Thursday, November 28, 2013

ActiveCaptain Companion - On the Cutting Edge

Application:  iOS iPhone, iPad, Mac, Android and PC
Function: Marine POI and Hazard warning guidance
Rating: *****
Cost: $Free

Jeffrey Siegel and his crew at ActiveCaptain have been helping boaters safely navigate and find points of interest(POI) on the worlds coastal regions for years now. I think I can safely say that the ActiveCaptain database is the world's largest, most complete list of marine points of interest. The unique thing is that the POIs, local knowledge and reviews are crowd sourced by people just like you and me. Jeff and his team confirm and verify every entry into the database so you can be assured the data is accurate.

The ActiveCaptain website is a great tool for locating marinas, restaurants, anchorages, fuel stops and hazards.  It can be accessed through a standard web browser from your PC or Mac. If your looking for a mobile charting app that includes ActiveCaptain you don't have to look far.  iOS apps including Garmin Blue Chart Mobile, SEAiq, PolarView, SailTimer, Skipper and Navimatics Charts and Tides provide the ActiveCaptain database of POIs.  Android apps with ActiveCaptain include Jeppesen Plan2Nav, NutiCharts and SmartChart AIS.  The ActiveCaptain folks offer incorporation of their database for free to anyone who wants to add it to their marine app or program. 

The Active Captain Companion app was introduced recently and is now available for your iOS iPhone, iPad, Mac, Android devices and PC.  The best part is that it is totally free. The whole idea behind the companion is to have a digital assistant watching out for you as you cruise the coastal regions of the world.  The app is not meant to be used in place of your normal navigation practices but as an additional tool to help you safely navigate. The companion uses the extensive ActiveCaptain database and your GPS position to warn you of hazards and show other POIs that my be in your path. Hazards are the first to be implemented as warnings with other features to follow.  Hazard warnings can be set up with an audible alarm or voice notification.  Now you have a welcomed "back seat driver" that will keep you aware of the hazards around you on the water.

The app is not intended to be chart plotter but it does have some basic Streetmaps to show you the proximity of the markers.  It is not a guide book although is does provide the complete list of ActiveCaptain points of interest for you to explore. The POI database is downloaded to your device so it can be used offline while you are away from the Internet or cell service. That's right, no Internet connection required. 

  • Audible alarm and male or female voice notifications
  • Active Captain POI
  • Marina
  • Write Reviews
  • GPS position following
  • Anchorages
  • Hazards
  • Local Knowledge
  • Pan and Zoom
  • Search and Find POIs
  • Map downloads
  • GPS internal, local and remote configurations
Getting Started:

1. Create Account.  The first thing you will need to do is to create an ActiveCaptain account. This is free and can be done by simply providing an email and creating a password here on the ActiveCaptain website.  

2. eBoatCard login. The next step is to login to the website.  Use the same email and password that you used for your ActiveCaptain account. is the ActiveCaptain's social networking site for boaters. It allows members you to create group, post pictures, links, status updates, photos and blog if you like. Be sure to create your own electronic boatcard.  This requires your boat name, hailing port, flag, name, model and time zone. Other information including captain, crew, boat details and use can also be filled out.

3. Download the ActiveCaptain Companion app from the iTunes store and tap the Star located in the lower right corner of the main display. This will bring up the Main Menu display. Select the ActiveCaptain Logo next to login to your account. Once logged in, download the database.  This may take a few minutes so it is best done with a WiFi connection.

4. Download Detail Maps.  The app comes with a base world map.  More detailed maps can be downloaded with the Map/Tile Download selection in the Main Menu. Simply tap the tiles on the map where you want more detail and hit Tap here to Download at the bottom of the screen. These add finer detail but may still appear blurry if you zoom in too far.  Remember that the app is not a chartplotter. The maps are just used for general reference.

5. Review Settings.  The settings page provides options to select for the sound and voices, display, units, proximity hazards and GPS/NMEA settings. Review these to customize the display options.

