Apps To Keep You Safe On The Water

By Lenny Rudow

Your cell phone or tablet doesn't just make boating better, it can make it safer, too.

Years ago it was engine alarms that caused ringing on a boat, but these days, this sound is far more likely to come from a cell phone. Or two, or three, or five phones because in today's world, just about everyone aboard who's old enough to watch a PG-13 movie is likely to have a smartphone in their pocket. In many ways this situation leads to distraction, frustration, and annoyance. But in other ways, the miracle of the modern cell phone can be a true blessing aboard — and even a lifesaver.

Cell phone and tablet apps can be harnessed by boaters in a number of ways: weather prediction, navigation, and maintenance logging are a few prime examples. And in the past, we've told you about apps that can help you accomplish these things. But there are a number of new or updated apps which focus on making boating safer. Let's have a look at some of those that could even — yes, it's true — save your life some day.

Lightning Finder

Photo of the Lightning Finder app

This app was previously only available to iOS users, but went live for Android this summer. It does exactly what the name would lead you to believe, displaying lightning strikes in near real-time, on a map. It also tells you how far you are from nearby strikes, and how long ago they took place. You can even set this app up to send you a text alert when lightning starts striking within a certain parameter. Obviously, this app can significantly boost your safety margin, but it isn't cheap, in app terms. There's a yearly subscription. Cost: $5.99

Flashlight And Morse SOS

We'll bet you've seen the free Flashlight app for iOS and Android before — it sure does come in handy when you drop your keys in the darkness — but you may not think of it as a safety app. Think again. Simply by making your screen as bright as possible with a white light, the Flashlight app can turn your cell phone into a signaling device. Similarly, the Morse SOS app (also free, and also available for both iOS and Android) turns your cell phone screen into a signaling device. But instead of a mere white light, it becomes a flashing, nonstop SOS. This has already proven a lifesaver, and was credited with helping the Coast Guard spot a sinking boat with six people aboard at night — including an infant and a 9-year-old — this past July on the Niagara River. One of the boaters downloaded the app and began using it on the spot when they saw the lights of a 25-foot USCG response boat in the distance. "We would have had a hard time locating this boat because of the darkness and the location without the SOS signal," Petty Officer First Class Tyler Benson said. Cost: Free

Float Plan

This app (for both operating systems) has been around for a couple of years now, but it's such a good idea we wanted to make sure everyone's heard about it. It helps you create a float plan with all of the important information needed, like destinations, vessel info, crew info, and ETA. Then at the click of a button, your float plan gets emailed to a pre-programmed "person of trust." We think the price is a bit steep considering how simple the app is, but if you don't already have another method of reliably filing a float plan — which is the best way to ensure help is sent if you don't reach your destination and you can't communicate with people on land — this app is something you should consider. Cost: $2.99

GPS Tracking

This is an app that can come in handy and provide peace of mind for the parents of young boaters. When the kids are ready to take out a boat on their own, make sure they arm their phone with GPS Tracker and you can keep tabs on their whereabouts at all times. In fact, you can track up to six users at one time and display their whereabouts on your phone's maps or Google Maps. There are actually a number of apps (for both iOS and Android) that can turn a GPS-equipped cell phone into a tracking device, but we like this one because it's free. You can also opt for an upgraded version that has unlimited users, eliminates ads, and includes messaging, Facebook, and Twitter functions. Cost: Free (basic version)

NOAA Buoy Data

NOAA Buoy Data, which was upgraded to version 5.02 late last year to fix bugs, lets you tap into the NOAA buoy system with a flick of the finger. Plus, it includes tidal data for the entire U.S. You can search for buoys by name or region, or set a custom search radius to find out what buoys are nearby. This one's been available to iOS users for several years, but just recently, an Android version made it possible for everyone else to join in. Cost: $1.99

Safe Skipper

Photo of the Safe Skipper app

This app is like a book on boating safety, which lives inside your cell phone. It includes boating safety information and tips, lists emergency equipment, includes emergency procedures, and has over 100 graphics designed to inform. Specific sections on communications, trip preparation, and emergencies are spelled out in detail. Safe Skipper was just updated this summer and comes in both Android and iOS flavors. Cost is $2.99, which seems fair for an app that took this much work to create, but since some heavy reading is involved, you may want to keep this one on your tablet instead of the phone. Cost: $2.99

Boat Essentials–USCG Safety Gear

Released by the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) this year, the Boat Essentials app is currently available for iOS devices only. But ABYC says an Android version will be developed when and if funding allows. The app is based on a simple checklist of required boating safety gear, which helps you make sure you have all the necessities aboard. It goes a few steps farther as well, by tracking scheduled maintenance in your calendar, filing and saving float plans, setting replacement reminders for gear that has an expiration date or requires regular inspection (like flares and fire extinguishers), and providing links to boating agencies. For those of you who own multiple boats, it can maintain lists for up to three different vessels. The app was developed with funding from a USCG Recreational Boating Safety nonprofit grant, so naturally, it's free. Judges of the International Boatbuilders' Exhibition and Conference (IBEX) were so impressed with the Boat Essentials app, they awarded it an Innovation Award. Check it out on the iTunes Store. Cost: Free

Shipfinder HD

Photo of the Shipfinder HD app

AIS is great, but if you can't afford a full-blown AIS system or your boat is too small to accommodate one, you can still take advantage of the technology via Shipfinder. The cost of this app is rather steep, but it works with both Android and iOS, provides the same data on ships as AIS does in near real-time, and includes global coverage. The 3.0.1 version released last summer has bug fixes, improved worldwide coverage, and added ETA functionality. Cost: $6.99

BoatUS 2.1

Photo of the BoatUS 2.1 app

And finally our favorite app ever. Yes, of course we're a bit biased, but naturally we love the latest version of the BoatUS app, which was released earlier this year. It's still based on one essential function: You can use it to call for a tow when in need of on-the-water assistance, and when you activate this feature, our crew will get critical information automatically (such as contact info, boat type and size, location, and whether you have a working VHF onboard). But the BoatUS app also allows you to share your location, letting your friends know where you are via text message or email, with your latitude, longitude, and a Google Maps link included. And, it also gives you 24/7 access to the BoatUS directory. So, what's new about it? Between versions 2.0 and 2.1, the app can now be used with tablets, graphics have been updated, the app runs faster, and yes, there were also a few bugs we squashed. Cost: Free

Along with all of these apps, of course, there's a slew of others that could also help increase your safety. We've mentioned these in past articles (see Online Extra) so we won't rehash them now. But when it comes to making sure the weather is appropriate for boating, apps like WindGuru (which obviously focuses on wind speeds and predictions) and Bluefin (which provides NOAA reports and animated Doppler radar) are a big help. And for navigating in a safer manner, Navionics Mobile (which currently has over a million downloads) is a charm, especially considering the constant updating our fellow mariners can give to the charts with the shared community data layer. Yes, there's no doubt that your iOS or Android device should be kept close to the helm and used as a boating tool. Just don't let it catch you off guard, if it rings like a phone once in a while. 

— Published: December 2013

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