navigation computers

Here’s Why You Need an iPad on the Boat

by Christine Kling


The Apple iPad Loaded with Marine Apps - Photo Courtesy of Christine Kling

The Apple iPad Loaded with Marine Apps - Photo Courtesy of Christine Kling

(Editor’s Note — Chris Kling is a sailor with with more than 30 years of experience on the oceans of the world. She’s also an English professor at Broward College, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the published author of the Seychelle Sullivan series of mysteries, including SURFACE TENSION (2002), CROSS CURRENT (2004), BITTER END (2005, and WRECKERS’ KEY (2007). You can and should buy them at this Amazon page. They’re great page-turners and the protagonist is a female tug captain and salvor through whom I could easily live vicariously (you know, except for the requisite sex-change operation of course). Chris recently got an iPad and has wasted no time collecting and testing marine apps for the sleek new tablet. You can visit her at her main website here or at her new blog, co-hosted with fellow writer Mike Jastrzebski, Write on the Water.)

I have wanted to share this list of some of my favorite boating apps for the iPad.  Some people have looked at the iPad and the high price for the device and they have said they just don’t get it.  Why would someone pay so much for that.  I can only report on my own experience — and this little computer has changed the way I interact with technology.  I find myself using my laptop less and less.  The iPad is so fast, so intuitive and does so many things that I could no more imagine living without one than I could imagine living without a computer.  Today, I will cover boating apps and in a later post, I will discuss writing apps.

To begin with, there is the problem with the screen outdoors.  I have found though, that if I change the setting from auto-brightness to manual and crank it all the way up, it is very easy to see and use for navigation outdoors.  Most of us wear Polaroid lenses when we are out on the water, and the iPad screen goes black when viewed in portrait mode with Polaroids on, but just turn it to landscape and the image reappears.


First, I need to mention that it is necessary to have the iPad 3G to get the real GPS chip in the unit for navigation purposes.  The non-3G units require wifi, which, of course, is not going to work at sea. Some have questioned whether the iPad GPS would work outside the range of the 3G connection, and I can attest that as long as you have already downloaded your charts, your GPS will work fine offshore.  Mine worked continuously on the passage three weeks ago from the Abacos to Charleston, North Carolina when I had absolutely no 3G connection.

iNavX Screen Capture on the iPad - Image Courtesy of Christine Kling

iNavX Screen Capture on the iPad - Image Courtesy of Christine Kling

iNavX – $49.99  I started using the Mac version of this software about four years ago and I love it.  There are other cheaper apps for marine navigation now, but I like using the same software on my laptop, iPhone and iPad.  This one app is universal, meaning it works with both the iPhone and the iPad with full versions for each device.  With many of the other apps listed here you would have to buy separate versions for the iPhone and the iPad.  Yes, it is a lot of money, but it is absolutely worth it to to get this full featured complete navigation system that can interface via wifi with your boat’s instruments.  The program comes with free access to all the NOAA charts, but you can purchase additional charts through X-Traverse. This service allows you to save, retrieve and move data on and off the iPad.  I bought the US and Bahamas Navionics Gold charts for the iPad for $49.99 which do show some marinas and other land features.

Charts & Tides Screen Capture on iPad - Image Courtesy of Christine Kling

Charts & Tides Screen Capture on iPad - Image Courtesy of Christine Kling

Navimatics Charts & Tides/ East Coast – $19.99 You might ask yourself what do I need another navigation program for.  Good question.  This app is by Navimatics and the app does show another type of cartography, but the navigation features do not work as well and are not as extensive as iNavX.  However, what this program does have is Active Captain, the Interactive Cruising Guidebook.   It was well worth the twenty bucks to get this feature that drops dots onto the charts where marinas, boatyards and various points of interest are located.  When you click on the dots you get a ton of info including cost of slip rental, phone numbers, reviews, laundry and grocery info, etc.  This is a sort of Wiki type thing for boaters and once you have your membership to the Active Captain website (free) and you input your info on the iPad, you can click a synch button and you’ll get the most up to date info available. When we were in Deltaville, VA, I saw a review that had been written one week earlier.  This is far better than a print cruising guide.  Yes, the info is available on the laptop if I am on the Internet, but with my iPad and my 3G account, when cruising here in the US, it’s available almost everywhere.

Navionics – $19.99  I have not purchased this, but Navionics has their own nav program which like the one above, includes the nave. program with the charts and for this price you get the East Coast.  You would pay again for the West Coast and again for the Great Lakes.  You can only use their charts.  With iNavX all the NOAA charts are included for free, and then you can add other charts if you want to buy them.  However, I’d like to hear from others who might use this to know how they think it compares to iNavX.

MotionX-GPS $2.99 has recently added marine charts.  I have not gone this route or explored it, but I would love to hear in the comments if anyone else has done so.  As soon as I have the time I intend to explore this — I mean, for three bucks — why not??

