Love 'em or hate 'em the iPad is revolutionising the way we cruise, with the past year alone seeing an explosion in "apps" targeted at the marine market. John Martin looks at what all the hype is about and shares his observations after a steep one-year learning curve.
There were a number of reasons why I put an iPad on my Christmas wish list a little over a year ago but one really stood out. I had convinced myself that as a reader it would reduce the storage needed for all those books we carry for a six-month cruise in the islands not to mention the weight. Then there was the old ship’s laptop that was held together by duct tape and developing some interesting idiosyncrasies — it needed replacing. An iMac would be nice but whoa the price, so an iPad was an easy alternative to take ashore to clear the emails and at a price that didn’t bite. Add to that, connecting to the net in a dubious cyber café in any number of South Pacific towns the iPad, being an Apple, was less likely to pick up a virus. But if I was to be totally honest the overriding desire was simply because I could download the Navionics “app” and finally have chartplotting in the cockpit.
Now there’s a caveat here. While the Navionics App is only $54.99, for the charting and software for Australia and NZ (if you’re heading into the Pacific or up through SE Asia then you’ll need the Australasian and Africa version at $99.99). Each time you start the program you are asked to acknowledge that the app is NOT for navigation and that the charts are for reference only. The charts are great — in fact they are essentially the same as the Navionics Gold package — but the software is a long way short of a fully fledged plotter. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great features, like Google Earth overlay and tides and currents that run in the same way as the Navionics fixed products, but waypoint navigation is not one of its features. Getting distances and bearing to a waypoint, VMG or time to a waypoint is not part of the programming and getting an actual lat.lon. position is cumbersome. At present you can click the distance button to get range and bearing to one point. Navionics is reported to be working on an upgraded navigation module for release sometime this year.
Over the last year I’ve had great use out of my iPad and the Navionics app but in its present configuration it’s not a replacement for good old-fashioned paper charts. Like fixed plotters and computer charting products, the iPad shares the same fundamental problem: they’re not ideal for passage planning and the Navionics app falls well short of where you would expect a plotter to do.
A year ago the Navionics apps were the be all and end all for the iPad. However, today the floodgates have opened and the power of the iPad has really taken off. If you search “marine” on Apples iStore there are literally hundreds of marine-related apps for the cruising sailor. Manufacturers are also seeing the benefits and are writing their own apps too, plus with a little hardware added to the mix you can connect to your other ship’s instruments that run NMEA and your laptop or onboard computer.
What do you need?
Top of the line — it’s as simple as that. The latest iPad 2 with 3G and the largest capacity memory. At the moment that’s the Wifi + 3G, 64GB model at $1289. You’ll need the 3G version in order to get the built-in GPS and yes, it will get a position anywhere. The fixes are very accurate and we had no problem getting a position anywhere in the SW Pacific last year. We made the mistake of getting the 30GB version and I have that filled to the max most of the time. It’s a bit like Murphy’s Law on storage — have space, will use it. Being over a year old now ours was a V1 release and we struggled to keep it charged while not connected to shore power. I had to be meticulous about having it plugged in while the genset or inverter were on to keep the battery level up. With a host of accessories and some of the power issues addressed by Apple, iPad 2 is thinner, lighter and easier to charge than V1.
What is an “app”? Simply put it’s an application designed to run exclusively on your Apple iPad, iPhone or iTouch. They come in many forms — games, books, business etc — but marine apps have seen some phenomenal growth over the last year. While the Navionics app is a great starting point there are a number of other apps that take the iPad to the next level.
Don’t start glazing over on me here; this is not geek territory. If I can do it so can you. Even if I did need my daughter’s help to update my iPad to the latest version. I’ll go through my top ten apps below. All are available through the Apple iTunes Store and are dead easy to install and run.
Navionics on the iPad has one huge advantage — it’s cheap, it’s only a fraction of the cost to buy charts, either paper or for your plotter. So if Navionics doesn’t have the features you’re looking for but you still want the portability what’s available? Simple, if you run Maxsea, Seapro or other full-version chartplotting software on your computer, there are a couple of apps that allow you to “share” the information, turning your iPad into a full-function portable plotter. I use “Splashtop”, which lets you control your onboard PC or laptop with your iPad. Many of the latest chartplotters — for example, Raymarine E series and G series displays — come standard with sync software already installed to beam plotter information out to the iPad and UK-based Digital Yacht has an AIS app (free) that let’s you connect their AIS Wifi receiver (not free) to your iPad. The first trick here is to create a wireless network throughout your boat.
