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Old 14-09-2021, 23:15   #1
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Seen various people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. Why?

Hey all,

I am early in the sailing journey, just finishing up ASA 101 and plan to charter a bunch of boats before buying my own (and take at least ASA 103, and probably 104 before then).

I installed OpenCPN (not a fan), and also got Navionics app for phone/tablet (am a fan).

Seeing how Id be sailing a bunch of different boats through the charter, and on the cheap low end Catalina 30's from mid 80's they dont even have nav equipment (or its non functioning). What should I use for nav?

Why are tablet/phone charts not trusted? Is it an issue with trusting the hardware to not fail in a marine environment? If so, then how can a laptop or Rpi be trusted? Those are definitely not IP6X like modern phones/tablets.

I am generally good as far as locating myself on a paper map, but having a GPS overlay update every second seems like it is always a better option (even if using a cheap Chinese tablet with poor GPS chip). Especially in an ocean with no landmarks.

So I am curious as to why people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. To me, as someone new to sailing it sounds alien, almost like someone telling me to never use my phone to navigate roads (driving directions).

40 years ago, when chart plotters came out, did ole sailors say not to trust a computer and use paper charts instead? If electrical fails you are screwed! Which is true for phones/tablets as well (once the battery runs out), but I think chart plotters are generally considered a trusted source for charting these days?

Of course having redundancy is very important, but this almost solves itself, unless you are single handing, everyone has a phone. Some have a phone AND a tablet. And even if single handing the low barrier of $50 for an Android device allows you to throw an extra one in a Pelican case with some silica in case you need it.

Looking forward to the discussion. Thanks!
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Old 14-09-2021, 23:33   #2
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Re: Seen various people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. Why?

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Originally Posted by Duxa View Post
So I am curious as to why people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation.
Because these people need to justify why they spent $50k on multiple 18" screens, MFD's etc. Pulling out a $100 phone is clearly a death wish. 😁

This is only slightly tongue in cheek. Keeping up with the Jones's is alive and well. I routinely set off using nothing more than the Navionics app. Numerous devices on board also have it installed and can be called upon as backups.

Mapping accuracy is important. However, so is being aware of your surroundings.
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Old 15-09-2021, 00:19   #3
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Re: Seen various people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. Why?

Never use them is overstating it.

Phones and tablets have annoying limitations which can make it practically unusable. For other - like me - I can live with them. Here are the major problems:
  • Phones and Tablets overheat if used in the sun for prolonged time. Leave your phone out in the sun with the app running and you can be certain, I'll go into thermal shutdown. This makes them a bad choice for navigation from the helm. Regular chartplotter have this solved.
  • The screen of phones and tablets don't have much contrast. Try to read something on your tablet in bright sunlit. It just doesn't work. This makes them pretty unusable as a display at the helm. Regular chartplotter try to have extra-bright displays dealing better with sunlight. This explains partially why chartplotter are so expensive.
  • Some of the software really sucks when interacting with the power-saving features of the OS. Nothing beats the OS deciding it needs to turn off the screen while app is running. Some provider solve this better and are quicker to fix their program when Apple or Google decide to implement yet another power-saving scheme to make the battery last longer.
  • When you use the phone or tablet for navigation, you can't use it as a phone, update your Instagram or watch Netflix. Even if theoretically possible, in reality don't even consider it.
  • Waterproofing. If you use your phone or tablet at the helm, you need to have it connected to the power outlet and the whole combo should be mounted and waterproof. This can add to a simple solution costs.
  • Some people found the night mode on phones and tablets still too bright. For me, this wasn't an issue up to now.
Using a tablet (phone is too small for me) as the only chart plotter I found it ok that the tablet stays inside at the navigation desk and I don't have a display at the helm. This is in line with my 40 year old boat. It's important to have a WIFI providing NMEA-data to the navigation app. The ship GPS is a lot better than the internal GPS of the tablet / phone.

Also very important is to plan for a backup. Should the phone or the wifi fail, know how you navigate. Things like paper charts and the GPS-display and AIS on the VHF go a long way.
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Old 15-09-2021, 01:10   #4
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Re: Seen various people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. Why?

