Summer is the time of year when thousands get out on their sailing yachts and head off on vacation. Onboard, GPS tracking on chart plotters is commonplace, and digital cameras are everywhere. What’s been missing for me is the “tell me the story” aspect of cruising. Sure, show me your trip slides and watch my eyes glaze over eventually like any other sentient soul. And do you really want to pull out nautical charts to show me how you got there? This led me to a 2010 cruising experiment to see how GPS-enabled smartphones, navigation apps, and journaling could create a digital story of a sailing cruise.
- iPhone 4 running MotionX GPS ($2.99) – Complicated user interface. Excellent realtime trip statistics, usable track and maps, photos without geo-location are a hodge-podge, adequate uploading to email, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Earth. Poor battery usage necessitates external battery or charging on overnight trips.
- iPhone 3 GS running TripJournal ($2.99) – Simple but quirky user interface. Excellent for keeping a track with photo-waypoints and written journal entries, adequate uploading to Google Earth, email. Runs 24 hours on internal battery.
- iPad 3G running Navionics Marine U.S. East HD ($19.99) [An iPhone version is available for $9.99]. Superb NOAA marine charts are the standard for navigation. Chart updates are free. Trip routing with up to 30 waypoints. Trip tracking. Tracks can be retained, but no socialization offloading trip data. Best use is pinching the current position in and out to instantly get the big and detailed picture. That’s a real pain with a chart plotter as it means hitting the range button a dozen times while potentially losing the vessel’s current position. Even paper charts are not as useful as the iPad because you need magnification to get the blown-up, detailed views of, say, a harbor while being able to get a God’s eye view of an approach to land. Since you’re not looking at the charts all the time, the internal iPad battery lasts at least 24 hours.
- Satechi iCel 4800 mAh (2 amp) battery extender pack and charger. Operates iPad without charging and charges iPhones. The remaining capacity lights below half-used are problematic, and I could not use the last half of the charge without recycling it on an AC inverter. Good for a couple of top-offs, but I would not count on the iCel to live up to its 4800 mAh rating.
- New Trent IMP880 8900 mAh battery extender pack and charger. Operates iPad without charging and charges iPhones. This no-name product must have an Energizer Battery inside, as it keeps going and going.
My experience last fall on a 150 nautical trip down from Maine was that an iPhone alone was insufficient. Running MotionX alone and using the GPS continuously discharged my battery in 4-6 hours, so an inverter was needed to recharge the battery. That made for more “running out of power” anxiety than I needed on the 0200-0400 watch, so on the trip back top Maine this summer, I brought along external batteries. This year, we sailed a 190 nm trip in 30 hours.
MotionX GPS is one of a series of apps by Fullpower that do a decent-to-excellent job of recording a track on a map. Where MotionX lets you down is by not keeping track of photos along the trip path. At the end of a trip, you’ll have a track for Google Maps or Earth and all your photos without geo-positioning on your trip map. Very disappointing. Also, MotionX GPS lacks the ability to slow down its measurements, so battery consumption is high. That’s OK for a bike ride but the need for constant battery charging on a sailing cruise is a serious flaw. MotionX GPS also has the ability to store maps, including nautical charts, offline. That functionality is critical when your ship sails beyond cellphone range.
Trip Journal gets at least four stars in my book. The simple interface encourages you to start a new waypoint every time you take some photos. Every waypoint becomes a point on the track where the photos and text journal entries can be viewed. Maps are problematic as there is no way to store maps offline. However, the app works fine outside cellphone coverage for recording track, photos, and journal entries. If I had one app to take with me on a trip that I wanted to re-tell, it would be Trip Journal.
It became clear to me that external battery capacity and usage are an important component to having a fun trip to remember without being tethered to a recharger or AC inverter. The comments above may help you assess high-battery-use versus low-use apps. It’s a good idea to track battery usage of an app before sailing beyond the horizon, I learned. And don’t just choose the first external battery you find on Amazon. Large capacity external batteries cost somewhat more than low-capacity ones, but you get a better value in a larger battery. And be careful about iPad re-charging. There are very few chargers and batteries out there right now that will actually recharge the iPad. Most just keep up with the discharge.
For an example of a MotionX trip track, click here (available until August 30, 2010).