Yo ho ho and a bottle of ….iPad

I once “taught” myself celestial navigation. I borrowed a sextant, studied the excellent and concise six-page how-to penned by the late William F. Buckley in his account of a trans-Atlantic passage, Airborne, and took it all aboard an aging 60-foot plywood catamaran I was silly enough to agree to skipper from Falmouth to Florida in the fall of 1980. What most navigators spend years learning I tried to master over the course of a weekend and on Loop Beach in Cotuit.

The crew on that voyage were all recruited from a classified ad in the Boston Globe and had no idea what was going on at any time, a situation which meant I had to pretty much steer and sail and navigate by myself bewcause the boat insisted on sailing WAY too fast for any one to be trusted on the wheel.

Somewhere south of Long Island, around the shipping lanes into New York City, I broke out the sextant, braced myself in the rigging, and took a noon shot to establish our position. This was 1980, way before Global Positioning Satellites. Oher than LORAN (which the evil catamaran lacked) or the notoriously flaky radio directional finder, there was no other way to accurately fix one’s position other than measuring the angle between the sun and the horizon the way Columbus and the Portugese did in the 14th century.

I took my shots — feeling all Melville and shit — gathered my numbers, and went down below to the nav station to work out the math. I got my cartesian solution, looked at the chart, and discovered my first attempt at navigation placed us somewhere in the vicinity of Troy, New York, about twenty miles north of Albany. Since the entire crew was watching — everyone more than a little terrified since we were way out of the sight of land and careening off of the top of immense winter Atlantic waves in a plywood boat creaking and groaning like a gut-shot moose — I realized that putting the point of the pencil down on Troy, New York was a very bad morale move. So I reached for my big plastic right triangle and pretend-extended the line southeast about 400 miles to a fictitious spot I figured was roughly in line with where we might be. With great conviction I made a little X, wrote down the data and time, and declared this was the spot.

An hour later I saw an outbound tanker on the horizon. I told the crew I was going to get a position check over the radio as that was standard maritime practice. I hailed the unknown boat by saying something relatively retarded as “Tanker heading east, Tanker heading east. This is the sailing vessel SinkaLot looking for a position check.”

The anonymous mariner on the bridge of that tanker responded and had a little fun with me.

“Where do you think you are Cap?” he asked over the VHF.

“Uh, about fifty miles south by southeast of Montauk Point Cap.” I replied.

“What’s your last fix Cap?” he asked. I thought I was the one asking the questions. But no, this Mass Maritime grad was going to have his amusement with the yachtsman in the silly sailboat.

All was well a day later when we sighted the beaches of Delaware and were able to grope our way into Chesapeake Bay. Two weeks later and I abandoned ship in Brunswick, Georgia, thoroughly cured of any desire to sail big cruising catamarans in the Atlantic in the late fall. I also sold my first magazine article because of that trip, receiving a massive $100 from Multihulls magazine for my trouble.

As I get ready to launch my sloop tomorrow, I’ve been elbow deep in everything from marine diesel water pump impellers to six coats of Epifanes varnish. The boat is 27 years old and has no navigational instruments to speak of. For the past two seasons I’ve owned the boat I’ve used the Navionics Android app on my smartphone to get the occasional fix on my position, using the phone’s GPS to zero in on whatever spot I happen to be sailing through on Nantucket Sound. But what I want is a big fancy chart plotter mounted on the binnacle. A nice electronic chart to steer my tall ship by.

Those things cost at least $1,000 and would be comparable to installing a $2000 stereo in a $50 car. In the grand scheme of things to throw money at aboard that hole in the water known as a boat, a fancy GPS chart plotter is low on the list. So, I have embarked on a mission to ruin my two-year old iPad in the service of DIY modern navigation.

Other than Navionics, who publishes excellent digital versions of the official NOAA charts for my Android (and the iPad) I am very fond of the iNavX app and have been busy plotting all sorts of waypoints and courses around my home waters …. from my armchair. The iPad has a faux GPS and internal compass, but to really enable it as a navigational aid I need to drop $100 on a little GPS dongle that plugs into the charging port. There’s the BadElf device, which looks perfect once I figure out whether or not my antique iPad is indeed a “66-channel, SBAS/WAAS, 10Hz” model.

Assuming that the GPS dongle will make the iPad plot my position, the next issue is how to protect it from the elements. I won’t ever submerge the tablet (unless I sink), but it will get splashed and rained on and saltwater is cancerous when it comes to anything electronic. I was conned out of my money by a clueless clerk at Radio Shack who sold me an Otterbox case — which I discovered won’t work with the original iPad and has since been bequeathed to my son who sports an iPad II. It looks like I’ll have to go with a plastic bag sort of solution (some online yachting and marine electronics forums say a big Zip-Loc is up to the task).

Once water-protected I have to mount the iPad to the stainless steel guard rail on the binnacle — the stanchion that supports the boat’s wheel, engine control and compass. That should be simple enough, as long as I stay away from the binnacle’s manufacturer — Edson of New Bedford — who is hideously overpriced and does its level best to uphold the nautical adage of ripping up twenties while taking a shower.

I’ve used RAM mounts in the past on the motorboat, so will probably go in that direction despite their proclivity to corrode and peel psoriasis-like over time.

I’m banking that this set up will get me fully chart-plotter capable for under $200. The advantages will be the relatively long battery life of the iPad versus the two-hour lifespan on my HTC Evo phone. The screen is big, but, as any beach reader knows, iPads are useless in sunlight. That means seeking out a glare screen — some matte finish film that will give me a hope of seeing the screen in bright light. I am concerned, on the flip side, of night brightness, as other sailors who have kludged together an iPad nav solution say the lack of a brightness control means they trash their night vision. The map software from iNavX does have a “red light” mode for night use, so I think I’ll be okay, indeed, given that 95% of my sailing is done within the sight of land, the only real need for the plotter other than amusement is for night sailing and in fog (no, I do not own a radar).

The entire effect of smartphones and iPads on the electronics industry is well understood by anyone who owns one. They manage to consolidate lots of dedicated devices into one handy package and in doing so completely kill the market for stuff like digital pocket cameras, music players, and dashboard navigation systems. These multifunction swiss army knives eat into any application they touch, hence I am amused when I read the discussion forums on the marine electronics sites and listen to the proud owners of $10,000 NMEA capable Raytheon or Datamarine navigation systems diss the iPad as a failed solution no one should consider.

They may not be advised to contemplate the solution, but the reality is they will, so I predict the market for dedicated marine electronics is going to rapidly erode over the next few years as Apple and the Android tablet makers address the daylight-screen issue and waterproof-ruggedness. I have my eye on the Panasonic Toughbook Android tablet, but the alleged price on the soon-to-be-introduced  device looks like more than $1000 which makes that a failure.

Once I figure out the iPad issue the next step is to install a WIFI station on the boat and look into integrating the depth, apparent wind, and knotmeters into the iPad display. I’m also fascinated by the AIS technology, which basically is a transponder system that overlays information about AIS equipped vessels onto the iNavX charts. Think of it as radar without the radar, giving me everything from vessel name and size, to distance, speed and bearing.

Oh, and I am still determined to get better at classic sextant based navigation as there is no doubt in my mind that when I need the electronics the most, they are sure to fail. And, when escaping the zombie apocalypse, one has to assume the GPS system will eventually fail and those with the knowledge of the ancients will survive.


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