Tuesday 30 April 2013

AIS Boat Beacon, Marine Traffic and Shipfinder Smartphone apps for Cruising Sailors, Part Two

Last week we looked at the usefulness of AIS (Automatic Identification System) apps for smartphones. The smartphone has become such a ubiquitous tool in our everyday lives it is not any wonder that a rash of apps to assist with navigation of a sailing vessel should arrive on the scene.
Marine Traffic iPhone sample window

Once again we have to caution, as the suppliers of these apps are quick to do, is that they are not navigation systems in themselves, but they can assist with navigation of your much smaller sailing vessel when in proximity of much larger commercial shipping. 

And for such information to be contained in a portable device that can be slipped in and out of a pocket with simplicity, they definitely serve a useful purpose and no doubt more sophisticated versions will become available in the future. 

Cost wise, either free or a few dollars, ($9.99 is the most expensive), they are a very modest investment when compared to the price of a full chart plotting/AIS system. I stress again though, they are in no way to be considered as a substitute for a AIS installation.

There appear to be three main contenders at present and they are:

Boat Beacon:Android and iPhone: http://www.marinetraffic.com/ais/iphone.aspx  

Marine Traffic:Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.marinetraffic.android&hl=en

                         iPhone: http://www.marinetraffic.com/ais/iphone.aspx       

Shipfinder: Android and iPhone: http://shipfinder.co/about/
Marine Traffic iPhone sample window

Shipfinder and Marine Traffic have free versions and Boat Beacon is the price mentoned above.

Marine Traffic app for example is the same content whichever one you choose except the free version contains ads. 

For more detailed look at the three systems, Tom Lochhaas, sailing editor has posted his appraisal of the three apps and you can find this at:


Check out the websites for yourself to see which one suits your purposes the best. 

These are great apps to have in your pocket to check what shipping is occupying the same area of water you are, what size they are and what course they are on - and could certainly assist in avoiding a possible collision course incident.

However, apart from the 'NOT FOR NAVIGATION' caution we should also note that smartphones as we know, are very attention getting and good at making us 'look in', it is well to remember the old adage that there is NO substitute for a good pair of eyes keeping a sharp 'look out'!  

You can read much more about navigation when cruising on passage in my ebook 'Sailing Adventures in Paradise' downloadable from my website http://www.sailboat2adventure.com/ 

Wednesday 17 April 2013

AIS Smartphone 'Boat Beacon' App Backup for Cruising Sailors

We have had a number of earlier posts discussing the Automatic Identification System (AIS) for recreational sailors and like all technology it has raced forward at a tremendous pace, to the point now where there are apps available for your smartphones that can be used as a fall back situation in an emergency if your hard wired AIS installation has failed.

They are not to be used in place of a full AIS installation and the app suppliers are quick to warn against this practice in their installation notes. However, they are a useful device for locating other shipping in your area, the course they are on, speed and possible collision information.

A recent incident of how useful they are occurred in South Africa with a yacht avoiding collision with a merchant vessel in fog. These sailors were using the 'Boat Beacon' and the following story is described in www.sail-world.com :
Vessel and buoy in fog
'Boat Beacon, a very inexpensive App you can have on your Smartphone, has helped some South African sailors to avoid a collision according to the story they told after the incident. As reported recently by Afloat, the two sailors were on a delivery trip between Cape Town and Durban when their AIS equipment on-board failed and they found themselves in thick fog.

They resorted to the only alternative they had, their Boat Beacon app on their smart phone. This did the job reporting that there was a container ship advancing on them. The only problem was, unlike the AIS, they could not tell the Closest Point of Approach (CPA), so in the foggy conditions, they still had some anxious moments.

Nevertheless, with heightened awareness, the collision was averted. The developers of Boat Beacon have since said that they will add the feature of CPA to the App.

In fact, Boat Beacon was designed and developed by Pocket Mariner’s sea-faring CEO after his own near miss at sea – and provides an affordable and reliable AIS-based collision detection system for iPhone and iPad or Android smartphones and tablets. 

Boat Beacon Display
Boat Beacon Display

Real time map view of your boat and boats near you via AIS.
Over the horizon collision avoidance and alarm using Closest Point of Approach (CPA)
CPA calculations and AIS position updates continously in background
Compass mode to sight ships on the map
Current Speed, Course and GPS location
Share your location with friends and family (iOS only at present)
Man Overboard tracking (iOS only at present)
Anchor Watch and Theft Alarms (iOS only at present)
Ship to Ship instant messaging – chat with other Boat Beacon boats. (iOS only at present)
Magnetic or True North setting. (iOS only at present)
MMSI numbers to contact nearby boats on via VHF.

With transmit enabled your boat will appear on other Boat Beacon devices. If you enable AIS sharing and have an MMSI number your boat will also appear on live AIS traffic sites and their associated mobile applications, eg:

Marine Traffic
Ship finder

Boat Beacon supports iPhone, iPad & Android
iPhone or iPad with GPS. e.g. iPhone 3GS, 4, 5 or later, with an active Internet connection.

Android device with GPS and an internet connection.

Fortunately Cellular data coverage extends up to 15 miles out to sea and most popular boating areas are covered.

This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY. Boat Beacon should not be relied upon to determine precise locations, proximity, distance, or direction or make navigational decisions. The author assumes no liability for damages arising from use of this program.

AIS data is sourced from a variety of voluntary shore stations across the world and there is no guarantee of service or availability.
The accuracy of digital compass headings can be affected by magnetic or other environmental interference, including interference caused by proximity to the magnets contained in the iPhone earbuds. The compass may need to be calibrated from time to time. When the device displays the calibration alert, move the device in a figure 8 motion until the calibration screen disappears. See http://support.apple.com/kb/TS2767 for more information.

N.B. This is not an AIS VHF Transponder. Your boat will not show up on other Ship based VHF AIS systems (unless they are linked to a common Global AIS system).'

Article courtesy sail-world.com, images courtesy Pocket Mariner and Google 

Go Pocket Mariners website on http://pocketmariner.com/boatbeacon/ for a full description of how to use Boat Beacon and particularly read the FAQ section.  

There are three apps currently available for Android and iPhones and are either free or just a few dollars for the more detailed ones.

We will look at these three models and their prices in our next post.

You can read much more about navigation and the cruising life in my ebook 'Sailing Adventures in Paradise' downloadable from my website http://www.sailboat2adventure.com