Now that you have the app downloaded, your logged in and you have downloaded maps you are ready to put the companion to use.

The Main Menu also has a selection called Find.  Tap this feature to locate a specific marker, GPS location by latitude and longitude or by US waterway mile maker.

Once the item is found you can drill down into the selections for greater detail including name, address, phone, facility type, contact info, dockage, fuel, services and reviews. You can also add or modify your own reviews from within the app.

Each selection found has a Go
button next to it, tap this and it takes you to the map location.  One thing I found annoying was that I had to re-type my search criteria in each time I went back to the Find page. I wish the app would keep my last search so I could keep reviewing the POIs in that area.

The main map view is shown in the upper portion of the display.  The Plus and Minus controls on the right side of the screen allow the user to zoom in and out of the display. The pinch and spread features will not work for zooming.

Use your finger to Pan around the display map.  Tap any point on the map to center it on that location.  Tap any marker to center it in the Red cornered selection box. You can then select the POI to get additional details about each item.

Two large boxes are displayed across the bottom of the screen.  The top Up Ahead line shows the Hazards that you will encounter on your current heading. Tapping the Up Ahead line will show a list of all upcoming hazards.

To the right of the Up Ahead list is a multi colored Overlay box. This  allows customization of the display to filter the view of marinas, anchorages, hazard and local knowledge. Tap the box and check the options you want to display.  The box will display open and grayed if the display is zoomed out too far. It will have an X in it if you have not logged into your ActiveCaptain account.

The Route Display is listed below the Up Ahead display line. It presently shows a compass because the GPS icon is not being followed. To follow your GPS position, tap the Return icon in the lower left of the screen. Tapping this will center the GPS icon on the screen and begin following it. The Route line should now show Proximity Mode. Proximity mode means the app is looking for hazards up ahead of your present location. To get out of Proximity Mode tap anywhere on the screen. There is no options to select the Route mode in this version. These capabilities may be added in a future release.

The compass bar can be used to change the orientation of the map. Simply tap and drag your finger left or right to change it.  Double tapping the compass bar brings the orientation back to North Up.

ActiveCaptain is pushing the envelope with this new Companion app.  They have created a new and totally novel approach to providing additional safety at sea.  If your a coastal cruiser definitely download this app and add it to your smartphone, tablet, iPad or laptop.  The next time you set out turn it on and be amazed and amused when it calmly warns you of upcoming hazards. 

I know Jeff and his crew have many additional features planned for the Companion App.  I would like to see a Gas Buddy like feature that would give me diesel fuel prices when I pull into an area.  How about a list of top rated marinas or restaurants as I cruise the intercoastal? What features would you like to see?

