Apple iPad on a boat

Confessions of a Microsoft Bigot

iPad2 at the helm
(Updated 1/3/2016, fixed links and grammar)

I never would have bought an Apple iPad left to my own devices. I had always thought they were just toys and Apple was the worst kind of monopoly. They controlled every aspect of their products, there was no room for 3rd party applications - you bought it from Apple or you didn't have it at all. However, my wife, Ann, saw an ad in one of my technical magazines and surprised me on my birthday with a new iPad 2! Well, okay, I'll give it a try, I thought. Boy, was I ever wrong! Now it's the main computer on board, almost completely replacing my Lenovo X220 laptop - but not completely, there are still some things it cannot do but the iPad is good for about 90% of the computer workload on the boat. In fact, the iPad was so successful that Ann wanted one too so I upgraded to the iPad Air 2 and Ann took over my old iPad 4. Both have screen resolution so good you cannot see the pixels, easy on the eyes. With that as a prelude, I'll cover what I discovered about the uses for the iPads on Fleetwing, my 42 ft Beneteau 423 sailboat.

First an overview. The iPad comes with two cameras, one pointed at the user (for applications like Skype) and one for taking photos and even HD video with output directly to your digital TV via an HDMI adapter or wirelessly with an Apple TV console. Memory comes in either 16Gb, 64Gb or 128Gb capacity. I got the 128Gb version but the 64Gb would have been plenty for use on the boat. The other decision to make is whether to buy just the WiFi version or the WiFi+LTE version where you sign up with a carrier (AT&T or Verizon) to supply the Internet connection. My first iPad was WiFi only and I had to use the iPhone as a hotspot along with a bluetooth GPS module. I later bought the iPad Air 2 with cellular data and built in GPS, much more convenient to use, no more setting up the external bluetooth GPS connection (which sometimes didn't work).

The great advantage of the iPad is the software, over 1,000,000 (apps or programs) are available! If there is anything new to be done, it's done first in the Apple iPad and then later on for the Android tablets (if they ever get around to it). Still, there are many more navigation apps for the iPad than any other tablet. They are generally much less expensive than the PC versions, typically either free or from $0.99 to $5. The most expensive ones I use top out at $25 but there are very few of those. After months of searching and trying out programs I've come up with the ones that seem to work the best for me for use on a boat. But first of all, if you have just the WiFi version then you'll need to buy a separate GPS module if you want to use the iPad for marine navigation. I use it for planning, not active navigation for which I have a Garmin 492 chartplotter. I bought the Dual XGPS150 which supplies the GPS position to any program that needs it in the iPad via Bluetooth (wirelessly, no wires to plug in). I've mounted the iPad right at the helm using RAM Mounts and leave the GPS down below on the nav table (it easily tracks the GPS satellites through the fiberglass deck).  As the boat moves forward, the screen stays centered on the  boat. With the Navimatics Charts and Tides app, I can then see the hazard markers ahead and touch the screen for details. I've also added the Bose SoundLink Mini for better music reproduction in the cockpit. I can then tune my iPhone to a music streaming service like Pandora or Amazon Prime and enjoy music as we watch the sunset from the cockpit, recommended.

1 - Navimatics Charts & Tides
This is the app that is displayed 90% of the time at the helm and is the most useful of all the navigation programs. The program is free and the chart for the entire US including Alaska and USVI is only $25. The charts are digital and can be downloaded to the iPad so no internet connection is required to view them. They are based on the NOAA ENC digital charts with the Active Captain markers overlayed along with an icon representing your GPS position so you are able to see when you are approaching a hazard. Tide and current data can also be had by clicking on the corresponding icons.

The big advantage of this program is the inclusion of the Active Captain database of reviews of marinas, hazards, anchorages and local knowledge (inlets, harbor entrances, etc). The database is invaluable for coastal cruising and is stored directly on the iPad, no internet connection required. When you want to sync your database with the Active Captain server, then you do need a connection. The program also allows you to make input to the Active Captain database but you do need an internet connection for that service. Finally, the program includes a search function for all harbors, marinas, chart features (e.g., where's Cape Smith in the Chesapeake?) that also does not require an internet connection.  If you get just one navigation program, get this one.

2 - Garmin Bluechart Mobile
The Garmin Bluechart Mobile has replaced the Navionics USA HD as backup to my primary ICW iPad navigation app in the number 2 slot above. It has the best charts of any of the navigation programs, the same charts used by Garmin's standalone chartplotters although they do cost an additional $30 but then you get the entire US including the Bahamas. Tides and currents are included as well as the all important Active Captain database off-line.

