Navigating by Tablet

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The iPad at the nav station can be taken on deck if necessary   

The iPad at the nav station can be taken on deck if necessary   

When my wife, Mia, and I first crossed the Atlantic on our Allied Seawind 36, Arcturus, in 2011, we used the same handheld GPS that my parents had aboard their Bristol 38, Sojourner, in 1993 when we spent the winter in the Bahamas when I was only nine. We’ve never owned a fixed chartplotter.

On Isbjörn, our S&S Swan 48, we’re no luddites, but we emphasize efficiency, simplicity and presence of mind in how we outfit her. Which is why we now choose to navigate via a dual iPad setup—a large, semi-fixed iPad at the nav station below and a smaller, “portable” iPad, running the same software, that we can bring up to the cockpit.

To give some context here, we’re offshore most of the time on Isbjorn. In 2017 alone we spent 137 days at sea, covering over 10,000 miles. Offshore, you don’t need a chartplotter, save for the AIS data, and that only really in poor visibility or when a ship is in sight. We plot a position on our paper passage chart once or twice a day and log the GPS position, DR plot, etc. every four hours at the watch change in the hardcopy logbook.

Inshore, of course, real-time navigation on some kind of chartplotter is a nice luxury and makes navigating much less stressful, particularly in the labyrinthine archipelagos on both coasts of Sweden, where we’ve spent a lot of time recently. Still, in my mind at least, less is more.

You see, I like a clean helm. I like a nice compass, a big roll bar to hang on to and simple wind/depth/speed instruments mounted over the companionway where everyone can see them. When I’m on the helm, or teaching a crew to drive the boat, I like to be present—aware of my surroundings in the real-world, both from a purely philosophically perspective, but also for spatial awareness, to keep rooted in reality. Isn’t it ironic that while sailing is a means of escape for many, with fixed chartplotters we remain glued to our screens, even at the helm?

A 30-something friend and Google employee who’s currently on a mid-career sabbatical sailing his Outbound 46, Pineapple, in Mexico, said of modern helm-stations, “Folks seem to want a command center, with lots of fancy knobs and buttons and screens. But the reality of shorthanded cruising is that you’re almost never at the helm. The autopilot is driving, and you’re doing something else.”

Enter the iPad. On Isbjörn, since we’re almost always six crew onboard, we assign a dedicated navigator who’s in charge of the iPad, kept in a waterproof LifeProof “Nuud” case, in the cockpit. Another crew is at the helm and focuses on sailing/steering the boat. The navigator can stand beside or behind the helmsperson, who has immediate access to the chartplotting software on the iPad.

If you’re shorthanded, like in Pineapple’s case, a simple, removable ROKK mount at the binnacle provides a stable platform for the iPad, turning it in effect, into your “fancy screen command center” right there at the helm when you need it.

Down below, we have a second-generation iPad Pro with a 12.9in screen velcroed to the bulkhead at the nav station, running the same, but independent, software and constantly connected to power. It also remains sealed from the elements in a LifeProof Nuud case. Should the navigator turn the portable iPad into a frisbee, we have a backup that can quickly be moved into the cockpit.

We don’t trust the iPad’s internal GPS, so we connect both tablets through our Vesper XB 8000 “blackbox” AIS transceiver, which, with its own dedicated, externally mounted GPS antenna, sends both GPS and AIS data over wifi to the iPad. Incidentally, we keep small-scale passage charts for offshore and large-scale harbor charts for the places we plan on visiting. We’ve got worldwide vector charts in the SeaPilot app.

For the nav software, we use SeaPilot, a relative newcomer to the market, and so far my favorite. SeaPilot is the recreational adaptation of professional pilot (the oceangoing variety) software, and I find the display easy to read and the vector charts the fastest I’ve tried in scrolling and zooming.

The iPad is more than just a chartplotter, obviously. While we don’t clutter the device with social media apps and the like, we do use it for all sorts of useful things offshore. In iBooks, I have PDF copies of almost all the manuals for Isbjorn’s equipment, as well as pilot books and sailing directions, most of which are government publications and free to download. We keep digital copies of our crew’s medical history and passport forms, as well as all our onboard checklists.

We use my favorite GRIB reader, Weather 4D 2.0, for downloading and analyzing GRIBs via sat phone offshore. To get GRIBs and email offshore, I use xGate’s iPad app over the Iridium 9555 handset, connected to a small “Optimizer” router. I have Apple’s “Magic Keyboard,” which via Bluetooth allows me to type emails and blogs offshore right onto the nav-station mounted iPad, so I can leave my much more valuable (and non-waterproofed) laptop stowed away in its dry bag while we’re at sea. We have a YB Tracker onboard Isbjorn that sends our position every 4 hours to our website but also acts as a messaging device using the Iridium constellation. The YB Connect app is also on the iPad, allowing me to change the tracking settings and send and receive text messages.

Finally, the icing on the cake for me is that when the season is over, or in between trips, I can bring both iPads home (or to a coffee shop ashore) and properly update the software and download new charts, without needing an Internet connection on the boat. 

Be Prepared

A short word to the wise—more and more, most “iDevices” expect to be connected to the Internet all the time. Make sure you download the necessary charts and find software that supports offline use—which all the apps mentioned in this article do.

Andy Schell and Mia Karlsson use their S&S 48, Isbjörn, for ocean sail training; you can contact them at 59-north.com

Photos courtesy of Andy Schell and Mia Karlsson

July 2018

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