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!  I hope you are surrounded by family and friends for this festive day. It is a time to truly give thanks for the abundant lives we have.

~~~ Sail On ~~~ /)


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Navionics In App Purchases - Welcome or Nuisance!

Does anyone else feel like they are being nickel and dimed to death by Navionics these days? They have recently come out with several in app purchases for additional features for the app.  When I buy an app I expect all of these features to be part of the app. I don't like the idea of having to keep paying once I purchase an app.  I understand Navionics marketing philosophy on this. Let's sell them a base app and then offer all these other features to generate additional revenue.

I am usually a pretty positive guy, so I prefer to look at these additional features much like an ala carte menu. I am free to pick and choose only the features I want and don't pay for the ones I don't need. I guess no one is making me purchase these additional features. The base app will work without any of these additional bells and whistles.

I bought the Navionics USA HD app for my iPad a few years ago and have used it extensively. I paid a premium of $49.99 for the app. It is the most expensive apps I own. Then they started with the add on features which they make available through in app purchases. 

First they added the Nav Module which should have been included in the original price. They charge $4.99 for this iPad upgrade. Next came Auto routing for $4.99, Advanced Map Options for $4.99, and last Navionics Plus for $24.99. 

Lets take a look at each of these to see if they are worth the additional investment.

The Nav Module is one of the new features that is definitely worth the $4.99 price.  It offers more advanced route planning with ETA, distance to arrival, heading to WP and fuel consumption.
In their quest for a better routing solution Navionic's introduced the Nav Module.
Nav Module was developed to enhance the route creation and trip information of the Navionics apps.  It provides the user the ability to easily create routes consisting of multiple waypoints.

A route can be created by tapping on the Route selection at the bottom of the chart. Use the crosshairs to create the starting point for your route. Additional intermediate waypoints can be added to a route by simply tapping the route segment. Routes have the option of being reversed. You can create up to 99 waypoints per route on the map and save up to 1000 routes.

Once you are on a route, hold your finger on a waypoint to adjust it's location. Indicators show you the present leg of the route, the time and distance to the end of the route. Additional route details on the information bar at left show your estimated time of arrival, distance to arrival, heading to waypoints and even fuel consumption.

Auto Routing is another in app purchase that will cost you an additional $4.99.  It appears to me that you will need the Nav Module before this Auto routing feature will work.  This is a new feature to help you quickly create routes with multiple waypoints automatically. It requires that you enter some boat data including draft into the app. Select your destination and with a tap on the map and it will chart your course.  There are all kinds of disclaimers so I would be careful using this feature.  Most of the time the route created will be less than optimal. The user will have to go in and edit each point manually to optimize the route.

As I see it, this feature is not really needed because you can quickly do this all by yourself in the Nav Module. Simply analyze the chart and place waypoints manually where you want them. Pay attention to depth, course and other possible obstructions while creating the course. I would rather create the route myself and not rely on the app to create it for me.

Advanced Map Options gives you even greater control of your map display. This upgrade will cost you $4.99 also.  It adds additional controls to the Map Options page.

Selections include Highlight Shallow Area, select Depth Shading, filter Depth Contours, adjust shoreline to selected Water Level, view Seabed composition (select areas) and toggle Fishing Mode to locate key fishing areas.

If your a fisherman it may be worth it to have these additional features to show detailed depths. As a sailor of power boater, I do not see much advantage to having these features on the chart.  Most of the time I am just concerned with channel marker and making sure I have enough depth beneath my keel.

Navionics+ is the latest offering of the in app purchases.  This purchase will get you complete chart updates for a period of 12 months.  This will be a reoccurring yearly fee if you want your charts up to date. Many apps provide free chart updates which is what many of us have come to expect. Navionics strays from this model and is now charging for updates year after year.

You also get their new SonarCharts.  SonarCharts is an HD bathymetry chart that reflects up to date water depths and contours. SonarCharts is not currently available for Canada, South America, Greenland, West Africa, India, China, South East Asia and the Pacific Islands or the Bahamas. Again, I don't see the need or a benefit to view bottom detail and sea bed contour details. Not all areas are covered so check the Navionics website for details in your area.

All Navionic's users can contribute to the updates of the Sonarcharts. Anyone with a sonar device can record marine depth data and upload the data to the website. The revised charts are then available within 24 hours.
This whole process of crowd sourcing data seems like a great idea.  It does however cause me some concern. How do we know the data being recorded is right?  Someone with an inaccurate depth sounder might be off several feet causing the rest of us to run aground using the updated chart.  I am sure Navionics has a process to verify the submitted data before it updates the chart. Crowd sourcing data is a great idea as long as the data is vetted for accuracy before use.

Navionics is one of the leaders in the marine industry and continues to provide innovative solutions to charting like the Navionics HD charting app.  Let me know if you are using any of these in app purchases and what your experiences have been. I would love hear from you!

~~~ Sail On ~~~ /)

Monday, November 11, 2013

NV Charts

Application: iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch iOS 6.1 or later, Android and PC
Function: Marine GPS charting and navigation
Cost: Free app, charts regions $10 to $179

NVCharts has been around for about 25 years providing paper chart kits for several areas in Europe and most recently the US and Caribbean waters.  They are known for their waterproof chart sets but also provide electronic charts for you chart plotter, PC and mobile devices. With one purchase you get charts for all your devices plus a backup set of paper charts.