3 - Pro Charts
This program replaced my previous number 3, eSeaCharts due to its added capability. Not only do you get raster scanned paper charts, they are also "quilted" so you can go from one chart to the adjacent one without interruption. Also, you have a choice of views with one being a satellite view of your position with your boat. I've found this capability handy when looking ahead at an anchorage to see if there is a beach present to land our dog. Of course you could use Google Earth but Pro Charts incorporates the nautical charts nicely so you don't get lost.

4 - Boat Beacon
This app displays the positions of all large ships along with their speed, direction and projected location in 15 minutes and will also alert you if you're on a possible collision course. It takes inputs from local AIS receivers in harbors around the world so you don't even need an AIS receiver on board. You will need an active internet connection to use since it accesses the AIS database constantly for updates. You can even have the program input your boat's position into the AIS database in real time so other boats can see you if they use the same program.  It's great for negotiating busy harbors like NYC or Miami. You can tell at a glance which boats are underway and which are at anchor (they have different icons). Clicking on an icon will bring up detailed data on the boat including a photo.

5 - Radar Scope
A radar view of local storms in a higher resolution than on the weather channel. I use it all the time to track coming storms. There's an in-app purchase to get real time display of lightening strikes in approaching storms.

6 - RadarUS
Good for an overview of a large area for storms out of range of a single radar. The resolution is not as good as Radar Scope but gives the big picture.

7 - PocketGrib
A fabulous application. Shows weather 8 days in advance including wind speed and direction, pressure, precipitation, cloud cover and waves for anywhere in the world, amazing. It's great for planning offshore passages. I've found it to be more accurate than the Coastal Forecasts.

8 -Hurricane Tracker
I've replaced my previous favorite (Hurricane HD) with Hurricane Tracker. I've found that it gives more up to date data and tracks development of potential hurricanes even before they become a tropical storm, complete with potential tracks and winds. Much better than Hurricane HD.

9 - Coastal Marine Forecasts
There are several marine forecast apps that repeat the NOAA Coastal Forecasts but I just go to using my browser.

10 - Swellinfo
The Coastal Marine Forecasts are fine but they show weather up to 20 Nm out and tend to exaggerate the wave action when inshore. Swellinfo focusses on near shore wave and wind action where I spend most of my time when not in the ICW. I've found it to be very accurate. When going down the coast, not in the ICW, I've found the Swellinfo app gives the most accurate results for near shore waters, less than three miles off.  However, I use the PocketGrib app as backup, the two generally agree. The Coastal Marine Forecasts site tends to exaggerate conditions.

11 - Simplenote
I take a lot of notes on a sailboat, recording fuel taken on board, repairs made, spares on hand, various engine and sailboat component part numbers for easy reordering, etc. So I need a note taking application and there are lots of them in the apps list. However, there is only one I've found that will automatically and in real-time update all notes taken on all our your computers. If I update a note on my iPad, I will find it updated automatically on my home computer and my laptop within seconds, very convenient. Of course you could always use spreadsheets to track everything but I'm not that well organized.

12 -Documents 5 (formerly ReaddleDocs)
I tried a bunch of documentation programs and finally settled on Documents. I now have stored on my iPad every operating manual for every piece of equipment on board in pdf format. This feature alone is enough to justify the iPad to me. Not only are all the manuals stored in one place (the iPad), they can be searched (content too!) and type size or illustrations can be easily enlarged with the two finger expand gesture on the iPad, great for aging eyes! I had the most up to date genset manual for Hinckley Marina when they repaired the genset, their manual was out of date. The advantage of this program over the other documentation programs is the ability to download pdf files directly to the iPad without having to go through the laptop or desktop computer. It also interfaces with Safari so any pdf file displayed in Safari can be stored in Documents. The app will also download attachments to email files for storage in a Documents folder.

