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In recent years you have probably started experimenting with different charts on your boat.
Originally you would have used only paper charts, then the chart plotter came along. Now, you might consider using a tablet or even your mobile phone as a chart plotter instead.
You can use a tablet as a chart plotter with an app like Navionics Boating or iSailor. It will share much of the same functionality as a chart plotter, although you should always check your local regulations to determine if it will be an approved method of navigation for your boat.
The processing power, storage capacity, and interconnectivity of modern tablets are so advanced that they can easily surpass the technology inside chart plotters.
As soon as you also consider the versatility of apps available in the different app stores, very quickly you can see their potential.
Many chart providers have identified the same potential, so many of them offer apps to bring chart plotter functionality to a growing tablet audience.
Most of them are designed to work in conjunction with an actual chart plotter, but they can also be used completely independently to make a very cost-effective Navigation system.
I recently put a whole selection of chart plotter apps to the test and was pleasantly surprised at their capabilities.
Read my full test results and comparison here: Top 8 Apps For Marine Navigation.
I actually found that the familiarity of the touch-screen and the portability of the tablet gave chart plotter apps a significant advantage over regular chart plotters.
You can use a tablet as a chart plotter, and in many ways, it is better.
There are, however, a few major drawbacks.
Primarily, tablets are not an approved method of navigation in many countries.
You’ll often find that if you want to use a tablet as a chart plotter, your official method for navigation will still need to be paper charts.
Effectively, a tablet can only be used as a navigational aid.
Nevertheless, there are many boats that are not required to carry charts, or officially carry paper charts and want to use a plotter purely as a navigational aid.
In these circumstances, a tablet can provide a great alternative to an expensive chart plotter.
Pro Tip: My favourite method of navigation is to use paper charts, with a tablet running a chart plotter app to use as a navigational aid.
To help you get the most out of yours, I have compiled a few tips based on my recent experiences.
Pick one app and learn all of its features
There are a plethora of different apps available in the App Store or Google Play.
It is tempting to download lots of them to try out, and of course, that is great. Most offer you a free trial, so I definitely recommend making the most of those to find one that works for you.
Once you have found an app that you like though, you need to stick with it and use it for an entire season.
There will be features that you will find along the way that you don’t notice at first.
You will also become far more familiar with the menus and controls, enabling you to plan passages and navigate more efficiently.
Professional navigators do the same thing. They will undertake “type-specific training” on the system that their vessel has installed.
The only way to truly master a system is to use it continuously and become intimately familiar with the way it works.
Validate the accuracy of your charting app because they are not all the same
Most apps are made by reputable companies with a solid background in navigational systems.
Some of them will even have initially produced commercial navigation systems, which they have adapted for use on a tablet.
Other apps, however, may claim to be accurate, but when you look into it you will find that they cannot validate the data they have used, bringing into question the accuracy of their product.
Whichever app you choose, just make sure that it is a reputable system that you are comfortable with.
My top choices are all popular systems with a solid reputation for either commercial or leisure products.
Read my full recommendations:
Use an external GPS for better track monitoring
Although most tablets come with an integrated GPS, I always recommend using an external GPS instead.
It could be a Bluetooth GPS like I use, or even a WiFi NMEA interface to connect to your boat’s GPS.
The reason that I recommend using an external GPS is that it will then be fixed relative to your boat, so all the information given to you will be your boat’s motion.
If you use your tablet’s GPS, all the information given to you will be the motion of the tablet.
Whenever you move your tablet across the cockpit, it will distort your boat’s speed and heading vector.
Using an external GPS eliminates that movement.
You are free to move the tablet around your boat, inside and outside. No matter where the tablet moves, the reference point will remain at the point of your GPS antenna.
I use a Garmin GLO 2 Bluetooth GPS (link to my full review), primarily because it is affordable, reliable, and has great battery life.
Turn off unnecessary features on your tablet to make your battery last longer
Tablets come with a lot of features that are not necessarily needed when using them as a chart plotter.
Whenever any of those features are running in the background, they will consume power. It is best to deactivate any that you do not need.
WiFi – turn it off unless you are connecting to your boat’s NMEA-WiFi interface.
Bluetooth – turn it off unless you are using a Bluetooth external GPS.
Mobile Data – turn it off unless you are close to the shore and using internet features like internet AIS.
Location – often needs to be enabled for the app to access your location, even if you are using an external GPS.
Mobile Hotspot – turn it off unless your tablet is providing internet to your entire vessel.
NFC – turn it off unless in use.
You get the idea.
