By Capt. Mike Martel
For mobile device and iOS device users, I’ve heard that there is quite literally an ‘App’ for everything. This is almost true. For boaters, sailors and cruisers, however, who would like to ride the crest of the mobile device wave, finding an app for navigation has been difficult, complicated, and in some cases a little pricey.
This is why the new iOS and android system app from Nv charts – a free App – is a welcome arrival on the scene for people like me.
The Nv Charts App allows me to turn my Smartphone or tablet mobile device (all iOS devices and android OS devices) into a portable navigation system. I can download Nv Charts regions to my device and then navigate using it when I’m within range of a mobile broadband signal (near shore) or when my device is linked (e.g., via Bluetooth) to a portable GPS receiver.
I personally used the new App with my iPad just this past 4th of July weekend to navigate a day trip around Narragansett Bay. The App functions just like a chartplotter, showing my vessel in real time superimposed on the chart. One has zoom capabilities, MOB capabilities, instruments (speed and course, etc.), can build routes and measure range and bearing with the App’s toolset.
It’s no secret that for many folks who use portable computing devices, the PC is on the way out. Even the lightweight notebook computers of a few years ago have become too ponderous and heavy to tote around compared to a tablet; but more than that, the tablet is very rapidly replacing the notebook PC as the central computing instrument of choice for many people. The ease of use, preponderance of specialized apps, graphical user interface, and other features have pushed these Mac-based arcades to the forefront of our preferences, and worldwide, market and industry statistics show it.
That doesn’t mean that the PC is going to disappear; rather, it’s going to stay on the desk at the office, and the Smartphone and the tablet will do the traveling and the browsing at the kitchen table in the evening.
We don’t want three computers; we want to do everything with one. And while there may be, in the foreseeable future, only two dominant devices in our lives, i.e., tablet and smartphone, predictions are that in time they, too, will morph into one. Tablets will become more powerful and multi-featured and multi-functional. We like to take them everywhere we go, because they are so portable. The availability of cloud storage means that we don’t have to worry as much about linkage, cords, stick drives. For sailors, the ability to bring a tablet out on the boat to navigate with has tremendous appeal.
I, for one, have never really liked bringing my business notebook out on the boat to use as a navigation tool. I have too much invested in it, in terms of what’s on the drive, to feel comfortable with the risk of damage. I want it to stay home on my desk, dry and stable and not likely to fly off down the companionway when the boat hits some rough water and everything goes ‘galley west’. When I’m off cruising for the weekend or for a few days, what is equally important to me, in addition to navigating, is keeping in touch. If I’ve got a mobile phone signal, I’ve got e-mail. Nowadays I can handle most of what I do on my PC at home from my iPad when on the road or in the boat. The few things that I cannot do can wait until I’m back in the office.
Of course, mobile devices are notoriously delicate and vulnerable to damage from dropping, or from water. They’re hardly ‘marinized’. But solutions are already being developed by entrepreneurs, such as the waterproof and mountable LifeJacket case for the iPad, developed by Global Navigation Authority (GNA), despite its name, a small but innovative company (www.gnava.com) founded in 2010. The Lifejacket case was just what we were looking for. If your iPad is tied in to a GPS signal receiver via Bluetooth, for example (such as the portable unit offered by Dual), you can take the iPad into the cockpit with you or anywhere around the boat to spot-check position, identify lighthouses, etc. LifeJacket also offers a mounting bracket. Made from non-corrosive aluminum, the LifeJacket Tilt Bracket is maneuverable for multiple viewing positions, and features quick mounting and release for portable flexibility and convenient use.
Digital navigation has been around for a while. There were (and are) chartplotters; then came navigation on a PC with the venerable CAPN program and new kinds of charts – raster, vector, and what else. Finally, we were introduced to iNavX, and the ability to download charts to navigate with my smartphone and iPad. But the app cost me more than $50 to purchase, was and is still a complicated program to fine-tune, required an account with XTraverse (renewable for a fee every year), and used unimproved NOAA charts of the US East Coast.
On one occasion, I used my smartphone to successfully advise the skipper of a marine salvage boat whose GPS was on the fritz that he was roaring his 105-ton steel boat over shoal water (marked as simply green, like marshland) when heading out of Plymouth (Mass.) harbor. But the thickhead insisted that the green bell buoy#9 passing abaft the port beam actually belonged well off the starboard beam. Thank goodness it was at the peak of an astronomically high tide. So these things can come in handy. And I like the fact that weather and Doppler radar app icons can also be available on the same tablet screen, as well as a gyrocompass app, moon and star constellations, Rules of the Road, and other fun stuff such as weather, buoy conditions, real-time tide data, like they say, there’s an app for just about everything, even a guide to knot-tying.
