Skip to main content

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...

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.

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In theory, the data is shared by a number of AIS sites, though there may be delays or vessel information may be out-of-date.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

Screen-Shot-2022-01-13-at-9.26.59-AM2048x

Video: Celestial Navigation Pt3

. In episode three of the Practical Celestial Navigation course, Andy Howe examines the theory behind celestial navigation, the celestial triangle and the celestial sphere, and why it is important to have a basic understanding of each. Topics introduced include zenith position, ...read more

01-LEAD-6.-After-2-years-ashore,-Nada-headsto-the-water-(3)

Sailing in the Time of Covid

In mid-August 2019, my wife, Terrie, and I laid up our Malö 46, Nada, in Falmouth, England, and flew home to Maine. We booked flights back to the UK for May 2020, anticipating a summer of cruising the Atlantic coasts of France and Spain. Then Covid struck. Remember that first ...read more

Ulysse Nardin promo photo

The Ocean Race Names Official Timekeeper

With just under one year before the start of The 2022-23 Ocean Race, Swiss watch manufacturer Ulysse Nardin has been named the official timekeeper of the race. The Ocean Race, formerly known as the Volvo Ocean Race and before that the Whitbread Round the World Race, announced ...read more

Arthur Daniel_RORC Maserati - RORC Transatlantic 2022 - Jan 15th -Social Media-4

Fast Finishes for the RORC Leaders

Over the weekend, the first finishers of the 2022 RORC Transat made landfall in Grenada, led by Giovanni Soldini’s Multi70 Maserati, which was awarded line honors with a corrected time of six days, 18 hours and 51 minutes. Maserati finished ahead of Peter Cunningham’s MOD70 ...read more

Background-02

Notice to Mariners: A Blog from the SAIL Editors

As a teenager, I stumbled across a copy of Derek Lundy’s Godforsaken Sea in the back room of a used bookshop. I had never heard of the Vendée Globe and frankly found all the boat-speak in the first 50 pages a little difficult to get through. But Lundy’s storytelling and the draw ...read more

Screen-Shot-2022-01-13-at-9.26.59-AM2048x

VIDEO: Celestial Navigation Episode 2

Celestial navigation is an invaluable tool for all kinds of sailors. In episode two of the celestial navigation series, learn the basic elements of navigation and the sight reduction process using declination and GHA to determine the Geographic Position and navigate using a ...read more

Film-poster-EP-2048

Cruising: Year of the Sea Shanty

Along with other timeless pursuits, like baking sourdough and gardening, singing sea shanties surged back into popularity during the recent lockdown, thanks, in part, to the app TikTok and its “duet” feature, which allows singers from around the world create music together. By ...read more

Book-Cover-9780712353700

Book Review: Sailor Song

Sailor Song is the ultimate guide to the music of working sailors during the 18th and 19th centuries. The book includes lyrics and sheet music for 50 of the most beloved sea songs with fascinating historical background on the adjoining page. Chapter introductions provide ...read more