AyeTides Screen Capture on iPad - Image Courtesy of Christine Kling

AyeTides Screen Capture on iPad - Image Courtesy of Christine Kling


AyeTides XL — $9.99  This tide program is fully integrated with iNavX so that you can click on a tides button in the nav program and get your info.  The program has just released this iPad version (August 2), and it is beautiful.  And it still has more tide stations and information than the tide program included with Charts & Tides.

Marine Day Tides — free   Actually, there are two versions of this program and I use the free one which gives the most tides info I’ve seen, but it will only give you the info for today — not for the future.  The planner version of the program is $9.99 and it is great, but I get enough info to suit me with the Ayetides and it interfaces with my navigation program.


I have tried a few marine weather apps for the iPad, but I haven’t found anything yet that I particularly like.  I would be very interested to hear from others what they like best.

Wundermap —free   This great app comes from the folks at WeatherUnderground.  This includes various types of radar and infrared screens which require an Internet connection.  It uses the GPS to determine your location and gives you a satellite map with an information overlay.  Now I just wish they would make a version that includes Marine Weather forecasts.

Weatherbug Elite for iPad — free   This little app has tons of great info on a very tight screen.  I like their wind direction compass rose.


Boater‘s Pocket Reference — $4.99  1,800 pages of boating information including Rules of the Road, aides to navigation, illustrations, photos, buoys, signal flags, etc.  A great on-hand resource.

Shipfinder Screen Capture on the iPad - Image Courtesy of Christine Kling

Shipfinder Screen Capture on the iPad - Image Courtesy of Christine Kling

ShipFinder HD — $7.99  This app shows the AIS feed of ships in your area.  It is broadcast over the Internet so it will only be good as long as you have an Internet connection either via wifi or through a 3G account.  When coastwise cruising, however, it’s wonderful to see the name, course and speed of that ship in the distance. Yesterday, sailing from Fishing Bay to Solomons, we passed a strange gray ship off Point Lookout, and I was able to look it up with Shipfinder and discover it was a Naval High Speed Craft called SEAFIGHTER and she was at anchor.

Nautical Terms for iPad — $0.99 This is a great replacement for the old dog-eared nautical dictionary I had and the numerous bookmarks that I could never find for online dictionaries.

Knot Guide HD — $2.99 This includes 91 knots in 17 categories.  What more could you ask for?

Pocket First Aid and CPR — $3.99 From the American Heart Association, this guide appears to be one of the most complete for emergency situations as it includes illustrations and videos.

Air Display – $9.99 – This turns your iPad into a second display for your laptop.  Currently this only works with Mac OS but they are working on a Windows version. You could run your laptop nav program on your iPad using it as a slave screen and avoid having to buy the costly iPad apps.

Another boating plus is that you can load all your PDF manuals into Goodreads or now into iBooks, and they will be there ready to load in a hurry.

As for waterproof cases for the iPad, I have found the simple for $19.99 that looks like a glorified Ziplock bag to this fancy one from Germany for 280 Euros.  There are also various mounts here and others here that one can get to make your iPad function more like a helm chart plotter, but I am waiting for the swing away arm.

The iPad has become much more than just an eReader for me, and though many of these things I could do on a laptop, I couldn’t do any of them as fast or as easily as I can on the iPad.

Fair winds!


Original article Copyright © 2010 by Christine Kling. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2010 by OceanLines LLC.  All rights reserved.

Posted by Tom in Cruising Under Power, Cruising Under Sail, Electronics, Environment & Weather, Gear & Apparel, megayachts, Powerboats, Sailboats, Sailing Gear & Apparel, Technology
Comark Offers New All In One Pilothouse Computer

Comark Offers New All In One Pilothouse Computer

The Comark 19" Pilothouse Display Used in the New Pilothouse Computer

The Comark 19" Pilothouse Display Used in the New Pilothouse Computer

 Comark Corporation announced that it has developed a new pilothouse computer with integrated 19″ display. The Comark Pilothouse Computer features Intel Core Two Duo processor options, conformal coatings for corrosion resistance and a host of other pilothouse-friendly features.  Best of all perhaps, the price. Comark says the CPC is being offered at a starting price of $2,995, which is less than the cost of many marine monitors alone.

Given the integrated form factor, you probably won’t flush-mount this unit, but it comes with a sturdy base that can be secured to the helm dash or bolted to the overhead. Simply add power and GPS connections and you’re ready to go.  I’ll have the complete specs shortly, but in the meantime, here’s some more information from the Comark press release:

“Enclosed in an aluminum chassis, the system includes a heavy-duty base that can be hard mounted to the wheelhouse console or hung from the ceiling, if required. With the all in one design, installation can be as easy as securing the unit to the console, connecting power and GPS. The Pilothouse Computer utilizes a 19” LCD, with a 0 to 100% brightness control feature, allowing the operator to dim the brightness for very low-level light conditions, greatly improving night vision operations. The computer features Core 2 Duo Processing options, PCI expansion, and optional touchscreen. All electronics are conformal-coated to protect against corrosion. “The Pilothouse Computer is the perfect choice for many boat owners who see the value of a computer in their wheelhouse but have been frustrated trying to use a laptop or home PCs and monitors due to reliability and human factors. Our new Pilothouse Computer starts at $2995 and is a rugged, reliable and simple marine solution for them,” said Steve Schott, President of Comark.”