A great many folks who are navigating with mobile devices use their Smartphones for navigating rather than a tablet. Why is this? The display on a tablet is far larger and better in quality than the image field on a Smartphone. I suspect that the reason is that, in coastal waters where a cell tower signal is available, the phone can fix its current position via the signals, which a lot of people think is GPS but is not actually ‘real’ GPS but actually mobile broadband. But the navigation program doesn’t care. It’s when you go offshore, out of range of the broadband signal, that you need a real GPS receiver either in the device or Bluetooth-connected in order to plot your position using a chartplotting app.
When I purchased my iPad, I didn’t opt for the more expensive version that had 3G connectivity via phone signals, so I need a WiFi source nearby to use my iPad with connectivity. No WiFi, no connectivity. But with a portable GPS receiver, in this case from Dual (gps.dualav.com), that problem is solved. I use the XGPS-150-A portable battery-operated Universal Bluetooth GPS Receiver. This little high-sensitivity WAAS GPS receiver is simple to pair with Smartphone or tablet, and works with most apps that require GPS. It also comes with a useful GPS Status Tool App. (Available free from the iTunes store). The app is a simple utility application and shows detailed information from the GPS receiver including location, how many satellites the device sees and the signal strength of each satellite, connection status, battery level, and more. The battery lasted all day on our cruise and had plenty of juice left when I shut it down. Because the GPS receiver connects via Bluetooth, your tablet doesn’t need any WiFi connectivity to navigate.
What I liked about this App was the combination of chartplotting features that I’m used to with more expensive PC-based navigation software, but with the touch-screen features inherent in the iOS tablet platform. I set the tablet in its jacket/holder on the console in front of the helm, and we were off. We cruised in a friend’s 46-ft power cruiser for the better part of a day down Narragansett Bay from Bristol, out around Newport, part way to Block Island, and then back up the West Passage, through Dutch Harbor, and eventually back to Bristol after circumnavigating Conanicut Island. There were two other couples besides me and my wife Denise; Bob and Eileen and Cheryl and Mike, all old friends, and the ladies made a great lunch of salads, sandwiches, and cool bevys – what could be better on a hot summer’s day?
The Nv Charts App is free, but the charts themselves are not. They are easily obtained by online purchase from www.nvcharts.com, where one can also buy the paper charts (helpful when the power goes out). Within the App, one can use the Settings option to select such things as language, vessel data, etc.; Cruising Mode (ship icon) switches the view from default planning mode. Here, tracking is active, ship position is shown on screen, log speed and depth etc. are all activated. The user can also configure all options for GPS tracking, such as measurements in meters or feet, speed and depth. A nice feature is the Logbook, where the user stores all track entries.
The most important content for a navigation app are charts, followed by harbor and anchorage information, service facilities, supplies, and local guidebook information. Currently under development and available shortly will be the ‘Nv Cloud’ where users will be able to store and download content. With the Nv Charts App, the user will be able to add photos, detailed information, and other helpful data that can also benefit other users. This information is stored as Geo-Data, and will be uploaded to the Nv Server so that it can be accessed anywhere. It will be readily available and saved for the chosen position or harbor and easily displayed via the touchscreen. Geo-data will be constantly reviewed, editorially revised, and available online from the Nv server for download. During a trip the downloaded geo-data will be available offline on the user’s system. The Nv server can be used as data storage for tracks, notices, photos etc., available everywhere and at all times by any internet device accessible via a registered, password protected account. It’s just one way that Nv App users will be able to share helpful information to help make these charting products better and navigation safer.
Looking ahead, there is a social networking dimension here as well, and the Nv people refer to this as ‘Position Sharing’. Here, the user will be able to share his or her position with a growing list of selected friends who are also using the App by uploading the information to the Nv server via the internet. Using this tool, one always knows where one’s friends are, i.e. mates on a cruising trip/race or club members on their holiday trip. One can make plans to meet with friends for a barbeque or a sundowner. It may also connect to an entire racing regatta and monitor them on screens for viewing, allowing the viewer to share in the experience and participate in the whole event. Additionally, the desired language (international regattas?) can be selected at the time of installation or via the App settings afterwards. This is the near future of digital navigation, enabled by connectivity, and the newly-launched Nv Charts App is the beginning.
The nv-App will be constantly augmented and updated by the nv-charts team of cartographers and IT specialists. I find this especially helpful, because quite often, the digital charts stored on CDs in a PC navigation software package are already out of date when I buy them. Nv Charts’ App lets me update my charts regularly so that I can have only the latest accurate data to navigate with.
Nv Charts currently supplies chart regions for the entire U.S. East Coast and Caribbean – as well as the North Sea and Baltic regions of Europe.
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