The Top iPhone Apps for Sailing

Apple’s iPhone is an amazing piece of technology—it’s a full computer in a small package. As a recent convert to the iPhone, I’ve been exploring the world of apps to discover which ones provide something truly useful. When I searched for “sailing” in the App Store, over 150 programs popped up. Out of those, here are the three that I’d most want with me while cruising or racing.

MotionX GPS, version 10.0 $2.99

My initial experience with this app had me saying out loud, “Wow!” Not only is it packed with useful features and functions for racing and cruising, but the ease of use, quick response and clear display of information put it at the top of my list.

Features include SOG, VMG, ETA, Waypoints (time to waypoint, waypoint tracking, waypoint import via email), Record Track of Trip and Import of Maps.

An unfortunate shortcoming is the app’s lack of marine charts. There are, however, indications from Full Power Technologies Inc., the creator of Motion X GPS, that marine charts will be available with coming releases. Full Power is also planning an optimized, “HD,” version of MotionX-GPS, to be released for the iPad 3G/GPS. If this includes charts, it should qualify as a true “killer app” for sailors.

My Grade: A-

Navionics 3.2, $9.99-$49.99 depending on region

Of the two navigation apps I explored, (this and iNavX), I preferred the vector charts of Navionics. Vector charts are data-defined charts, contrasted with the traditional bit-map (graphical) versions of paper charts. The advantage of vector graphics is that they include additional information, such as tide tables and marina information.

As I moved along the coast of southern New Jersey, my local sailing area, I was impressed with the ease of use in this app. I could zoom in for closer views of inlets, which was faster than flipping large paper charts. I could also select symbols on the map to display real-time data, such as tidal flow and direction, tidal information, sunrise and sunset times, and lunar phases. Way cool!

Downloaded Navionics maps are stored in the iPhone and take up relatively little memory. The ability to add marks or waypoints makes this handy app an accessible and ready assistant to plan and execute a track or route.

My Grade: B+

Buoy Data Version 3.02, $2.99

NOAA has made buoy data accessible via the web for a few years now, providing sailors with up-to-date information of what it’s like out there right now. Buoy Data packages this information in a pleasing and easy to read format. The “Favorites” lets you pre-select sites in your usual sailing areas, which are then displayed on a Google Map in satellite, map and hybrid versions. There’s also a handy “Find Buoys” feature, which lets you see which buoys are nearby, based on your current location.

Unfortunately, Buoy Data is limited by the data from each buoy itself and not all NOAA Buoys have all the information I’d like. Still, I managed to find a few buoys in my local area that gave me an accurate picture of what the offshore conditions were, including air and water temp, wind direction, speed and gusts, wave height and period.

My Grade: B+


It’s important to remember that the iPhone is not waterproof, or even splash resistant, and that it might not survive bouncing around the cockpit at your crew’s feet. Last fall, one of my students at the Fair Wind Sailing School had an iPhone out of commission for several days after it spent a few hours in his pocket during a rain storm, even though he was wearing full foul weather gear. A possible solution for wet and bumpy cockpit use is a rugged enclosure, such as the 2600 Series PDA case, from ($49.95, Otter Box ). The April edition of Practical Sailor found good results when they subjected this case to a float test and a shoulder-height drop.

As you read this, the Apple iPad is being released. While the device is still not environmentally suited for cockpit use, I’m excited to try these three apps on the iPad’s large screen at my nav station.

Captain Mark W. Smith has been as ASA instructor since 1991. He holds a USCG captain’s license and sails and teaches for Fair Wind Sailing School ( He sails a Bavaria 38, iLean Windward from Longport, NJ. When he’s not out on the high seas, he is a software architect and engineer.

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