I’m going to nominate this unit for the 2010 innovation award — not just for the technology; all-in-one PCs are becoming more and more common — but for the whole package, including the reasonable price point. We’ve all been paying way too much for “marine” monitors and PCs and this is a huge step in the right direction.

Copyright © 2010 by OceanLines LLC. All rights reserved.

Posted by Tom in Electronics, Technology

Outfitting the Nordhavn 55 with Computers – Part 2

John Marshall's Nordhavn 55 Serendipity - Photo Credit: CJ Walker

This is Part 2 of our new series on outfitting the Nordhavn 55 with computers instead of, or in addition to dedicated marine electronics such as chartplotters.  In the first installment we covered the boat itself, along with some comments about the boat from an actual owner, John Marshall.  In this article, John gives us his thoughts on the subject of computers aboard. John has some definite opinions, but they’re grounded in hard experience and are worth listening to.  Particularly note John’s views on keeping his computers isolated from potential outside infections and instability-causing “updates.”

Q&A with N55 Serendipity owner John Marshall

1.    Do you use any PCs or Macs onboard Serendipity?

We have five computers on Serendipity, with four in active use and one as backup.

2.    What are their roles?

-Two Macbooks, my wife’s and mine, are for personal use, email, web browsing, etc. We mostly use cellular data cards for internet connection as its more reliable than Wifi (and we have one of those Syrens bridges and internal AP).

– Primary Navigation: One desktop-style PC (120v) with Win/XP is dedicated to running Nobeltec.

– Backup Navigation: One notebook PC with Win/XP is my “hot backup” Nav system (also with Nobeltec). It can be plugged into the main instruments and GPS via a USB cable, but also has its own hockey-puck GPS. This is also my satellite communication PC (Inmarsat Fleet 55 running MPDS and Ocens email) as the OS needs to be stripped down to avoid to much background traffic. (*More on that later).

– One backup desktop PC that runs on 24v that’s configured with Nobeltec and can be used to replace the Primary Nav computer if it dies. This computer is stored, disconnected, in a metal case down below waterline.

3.    How did you select them?

PCs were selected given that’s what Nobeltec and my comm software ran on. So basically, the application software drove the selection.

Macs because we love the OS and Apps… we’re Mac people who suffer Windows because we have to. Unfortunately, none of the Mac-based navigation software is up the Nobeltec standard, at least IMHO.

 4.    Would you be comfortable with a computer-based nav system as your primary system?

Absolutely and I am. But… the caveat here is that I have two Furuno NavNet2 BB systems with chart plotters, and backup PC’s. I use the Furuno’s as read-only displays, but I know I can navigate the boat from them if needed, but I don’t like the interface for routes, etc. But the Furunos and their networked sounder, radar, plotters are wonderful as read-only instruments.

I also like having more than one chart source running, and I tend to keep one Furuno chartplotter zoomed down to 2 mile range so it shows great detail, and sometimes overlay radar on the chart, and then use Nobeltec for big picture and route planning as well as my autopilot interface for route following. 

A PC (running any of the available Nav applications) is infinitely superior to any chartplotter I’ve ever seen for route planning and route management.

 5.    If you have a PC aboard, does it serve any other roles, such as entertainment, ship management, etc.?

No, unless you count my iPod that’s hooked into the Bose system.

One thing I am a big believer in is minimizing the single points of failure. For instance, I would never consider putting my nav computer on a network or have it running background tasks. I don’t trust Windows that much. So I’m not a fan of a “wired, networked” boat, and prefer simple computers with an inactive backup computer. If lightning or viruses kill or disable my Nav computer, or the hardware just dies, I know I have a clean, backup machine kept in a Farraday-shielded box that I can quickly plug in and get running.

Also, I’ve only been able to gain confidence in Windows-based computers by stripping them down. No auto-updates, no antivirus, etc. Stripped down to just the base OS and Nobeltec. Then they are very reliable. But of course, in that mode, I can’t expose them to the internet, except to access Nobeltec or  Jeppeson sites for software and chart updates, in which case I use a USB cellular card.

*Background traffic: I’ve found the Windows OS and its applications (anti-virus being the worst) generate a lot of background traffic looking for updates or whatever, even when the user-configurable auto-update features are turned off. When I pay dearly for bandwidth, not connect time, as I do with Inmarsat and MPDS, that background traffic can be 10x or even 100x my actual email traffic. Even if I was paying for connect time, but had severely limited bandwidth as is the case with Iridium, the same issue applies. So stripping as much of that junk out as possible is key. I’m also experimenting with a third-party firewall that should let me block the OS from looking for updates. The built-in firewalls always trust the OS to communicate with its own trusted sites so you can’t keep them from talking.)

In the next installment in this series, we’ll publish the “Request for Proposals” detailing what we’re asking the computer companies to address with their suggested installations for an N55.  We’ll also have an extensive set of documents and drawings to share with you and we’ll start to get into the details of computer installations aboard.  Follow-on articles will each have the response from an individual computer company.  Stay tuned.

