With the rise in mobile and tablet technology, recreational and professional navigators are all starting to explore using an iPad for navigation on boats and ships.
I have been using one professionally for a few years, and recently wondered if I could use one on my own boat as well. It turns out, it isn’t quite as simple as you would think.
After a lot of research, though, I have finally found the answer.
You can use an iPad as an aid to navigation on a boat, but it should never be used on its own. Your primary method of navigation should still be official paper or electronic charts, which comply with the laws of your local jurisdiction and the accepted practice of good seamanship.
While an iPad is a very capable device, it cannot function as a complete replacement for traditional navigational techniques.
It is, however, a great aid-to-navigation that I will now use, both on my own boat, and in my professional capacity as a harbour pilot.
Depending on the app that you run, an iPad draws on all of the navigational data feeds from your boat, and display them on an electronic chart.
Essentially, the iPad gives you all of the information you need for navigating a boat, but, there are some drawbacks.
The open nature of the App Store means that navigational apps are all different, with different customisations, chart layers, data displays etc. You have no way of knowing how accurate any of those are.
Genuine electronic navigational systems go through rigorous testing to ensure that they comply with international standards, but an iPad does not.
It means that iPad apps can be a very affordable way of aiding your navigation, but you cannot guarantee their accuracy in the same way that you can with certified systems.
This is why many jurisdictions still insist that you carry updated paper charts, even if you would prefer to use your iPad instead.
Assuming you comply with local regulations though, an iPad does make a fantastic aid to navigation and is one that I am going to continue to use.
Marine navigation with an iPad
Marine navigation on an iPad is relatively simple.
You just need to download an app, giving you access to nautical charts and navigational data inputs.
My favourite apps are Navionics or iSailor, but there are lots of different options in the App Store so you can get one that suits your needs.
Check out my full comparison of apps that I tested during one sailing trip if you want to compare a few: Top 8 Apps For Marine Navigation.
In your app, you can plan out your passage, plotting your intended route on the chart.
To follow your track, you will then need navigational inputs into your iPad.
The most basic one is GPS, which can either be your iPad’s internal GPS, a separate Bluetooth GPS, or a GPS feed from your boat’s NMEA interface.
When I use my iPad on commercial vessels, I get the data feed from the ship’s AIS, through a Pilot Plug. It is basically the same as a NMEA interface on a small boat.
The iPad interprets the data to plot your position on the chart, often with a vector indicating your course and speed.
Additional data is usually available around the screen to give you a better overall understanding of your navigational situation.
For example, time to destination; distance to go; distance to wheel over position; time on passage etc.
The variety of apps in the App Store allows you to customise your iPad in the way you want. You could have a basic chart on the screen, or you could use it to display every available data feed from your boat’s NMEA network.
What sort of iPad do you need to navigate on a boat?
You can use any iPad for navigating on a boat, depending on the way you want to access navigational data.
My personal favourite is a WiFi-only iPad Mini.
WiFi-only iPads do not have an integrated GPS, so they cannot be used completely independently. I do not find that to be a hindrance though, because I would not want to use the integrated GPS anyway.
Instead, I use a Garmin GLO 2 on my boat (read my full GLO 2 review) because I can place it down in a safe place, and my course and speed are not affected when I move my iPad around the boat.
If you use an integrated GPS, every time you move the iPad across the cabin, it thinks your boat has taken a lurch sideways and it throws your course and speed off.
The alternative to a Bluetooth GPS is to use your boat’s WiFi NMEA interface, which transmits data to your iPad via WiFi.
Again, the WiFi-only iPad is sufficient for taking a data feed from your NMEA network through WiFi.
Best iPad for using as a chart plotter
The best iPad to use for a chart plotter on your boat is an iPad that you already own. I do not recommend you go out and buy a new one for navigation unless you need to.
I use two different iPads as chart plotters. On my personal boat, I use an iPad Mini. In my professional capacity, I use an original iPad.
The only difference I notice between the two is the screen size and the weight.
The iPad Mini is smaller and easier to carry on a smaller boat. The screen is perfectly big enough for both of my top recommended apps, Navionics and iSailor.
The regular iPad had a slightly larger screen, but it is also slightly larger to fit into a bag and carry around.
Alternatives include the iPad Air, or an iPad Pro.
