Testing apps for boaters isn’t something one can do very scientifically, but having the chance to give many of them a test drive at one time gives some pretty good comparisons about their usefulness and ease of use. We didn’t test any losers here but noted each had features we liked.
At one time, we scoffed at the idea of using a tablet as the primary navigation device. You can get some very basic Bluetooth sonar devices, but you can’t connect an autopilot to a tablet (yet). Tablets aren’t waterproof or built to take the G-force impact of boating, either. You’ll have to look at this BoatingLAB comparison to see the cases we found to mitigate those woes, but remember, navigation apps are all battery hogs and waterproof tablet cases usually don’t accommodate watertight charging. Nevertheless, we were impressed with the navigation power and weather tracking these apps exhibited.
VesselView Mobile App
If you have a Mercury engine made in 2004 or later, here is an app (free) and a Bluetooth module ($275) that will make your life easier. First, plug the module into the diagnostic port on your engine and put the resistor end (it looks like a yellow or red plug on the socket) in the female socket on the module’s harness. Turn on the key and the device lights up, indicating it is reading the engine and ready to communicate via Bluetooth to your iOS or Android device. Open the app and connect it to the module. Now you can name the connection after your boat. Turn your smartphone’s location services on so it can use GPS information to assist with managing fuel, provide you with local knowledge of ports, fuel access or hazards, and let you associate smartphone images with points of interest. All the information available from the engine-control module is at your fingertips on the app. In addition, it will keep track of engine hours and point out what is needed at the next service interval. If operating errors crop up, your app can read them just like your mechanic, and it will tell you if you need to make port immediately or check into it after your return. Boating’s test team uses the device to capture performance data on Mercury engines because it is clearly efficient and the epitome of plug-and-play hardware. For more information, see mercury.vesselviewmobile.com; $275.
West Marine Waterlife Pandora Station
Pandora is not new, but this version of West Marine’s dedicated station is. Waterlife provides boaters with endless hours of tunes that evoke the boating lifestyle, from Jimmy Buffett to Zac Brown to Bob Marley. Play it through your phone or tablet via a Bluetooth connection to your boat’s stereo and rock out or relax. For more information, go to pandora.com/westmarine.
U.S. Coast Guard Mobile App
Use this app to look up all the pertinent boating safety info for your state. The app provides a lot of important information and services, including a safety equipment checklist for your boat. You can also request a free safety check for your vessel. Taking a short trip or a long cruise? File an official float plan that your friends and family can see too. Need to brush up on your navigation rules? They’re in the app. If you’re on a cruise and you spot a previously unreported hazard to navigation, you can use the app to report it. You can also report pollution or suspicious activity and get up-to-date weather reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather buoys that are closest to you.
What’s the most important feature? Should you need immediate help on the water but can’t get to your radio, the emergency assistance button can call the closest Coast Guard command center or dial 911 to connect you to emergency services and get help. (To work best, location services must be turned on.) The Coast Guard app is free on both iTunes and Google Play. — Pete McDonald
Optima Batteries Virtual Reality App
I didn’t have a cardboard viewer before I got this app and barely knew what it was, but Optima sent me a viewer I could tuck my phone in so I could try its new free app. I’ve taken several virtual 3-D trips with Optima ambassadors since then.
I now know how it feels to race in the Baja on a race boat and have a whole day of tournament fishing with Nitro Boats’ fishing pro Edwin Evers, looking around and seeing just what he sees, knowing what it’s like to find and hook bass from his Nitro boat. Then I can click over to the passenger seat of Mark Stielow’s 1969 Camaro on the new M1 Concourse track in Pontiac, Michigan, and hang on through dizzying turns. But Corey Weller’s SR1 off-road racing truck is the one that gives you the feeling of flight. From your virtual passenger seat, you’ll feel your stomach fall as her truck soars over one dirt berm after another. Did I mention this app is free? If you don’t have a cardboard reader, this is the best excuse to get one I’ve seen. Get the Optima VR app and buy a Google cardboard viewer on Amazon or Google Play. — Randy Vance
I downloaded this on my phone and used it on my expedition to Alaska (see “Cruising the Bering Sea“). While I never used it as our primary source of navigation, it was great to have on board to use in conjunction with the boat’s electronics.
