Ben and I are conservative and selective with the use of electronic technology aboard our boat. I have seen too often the over-use of technology lead to diminishing skills and sometimes even trouble. At that point, technology becomes a hindrance rather than an advantage. Where each person draws the line is a personal choice.
So, when we were asked to review a few iPhone apps for mariners, we hesitated for a long time. We didn’t even have a smart phone. However, eventually both our trusty clam-shell phones no longer worked, and a single iPhone was purchased. We selected a few apps to test, and here are our opinions on them:
HF Fax by Black Cat Systems allows you to received weather radio facsimile transmissions on your iPhone or iPad. It works with a SSB or Ham Radio to graphically display the weather fax information by decoding the sound as it passes through your devices’ microphone. Ben and I tested HF Fax on our iPhone as we were planning an offshore delivery from Florida to Rhode Island. To use it, we simply held the iPhone’s microphone up to the speaker of the SSB while it was transmitting the NOAA weather fax. The weather map image displayed on the screen.
+ Does not require cell reception. You don’t have be on the internet or in VHF range. You can use it offshore.
+ Does not require a facsimile printer or paper.
+ It can save many weather maps so you can compare the surface maps with the 500 mb and wind or wave maps.
+ Because its a weather map, it provides more information that the basic reports we formerly relied on such as a wind map from a site like Windfinder.com, or weather report from NOAA.
+ We feel that using HF Fax does not distract from prudent sailing because usually the off-watch sailor is downloading and interpreting the information. We also feel that a holistic understanding of weather forecasts will only enrich the sailing experience and the sailor’s ability to keep the vessel and crew safe.
- Background noise can cause the map to display poorly.
- Its tricky to get good reception on the SSB all the time.
• Use this with an adapter to directly connect the SSB output to the audio input on the phone. We didn’t try this, however, a friend had success re-purposing the Line 6 Mobile In designed to connect a guitar to an iPhone.
• HF Fax does require more skill to understand and interpret all the information provided than the use of simple weather forecasts. However, understanding weather patterns, systems, and atmospheric characteristics is a skill every sailor should strive to develop. Using HF Fax, keeping a weather log, and noting daily weather observations (such as cloud type, cover, pressure, precip, etc) as a part of your daily routine only enriches the sailing experience and the sailors well-rounded abilities.
Boat Beacon is an iPhone and iPad app, which I tested on my iPhone wile sailing in Maine, Annapolis, and Florida to Norfolk, both in the ICW, and coastal. It is designed to transmit and receive AIS information as well as calculate bearing, distance, and CPA.
+ I found no advantages to using this app.
- Displays information on a map, not a chart therefore does not include information such as buoys or lighthouses.
- Extremely great cell reception is hard to achieve for any cell plan while out on the water. Even when I was in a city, such as Norfolk, the data was extremely slow and unreliable, despite all other apps on my phone working with ease. It was difficult to determine the cause of the slow functioning. However, in every attempt to test Boat Beacon, I was provided no useful information in a timely manner. Often I would see boats pass before they appeared on the Boat Beacon at all. Sometimes they appeared as much as 15 minutes later, or not at all.
- Using Boat Beacon requires your cell phone to be on, and often in the cockpit. This is a huge distraction for keeping a keen lookout. I recommended that navigators and helmsmen stow their phones below so they can keep a prudent lookout.
• Boat Beacon is great fun for boat-gazing. If you are like Ben and I, and enjoy trying to ID ships in the night by their lights, then Boat Beacon is a great tool for quizzing yourself while sitting on the breakwater of a crowded harbor (if you have patience). You could also reference marinetraffic.com for the same info using a Safari app.
• Do not rely solely on Boat Beacon. Radar, your eyes, and a good understanding of nav lights and plotting techniques are far more reliable and accurate for identifying ships and calculating CPA.
• Electronics do not replace a prudent lookout, log keeping, and adherence to the USCG Rules of the Road. However, if you feel you need electronic collision avoidance assistance, then do not rely on Boat Beacon. For electronic equipment for collision avoidance, I recommend radar, which supplements your eyes in the night and foggy weather. The next best would be AIS. I would never use Boat Beacon for anything more than a fun game.
Now its your turn! What apps have you tried? What would you recommend most?
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