We’re using a dedicated tablet on a fixed mount under the spray hood as our “primary chart plotter”. This device is a 8” Galaxy Tab Active, a waterproof “industrial” tablet I bought off eBay for 60€.



It is mounted where a stone-age (late 90s?) chartplotter used to be on the boat.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Joh.Ghurt View Post
[*]Phones and Tablets overheat if used in the sun for prolonged time. Leave your phone out in the sun with the app running and you can be certain, I'll go into thermal shutdown. This makes them a bad choice for navigation from the helm. Regular chartplotter have this solved.
Ours is shaded by the spray hood, so haven’t seen this issue occur. Though admittedly we don’t sail in the tropics.

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Originally Posted by Joh.Ghurt View Post
[*]The screen of phones and tablets don't have much contrast. Try to read something on your tablet in bright sunlit. It just doesn't work. This makes them pretty unusable as a display at the helm. Regular chartplotter try to have extra-bright displays dealing better with sunlight. This explains partially why chartplotter are so expensive.
This is a totally valid point. Our B&G instrument displays get a lot brighter than the tablet. It has always been readable, though.

Newer Galaxy Tab Actives have a brighter screen, but they’re hundreds of euros more expensive than this older model (though still maybe half the price of a decent plotter). Maybe one day…

Quote:
Originally Posted by Joh.Ghurt View Post
[*]Some of the software really sucks when interacting with the power-saving features of the OS. Nothing beats the OS deciding it needs to turn off the screen while app is running. Some provider solve this better and are quicker to fix their program when Apple or Google decide to implement yet another power-saving scheme to make the battery last longer.
At least on Android the Navionics app has a “keep screen active” option that skips all regular power saving and keeps the app open.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Joh.Ghurt View Post
[*]Waterproofing. If you use your phone or tablet at the helm, you need to have it connected to the power outlet and the whole combo should be mounted and waterproof. This can add to a simple solution costs.
These industrial tablets have pogo pins that can be used to power them in a more waterproof fashion than USB. The charging cradle cost more than the tablet (70€ vs 60€), but one could also build a DIY one.

I’ve had tablets with wireless charging in the past. That would also make waterproofing easy.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Joh.Ghurt View Post
It's important to have a WIFI providing NMEA-data to the navigation app. The ship GPS is a lot better than the internal GPS of the tablet / phone.
Totally agreed. You can also transmit other stuff to the tablet over WiFi, like depth and AIS targets. Using the ship GPS also reduces the tablet’s power consumption quite a bit.

On our boat this is all handled by Signal K on a Raspberry Pi that is connected to N2K (using a Sailor Hat). It also amends the N2K data with other non-marine sensors like Ruuvi tags.

I wish the Navionics communicated also in the other direction, sending active waypoints etc. But that’s just a convenience.

One cool advantage I saw with using the tablet was route editing. You can edit the currently active route on a phone (for example) while the tablet is navigating, and it’ll update “live”. Was handy when we had to move some waypoints around when Navionics autorouting wanted us to sail under a too-low bridge,
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Old 15-09-2021, 01:23   #5
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Re: Seen various people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. Why?

Most navigational cautions, I’ve seen, have advised to not use [insert 'something' here] as SOLE means of navigation; and occasionally, PRIMARY means of navigation.
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Old 15-09-2021, 01:31   #6
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Re: Seen various people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. Why?

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These industrial tablets have pogo pins that can be used to power them in a more waterproof fashion than USB.
The reliability of charger plugs is definitely a concern overtime. Are their any other options that others have found reliable?
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Old 15-09-2021, 05:49   #7
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Re: Seen various people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. Why?

As with all things on the water: It all depends. On your own preferences, and the kind of sailing you do.

Are you sailing across an ocean? Or across a bay? My perspective is what I want for long ocean crossings.

It starts with personal navigation preferences. The helm station in my boat's cockpit is quite protected. I much prefer to do all my electronic navigation from there, from route planning, all the way on. When I do formal paper chart work, I do that at the nav station below. Over all having radar, instrument displays, AIS data, and chart available at a glance to the helmsman is very important to me.