An amazing added convenience of this program is the ability to sync a any set of folders to your iPad by interfacing with any of the major cloud sync'ing services such as Google Drive, One Drive, Dropbox, SugarSync, and others. I have my iPad set to sync to "Files" on my desktop, about 50 or so folders with hundreds of files. Whatever I store in those folders will sync to my iPad automatically - great! (and vice-versa if I change a file while it's on the iPad). I can't overemphasize the importance of this feature to me. I just can't remember all the files I ought to take along for my 6 month cruises so on my desktop I just store everything of importance in "Files" and sync to that. No more missing that TurboTax file or scan of a doctor's bill, etc. As long as you don't store photos, you'll have a hard time exceeding 5 Gb. I used to use SugarSync but they recently started charging for their service so I switched to Google Drive which gives 15 Gb of free storage which will sync across all of your computers, tablets and phones. If you need more than 15 Gb you can upgrade to 100 Gb for only $2/month, the best price out there.

13 - Apple Calendar
I used to use Google Calendar but with the latest update to the Apple Calendar that comes with the iPad and iPhone, I just use it instead. It syncs between all my Apple products (iPad4, iPad Air 2, iPhone6) automatically. With the latest Apple update, it's easier to use than ever. I keep track of all my stops along the ICW for convenient referencing from year to year.

14 - The Weather Channel
The app provides a basic 10 day forecast and hourly forecasts for the first 24 hours with additional Weather Channel content.

15 - CoPilot GPS
I tried a bunch of car navigation programs for when you're in port with a rental car and settled on this app. You will need either the 3g or LTE version of the iPad which has a built-in GPS or the Dual GPS bluetooth unit mentioned previously. The program speaks the names of streets coming up and has the most options of any of the navigation programs for the iPad. Unlike some similar apps, CoPilot GPS stores all maps on the iPad so you don't need an internet connection to access the maps.

16 - Converter Touch
It can convert any unit to any other unit, handy on a boat.

17 - Calculator!
I've changed over to a Texas Instrument type calculator, I couldn't get used to rpn types.

18 - iCab
I used to recommend Mercury but it's under new ownership and they decided to cash in on its popularity by now charging for the ad filtering feature at $2/month. That's an outrageous amount so I switched to iCab which also filters out all ads which also saves bandwidth. I actually found the iCab has even more features than Mercury:
- Saves passwords
- Has an option to go full screen getting rid of all content except the website being viewed.
- Has good speed, partially due to not downloading ads in the first place.
By the way, the only reason I didn't use Safari was  the lack of an ad blocker. Safari now allows an ad blocker to be attached but I haven't tried that feature yet.

19 - uTrendnet (formerly SecurView Mobile)
While away I like to check in every once in awhile to see how things are at home (driveway plowed so the fuel truck can get in, any packages delivered in error to home address, any trees down, etc.) Nothing beats having a few webcams scattered around the house with views of the driveway, backyard, backporch and a few inside the house. The webcams are relatively inexpensive and only require a WiFi connection. They do not require a PC to be running. The ones I use are from Trendnet which has several models. The basic one which is fine for home use is TV-IP110WN. They can also take a snapshot whenever motion is detected in their field of view and upload it to a website of your choosing. We used it when your kitchen was being remodeled while we were away and conferred with our contractor in real-time - he pointed the camera while we talked over the phone. Caution, these things are not simple to set up - doable but not simple. I published a guide which can be downloaded here. Most window OS's and some virus programs will give you a warning about the file. Rest assured it's safe, the warnings are just reacting to the many embedded links in the Words file so the reader can find the material needed to install the cameras without having to cut and paste URLs. The camera model has been updated to TV-IP551W and the price has come down to $50, a real bargain.

20 - CamCardHD
In six years of cruising the ICW I've collect tons of boat cards. There are many ways to organize them but I prefer an app that keeps track of them on my iPad. If the fonts are simple, it will enter the names, boat name, telephone numbers, email addresses and home address automatically and store a photo of the card, both the front side and the backside if used. Then the cards can be searched by captain or boat name plus other fields. The free version works for the first 100 cards so you can try it out before buying.

Well, these are the main apps I use on-board. There are others I've loaded which better enable the iPad to print to my on-board printer and one game, tChessPro which I play occasionally (I never win...) I'm sure there are many more out there but these are the ones I use. I also bought the Apple bluetooth keyboard for those times I do a lot of entry and don't feel like poking around with two fingers on the touch keyboard screen, it works well and has a good feel. Also of use are the various banking apps (e.g., USAA, Chase) that, among other things, allow you to make a deposit just by taking a photo of the check - no trips to a bank required! Now that's a real time saver and it gets that check deposited right away without delay. Quicken now has an app for the iPad that will interface with your desktop Quicken program. It allows access to all the accounts that you have set up on your desktop Quicken.  It very handy for a real time checkup on bank accounts.

Leave a comment if you have questions