Handheld technology in the cockpit

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If you do a search on YouTube for iPad use on boats, you come up with a handful of hits, but one in particular will cause every techie’s heart to flutter with excitement. The camera zooms in close to a powerboat’s center console; the viewer can see a GPS/chartplotter to the left of the screen; the helm in the center, and a mysterious, darkened glass screen to the right. A finger reaches out from behind the camera and presses a small black button. There is a whirring noise, and a small glass door flips open. The hand reaches in and pulls out an iPad!

Safi Barqawi, owner of the Newton, Mass.-based AVI (www.aviboston.com), which designs and installs audio-visual systems in vehicles, said that the iPad installation is on a Boston Whaler sportfishing boat. The owner had approached him about his interests in bridging the gap between what his GPS/chartplotter could provide and the Internet-based communications and information web offered by the iPad.

“Our customer was kind of a techie, and wanted wireless connectivity on the water, but the install provided a few challenges for us,” Barqawi said. “Space was limited, and, of course, the marine environment is so harsh. But we brainstormed and came up with a motorized hinge system, and he was thrilled.”

Top, an iPhone 4/4S Defender case and, bottom, an iPad Defender case, both from OtterBox.

Courtesy OtterBox

When in position, the iPad power cord is connected to the VHF radio fuse, meaning that the unit is shut off when the motor is secured. It is also connected to the boat’s stereo speakers, which means the owner can listen to iTunes while navigating on an app.

AVI uses original equipment when it can, since after-market equipment typically lacks the research and development value inherent in the original, Barqawi said, which resulted in faux-Apple styling for the casing. “We try to make the original product look as though it belongs in the context where we install it,” he added.

And this is the inherent problem with bringing tablets and smartphones aboard a vessel: they’re handy devices that we feel we can’t live without, yet they are fragile and have not quite worked their way aboard in a seamless way.

Peter Stoops, who owns Chase, a Sparkman & Stephens Swan 40, said he has deliberately kept electronics out of the cockpit, but his iPhone proved irresistible for its ability to fill the informational gap in what traditional navigational tools, electronics included, can provide. “I’ve found that it is really a handy instrument when it comes to confirming what I think I am seeing on the chart, i.e., in unfamiliar waters, like entering a harbor. The app tells me what it looks like — or not.”  

Having downloaded the charts in advance, and using the native GPS system in the phone, he can then corroborate his traditional navigation.

Stoops pointed out an irony in the use of smartphones aboard vessels: for $20 you can purchase an app with all the charts in an entire geographic region, the whole Mediterranean Sea and its coastline, for example — data that electronic-chart makers sell individually in tiny sections at much higher prices. Smartphones bridge that market gap for the savvy navigator.

Stoops said he stopped short of purchasing waterproofing and a mounting system for his iPhone, since he’s wary of relying on it as the primary navigational source. By limiting himself in this way, he’s built in a necessary redundancy, requiring himself and his shipmates to perform the necessary corroborative number-crunching involved in combining paper charts, radar, and old-school piloting.

“I’m still okay with paper charts and the plotter below, when needed,” Stoops said. “But that is pretty old-fashioned, so I’m sure you will find others who are using this stuff exclusively.”

For those so inclined, there are dozens of products that do offer waterproofing and mounting hardware. Delivery skipper Tony Agar is such a person. For the past year he has used an iPad MK 1 in an Aquapac cover on deliveries around the North Atlantic. He must remove the unit from the case to charge it down below, but he claims to have used it without a charge for up to 10 days at sea. Another YouTube video shows a scuba diver using an iPad in a waterproof case — while diving well below the surface at the bottom of the Red Sea. (Why you’d want to do this is not discussed.)

Such devices allow the navigator full cockpit access to GPS, app-based electronic charts, and all the Internet has to offer in supplementary information — from local weather data like wave heights and wind direction, to what the store hours and phone number is for the local grocery that is, say, a third of a mile away from the harbor. (See sidebar for a partial list of products.)

Skip Strong, a Penobscot Bay and River Pilot based in Searsport, Maine, uses his Android smartphone on the bridge wings of oil tankers and 1,000-foot cruise ships as a secondary navigational source.

“I can get certain information on the phone while standing on the bridge wing — real-time tide and current information that comes from our weather station on the dock. I can call up graphical indicators of wind direction,” Strong said. He keeps the Android in an inexpensive rubber, drop-proof case with a clear cover that allows full touchscreen connectivity. While Strong dreams of a day that he can have all his piloting data on his Android, he still relies on his Raven Aerostar, Bluetooth-based hardware package for primary piloting. Still, he cautions that the Web-based information he can access is geared toward the recreational user, which means he cannot connect his phone to the piloting software.

“I’d love to have it fully integrated, but the industry is just not there yet,” he added. Meanwhile, he’ll settle for a quick, secondary reference using his phone.

A waterproof smartphone case from driPhone.

Courtesy driPhone

The tablet- and phone-accessory craze crosses all markets, meaning the intrepid techie can hunt and gather from a wide spectrum of uses. In mid-February, the No. 1, most e-mailed article in The New York Times was a story that epitomized the frenzy over personalizing one’s computer tablet — “Dressing Up an E-Reader for Style and Comfort,” by Mickey Meece. “The marketplace for e-reader and tablet accessories is booming,” Meece wrote. The article covers such personalization tools as add-on lights, screen protection and visibility enhancement, audio connectivity, and hands-free mounting packages.

It’s hard to avoid the effusive gushing about how a smartphone has changed a navigator’s life. Phin Sprague, owner of Portland Yacht Services in Portland, Maine, and owner of the 65-foot schooner Lion’s Whelp, exclaimed at the handiness of his Android.

He first discovered its usefulness while on a recent voyage of Bras d’Or Lake, in Nova Scotia, Canada. Sprague said the skipper dazzled everyone with his apparently vast knowledge of local conditions. It turned out he was using an Android. “I ran — did not walk — to the store to get one,” Sprague said. Later, on a voyage to Antigua on an “electronically-challenged” 88-foot Fife-designed ketch, Sprague said that by using the Navionics app, he became the navigational wizard he had witnessed in Canada the year before. And then, on a cruise in Alaska aboard a cruise ship, he was able to second-guess the routing decisions of the professional officers.

“In Seward, I was also able to get weather data and watch a huge low forming right where the cruise ship was headed,” Sprague said. “Once out of port, I was so thrilled to be able to ‘second-guess-navigate the ship’ as it plowed into 29-foot seas and 70-plus knots of wind, eventually heaving to for eight hours. It was so great — the first gale I have been in when I wasn’t responsible!”

And then there’s the technical data on your boat’s equipment that’s available at your fingertips. Greg Walsh, former editor of this magazine and veteran traditional navigator, owns a Grand Banks trawler that he uses on short hops around the Maine coast. He uses his iPhone mostly as a phone, but then discovered — when his boat had an electrical problem — that he could bring up a vast network of support information to help him trouble-shoot. For $20, he protects his phone in a rubber, waterproof case that he recharges below, out of the weather.

A small company in Park City, Utah, called Snow Lizard Products is developing a solar-powered, waterproof iPhone case called Aqua Tek S. For marine users, it looks like a great solution for keeping an iPhone protected while still being able to use it in exposed conditions.

Whatever your style and whatever your navigational and communications needs, the multi-market options are a boon to the navigator intent on protecting tablets and phones. The only hard part is containing your enthusiasm.

Contributing editor Twain Braden is the author of the forthcoming Complete Guide to Sailing & Seamanship, to be published by Skyhorse Publishing later this year. He lives on Peaks Island, Maine.

By Ocean Navigator