Apps for Sailors: Smartphone AIS

While Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) have been appearing on more commercial and recreational vessels, many sailors still find it to be cost-prohibitive. As an alternative, I recently used a combination of smartphone apps and AIS websites...
Author:
Updated:
Original:

While Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) have been appearing on more commercial and recreational vessels, many sailors still find it to be cost-prohibitive. As an alternative, I recently used a combination of smartphone apps and AIS websites to watch vessel traffic during a sail from Catalina Island. Though other boats couldn’t see me on their chartplotters, I could see where my boat fit into the traffic by using websites, and I found it to be very helpful and better yet, free.

AIS_OCT

To display my boat’s AIS information, I installed Mobile AIS (mAIS), a free app from MarineTraffic, registered my email address, and entered my vessel’s MMSI number. The app broadcasts AIS information over the web using the smartphone’s GPS position and cellular data networks. Once loaded, I clicked “Start” to begin reporting my position, including our status, position, course and speed. Periodic position updates continued until I selected “Stop.”

Within a few minutes, we were able to view our vessel on MarineTraffic.com, which maintains a worldwide network of AIS receivers In theory, the data is shared by a number of AIS sites, though there may be delays or vessel information may be out-of-date. In practice, we found MarineTraffic to be quite accurate. Since this data was not being transmitted through VHF radio frequencies, our AIS information was not displayed on the chartplotters of nearby vessels, only on websites. So even though we could see our boat and nearby boats on the web, we were not visible on their AIS.

In addition to viewing AIS online, there are several apps that display it. Ship Finder ($4.99), MarineTraffic ($3.99) and Boat Beacon ($9.99) display real-time AIS vessel information as well as other useful features such as collision detection, man overboard tracking and anchor watch. Like mAIS, Boat Beacon transmits position data over the cellular data network.

By combining my AIS and MarineTraffic.com—both for free—I was able to use my smartphone to help navigate the busy shipping lanes. Of course, this is not a substitution for dedicated AIS, nor should it be used for navigation, but knowing the speed and distance of approaching container ships helped us navigate a safer crossing. Using this technique, groups of racers or cruisers could follow one another on-screen, something that could be especially useful for longer distance or multi-day events.

Related

Canal-1-Marina-Hemingway-looking-west-spring-2016

Cruising: A Farewell to Cuba

For a few sweet years, American cruisers had the freedom to sail to Cuba. It was good while it lasted, says Addison Chan Cuba has assumed near-mythical properties in the community of sailors around the world. It is almost impossible to utter the name without conjuring up images ...read more

brickhouse

Is Cruising Still Safe?

It is with great sadness that we read of the murder of New Zealand cruiser Alan Culverwell, and the attack on his family, by criminals who boarded their boat in Panama’s Guna Yala/San Blas Islands early in May. The San Blas were known as a “safe” area to cruise. Aside from petty ...read more

QuarterdeckBuildingWatercolor

Bitter End Yacht Club 2.0

Amid the widespread devastation caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria when they swept across the northern Caribbean in September 2017, the destruction of the iconic Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands was particularly keenly felt by sailors. The ...read more

TOTW_PromoSite

SAIL's Tip of the Week

Presented by Vetus-Maxwell. Got a tip? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com The back door Satisfied with your headsails? So was I, until one day I took a long, hard look up the luff of my genoa, making sure I inspected the leeward side as well. The sail had plenty of life ...read more

02-Lydia12-01

Losing Sight of Shore

I arrived on the docks of Beaufort, North Carolina, in late April with two backpacks filled with new gear—everything I’d need for my first offshore passage. Though I’d been sailing for 16 years, graduating from dinghies to keelboats to a J/122, I’d spent my time racing and, in ...read more

Squall

The Face of a Squall

They are the worst of times, they are the best of times There’s a fabulous line from an old Paul Simon song that I often sing to myself while sailing: I can gather all the news I need from the weather report. It is part of the magic of sailing, this ancient process by which we ...read more