Copyright © 2010 by OceanLines LLC

Posted by Tom in Boats, Cruising Under Power, Electronics, Passagemaking News, People, People & Profiles, Technology

Outfitting the Nordhavn 55 with Computers

Nordhavn 55 Starboard Running -- Photo Courtesy of PAE

With this article, we are beginning a new series that illustrates how the Nordhavn 55, one of the most popular of the globe-girdling Nordhavns built by Pacific Asian Enterprises, might be equipped with computers for navigation and other chores.  Earlier this year, OceanLines ran an extensive series of articles on outfitting the Kadey-Krogen 55′ Expedition with a full marine electronics suite.  In this new series, we look at the alternative to dedicated marine electronics — the PC.  There are several companies in this market, including some that manufacture or modify their own components and some that are systems designers and installers.  We’re asking them to submit full proposals for navigation, monitoring and entertainment solutions. As we did before, we’ll dedicate a separate article for each manufacturer to highlight its proposal for the N55.  Today’s article is the first of two introducing the series. Part 2 follows tomorrow and offers a dedicated Q&A on the subject with a current N55 owner.

The Nordhavn 55 was developed as a logical follow-on to the 47, but is obviously substantially larger in all the spaces. The N55 has a standard flybridge and single engine, although N55 Project Manager Mike Jensen says 7 N55s have been delivered with twin engines. The N55 has a new sister ship with the advent of a 5-foot hull extension creating the N60. The extra length shows up in the cockpit and extended boat deck overhead.

Nordhavn President Dan Streech suggested we use the N55 as the subject for this series since it represents the classice Nordhavn trawler, in form and function. Not surprisingly, N55 owners agree with that sentiment.  John Marshall owns N5520, Serendipity, and says, “I view the N55 as the largest of the ‘simple, little boats’. It’s really not much more complex than an N40 (same numbers of systems, one main engine, one wing, one genset, same stabilizer design, etc. etc., just beefier) so it’s just as easy to maintain as the littlest Nordhavn. For instance, it’s no harder to maintain a 300 hp diesel than a 120 hp diesel.”  Here’s more of what John Marshall has to say about the N55:

It’s the ultimate couples boat as its big and roomy but still simple, but has extra staterooms for guests when needed. We use the upstairs Captain’s cabin mainly as a reading room, for instance, given the great light.

That said, you could make an N55 complex by adding twin engines, full hydraulics, dual generators, etc. etc, but most of the N55s I’ve seen are closer to the N40 in complexity. (The only place where the N55 is inescapably larger is when you have to wax it!)

Once you step over that size threshold, Nordhavns, like most boats, get far more complex. While the bigger boats aren’t necessarily harder to operate, the maintenance chores can overwhelm many couples. The larger boats mostly come with twin engines, twin gensets, complex hydraulic and electrical systems, etc. Bottom line, even a mechanically adept owner of the larger boats may want a captain or boat manager just to keep on top of everything, otherwise you become a slave to boat maintenance. As I see it, the bigger boats are really very seaworthy pocket superyachts than traditional trawlers.

I suspect that might be what Dan is referring to when he says the N55 is a “classic trawler”, given that designation implies (to me!) a boat that is simple enough for an active and resourceful owner to maintain and operate without difficulty, and has the seaworthiness of a traditional trawler.

The topic of this series is installing computers in the N55, so I asked Mike Jensen about recent trends.  Using a computer — as opposed to a dedicated chartplotter — for navigation is becoming more ubiquitous on this type of yacht. Jensen says about 75 percent of N55 customers are using computers for navigation, with perhaps half also using them for entertainment. Anecdotal research suggests that when they are used for entertainment, they are likely to be dedicated to that function. John Marshall’s setup is an example of the philosophy behind that “separation of church and state.”  In tomorrow’s installment, you can read a Q&A with John about the computers installed on Serendipity.

(Read Part 2 in this series here)

Copyright © 2010 by OceanLines LLC

Posted by Tom in Boats, Cruising Under Power, Electronics, Gear & Apparel, Passagemaking News, Technology

Piloting a Freighter in New York Harbor

“All stop! Rudder amidships!”  The command from the pilot to the helmsman was loud, almost harsh, betraying the pilot’s anxiety.  The M/V Marina Star, a 400-foot freighter, was in the narrowest part of the New York Harbor ship channel, heading south toward the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

But a 40-foot sailboat was passing directly in front of the freighter’s bow, perhaps 100 meters ahead of the big steel ship.  Both the pilot, Capt. Rick Schoenlank of the Sandy Hook Pilots Association, and the vessel’s master, Dunceal Constantin, were on edge, their anxiety about a near collision blossoming into barely restrained anger.  The ship’s horn blasted five times in the international signal for immediate danger. 

New York Harbor is a busy place and the shipping channels are narrow.

New York Harbor is a busy place and the shipping channels are narrow.

