Android at sea: my favorite nautical apps

Vern Graebel, the founder of my ISP, Cape.com, was walking down the hill to Ropes Beach after a Cotuit Kettleer’s baseball game a few weeks ago. I caught up to him and we started talking about sailing and a particularly great spot to spend the night, Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon Island, the largest of the Elizabeths. I shared my fear of anchoring there and dragging during the night and how anchor-dragging-paranoia made it tough for me to get a good night’s sleep aboard the sloop.

“There’s an app for that,” Vern said, drawing his Motorola Droid out of his pocket. And indeed there was, “Anchor Alert” — an cool little $15 app that uses the GPS receiver in the smartphone to determine one’s position. You anchor, pay out so many feet of chain and line, determine the length of scope of that, and tell Anchor Alert which then draws a series of concentric circles with your “anchor” in the middle and an icon of your boat out the specified length from the mooring point. Using the GPS’s  accuracy rating, the program waits until you move N feet away from the radius of the circle formed by your anchor and boat. Slip 30 feet and you receive an alarm (or a SMS if you aren’t aboard).

I use my HTC EVO for a few other nautical tasks. I may need to invest in a decent waterproof case (I use a kayak bag to keep it dry now), and the battery life with the GPS enabled is pretty sucky. But …. it is amazingly useful for some essential tasks.

  • Tides: I use “TideApp” to give me the times for high and lower water at any of the dozen locations I sail to. It also gives me essential data about the ebb and flow times of the current, an essential aid in navigation for determining the offset of one’s course caused by the lateral forces of the moving water.
  • Chart Plotter: Okay, so it isn’t a $3000 binnacle mounted Garmin chart plotter with integrated radar — that has to wait for more flush financial times, but the Navionics USAEast chart pack is awesome for giving me an accurate and detailed fix on a valid NOAA nautical chart. This is a little expensive at around $15, but it is great to have a precise fix when I need it on the water. I use it sporadically because of the battery draw down, but suppose I could rig some 12v car adapter sort of rig to keep it going 100% of the time. Again — smartphones and the cockpit of a sloop in Nantucket Sound are not a felicitous combination, keeping the thing dry is a constant worry.
  • Google Sky: “Give me a tall ship and star to steer her by …” It’s been years since I’ve taken a noon shot with a sextant (something I might brush back up on this winter), but knowing the stars while at sea is always good fun and Google’s star map is awesome to play with.

Any sailors out there have other apps to recommend?

What I’m Reading: Hitch-22

Memoirs are generally untrustworthy affairs, especially when penned or ghost-penned by retired politicians or athletes seeking to cash in on their glories with a fat advance and a chance to put onto the record their version of the past with no arguments or contradictions. But rare is the memoir of a man of letters, a literary autobiography as it were. Some writers, like Steven King, have written strong reflections on the craft of the writer, weaving in their own life’s plot as a framework, but for the most, the autobiography is at best an opportunity for we readers to be taken into the conspiratorial confidences of the tale-teller and given a version of events that at best is written with the same verbal grace as their non-Onastic work, and at worse whitewashes controversy and settles past feuds with the awesome singularity of the printed page.

Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Melville, Hemingway … few literary lions have written about themselves, indeed some like Pynchon are impressive in keeping their biographies off of the page, and limited to but a few cryptic paragraphs on the edge of the dust-jacket and end papers.  Literature resists critical psychoanalysis and the text is supposed to speak for itself, but yet the reader wants more insights into the dark influences behind the fiction: hence the cottage industry a few years back into tell-all biographies of John Cheever, the tortured alcoholic chronicler of Mad Men-era suburban New York and Westchester. The result was a bit embarrassing in the end.

I have not been a close fan of the political journalist Christopher Hitchens over the years. His work in Vanity Fair has occasionally come into view, but I haven’t been a fan in the sense of buying his books and seeking out his work in the Nation and television talking head-fests. For some reason I bought his memoir Hitch-22 and have been picking away at it this summer, slowly immersing myself into the life of what could be one of the last true British men-of-letters. That he has esophageal cancer didn’t come to my attention until I was half-way through the book, a relief as I am glad I didn’t come to the book with some morbid rubber-necking as a motivation. I had first become aware of him when he assailed my former employer, The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, and my late colleague, Susie Forrest, for their first Pulitzer Prize for reporting the Willie Horton scandal during Michael Dukakis’ failed run for the presidency in 1988.   Then came this astonishing video of Hitchens undergoing waterboarding so he could report on the experience first hand.

The book is remarkable and opens with the type of astonishing development that any novelist would crave. Hitchen’s mother, a relentlessly self-improving English woman hiding her Jewish roots from the strictures of post-WW II English society, abandons her career naval officer husband and ends her life in a lonely Athens hotel room with her new lover. The effect, the development puts into place a foundation for the rest of the tale that never relents.

Hitchens intelligence and ambitions are unwavering. His mind is obviously astonishing. But it is is dogged refusal to back down from a life-long hatred of totalitarianism, to proudly wear the jingoistic labels of “Trotskyist,” to reject religion and faith and willingly face his attackers that makes this work a true profile in courage. His early calls for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, his proud embrace of American citizenship despite an upbringing as the consummate Englishman, his love of the language and the fun of word play …. in the end it combines into what I have to declare is my favorite literary autobiography ever.