How did it work? This may be the most powerful, seamless navigation app we’ve tested on a smartphone. Download NOAA raster charts and navigate by contours, markers, and all the detail you’d expect on a chart plotter. Set a course and navigate to it. A navigation bar provides data, such as speed over ground, course, ETA and more. Here’s the deal maker: INavX even allows you to download and overlay weather radar, satellite SSTs, and other GRIB data at will. It’s a revelation to use on your phone or tablet. $24.99; inavx.com — Randy Vance
RaceLogic Vbox Sport
Boating’s known for impressive test gear, but trying to measure braking and deceleration stats for a recent PWC comparison taxed even our mighty bag of tools. Enter RaceLogic’s Vbox Sport. A spinoff of the Vbox that data loggers commonly use in performance auto testing, the Sport is a bright-blue, water-resistant gadget about the size of a deck of playing cards that samples GPS readings at an impressive 20 times per second. Controls are two-button simple — power it on, then toggle between record and pause. Indicator lights monitor power, GPS signal, Bluetooth, and SD-card activity. Data — such as speed, acceleration and deceleration curves, lap times and more — is stored on the included SD card and can be interpreted by VBox’s Windows-based software or displayed in real time via Bluetooth on the company’s free, simple-to-use apps for iPhone or iPad. $429; racelogic.co.uk/usastore
Wind is the bane of most boating anglers, especially those with craft under 30 feet in length. Getting caught in howling winds far from shore can threaten the safety of your crew and result in a long, slow, sloppy ride back to port. Wind forecasts help in avoiding the worst winds, and the more localized and detailed the forecast, the better.
That’s where FishWeather excels. This mobile app offers access to Fish-Weather’s exclusive weather station network and crowdsourcing, plus 50,000 other weather stations around the world. FishWeather covers lakes and rivers, as well as ocean and bay waters. The basic app is free, but you can also pony up for premium service levels.
While FishWeather lists current winds (speed, direction and gusts) and waves (height, direction and frequency) in real time, it is the short-term forecasts for specific locales that I really like. These proprietary hour-by-hour forecast models have proven very accurate in terms of wind speed and direction, giving me the guidance to pack it in (if the forecast calls for strong winds) or the confidence to fish longer (if the forecast is for mild winds).
FishWeather gives you the ability to pan around its map of weather stations to compare forecasts from area to area that give you an idea of localized winds. The more you zoom in, the more weather stations appear.
Garmin Quatix 3 and Garmin Connect App
If a smartwatch is on your radar, don’t jump until you’ve looked at the Garmin Quatix 3 Marine GPS smartwatch and the Garmin Connect IQ app. More than a watch, it combines powerful boating with multisports widgets and text, email and social notifications, along with audible and vibrating signals. Wirelessly connect to your Garmin navigation suite to stream location, sonar depth, water temp or any engine data. The Quatix 3 is waterproof to 328 feet, and it’s impressive battery power keeps it running up to 20 hours in GPS mode, or up to six weeks in watch mode, without charging. The onboard three-axis compass and altimeter make it the ultimate personal-navigation device.
The Garmin Connect app captures workout data and steps and stairs climbed, giving an hourly update of your fitness efforts. Widgets enable snazzy watch faces, navigation data and cool weather notifications that keep you apprised of changing conditions with a vibrating alarm. It’s a durable, smarter choice for boaters and anglers — especially when you see the current tides right on your casting wrist. $599 for Quatix 3; app is free; garmin.com. -Randy Vance
MyRadar NOAA Weather Radar
My brother and I were on a hot streak, catching one lake trout after another aboard his 16-footer in the upper reaches of Lake Michigan. Then the rain closed in.