This is why I was onboard: to sample life from the other side.  On assignment for Mad Mariner, and with the blessing of the pilot’s association, I had followed Schoenlank onto the Greek-built freighter to observe first-hand the challenges of safely conning some of the world’s largest ships in and out of one of the world’s busiest harbors.

Schoenlank looked over at me, his afternoon ride-along, and said, “Well, you wanted to understand our concerns about how the recreational boaters sometimes get in trouble out here with these big ships?  Here you go.”

The sailboat had been observed for the last several minutes through the binoculars by the pilot, the master and the navigator, and her course had not varied.  She was on track to collide with the freighter. With her bearing unchanged and range decreasing, something had to be done.

It was then that the pilot ordered the big ship to stop – a move not without risk in the relatively narrow ship lane leading out of New York Harbor to the Ambrose Channel and the Atlantic. There were vessels astern of us who would have to adjust their speeds, and if the tide or winds had been stronger the ship could have drifted out of the channel and quickly run aground or into an adjacent anchorage crowded with other vessels.

There was considerable discussion – I’ll spare the coarser details – between the pilot and the vessel’s master about what the sailor might have been thinking.

Ultimately, the freighter came nearly to a dead stop, and the sailboat passed safely in front of her at what must have seemed a comfortable distance to the sailboat’s helmsman.  But without or the freighter’s drastic maneuver, the sailboat would very likely have been run down.


The amount of large commercial traffic in and out of New York Harbor is staggering: more than 12,500 commercial transits a year.  That means the Sandy Hook pilots, with their fleet of 12 pilot boats based on Staten Island, handle more than 35 ship movements a day.  These ships range from small coastal freighters to the biggest ships in the world – supertankers and container ships more than 1,000 feet long.

Schoenlank and I boarded the Marina Star shortly before noon at her pier in the Port of Newark, where she had just finished loading a cargo of steel pipe bound for Houston.  Schoenlank went through a formal routine of introducing himself to the vessel’s master, asking permission to enter the bridge, and then setting up his own equipment and preparing to depart.  Sandy Hook pilots use a specially-configured laptop equipped with dedicated software – Wheelhouse II, in this case – and a portable DGPS receiver that the pilot mounts out on the bridge wing.  The laptop is then connected to the ship’s AIS system through a special port that is required by international maritime law to be installed on all commercial ships that require pilots. 

A sailboat forces the freighter Marina Star to stop dead in the water in order to avoid a collision.

A sailboat forces the freighter Marina Star to stop dead in the water in order to avoid a collision.

The laptop and its software allow Schoenlank and his fellow pilots to have their own reliable navigation system, customized for local conditions.  Schoenlank also had a wireless broadband Internet connection that allowed him to double-check detailed tide and current information online.

Some of the chaos of harbors like New York is minimized by the Vessel Traffic System, a monitoring and advisory service run by the U.S. Coast Guard.  The VTS takes advantage of fixed cameras, radar and AIS systems aboard commercial vessels to monitor the flow of ships into and out of piers and anchorages throughout the greater New York City area.  Harbor pilots talk to the VTS, who can give them notice of traffic in their area and assist with conflict resolution.

But when it comes to recreational boat traffic, they are all but blind. The VTS –- and consequently the harbor pilots –- have no reliable means of monitoring the recreational traffic in the harbor.  On a nice summer weekend, that can mean literally hundreds of small boats of all kinds moving in every direction, into and out of shipping lanes and often, in the case of recreational fishermen, sitting or even anchoring directly in the Ambrose channel.


Schoenlank said many recreational captains don’t understand how restricted large vessels really are.  “They look at this harbor and see a big open area, not realizing that this ship I’m guiding has only a 150-foot wide channel to maneuver in,” Schoenlank says.  “They also have a hard time judging the speed of an approaching ship.  They’ll sit here fishing in the middle of the channel until the last possible second, not realizing that the ship approaching is actually doing 12 or 13 knots.  There’s a kind of optical illusion that makes these big ships appear to be going more slowly than they really are.”

Marina Star is a smaller, lighter vessel with a top speed of about 7 knots, and she slowed more quickly when power was taken off to avoid the sailboat. B ut Schoenlank points out that a fully-laden supertanker will simply not stop in less than a half mile – and often it takes far longer.

“If that fisherman can’t get his motor started on the first pull,” Schoenlank says, “he’s in trouble.” 

The Master watches the Harbor Pilot navigate busy waters into port.

The Master watches the Harbor Pilot navigate busy waters into port.

In recent years, the Sandy Hook Pilots have worked with the Coast Guard and with some of the bigger fishing tournaments to try to reduce the hazards to both commercial and recreational boats.  A program called “Clear Channel” uses Coast Guard launches to clear the waterway ahead of the ships.  But Coast Guard resources are limited and they are not always available to run interference for the commercial ships.

As the sailboat passed off to starboard, Schoenlank ordered the ship to make headway again and we passed uneventfully then under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and down along the Ambrose channel toward the pilot rendezvous area, where incoming and outbound ships pick up and drop off their pilots.  The rendezvous point is a little farther offshore than the old Ambrose light tower, damaged last winter when a tanker rammed it.  It was recently removed for good and the ship channels and pilot rendezvous zones re-aligned.