To make sure your battery lasts as long as possible, deactivate everything that you are not actually using.
Remember a battery pack because tablets go flat fast!
No matter how many features you deactivate, the biggest drain on your battery will be your screen.
Unfortunately, to actually use the tablet, you are going to need to leave the screen on.
Additionally, if you are using the tablet during the daytime you are going to need to set its brightness to maximum to stand any chance of seeing it at all.
With the bright screen, you are unlikely to achieve anything close to the advertised battery life that manufacturers calculate in idea conditions.
Instead, make sure you carry a portable battery pack.
There are many different ones available online, and I recommend getting one that is at least 25,000 mAh.
My one is just a standard Portable Charger Power Bank from Amazon, so you can see that you don’t need to spend much to get what you need.
When I was using an iPad Mini for an entire day of sailing, one power bank was enough to keep my iPad and mobile phone charged for approximately 24h.
Ensure background recording is active
To further extend battery life, make sure you activate background recording in your navigational app.
Some of the ones on my test had it activated as standard, but others required me to find the correct setting to change.
Once activated, your navigational app will continue to run in the background, recording your track, even when you are using other apps or the screen dims down.
This means that when you are sailing on a long leg, you can turn your screen off to make the battery last longer.
Navigation is a lot better when you spend your time focusing on visual marks rather than staring at a screen.
Pro Tip: Identify buoys, lighthouses and headlands using your tablet, then turn off the screen and use the visual marks to keep yourself in the right place.
Plan where you will mount your tablet in advance
Tablets are designed to be portable.
In fact, it is one of the reasons that I prefer to use a tablet instead of a chart plotter.
Nevertheless, it is likely that you will want to find somewhere to mount it so that you can focus on sailing instead.
There are plenty of cheap mounts available online if you are going to be mounting it somewhere secure. The same suction pads that work in a car will usually work on the smooth fibreglass of a boat’s cabin.
Of course, if you plan to mount your tablet in an exposed cockpit, I recommend a mount that can be screwed or bolted to your boat to reduce the chance of losing your table overboard.
For me, my tablet’s case contains a stand that allows it to stand on its own. It is designed for entertainment primarily, but I find that it is great for sitting the tablet down where I can see it.
I leave it in the companionway of my boat, so the tablet is secure inside, but I can still see it from the cockpit.
Turn your tablet off occasionally to remain up-to-date with traditional skills
When I first started using tablets in a professional capacity, my biggest concern was becoming over-reliant on them.
The data displayed is so easy, and is displayed with such confidence and precision that you can forget there are always some inaccuracies.
You should always be able to rely on what you see out of the window, and be able to confirm the data that your tablet is showing you.
Unfortunately, the more you use a tablet, the more you will come to rely on it.
I always recommend switching your tablet off occasionally, to make sure you stay up to date with the skills that you need to confirm the data the tablet shows you.
On your own boat, switching the screen off for some legs can help maintain your traditional skills.
Keep your tablet available in case you need to refer to it but try to actively navigate without it every now and again.
Embrace modern technology
My final tip is aimed more at those that are yet to experience using a tablet, and are considering using one for the first time.
Tablets can be a great introduction to electronic charts, and a great first step in digital navigation.
If you don’t yet use a chart plotter, I highly recommend trying a tablet for navigation to start embracing the modern technology that is available.
Used in the right way, it provides an extra dimension to your navigation, increasing the safety of yourself and those around you.
You shouldn’t look at it as a replacement for traditional navigation, only as an aid to make your boating easier and safer,
The paper chart and compass should always be used as your primary method, but a tablet can be used as an aid.
It can help you rapidly identify navigational features, and can act as an extra pair of eyes in case you have made a mistake using traditional methods.
For example, set your contours and safety alarms correctly, and the tablet can tell you if you have misidentified a light and are heading into shallow water.
Use the right app, and you can also get additional information that just isn’t available from traditional navigational tools.
My favourite navigational app is Navionics, but not because it is the best in terms of navigational tools and features.
Navionics is my favourite because it is the best at being a navigational app.
Used in conjunction with traditional navigational methods, Navionics gives you an extra dimension to your boating experience.
Its popularity means that there is a great amount of user-generated data available. Clearly, it should never be relied on as you have no way of corroborating it, but I find that it is comparable to chatting to a local down the pub.
You can get recommendations of good fishing spots, good anchorages, and see a few tips that would not be available elsewhere.
Tablets and navigational apps are not designed to be a replacement for traditional navigation but, used in the right way, they are a tremendous aid that I believe should be embraced.