Creating an onboard network
Creating an onboard network is child’s play but it does need some hardware — a wireless access point connected to your primary computer. Make sure you activate the security protocols on the unit or you’ll be sharing your network with anyone in range. This can be done simply with an off-the-shelf unit from your local electronics supplier or you could go one better and install a NMEA interface and wireless router like the Digital Yacht BOATraNET. BOATraNET is a truly unique and innovative product that in a quote from the Digital Yacht website says the unit enables your existing navigation system and creates a dynamic, local intranet for your boat. Connecting other NMEA devices such as your plotter, wind, speed, depth and radar, the unit converts the data and creates dynamic HTML 5 compliant web pages that can be accessed by anyone on the boat regardless if you’re connected to the internet. Add Wifi or cellular data into the network and everyone aboard gets internet connection too.
Now that we’ve got the navigation sorted the next concern for most skippers is the weather. There are a number of variations here and it will depend on what your source data preferences are and whether you’re connected to the internet. While connected I use the “BuoyWeather” app. The iPad GPS tells the app what your position is and once you’ve filled in the parameters it’s automatic; the presentation is great. Similar apps are available from Predict Wind and Expedition. For when you’re not connected to the internet there are two more apps. If you are connected to saildocs through your PC and an HF radio, or by satellite via a provider like UUPlus, the PocketGrib app has some great features (you’ll need an onboard Wifi network running) for downloading and viewing grib weather data. For those limited to HF only the app “HF Weather Fax” allows you to generate weather faxes from HF transmissions received simply through the iPad’s microphone. Simply tune in the SSB to the selected station and it’s automatic from there. A simple adaptor and lead from your local electronics outlet will allow you to connect from your SSB’s headphone jack to the audio jack on the iPad.
With all of the above you can now take your iPad to bed with you and rest easy keeping an eye on any number of instruments at a glance while you’re off watch on passage. For peace of mind at anchor, download the “Anchor Watch” app for a staggering@ $1.29. Anchor Watch takes your position where you drop the anchor, tap again when the boat is settled and Anchor Watch calculates the safe area where the boat can swing. If the GPS position strays outside the safe zone the app sounds an alarm. Like all apps, Anchor Watch, if you ask it to, keeps running in the background even if the iPad is in sleep mode.
But wait, there’s more
That’s my pick for the marine apps but that’s just one facet of the uses you can put your iPad to. To round out the whole package I have a few more apps for extending the usefulness of the iPad.
First up is “Google Earth”. This makes a great extension to the Navionics charting app which allows Google Earth overlays. The Google Earth app allows you to download and save these overlays for when there is no internet connection. It’s also great for planning by getting aerial views of ports and anchorages and it’s absolutely free.
For the writer in me I use “iA Writer” app which is an easy to use platform if all you are looking for is words. The “Docs to Go” app ($20.99) gives you a light version of the Microsoft office suite (Word, Excel and Power point) and again through the Wifi onboard network allows you to sync and share with your onboard computer or if you are connected to the net, iCloud for data storage.
There are a number of iPad printer apps available and a number of the bigger printer manufacturers are developing apps to connect with their Wifi-capable printers. HP, for example, has “AirPrint”, allowing you to print out directly from your iPad. I use Smart PDF for printing and filing which I can then access and use in any number of ways through the Splashtop app.
To help get my fingers around while writing I have added a flexi keyboard to the mix. It communicates wirelessly with the iPad via Bluetooth and both increases the screen available (rather than having the iPad popup keyboard) and has the standard English keyboard layout and is a size that I can use with ease. One of the biggest disadvantages is the lack of a mouse. As the iPad doesn’t support a cursor, all the moving and pointing is done with the finger. In most cases I need to use the “pinch” motion on the screen to zoom in so I can accurately select. It’s time-consuming and a pain but one I’ll live with for all the other advantages.
For the boat, a good water-proof bag allows you use of the iPad on deck and in the weather. US manufacturers Aquapac and Australian supplier Overboard both produce excellent fully waterproof bags. I have yet to find a dry bag that allows you to connect the power cord which means this is only a short-term use accessory (battery life is around 10 hours). If you’ve got a dry doghouse or cockpit and want a more permanent mounting solution, try the Tallon iPad Mount. Using the Tallon bracket you can mount and dismount your iPad quickly and easily and connect to power and or other onboard devices, like a stereo system, via the Elite socket which has a USB connection.
With the range of apps now available the iPad really is all things to all people. Whether you simply want to use it for music, photo’s or reading a book, which it does very well, or you want to explore the current “edge” of technology available, it’s safe to say the iPad definitely has a place on most cruising boats. The latest trend for cruisers is in cruising guides, written specifically for the iPad and tablet market that are easy to read and have imbedded features like video and sound. Who knows where we’ll be next year.
iPAD APPS PUT TO THE TEST COLUMN
John will be testing the latest marine apps as they are released. Drop us a line if you come across an app that you would like him to test and share with other readers.
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