As we headed southward toward the rendezvous, the windy afternoon had kicked up the seas offshore and whitecaps were everywhere.  Schoenlank tapped me on the shoulder and pointed in the distance off the port bow where the sun glinted harshly on the rough water.

“Do you see a boat out there?” he asked.

I strained to see, even through polarized sunglasses, and eventually saw a fishing boat glinting in the sun every few seconds, when it wasn’t hidden behind a wave.

“Yeah, I see it,” I replied.

Schoenlank smiled. “Yes, but do you see all three of them?” he said.  “Now imagine they were directly ahead of us, or that the whitecaps were just a big bigger.”


For the harbor pilots of New York, “local knowledge” seems an insufficient term to describe the depth of their understanding of the waterways where they work.  And it is not obtained quickly.  The training and apprenticeship of a harbor pilot involves more time on the job than many doctoral programs. 

Bridge crew of the tanker Sichem Onomichi monitor the vessel's approach to a pier. The tanker was assisted by a tug boat.

Bridge crew of the tanker Sichem Onomichi monitor the vessel's approach to a pier. The tanker was assisted by a tug boat.

Each candidate arrives as a licensed Master – itself an accomplishment – and begins a five and a half year apprenticeship, during which the trainee will operate under the direct supervision of a full pilot.  During these years, the apprentice will gradually move from smaller vessels up to the largest supertankers.  The long apprenticeship ensures that each candidate has plenty of opportunity to experience all the waterways New York City has to offer, in all kinds of weather, traffic and sea conditions.

After that, the apprentice is ready to become a deputy pilot.  As a deputy, the candidate still has seven full years ahead before acquiring the title of Full Branch Pilot.  And even after gaining the full pilot designation, there will be continuing education and training requirements.

At the pilot rendezvous station, our outbound Marina Star was met by one of the Sandy Hook Pilots’ new “America-class” pilot boats, a 53-foot, diesel-powered all-weather vessel built by the Derecktor Shipyard. The rendezvous is coordinated by one of two large, pilot-relief ships: either the 182-foot New York or the 145-foot New Jersey.  In our case, the New Jersey was on station, manned by a crew of apprentice pilots who spend as much as two weeks at a time offshore.

The pilot boat came along the port side of Marina Star, carefully matching our speed and staying as close to the big ship’s hull as possible.  Schoenlank and I said goodbye to the master on the bridge and made our way down to the main deck, where a Jacobs ladder – a rope and wooden slats – had been rigged for us to climb down to the pilot boat.

Sichem Onomichi approaches a pier in New Jersey, where its diesel fuel cargo will be offloaded.

Sichem Onomichi approaches a pier in New Jersey, where its diesel fuel cargo will be offloaded.

While the helmsman of the pilot boat deftly controlled his vessel in the heaving, confused seas between the two boats, another apprentice pilot stood on the foredeck of the pilot boat and helped us time our final steps aboard.  It’s a physically demanding evolution, and not without risk.  Pilots and crewmembers can be injured or killed if things go wrong.

Once aboard the pilot boat, we were quickly transferred to the New Jersey, where we were able to grab a quick cup of coffee and regroup before getting right back on the pilot boat for transfer to an inbound tanker. The New Jersey has a special hatch well down her hull side to ease the movement to and from the smaller pilot boats, but it can still be hairy when the seas are rough.

We pulled along the starboard side the Sichem Onomichi, a brand-new 400-foot Korean-built tanker.  Schoenlank had taken Marina Star from pier to sea; now he would be charged with getting Sichem Onomichi from sea to port.  The apprentice pilot on our boat cautioned me to step onto the Jacobs ladder only when the tanker was rising relative to the pilot boat. To step aboard on a downward cycle would put me between the two vessels and in danger of being crushed.

Sichem Onomichi is a chemical and petroleum carrier and, like most commercial ships these days, she had an international crew that included an Indian master and Singaporean and Filipino mates (all are supposed to speak English on the bridge). Sichem Onomichi was bound for an oil company wharf along the New Jersey banks of the Arthur Kill, where specialized equipment ashore would unload the ship’s diesel fuel cargo. Because of the tightly-constrained waterway there, the vessel would require the additional services of a tugboat and tug pilot, who would take over from Schoenlank for docking.

It was time to do it all again.

Copyright ©  2008 by OceanLines LLC

Posted by Tom in People

A Marinized Computer Could Replace Your Chartplotters

In the last couple of years, the notion of bringing a fully integrated personal computer aboard anything smaller than a megayacht has become not only possible, but might even offer some significant advantages to the traditional solution of dedicated chartplotters.

Bringing a modern, marinized PC aboard your trawler might just be a gateway to enhanced navigation, communication and entertainment capabilities that would have cost many thousands of dollars just a few years ago. It can also be intimidating, with a bevy of choices to make and no clear path to follow for solutions.

Argonaut's Avalon mini computer. Many marine machines are petite, built for a boat's small spaces.
Argonaut’s Avalon mini computer. Many marine machines are petite, built for a boat’s small spaces.