The NVCharts blog will help keep you up to date on the changes and additions to the app. The app is available for iOS, Android and Windows 8 users. If you buy a chart set the license allows you to use it across all platforms at no additional charge.

  • Offline navigation
  • Accesses all NV charts
  • Simple purchase and download of charts 
  • Data is always up-to-date
  • Synchronized navigation with all mobile devices
  • Seamless Charts
  • Zoom and panning functions
  • Waypoint Markers and notes
  • Range and Bearing Measuring Tool
  • Routes
  • Intuitive route planning
  • Tracking
  • Logbook
  • Positioning with both GPS and cellular signals
  • Lighthouse sketches
  • GPS and navigation instruments

The NVChart's main screen shows your position along with latitude, longitude and time on a base map overlay.  The menu is displayed across the bottom right of the screen. The menu includes Settings, Charts, Log, Ruler, Marker and Route. The menu can be turned on or off by toggling the wrench icon in the lower right.

Just above the menu is a blue ship icon. Select this to start navigation and the display of the instruments at the top of the screen. The instruments include GPS accuracy, latitude, longitude, course over ground, speed over ground, bearing, range, distance, ETE, ETA


Select the Charts icon at the bottom of the screen to buy and load charts. Selecting the Buy Charts icon will take you to the NVCharts website where you can shop for and purchase charts. You will have to create an account and login. Charts can be purchased with several options. You can just purchase the electronic charts for the NVCharts app. This is the cheapest option with many of the US charts regions listed at $10 per region and Bahamas regions at $49. You can also purchase charts for your mobile device and along with a hard copy set.  This option is more expensive with chart regions costing about $69.80 plus shipping.

Once you have made your purchase the charts will need to be downloaded to your mobile device. Select the Load Charts icon where you will be prompted for your16 digit product code. Select your chart kit and download the charts. The download process will be faster if you are connected to WiFi for the download process.


The app has a very functional way to create waypoints and routes. To create a route select the Route icon from the menu. Select the New icon and note the new route line on the chart.  Place your finger on one end of the route line to move it to your starting point and then move the other end to your destination.

Intermediate waypoints can be added by tapping the route line between waypoints. Tap any waypoint to move it or delete it with the menu selections. Other route options include Reverse, Activate and Add notes where the route details can be added and the route name can be modified.  Additional routes can be created and displayed at the same time on the charts.  The chart may get a little busy if you have a lot of routes in one area.  It would be nice to have the option to display just the active route.


Select the Ruler icon to measure distance between two points on the chart. Once selected note the information display on the top of the screen. Distance, bearing, duration, latitude and longitude are dynamically displayed.  Place your finger on either point to move the starting or ending points of the bearing tool.

More than one measurement can be used and displayed on the chart. Select the new option to add another distance and bearing measurement.  Each measurement can be saved with a unique name under the Notes selection.  The Lock feature prevents the measurements from being moved or deleted.


The Marker tool works very similar and has many of the same features as the Route tool. Select add to create a new Marker. Other options include Activate, Delete, Notes and Lock.  Markers are saved separate from the route waypoints.  I am not sure why the author chose to call these points Markers.  These markers should be called waypoints and all waypoints should be able to be included in creating a route. 

I appears that all the markers that are created are displayed on the screen. If you create many markers in one area it may become congested and hinder proper navigation. I would prefer an option to display or not to display individual waypoints.


The settings are very basic with options for language, speed, distance depth, coordinates and compass orientation.

There are some additional settings options in the cruise mode. Select the red and white buoy in the upper right corner of the display to enter cruise mode. You will notice that the instrument display shows up in the top of the display. Select the setting option from the menu to change the boats name, cruising speed, draft, compass orientation, tracking and track lengths.  Tracking is started and stopped with the follow menu selection at the bottom of the screen. 

