Ask Ken: Can a Smartphone Replace a Marine Radio and Chart Plotter?

Here are some of my thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of mobile devices on a boat.

December 15, 2015
Are the marine radio and chart plotter becoming obsolete?

Q. My smartphone works just fine for calling someone on land and for basic navigation. Are the marine radio and chart plotter becoming obsolete?

A. Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets have proven to be useful on a boat. But they have limitations. First, a mobile phone is a direct-dial instrument and cannot be relied upon in an emergency. Its signal can be blocked by hills and buildings. Tablets and cellular devices can also lose their charge when you need them the most and are not designed for the marine environment.

A VHF radio, on the other hand, can broadcast its signal to all vessels and shore stations within range. Also, a fixed-mounted multifunction display places a larger navigation screen right in front of you and frees your hands for manning the helm and other boating-related tasks. Like texting while driving, handheld devices tend to be a distraction.


Smartphones and Tablets: The Pluses and Minuses
You can call other boating friends, club members and fishing buddies on other boats if you have their cellphone numbers and both boats are within cell-tower range. But unless you have the captain’s phone number handy for the tanker or freighter that is headed directly for your boat, you are not going to be able to contact him.

Those that boat on many lakes, rivers and other inland waterways often have good cellphone coverage, especially when near populated areas or well-traveled highways.

Boaters and sport fishermen in the Gulf Coast area enjoy extended cellular coverage by means of a cell-site network installed on offshore oil platforms. This can be important in an emergency and great for communicating to shore. You can even call other boating friends, club members and fishing buddies provided you have their cellphone numbers. But beware: You can tally up some large roaming charges for this convenience.


I recommend that cellphone users preprogram their address books with the phone numbers of first responders in the area, including the nearest U.S. Coast Guard, harbor master, police, fire department, lifeguard, and fish and game stations. You should also include phone numbers of commercial towing services, local yacht clubs, marinas, boatyards and other marine shore-based facilities. Each can be helpful in both emergency and nonemergency situations.

There are plentiful sources of boating apps that help make your boating experience more safe, useful and enjoyable. Furuno, Garmin, Lowrance, Raymarine, Simrad and others have apps that can turn your smartphone or tablet into a portable remote for some of their navigation and fishing displays. Visit each manufacturer’s website for information.

Some of the more popular apps are those for automatic identification system (AIS) reception (search “AIS tracking”). Since AIS targets have a short range, a local shore receiver must pick up the nearest AIS targets and rebroadcast them by cellular signal. Since a local AIS receiver can’t “see” everywhere, some targets are often missed. Also keep in mind that while AIS reception is useful, you cannot broadcast your presence or position to other vessels as you can with an onboard AIS transmitting and receiving transponder.


Other highly useful apps include those for weather, nautical charts, fishing and helpful boating tools for a compass, distance measuring, satellite imaging, vessel logbook, boat-maintenance scheduling and much more. Just search the category or area of interest and you will be amazed at what useful apps you will find. However, you may have to subscribe to some and most will require periodic updates.


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