Yet buying a computer for your boat need not be any more difficult than buying one for your home or business. It merely requires a modest investment of time and perhaps a somewhat less modest investment of money.  The first choice you are apt to face is whether to buy a “marinized” computer or a standard, landlubber unit from one of the big manufacturers like Dell, HP or Gateway. Both have advantages and are worthy of investigation.


If you have a stately pilothouse trawler and you take weekend cruises on quiet waters, you might be able to get away with a laptop or desktop from a big–box store.  The primary advantage is cost: they can be dramatically cheaper than a purpose–built marine computer.  There’s also a familiarity factor – most of us have done this before and know the drill.

But that choice is not without risk.  What happens to your electronic charting system if your nephew knocks the machine off the chart table, or you drop it yourself while traveling between house and boat?  Another constraint on a standard laptop is the screen.  Most are not designed for use in bright sunlight, and may require a special shade.

But there is no debating that the cost of standard computers is lower – and one could argue that it may be efficient to simply replace a laptop every few years, taking advantage of the latest technology, rather than spending substantially more for a dedicated marine system.


So what do you get with a “marinized” PC?  The truth is that there are no universal specification standards for marinization, and so the term means different things to different companies.

AmbientNav marine displays and computer installed on a Grady-White 360. Modern marine computers are capable of doing heavy duty navigation work.
AmbientNav marine displays and computer installed on a Grady-White 360. Modern marine computers are capable of doing heavy duty navigation work.

But there are some things you can expect.  Most marine computer manufacturers use some form of solid connection – usually solder or glue – to secure wiring and components.  Circuit boards are often coated with silicone or some other non–conducting material to protect them from corrosion, which is probably the biggest contributor to early death among marine electronics.  And hard drives and optical drives are usually shock–mounted to combat everything from the normal vibrations of the engines to the shock of landing in the trough of a large wave.  Many units are also far smaller than their land-based counterparts, and have connections placed strategically with a marine installation in mind, such as the Argonaut unit pictured above.

Most marinized computers also run on 12–volt DC power, with power supplies that can adjust to the varying DC voltage that is common on boats.  Some of these computers can be powered by either DC or AC systems.  Many are also designed to handle the extreme thermal environment of a boat cabin, using fans, passive cooling tubes or heat–sink components to draw heat away from the processor and circuit boards.

There are many vendors of marinized PCs. Some companies, such as VEI Systems and Big Bay Technologies, grew up providing high–end systems to the megayacht industry, with some commercial and military business too.  Others came from the community of passagemaking sailors, and were focused on inexpensive, low–power units that could do yeoman’s duty at a nav station without draining the batteries.  Some of these latter suppliers use basic processors and chipsets intended for mobile computing because of their inherently lower power requirements (and lower heat generation), while others swear by full–powered Pentium chips to handle the requirements of a fully networked system.

What you need will largely depend on what you intend to do.  If you’re going to install your system on a sailboat with a limited electrical budget and a snug nav station with limited air flow, a mobile chipset might be a good idea.  If you have the juice and the space for cooling, go with a full–blown Pentium Core Duo or higher.

Similarly important is the video processing capability.  Today’s vector charts are rich with detail, layers and colors and most experts agree that you need to have at least 128MB of available video memory in order to ensure the machine will re–draw the screen reasonably quick.  A computer with a dedicated video processing card is the best choice, as opposed to the integrated video offered on many budget systems.  As with most things in the computer world, more video memory would be even better.  Ask your vendor specifically about this and let them know the type of navigation software you plan to use.  (If you need help choosing, read Mad Mariner’s multi–part series on electronic charting software.)

The same more–is–better philosophy goes for RAM.  Simply stated, buy as much as you can afford. Nothing on any PC runs worse with more memory – it all runs far better.  Modern standards call for a minimum of 1 gigabyte of RAM.  Big charts and multiple programs will benefit from 2 gigabytes of RAM but it’s cheap enough that you should buy as much as the motherboard will accommodate.

Many marine PCs are still shipped with Windows XP because of its maturity and stability and the fact that drivers for most peripherals are readily available.  The complete switch to Microsoft Vista in marine computers may take another year or more while vendors finish writing drivers and users get more comfortable with the system.  If you do get a unit with Vista, make sure the software you want to use has been updated to run on Vista.

VEI Systems installed this full computer system with displays on a large sportfishing boat.  Monitors that can be seen in daylight are one of the most expensive components of an onboard system.
VEI Systems installed this full computer system with displays on a large sportfishing boat. Monitors that can be seen in daylight are one of the most expensive components of an onboard system.

One of the major advantages of the marine computer alternative is that today’s units can take inputs from nearly every traditional marine sensor — radar, depth and fishfinders, weather sensors — that a chartplotter can, but they can also integrate sophisticated new monitoring systems, like those from Krill Systems, and the nearly unlimited entertainment hosting of the modern PC.  In short, you don’t have to settle for the tiny video window on a chartplotter to see your engine room or swim platform; you can have the boat’s computer display it full-screen on one of your multiple displays.  In fact, the notion of a “glass-bridge” need not be confined to the superyacht society any longer.  A typical higher-end PC will host many displays and easily integrate dozens of sensor and system inputs simultaneously.  Your imagination and helm space (and your budget) will be the only real limitations.