That pretty much eliminates using a laptop as a primary navigation tool. Which is just as well, because like the OP I have not found OpenCPN to a user friendly tool for me.

Understand that I do number of deliveries. When I am on a delivery, I use my iPad running iSailor as my primary navigation tool, so I have a lot of experience with this kind of tool and I know I CAN cross an ocean with it as my primary navigation tool. But I do not want to.

Here are my thoughts, and my reasons that I will always have a dedicated chart plotter installed on my boat at my helm. My iPad, and my paper charts are my backup, which I have needed. I use iSailor because I use Navionics charts on my plotter, and I really want the second opinion I get using the TranSAS charts on iSailor.

As people have pointed out above, any tablet is fragile when plugged in. If you are doing day sails this might not be an issue, but when your sail trip is a week or more long, for many hours a day your tablet is either plugged in and vulnerable to water in the cockpit, or it is below.

I have not seen a tablet yet that darkens its screen enough to be safe to use at night. My MFD display does. For me this is a must have.

I have not yet seen a tablet that can run a screen bright enough to see when the sun shines on it. My MFD does. For me this is a must have.

I have not yet seen a tablet that can tolerate running with full sun on its screen without overheating and shutting down. My MFD can run in the full sun on a hot day without a problem. For me this is a must have. Having your display shut down just as you line up on a tricky channel is not acceptable.

If the tablet is in a fixed mount, I find that interacting with my navigation screen solely with a touch interface is AWFUL when the seas are rough. It is impossible to do any fine control. Most of the major MFD makers tried a fully touch interface at one point in their development cycle and then went away from it, instead going to a hybrid system of touch and buttons. There are very good reasons for this.

We don't often sail in weather cold enough for the watchstander to need gloves, but when we do it is very nice to be able to have basic interactions with the MFD thru the butttons without taking the gloves off.

I have not seen any tablet app that gives me full control of all the extensive features of my autopilot. For me, this is a must have.

Other people make other choices. Sometimes because of the kind of sailing they do, and sometimes because they can not afford a full MFD. For me and the way I sail the capabilities of my MFD are clearly superior to anything running on a tablet and is worth the cost of keeping the tablet in a backup/secondary role on my boat.
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Old 15-09-2021, 06:24   #8
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Re: Seen various people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. Why?

Joh.Ghurt's post has largely nailed it. My list:
  • they overheat on hot days or in the sun
  • displays are not sunlight readable
  • navigation app can be preempted by an incoming phone call and various other events
  • phone may have to be unlocked at an awkward time (yes you can disable security but on a phone you use for other things this will usually delete all your payment card data)
  • battery life isn't long enough for a full day on the water
  • even waterproof phones cannot charge reliably in the rain
  • phone touch screens are not usable in the rain
I have switched to a Garmin Montana and am extremely happy with it. Useful on boats of all sizes down to a canoe, truly waterproof, can be used in the rain, long battery life, sunlight readable, connects to the tiller pilot, can charge from its cradle, etc etc etc. They're expensive and single purpose, and the display isn't as large as that on a chartplotter, but I find mine to be a good compromise.
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Old 15-09-2021, 07:25   #9
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Re: Seen various people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. Why?

A prudent sailor will use all tools available for navigation. That includes tablets and ipads.

Certainly, navigating with only a tablet, with no other GPS or charting device isn't very safe. But if you are in sight of land a hand bearing compass and paper charts would be plenty enough to satisfy me for being safe.

Lots of people sail in familiar areas with no GPS or charts at all. Certainly, adding a tablet to that isn't ever a negative.

Offshore, I have a tablet, a laptop, 2 cell phones, and a handheld garmin GPS. All connected via wifi to the boats NMEA network. I also have a wire connection of the network to my laptop. My VHF also has an internal GPS and AIS display. Any of those things by themselves would not be very prudent. But together, it would be extraordinary that I found myself unable to navigate.
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Old 15-09-2021, 07:45   #10
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Re: Seen various people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. Why?

Another problem not mentioned yet, is most phone/tablet built in GPS rely on constant 4G connection to download, and maintain maps.

Sail out of the square with a poor internet connection, and suddenly you are staring at a blank screen.

