Captain Richard Rodriguez was delivering a yacht from Seattle to San Diego last year when the boat’s electrical system shut down during a nasty blow at night about 35 miles offshore.
His crew members had a laptop and two cell phones between them, but only Rodriguez’s iPhone was working. By using several of his favorite apps to get information about charts, currents, weather and marine traffic, Rodriguez was able to safely bring the boat in to shore. And given the bumpy weather, he said, navigating via iPhone was easier than trying to use paper charts.
“When it’s really nasty, it’s pretty hard to plot,” he said. “So the electronic thing was actually pretty easy. It worked well enough to get us back.”
Rodriguez, 59, a Vessel Assist captain and instructor who lives in Anacortes, says he uses about half a dozen boating apps regularly and considers them so useful that if he was just getting into boating now, he probably wouldn’t even bother with the costly electronics many recreational boaters have long considered essential.
“Knowing what I know now, if I were a recreational boater I probably would not be looking at a dedicated chartplotter,” he said. “I think I’d be looking at a different model if I were starting.”
Rodriguez is among a growing number of boaters who are turning to smartphone and tablet apps to get inexpensive, easily accessible information on everything from wind speed to how much fuel is in their tanks. With myriad choices available — more than 65,000, according to one estimate — and many of them free or costing just a few dollars, apps provide inexpensive features that go far beyond simple navigation.
The interest may not be surprising, considering that almost half — 46 percent — of Americans now own smartphones, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. And the increase isn’t just coming from a younger demographic: The second highest jump in smartphone adoption rates between May 2011 and February 2012, after 18- to 24-year-olds, was among people aged 45 to 54.
Boaters’ interest in apps was evidenced during this year’s Seattle Boat Show, when a new half-day class on the topic at “Boat Show University” attracted more early registrants than any other. Mark Bunzel, who taught the class, said the portability and multi-use nature of smart mobile devices makes them a perfect fit for boaters.
“When we buy our marine electronics, we’re spending a lot of money for something that can only be used so many times a year,” said Bunzel, the owner of Fine Edge Nautical & Recreational Publishing and an avid boater.
“Now you have something that you can take off the boat and use for so many things. All of sudden this device, that can go back and forth between home and boat, starts to take on a lot of utility. I think that’s what’s driving the interest.”
Bunzel, who took over publishing of the popular Waggoner Cruising Guide last year, is adding new apps for the guide on iPad and Android systems, and numerous marine companies are moving into the app world.
Raymarine’s e7 chartplotter, for example, features Bluetooth capabilities and built-in Wi-Fi that allows boaters to plan voyages on their iPhones or iPads and wirelessly sync the information to the device, which has a list price of $1,850.
Seeing a need for a less expensive solution, Seattle-based start-up DMK Yacht Instruments, recently profiled on Three Sheets Northwest, makes a small box that sells for $400 and broadcasts real-time boat instrument data to mobile devices.
But most credit Navionics for kick-starting the current boating apps boom with its award-winning Navionics Mobile. The app, available in numerous versions, enables smart phones and tablets to serve as chartplotters. It includes features such as wind forecasts, satellite overlay on charts, syncing of data with some chartplotters (including Raymarine’s) and panoramic images. It also allows boaters to add real-world, local information that might not appear on charts to its database so it can be shared with others.
Mark Tilschner, Raymarine’s director of sales for the western U.S., said marine electronics companies will have to offer apps if they want to remain competitive.
“I think apps are going to be an important part of boating down the road,” he said recently. “Boaters love gadgets.”
Following are just a few popular boating apps on the market (most are compatible with iPhones or iPads; Android versions are included when possible):
- AyeTides ($9.99) – Displays information on tides and currents for nearly 10,000 stations worldwide. Users can choose stations alphabetically or geographically and create lists of favorites.
- Boating Suite ($6.99) – Logging app that allows users to track fuel, maintenance, expenses, to-do items, shopping and trips. Users can get details usage and expense reports instantly and share with others via email.
- Boat Ramps (free) – Provides locations and directions for more than 35,000 boat ramps nationwide. Users can search by zip code, city or current location.
- Clinometer ($0.99) – Tells you the exact angle your boat is heeling by turning your iPhone or iPad screen into an instant clinometer.
- DragQueen Anchor Alarm (free) – A simple anchor alarm that provides distance and GPS alarms, along with an alarm delay.
- Friend Mapper ($1.99) – Allows you to track up to 23 friends’ positions simultaneously live, with updates every 15 seconds. One-touch dialing or texting allows you to easily contact any of your friends on the map.
- MarineTraffic ($3.99) – Provides AIS ship traffic info with coverage of more than 2,000 ports and a number of open sea areas worldwide, with positions reported by more than 6,000 vessels per day.
- myLight (Apple, $0.99) – Turns your screen into a flashlight or strobe light. Flashlight HD is a similar Android app.
- MyWeather Mobile (free) – Provides weather for anywhere in the world, including hourly and 10-day forecasts, detailed current weather conditions, hurricane tracking and interactive radar and satellite maps with clickable storm cells. Android version here.
- NOAA Buoy and Tide Data ($1.99) – Retrieves your location and provides a list of NOAA weather buoy locations nearby. Users can search by buoys by name or region, view maps showing buoy locations and click on specific buoys to get sea condition data.
- WindAlert (free) – Provides wind data from more than 40,000 weather stations. Users can get a push notification if data meets their preferred conditions. Android version here.
Do you have other favorite boating apps? Let us know in the comments section.