Indeed, monitors are among the most costly items required for an onboard computer rig, whether you buy a marinized unit or something off the shelf. But help is on the way.


Speaking of displays, these will be where you end up spending most of your money.  The nautical world has yet to catch up to the size and resolution capabilities of the consumer units most of us are familiar with from the office or home.  They do face stiffer technical challenges, however, and that contributes significantly to their higher cost.  Chief among these is the requirement to be visible in extremely bright light, yet also capable of being dimmed to almost nothing for night operations.  Add to that the challenge of dissipating heat somehow through a waterproof enclosure and you understand where the higher costs come from.  AmbientNav has some of the most impressive displays, with passive cooling technologies and mil-standard waterproof performance.

To–date, these monitors have been prohibitively expensive, on the order of $3,000 or more for a screen big enough to be useable. That is finally changing, as both technology and market demand combine to inspire new designs and lower prices. Argonaut, for example, one of the bigger marine PC companies, is now offering a 15–inch, waterproof, sunlight–readable display for less than $1,000. That may seem like a lot, considering you can buy a 32–inch widescreen monitor for your home with that kind of money. But it is a breakthrough in marine monitor pricing and bodes very well for the future.


So, who to buy from? There is an abundance of companies offering marine PCs, and the number is growing. For example, MarineNav, of Canada, is a relative newcomer but their founder, Kevan Merson, is a serious sailor who demands reliability and capability. His company, on Prince Edward Island, builds small PCs with lots of front connectors.  The company’s latest model, the Leviathan, has four processing cores, 4 TB of storage standard and can run up to 16 monitors in any combination of independent or cloned displays.  Vice President of production, Jean Guy LeClerc, uses his own company’s equipment, which is always a good sign.

LeClerc has the company’s Nautilus Extreme installed at the nav station of his Hunter 40.5, with all his sailing instruments and real–time weather services connected. The MarineNav systems can accommodate up to 1.5 terabytes of hard disk storage, which is nice if you, like LeClerc, keep your kids’ movies and music on the PC as well. MarineNav also makes a unique line of monitors that are gorgeous, wood–framed mirrors when unpowered but transform into full–featured, high–definition displays when needed. These make handy extra display stations in salons and staterooms. MarineNav PCs start at $1,395 for a very basic setup, including 60 gigs of storage, 512 megabytes of RAM and a 1.5 gigahertz processor.

Another possibility would be Comark Corporation’s unique PCs, which use flash drives for basic storage – conventional hard disks are optional. Comark President Steve Schott says recreational boaters often use Comark PCs as complements to dedicated chartplotters. Comark’s higher–end DuraMobile PC is a special, fanless unit that uses a finned aluminum heatsink to dissipate heat. The result is a quieter, less power–hungry and slightly more reliable unit (fans can fail). Comark says that their PCs will run even Nobeltec’s top–of–the–line Admiral navigation software with just an 8GB flash drive, although one may want to store charts on a hard disk instead of running them from discs.

Motion's larger LE1700 tablet computer is suitable for onboard use, at a base price of $1,699.
Motion’s larger LE1700 tablet computer is suitable for onboard use, at a base price of $1,699.

For a high–end approach, Big Bay Technologies offers a dual PC Book system in which one of the units operates as a silent “mirror” in the background, ready to takeover instantly in case the first unit fails. That setup costs about $3,000.  You could add a 19–inch monitor for the pilothouse and a 17–inch waterproof monitor for the flybridge for about $3,000. The two displays cost $1,495 each (the smaller one is waterproof, hence the same price as the 19–inch).

Most marine computers have numerous USB, Firewire, LAN, modem and VGA connectors, as well as multiple video outputs.  Be sure the computer you buy has what you need. You should also look into the tech support offered by your manufacturer ahead of time.  You may even want to call the tech support number and see how long it takes to get a knowledgeable helper on the line.  If it takes an hour, you know what you are dealing with.  You don’t want to discover that tech support is by email–only if you’re offshore somewhere with only a satphone for communication. Similarly, make sure you understand the warranty, whether it includes all system components and what the repair and return policies are.

Some of the bigger, longer established vendors like VEI Systems have earned their business with a stellar support reputation.  They are unlikely to be the cheapest solution available, but if reliability and support are important, consider buying from them.  Don’t ignore some of the smaller companies, though.  Many have also been around for more than 10 years.  The easiest way to get to know them is to visit at a boat show near you; they’re usually at all the big shows.  Visit as many as possible with a good notion of what you’d like to do and then ask them all for recommendations about “how” to do what you want.  Avoid going into a discussion with pre-conceived notions about the solution.  You might be surprised at the creativity and capabilities you might get.

Copyright ©  2008 by OceanLines LLC 

Posted by Tom in Technology