When you walk into your local marine store it's hard to miss those bright chart plotters from across the room. They seem so cool. Bright, multifunctional, touchscreens.. and VERY EXPENSIVE.
I will admit I have played with the idea of purchasing one but I just can't bring myself to spend that kind of dough on my first sailboat. Her name is Raggamuffin and it fits how she is outfitted. She has really good bones because she has been under a refit on her core systems like all new wiring, a rebuilt bulkhead, and new plumbing. But if I'm honest with myself, her first few years in my care will be shakedown cruises in the Chesapeake Bay. I do not need an expensive B&G/Raymarine/Garmin/Whatever chart plotter. I want one, but do I need one? Not really.
I am a listener of the 59-North podcasts and Andy Schell has mentioned a few times that they use iPads for their navigation aboard their vessels. If you aren't familiar, Andy and his team take people sailing all over the North Atlantic & Caribbean so if that is their approach.. I'm listening.
Navionics & Other App Resources
To date I have only used my iPad and my iPhone for my navigation via the app Navionics. My boat is a simple system. I don't have a desire to know how hard the wind is blowing or it's direction. My face and my ears (and my windex) can tell me that. But sailing a boat with a 6 foot draft in the Chesapeake I do need to know depths and have a close eye on the charts.
Using Navionics as my chart plotter has worked very well in the limited time I've used it thus far. As a somewhat new sailor I am anxious about running aground and generally doing things correctly. The app has determined my position accurately and helped me navigate the VERY tight channel required to get to my marina.
One interesting note about Navionics. They were purchased by Garmin. To me, that is a signal that the traditional ChartPlotter hardware vertical is adapting. As our devices become stronger and more weather resistant, they will supplant the need for dedicated hardware to run navigation on our boats. The software is the valuable asset. Systems will become more wireless, possibly removing the need of NMEA backbones, and proprietary hardware. A rugged tablet will be able to display the information we need at the helm & nav station.
I also utilize Predict Wind to forecast wind and currents. It has shown to be very accurate for planning my sailing thus far. I also enjoy having that information on the same device as my navigation.
Additionally, while cruising within the bay, I have been able to share my phones hotspot with my tablet giving me access to all the regular apps I may want to access such as music, email, google earth, cruising guides, whatever. It is my computer at the helm.
I do understand that surfing the internet is NOT what I need to be focusing on while sailing, but having the information I need when I need it, without leaving the helm, is something I appreciate.
Both Navionics and PredictWind (and others) have subscription costs so there is a financial consideration to be had there.
I have the latest + greatest iPhone because, as a tech exec I need to handle many things from the device. It works fantastic as a navigation device with the Navionics app but I do like the screen to be a bit bigger for my charts. It's a superb backup but not my first choice.
I have an iPad Pro. The screen is very large but it is not weather proof and the iPad does not have an internal GPS. I purchased an external GPS that I can connect to via bluetooth, but I have to keep the iPad in a weatherproof case and the glare from the screen on the case can be an issue. Having to plug in the GPS and the iPad, with both needing to be in the cockpit adds extra "stuff" to the equation.
OUKITEL RT1 Rugged 10.1 Inch Tablet w/ Android 11
I recently purchased the Oukitel Rugged Android 11 Tablet to replace the iPad. ($289 on Amazon) What intrigued me about this tablet was the price, the rugged and waterproof nature of it, the large battery, the bright screen, and the fact that it has an internal GPS. It can also take a SIM card to work as a phone as well. (I use my iPhone for this but a nice feature nonetheless.)
My first impressions of the Oukitel tablet are good. I'm used to the Android interface not being as responsive as an apple device, but honestly it is just as responsive (if not more) than the array of chart plotters lined up at my local West Marine.
The tablet mounts to the rail on the binnacle above my compass and it just the right size to be able to see enough of the charts while not getting in the way.
I am wiring a weather resistant USB power outlet near the binnacle to provide the needed power.
The GPS has shown to lock into my position accurately in relation to my position and heading on the chart.
The brightness of the tablet can be a challenge when it has direct sun pointing at it, but a quick cup of the hands and shoving my face closer allows me to see the screen effectively.
I will continue to test the tablet this year as I do some winter sailing on the bay, and that is sure to push it to its limits. So far I am optimistic that this solution is rugged enough to meet my needs without breaking the bank.
The portability, flexibility, and low cost of the rugged tablet solution is one that fits my current plans for Chesapeake Bay and coastal cruising. I don't know if I will change that and install a dedicated chart plotter as I expand my sailing adventures in the future but the tablet solution will allow me to test that.
As tablet technology and ruggedness continue to gain strength, I am bullish that I will continue to use this tech for my navigation needs. Time will tell.
Do you have other inexpensive rugged solutions? Place a comment below.
Mike D. is the founder of Sail Junky Magazine. Striving to find more purpose in life, Mike writes and shares about his journey to rediscover his passion for living a fulfilled life, especially through the medium of sailing. firstname.lastname@example.org