We debated whether or not to abandon the fish and head for cover. I pulled out my iPhone and opened the MyRadar NOAA Weather Radar app. “According to this, it’s just light rain and should be done in less than a half-hour, and there’s nothing behind it,” I reported.
Armed with that information, we suited, booted and endured the brief summer shower. Just as MyRadar indicated, the storm passed through within 20 minutes, and we were back to fishing for the rest of the day.
Being a weather geek, I’ve come to enjoy using MyRadar, even when I am not boating. Developed by Aviation Data Systems, the 5-star-rated, free app has been downloaded 17 million times. Light rain shows as blue and progresses to green, yellow, red, pink and purple for heavier precipitation in high definition.
There are three background choices, including gray, roads and aerial imagery. You can enable a number of layers that include animated real-time winds and temperature shading. Turn on the NWS Warning, and MyRadar will push out alerts of dangerous weather. Download it at the App Store for iOS devices or Google Play for Android devices. — Jim Hendricks
Plan2Nav delivers armchair trip planning, which can be downloaded to a Wi-Fi-capable chart plotter. Purchased charts display full detail such as fishing wrecks, soundings, weather and sea conditions. It’s intuitive; I picked up on its nuances just by perusing the menu. Jeppesen Plan2Nav can also be used as a stand-alone navigation device.
Noted: The free app has a featureless base map and limited weather reports, but is useful to boaters in its free form. Measuring distance from your position is easy, but measuring distance from two unrelated points isn't. Anchor drift function adds overnight safety, assuming power or power source is available.
Charts: From $30 to $50 Subscriptions: Not available Wi-Fi to Chart Plotter: Yes, planning, routes and waypoints
Android Price: Free Rating: 3.3 stars (215 ratings) Current Version Tested: 18.104.22.1686 Installs: 10,000 to 50,000 Size: 13 MB Requires: 2.2 and up
Apple Price: Free Rating: 2.5 stars (103 ratings) Current Version Tested: 1.41 Size: 123 MB Requires: 4.3 or later
This may be the most downloaded navigation app. It provides access to all Navionics charts plus NOAA raster charts that imitate paper charts. The coolest are add-on modules. Nav Module lets your device be the chart plotter. Others allow automatic routing based on boat details and setting depth safety parameters. Purchase Navionics Gold or Platinum charts to get SonarCharts to upload your sonar data and automatically update your charts.
Noted: Coolest modules are $5 each for navigation (standard on some apps), Autorouting and shallow safety zones.
Charts: From $49.99 Subscriptions: Platinum $99 annually Wi-Fi to Chart Plotter: Yes, routes and trip plans
Android Price: $9.99 Rating: 4.2 stars (1,162 ratings) Current Version Tested: 3.1.1 Installs: 50,000 to 100,000 Size: 31 MB Requires: 2.3.3
Apple Price: Free Rating: Not rated Current Version Tested: 6.0.3 Size: 55.4 MB Requires: iOS 6.0 or higher
Garmin BlueChart Mobile
Garmin BlueChart Mobile
On the docks , scuttlebutt has long held that Garmin is the master at making marine electronics “intuitive” to use. This app lends credence to that legend. Garmin BlueChart Mobile was the quickest to learn by punching around on the buttons and menus and the easiest to use once we’d familiarized ourselves. All navigation functions one would expect are available on Garmin BlueChart Mobile. The Active Captain function allows online interaction with the boating community, with social updates pertaining to marine services (such as marinas and fuel docks), waypoints, hazards and more. An upgraded weather option is also available, giving nearly real-time radar when Wi-Fi is connected.
Noted: Tap the navigator's dividers to establish waypoints and move each to mark and measure distance between them. Tap the seas icon for wave height readings and current velocity.