You do not need to select your iPad specifically for navigation. Just use your favourite iPad, and it will work well for you.
Personal and professional experience of using an iPad for navigation
I have been using an iPad for professional navigation for the last couple of years. The iPad is never used as the ship’s primary method of navigation, but it is used to give an additional source of information to assist in decision making.
I particularly like having speed and course information displayed on a device that I can carry around the bridge, and even use out on the wings where there are no other informational displays.
In a personal capacity, I have started using an iPad on my own boat for similar reasons. My primary method of navigation is still paper charts, but the iPad gives an additional source of data to assist with decision making.
I keep the iPad with me in the cockpit so that I have instant access to a chart with all the navigational data that I need.
Given my experiences of using an iPad on different boats and ships, I have been able to compile a comprehensive list of the pros and cons of using an iPad for navigation.
The pros of using an iPad for navigation
Using an iPad for navigation on a boat offers a whole range of advantages:
- Independent system: With an external GPS, an iPad is a completely independent navigation system from the rest of the boat. It provides full redundancy in the event of failure of a boat’s primary system.
- Portable system: Using wireless technology to receive its data, an iPad can be used anywhere onboard. You can use it at the helm when in confined waters, or in the cabin when the situation allows.
- Personal: When you move to a different boat, you can take your navigation system with you. There is no need to learn a completely new system.
- Astonishing value: Compared to the cost of a certified system, an iPad is very affordable. Even compared to the cost of a set of paper charts, an iPad is still a competitive price.
- Reliable: Having used iPads on hundreds of different ships and boats, I have never had an issue with mine.
- Flexible: An iPad is not just great for navigation. You can use it for lots of other purposes onboard: e-mail; entertainment; weather forecasting etc.
The cons of using an iPad for navigation
Despite their clear advantages, iPads are not a perfect solution.
- Aid to navigation only: As an iPad is not an approved navigational system, it cannot be used as your only means of navigation in most countries.
- Distracting: No matter how many benefits you gain from having additional information at your fingertips, an extra screen still adds an extra distraction from safe navigation.
- Dim screen: The screen on an iPad is great for viewing indoors, but in the bright light of a boat on open water, it can be hard to see.
- Limited battery: Although Apple claims all iPads have a battery life of 10hrs, I have never experienced anything close to that. I use an external battery to make sure my iPad remains charged.
- Touch screen only: Its touch screen makes the iPad incredibly intuitive to use, but it is not necessarily the best on a boat. When your hands are cold, or wet, or in gloves, it will be impossible to control the iPad.
- Not waterproof: If you are using your iPad outside, you will probably want to get a waterproof case.
Alternative uses for an iPad on a boat
One of the key strengths of an iPad is its versatility.
To use it as a chart plotter, you simply download the appropriate navigation app and you are good to go.
In addition to that, though, the iPad has a lot of computational power that you and your boat can benefit from. It is just a case of being creative about how you use it.
We have already discussed NMEA inputs for navigational purposes, but there are many more uses for NMEA aside from navigation.
Most machinery and equipment on your boat could be linked into a NMEA network.
With the right app, you could use your iPad to view data feeds from everything, essentially turning it into a complete maritime diagnostic solution.
Weather forecasting at sea comes from a variety of sources. Close to land, if you have cell reception then you can access the internet to get weather forecasts that way.
An iPad can connect to the internet either using a web browser, or even a dedicated weather forecasting app.
Whether you like to communicate by e-mail, instant messaging, or video calls, iPads can do it all.
It is simply a computer that can connect to the internet.
If you have a cellular iPad, it can connect from anywhere that it finds reception.
Passage planning involves a lot more than just looking at charts.
You might be researching potential safe harbours, looking up radio reporting points, or even just reading about other people’s experiences.
Traditionally, you would use a printed pilot guide to give you everything you need.
With an iPad, you could download a pdf version of the same book and save yourself considerable space and weight.
On a cold, rainy evening, we all love to watch a movie inside.
An iPad can act as a complete entertainment system, bringing every possible form of audiovisual entertainment straight to you.
You could download sufficient entertainment in advance to view while out of cell range, or you can rely on streaming.
It is even possible to set up a full network on your boat, and have an entire family all watch different things from a single central server.
With an iPad, the possibilities are almost limitless.