A quick search for “Marine Navigation” in the App Store turns up dozens of products that all seem to have the potential to replace the chartplotter or navigation PC. The reality is that very few apps really measure up to the standard of today’s PC navigation software and dedicated chartplotters, but they still serve as a convenient alternative for the casual skipper.
There are some important points to consider before investing in apps for marine navigation. This guide explains what to look for, and provides recommendations for several high quality apps for marine navigation along with an analysis of their strengths and weaknesses.
The Big Weakness of Using Apps for Marine Navigation
GPS & Battery life. Most tablets or smartphones can run quite happily all day after recharging overnight, until you turn on the GPS. The GPS feature in most mobile devices will devour your power at an alarming rate, so the first consideration for using apps for marine navigation is how long the app will need to run continuously between charges. If you are planning on running your marine navigation app for hours at a stretch, the best approach is to invest in a dedicated GPS or WiFi system that can share data from the boat’s navigation systems with the app. Be careful to check that the app supports external GPS first!
Choice of Electronic Charts
Charts represent a major portion of the cost of marine navigation apps, so it is important to ensure that the app you choose offers charts for your region and are sufficiently accurate for navigation. Navigators in the USA can enjoy free local charts from NOAA which may be good enough for most casual skippers, however you must be particularly careful when using free charts as they may lack up-to-date details of important features like changes to navigation aids, or new wrecks or obstructions.
As a general rule, look for ENC (Electronic Navigation Chart) or vector chart formats which are detailed digital charts meaning they will display properly at various zoom levels. The alternative format is raster chart, which is simply a scanned image of the paper chart and may not display correctly at certain zoom levels.
Major chart vendors include Jeppesen (C-MAP, MAX/NT, MAX-N), Garmin BlueChart, Navionics, as well as most national hydrographic authorities worldwide.
Integration With Onboard Instruments and Navigation Systems
If you are serious about navigation, you will definitely want to integrate your app with the sensors and systems already fitted to your vessel. This gives you the ability to monitor factors such as wind strength and direction, speed of the hull through the water, water temperature, nearby AIS targets, water depth, and numerous other parameters of interest to the navigator. Some apps may also support autopilot integration, enabling the autopilot to maintain a course towards a selected waypoint or follow a pre-plotted route. Without this integration, the app is only really useful for showing you where you are, your course and speed over the ground, and estimating how long it will take to reach your destination – important pieces of information, but by no means the full picture.
Be careful when selecting an app for integration with other navigation systems. Whilst some apps can provide relatively full, open integration with NMEA-compliant products from any vendor, others may simply provide a remote display of what’s on the screen of a specific brand of chartplotter.
Interoperate with Existing Chartplotter or Multi-Function Display
Many recent chartplotters allow you to use an app on an iPad or iPhone to remotely view the chartplotter display. This can be very convenient if you want to keep an eye on navigation while you are away from the helm or nav station, such as in a stateroom, on deck, or while socialising with your guests. Check your chartplotter manufacturer’s website to see if there is an app that will work with your model.
Key Features To Consider in a Marine Navigation App
We recommend looking for the following features depending on how you intend to use the app.
Additional requirements: Additional requirements: We have analysed some of the leading navigation apps on the market to come up with the following recommendations. Please note that although we love our iPhones, we believe the screen is simply too small to be practical for marine navigation so our reviews focus on apps that are designed for the iPad. Read our descriptions of these apps for an assessment of what we like and our concerns about each one.
Suggested Apps for Marine Navigation
Other Quality Marine Navigation Apps
We have analysed some of the leading navigation apps on the market to come up with the following recommendations. Please note that although we love our iPhones, we believe the screen is simply too small to be practical for marine navigation so our reviews focus on apps that are designed for the iPad. Read our descriptions of these apps for an assessment of what we like and our concerns about each one.