Charts: To $50 Subscriptions: Active Captain Wi-Fi to Chart Plotter: Yes, routes and trip plans
Android Not available
Apple Price: Free Rating: 3 stars (163 ratings) Current Version Tested: 1.4.1 Size: 117 MB Requires: iOS 6.0 or higher
The free version of the Skipper app was pretty good at basic navigation, but we found the subscription version well worth the $9.99 per year Skipper charges for it. With this, the least expensive app we tested, you can download any and all NOAA raster charts, set waypoints, create routes and adjust those routes and waypoints by dragging and dropping them around on the screen. We especially liked that the trip monitor bar at the bottom of the screen can be customized to display a variety of essential navigation data, such as course, heading, speed, current speed, ETA, position, etc. Google satellite maps are overlaid on raster charts, providing the user with a landlubber’s detail in addition to all the nautical navigation information.
Noted: The system uses only NOAA raster charts, scans of NOAA paper charts, instead of more modern vector charts — yet many captains prefer the comfort of the traditional paper look. The screen updates slowly on our early-version iPad.
Charts: Free Subscription: $9.99 per year Wi-Fi to Chart Plotter: No
Android Not available
Apple Price: Free Rating: 4 stars (31 ratings) Size: 44.4 MB Current Version Tested: 1.4 Requires: iOS 5.0 or higher
Used in conjunction with the website to load charts to your app account, it enables your iPad to function not just as a navigation device but also as one armed with the data professional fishermen use to find fish. From online you can download weather, sea surface temperatures (SST), altimetry, chlorophyll and current to your account for access by the app. Then set your course for the exact spot where currents, sea surface-temperature breaks, chlorophyll concentrations and altimetry changes align to create killer fishing holes.
Noted: You can use your iPad browser to save charts to your account, but you can't use the app. We didn't mind that after seeing how quickly they downloaded and how easy it was to view them, select spots, drop waypoints and navigate to them. Beware other apps that don' t hand-correct charts. Hiltons' founder stands by the phone all day, so if the "edge" moves, he can redirect you via satellite phone.
Charts: Free Subscription Price: $200 per year Wi-Fi to Chart Plotter: No
Android Not available
Apple Price: Free Rating: Not rated Current Version Tested: 1.1 Size: 1.6 MB Requires: iOS 5.0 or higher
Offering weather, SST, altimetry, chlorophyll and currents comparable to Hiltons’, the SST Online app downloaded charts for us seamlessly. Charts are highly detailed and hand-corrected for position (as they are in both the Hiltons and Terrafin apps). The free Demo Mode allows free chart downloads every 14 days. Subscribers receive daily updates as requested.
Noted: We believe that the in-app downloads are handy, but we also believe that finding our way around the app was a little more difficult than it is in some others. Be advised that the iPad app takes substantially more storage space than the Android app.
Charts: Free Subscription Price: $149 per year Wi-Fi to Chart Plotter: No
Android Price: $0.99 Rating: 3 stars (2 ratings only) Current Version Tested: 1.0.0 Installs: 100 to 500 Size: 1.3 MB Requires: 2.2 and higher
Apple Price: $0.99 Rating: 3 stars (6 ratings) Current Version Tested: 1.2 Size: 2.3 MB Requires: iOS 5.1 or later
Providing the sea conditions of the previous two apps with hand-correction, Terrafin has a pretty clean operating style. By setting an “origin” point and moving the cursor around it, you can measure distance to the cursor — handy when you need to pick up and move to find fish. As on the others, you can see your position, course and bearing in relation to the waypoints you select. You can also “set a course” and follow the line.
Noted: Setting a waypoint is awkward because the waypoint floats beside the cursor. Don't delete waypoints unless you mean to lose them forever. It's a data storage hog on iOS.
Charts: Free Subscription Price: $99 per year Wi-Fi to Chart Plotter: No
Android Price: Free Rating: 4 stars (11 ratings) Current Version Tested: 1.5 Installs: 1,000 to 5,000 Size: 1.7 MB Requires: 2.3.3 and up
Apple Price: Free Rating: 3.5 stars (5 ratings) Current Version Tested: 2.1 Size: 34.9 MB Requires: iOS 5.0 or later