Another nice feature that has been incorporated is a logging function.  It is very basic and allows you to enter the name of the log enter and some notes.

NV Charts has done a good job with their introductory iOS app. As an added bonus the app is available for your Android mobile device and your PC too. It provides some of the basic features that a charting app needs but falls short of being a real contender for i-Marine Apps Top 10 Charting apps.  The app is new so I expect to see some additional updates and features added in the months to come.

~~~ Sail On ~~~ /)


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Anchor Alarm

Application: iPhone, iPad
Function: Marine Anchor Alarm
Cost: $1.99

One of my greatest fears as a sailor is dragging at anchor during the night and not waking up until it is too late. That is probably why most captains sleep with one eye open.  The advent of apps for the iPhone and iPad have made it even easier to quickly set an anchor alarm and get a good night sleep.

I have looked at several anchor alarm apps over the years.  This Anchor Alarm is unique in that it has an easy graphical way to set the anchor position and alarm distances.  I even lets you move the anchor position and alarm distance if needed.

  • Easy to set anchor position
  • Set position at your current location
  • Choose a position on the map or relocate anchor with drag and drop
  • Navigate with standard map gestures (zoom, scroll ...) 
  • Works without an Internet connection. Once offline the map is replaced by a graphic.
  • Three alarms methods
  • Attention catching visual alarm with a blinking black/white screen,
  • Audible alarm
  • Operates in background mode, acoustic alarm with a notification.
  • Adjust alarm distance in settings or graphically on the map
  • Enhanced track recording with colored path displayed on a map

Main Display:
The main display has five soft keys at the bottom of the screen. The first Warning icon brings up a disclaimer page pointing out that this is only a tool for sailors and should not be solely relied upon for safety concerns.
The second Anchor icon allows you to set the anchor alarm while dropping the anchor.  This should be done at the bow of the boat while setting the anchor.  The closer you set the alarm to the actual anchor position will give you a more accurate position reading on the display.
The Map icon displays a satellite map of your position and the anchor position. Manual settings for the app are made on this page including alarm distance, alarms type, alarm sounds, map type, tracking, position and monitoring features.
To set the anchor, tap the drop anchor icon in the bottom right of the screen.  The anchor position default is set at your GPS location. To move the anchor position, place your figure on the anchor and move it to the desired anchor location.  A red circle show the alarm distance. If your boat moves outside of this circle the alarm will sound. To move the circle, place your finger on the circle and move it towards or away from your anchor position.
Alarms can be set with the icons in the top right of the display. Select an email, visual or audible alarm.  Map orientation can be selected with the orientation center in the lower left side of the map screen. Select between north up, course up, or center the map on your boat or the anchor position selected.

The Setting icon has options to set the alarm distance, change metric or English units, set the anchor position and enable alarm types.  The app provides three map types including satellite, map and hybrid options.

The tracking feature can also be enabled here. The app will track your position as you swing on your anchor. This is helpful to re-adjust your anchor position and alarm distance if you are getting false alarms.
Tracks can easily be exported in an email in the .GPX and .CSV file format types.

Another option in the setting menu that is listed as experimental is the Remote Mode. This works in coordination with the Find My iPhone app and allows you to track the phones location and your boat as long as it has a GPS and Internet connection.
Help Page:
The app has an extensive Help screen which can be selected by the last icon in the menu at the bottom right side of the screen. It is nice to have a help screen to explain all the features. All the features are detailed along with graphics where needed.
Many programmers are good at coding but most are very poor at documenting how their app actually works.
Most chart plotter these days have built in anchor alarms, so you may ask yourself, why do I need an app to do this also. Well most of us can't take our chart plotter to bed with us. The iPhone or iPad can be placed close at hand near your berth when you turn it and notify you if needed.  It never hurts to have a back up also.
The Anchor Alarm app will cost you a couple bucks but it is well work every penny for the peace of mind you will have knowing it is monitoring your position while you sleep.  A good night sleep at anchor is priceless.
~~~ Sail On ~~~ /)