Sidetracked by Smartphones

There are times when we find exactly what we aren’t looking for, and this was one of them.I was tired of technology and wanted to write a sailing story about the good old days, when a Windex was high-tech and real navigators dealt with celestial fixes and high-anxiety uncertainty. What better place to look for such things than at the annual Annapolis Classic Wooden Boat
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There are times when we find exactly what we aren’t looking for, and this was one of them.

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I was tired of technology and wanted to write a sailing story about the good old days, when a Windex was high-tech and real navigators dealt with celestial fixes and high-anxiety uncertainty. What better place to look for such things than at the annual Annapolis Classic Wooden Boat Regatta? Ambling among the boats tied up in the downtown marina basin—aka “Ego Alley”—I found just what I was looking for.

In front of me lay a fleet of wooden sloops, yawls and ketches. But what stopped me dead in my tracks was the diligent crew of the Herreshoff Diddikai ketch Nightshade—a green-hulled blast from the past with not a single gauge or multifunction display anywhere in evidence. Two sailorly-looking couples were busy running sheets, hanking on a headsail and removing covers from the main and mizzen—just the sort of routine I wanted to document.

I introduced myself to Tom, Patty, Don and Kari, the owners of the 36-foot wooden ketch. Within moments we segued into a dialog about good old boats and what a shame it was they don’t build them like that any more. Time flew by, and right in the midst of my impromptu interview and photo shoot, we heard the signal for the harbor start. In an instant the crew was scurrying to retrieve dock lines with practiced calm as they got ready to set sail. It was then that they each whipped out an iPhone or reached for an iPad, and my hopes for writing a back-to-basics story were completely shattered.

Caught aback, I changed tacks and figured I should explore why Nightshade’s crew had such a bifurcated view of sailing technology. The answer became clearer in a follow-up conversation when Tom explained that his day job was as a senior R&D staff-member at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he has managed instrumentation development for linear accelerators for the past 20 years. Don, Tom’s brother, has also worked on linear accelerators and is currently a NASA programmer with some apps ideas of his own. As the lads put it: “Restoring and cruising Nightshade is a relaxing counterpoint to our day jobs, but we can’t completely resist our interest in instrumentation.”

So here’s what a couple of “traditional” wooden boat sailors have to say about smartphones. They like being able to access charting software and digital cartography they can instantly share with other crewmembers onboard or elsewhere. Real-time weather info is available via the National Weather Service, sailflow.com and a Weather Channel app. It’s important to note, however, that while some apps are usable in places where no Internet or cell service is available, others, like web-based forecast data, do require a connection.

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If you’re a Droid, Nexus, Nokia, Slide, Palm or Blackberry devotee, you’ll be happy to know that carriers are providing service for a wider spectrum of hardware, and apps are becoming more compatible with multiple platforms. Nonetheless, when all is said and done, the iPhone and iPad are like Awlgrip—both are prototypes that have branded their markets.

As Tom explained it to me, he and his physics-minded family chose their devices for purposes other than sailing. Bringing them aboard and using them afloat just seemed a no-brainer. Their 3G, 3GS and 4G phones afford download and app display redundancy, which is important, because the hardware is not waterproof marine gear you can treat like a handheld GPS or VHF. Despite the tribulations of onboard service, the Nightshade crew has yet to have a unit malfunction in three years of using them to navigate. To be on the safe side, they make sure to put the phones in bags or cases whenever it rains or the spray begins to fly.

There are several other points to consider when relying on a smartphone to navigate. Tom, as well as others I spoke with, pointed out that although the GPS data from their phones is adequate, the devices are not as position-stable as a fixed dedicated GPS receiver with an external antenna. This results in speed-over-ground data that is less reliable than what’s seen on a conventional multifunction display.

Phone displays are also harder to read in full sunlight and when wearing polarized glasses. As with any digital chart display, size matters, and working on a small iPhone screen requires a lot of scale manipulation.

Tom also reports that on hot summer days his iPad screen has shut down due to overheating. If it were your sole source of chart information, things might get a bit disconcerting when this happens. Imagine heading through a dog-leg bend in a poorly marked channel and having the chart suddenly go away. Nonetheless, when used as a means of augmenting an onboard system, or if you sail with a plethora of pads, phones and a Windows or Mac laptop, like the crew of Nightshade, you should have enough backups to justify such an approach.

Like any old dog trying to learn a new trick, my initial reluctance to put a smartphone in a hand shaped for a winch handle eventually wore off. I could see that in certain conditions this technology has a legitimate and valuable role to play in a navigator’s routine. The situation is analogous to that of using a cell phone rather than a VHF radio to set a successful rescue in motion—style points take a back seat to functionality.

As a result, I am now of two minds when it comes to using smartphones as a primary navigation platform. On the one hand, if you’re already a facile apps juggler and smartphone connectivity is second nature to you, by all means have at it. As Tom and the Nightshade crew demonstrate, hardware redundancy makes plenty of sense. In fact, what they have is a fully engaged crew involved in what adds up to a human network linked by smartphones. If one gadget goes over the side, the system is still up.

I remain concerned, however, when contemplating those sailors who never learn to shoot bearings or plot fixes and do not understand the nuances of lateral, cardinal and special-purpose nav buoys. These sailors tend to navigate visually in local waters and steer by cursor after dark, a situation that could cause problems if they have to rely on a small screen. For such navigators, a dedicated, secure digital charting system may be a better bet than a trip to the Apple store.

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