when they want to know the exact angle at which their boat is heeling. Just go to the App Store and download Clinometer onto an iPhone or iPod Touch, and the screen turns into a clineometer that's accurate to one degree. Price: $0.99.
Here's a relatively old way to turn your smartphone into a mini-chartplotter; it's been around since the ancient days of 2007. EarthNC is a good basic, all-around marine application that includes marine charts, weather data, and real-time GPS tracking. Charts are a seamless version of NOAA's raster-based chartography, and the app includes the complete NOAA library. The EarthNC database also includes marina, bridge, anchorage, and service listings, which are from the Marinalife, Cruisersnet, and Waterway Guide databases. The app can be used with most i-gizmos, and lately EarthNC introduced a version for the Android. Price: $24.99 | earthnc.com
One of the few helpful boating apps for Blackberries, this is essentially a reference "book" that covers topics ranging from rigging to racing to right-of-way. It's a KISS app — there's no animation or audio, and there aren't even any illustrations. Download it into your phone, and you can check it out even when you're out of cell range. Price: $0.99.
We don't usually consider games to be very helpful for real-world boaters but Flick Fishing is so much fun (once my kids discovered it, they spent hours playing), and has so many realistic variables in it, we think anglers might actually learn something while playing it on their iPhone. Target species, location, weather, light levels, lures choices, and other real-world fishing factors all have an effect on how successful your fishing "trip" is. Price: $0.99 | https://itunes.apple.com/us/app
This one will come in handy for yacht club cruises, caravans, poker runs, and fishing friends that make trips en masse. This nifty little app lets you and up to 23 of your buddies track each other (as long as you have an activated iPhone, of course). Everyone in the crew appears on each other's maps, with each position updated every 15 seconds. You can hide your position if you like (to keep that hot spot all to yourself, or to spare yourself the embarrassment of a grounding, for example), and can one-touch dial any of the friends appearing on your iPhone's map. Price: $0.99 | www.amigomapper.com
Here's a recently introduced app that will let you discover in an instant if that world-record catch you just made really is a world record. The International Game Fish Association designed it so that anglers could check on the record status of any species of gamefish caught in the world, and it automatically updates new record catches every time your cell phone is turned on, so the info is never out of date. The app includes a listing of IGFA certified weigh stations so you can figure out the closest scales to check in your catch, and there's also a trip-planning list and a complete listing of the IGFA rules. Price: $8.99 | www.igfa.org
This relatively advanced nav-app takes advantage of NOAA raster chartography, but can also expand your charting options with the X-Traverse service ($10/year, www.x-traverse.com), which allows you to wirelessly transfer charting data from your PC or Mac to your phone, and vice-versa. It's compatible with Navionics Gold, HotMaps, and Fish'N'Chip charts, plus topography maps for the US and Canada. X-Traverse also brings social networking to boaters, as it enables you to upload or share data points and locations with Facebook updates. iNavX is for the icrowd only, at least for now, working on iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads. It essentially turns your smart phone into a smart chartplotter, and supports a multitude of real-time chartplotting functions (including speed, course, and bearing data, anchor alarm, track logging, etc.), gives you the ability to import and export waypoints and routes with Google Earth, and includes tides and currents data and GRIB weather forecasting. Price: $49.99 | inavx.com
Marine Day Tides
If you have an iPhone or iPad and don't want to pay for one of the more comprehensive applications that include tidal data, this application is for you. It includes tidal data for over 5,000 locations world-wide, sunrise/sunset/moon phase information, and tidal graphs. Price: Free | www.tucabo.com
Navionics plays hard in the app universe, with constant updates and comprehensive offerings — and they claim Mobile is now the world's best-selling marine and lakes nav-app. It won the 2010 Innovation and Design award at the Marine Electronics and Trade Show, and was voted the Best Boating App by Laptop World magazine. We've used it extensively and agree; it's a smart way to navigate with your smart phone. Mobile turns iPhones, iPads, and Androids into mini but fully functional chartplotters. The latest version not only adds extra features such as wind forecasts, terrain overlays, panoramic pictures, and chartography updates, it also includes a unique "community layer" of data, which is user-generated. In other words, boaters can add to the database as they discover changes in the real world that aren't reflected on the charts. A channel marker was moved by drifting ice? A sandbar shifted after a storm? A boat sunk in the middle of the channel? You can add info like this to the database and so can other boaters, making navigation safer for everyone. Mobile also includes the social networking aspects of cell-equipped lifestyles, adding the ability to share tracks, routes, and pictures on Facebook and Twitter. Price: Varies greatly depending on version and charts | www.navionics.com
You feel like a buffoon when you try to tie a bowline? The fisherman's knot has you flummoxed? Then check out this app for iPhones, which gives you step-by-step instructions with large illustrations, on how to tie over 30 different knots. There's also an animated version available, which covers 17 knots. Price: $0.99 to $1.99 depending on the version | www.proknots.com
You want to be the talk of the yacht club? Then you'll have to start winning those races, and SailSim can help. You can use this sailing simulator while you're on dry land, to discover how changes in boat heading, the set of the sails, centerboard, and boat speed relate to wind direction. As you turn your boat (just turn your smart phone), wind direction stays constant relative to the boat but the sails adjust and change shape as they would in real life. It's available for both Apple and Android products. Price: $0.99
This satisfyingly simple application turns your iPhone into a speedometer. Large digits and no additional distracting information make it incredibly easy to use. Price: $0.99 | www.steventroughtonsmith.com/speed
Here's a cool little app that gives you the current and forecasted wind speeds and directions world-wide, and works on most modern mobiles. It's basic, useful, and simple. Price: Free | http://wap.windguru.cz/
This is another relatively simple app for iPhones, but it has a wealth of good weather data piped in directly from NOAA buoys. Wind speed and direction, air and water temperature, wave period and height, and atmospheric pressure are some of the things you can check out, with Windbuoy. Price: $3.99
Naturally, there are a thousand other apps out there that could be useful to boaters. Actually, there are closer to 65,000 of them, if you take Google's word for it. But these are our favorites, and we know for sure that all of these apps will help you become a better boater. So the next time you pack your clothes in a bag, put food in the cooler, and fill the fuel tanks for a voyage, also find a safe spot at the helm for that app-equipped smart phone — it's one more item that fulfills your most essential boating needs.
Lenny Rudow is the electronics editor of BoatUS Magazine.
— Published: April/May 2011
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