I've found this issue even with pre downloaded data as the data expires, or is removed by phone garbage collection to save space, or replaced by a cat video your MIL just messaged you.

With navigational software like Navionics, or ActiveCPN on a DEDICATED chartplotter, or laptop this isn't an issue.

But certainly if the chartplotter gets hit by lightning, and the tablet with Navionics has a battery problem, your cell phone will give you a good Lat Long on the chart to get home.

I have a solar phone charger that is my last backup with a substantial stack of charts for anywhere I might find myself.

I did learn how to use a sextant, and have a toy one, but a good quality Navigational grade sextant costs as much as the last MFD I bought, and the original MFD is in a box in original packaging in a cabinet with my spares.
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Old 15-09-2021, 08:41   #11
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Re: Seen various people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. Why?

Wow - while there’s some good advice here, the overall tone from many feels quite negative. I strongly disagree that a tablet isn’t to be trusted. Often here on CF, you’ll find lots of armchair world cruisers who answer every question like you’re sailing the high seas… days from shore. You’re new, and going to be local/coastal chartering and building experience. From the many posts I’ve seen on threads here and other forums, I believe there are TONS of people out there that use tablets and phones for primary navigation. There are some high quality apps using the same maps you’d be installing on an MFD. I also have not had the brightness control, overheating, “shutdowns” and other issues others have mentioned. I use iNavX primarily on an ipad. I also have it on my iPhone, so there’s one back-up, and gf has separate Navionics app on her oversized iPhone… for backup #2. Plus paper chart… and I actually DO have a MFD… which is the most difficult to update.

So easy to keep my handheld devices updated… and I have never driven off the map… Having started off many years ago on sailing club/charter boats, (prior to tablets and smartphones!) - I fully understand your scenario. A quality tablet device with GPS, with your phone as a backup is a great way for you to ensure you have accurate mapping capabilities as you step on and off different boats. I think the key is getting a QUALITY device. Just don’t go shopping for the cheapest Android tablet you can find with a GPS, and then download a “Free” app as your data source!
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Old 15-09-2021, 09:06   #12
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Re: Seen various people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. Why?

Never seems a little extreme. I can and do use paper charts (for planning). IF given a choice between paper charts and an iPhone, I'd choose an iPhone. IF given the choice between an iPhone and an iPad, I'd choose an iPad.

I use a Raymarine 12" display AND an iPad. I'm under a full canvas cover. The iPad is almost impossible to read with polarized lenses on. It's still difficult to read in bright light.

Will it work? Absolutely

Would I want it as a primary navigating tool? Not by choice
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Old 15-09-2021, 09:17   #13
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Re: Seen various people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. Why?

Aids are fine, but I always use chart work alongside. It never fails.
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Old 15-09-2021, 09:24   #14
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Re: Seen various people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. Why?

You should have a dedicated marine chartplotter, its safest as they can handle outdoor abuse.



That being said I use my Android phone for 95% of the time, its in my pocket, it has all my apps, it has great charts (open uscg ones and paid Navionics) and it has my music. But as others have said, not going to cut it in heavy weather.


Use both, its good to have redundancy.


You may want to explore opencpn with a weatherproof housing for the screen as an alternative to name brand$$ units.
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Old 15-09-2021, 09:25   #15
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Re: Seen various people say to never use a phone/tablet for navigation. Why?

I know a sailing family that has circumnavigated using only OpenCPN and a tablet with iNavX. And another on my dock who has logged 10,000 miles along the east coast and Caribbean using only paper charts. Certainly it is possible. For long distance sailing there isn't any reason to have a plotter turned on 24/7 - navigating in smaller spaces then maybe.

Don't get me wrong, they are nice, but is it worth the premium over the cost of a tablet? Not in my opinion. I bought a Galaxy Tab Active Pro - 10 inch screen which has 600 nits brightness (brighter than an iPad but not as bright as a chartplotter which run ~1000 nits), and is waterproof. RAM makes mounts for them with built in fans for cooling and charging that uses the magnetic POGO connector instead of the USB port. In my opinion the charting apps represent a better value than the "cards" as well. It has a replaceable battery and a sim card slot, so it can double as my hotspot and I can update charts without WiFi.
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