iPad on Board

Sailing the Sea of Cortez

NOTE: This article was also published on the Women and Cruising website as well as being one of the 12 most popular articles of 2012. Women and Cruising is an excellent source for the cruising woman – whether out cruising or still in the planning stages.

The iPad was one of the best purchases we made before heading south. We bought it at the last minute after realizing that buying new chart cards for our rather outdated chart-plotter could become quite expensive in the long run. The iPad 3/4G comes with an “assisted GPS” (IMPORTANT: the basic WiFi version does not have a GPS receiver) and while in the Apple store we talked to several of the geniuses about what exactly assisted GPS is. They all agreed that I had to be within reach of cell towers for it to work. I didn’t agree then and I can now say that the GPS works perfectly well over 100 miles from shore and cell towers and gets a fix in mere seconds.

Our boat’s chart plotter came with one chart card that covers Cape Flattery to Mazatlan. While Cape Flattery is amazingly beautiful I doubt we will ever take this boat that far north (we sailed past boats on Puget Sound and love the Pacific Northwest – in summer). However, in one month of cruising we had already gone past the southern border of the chart card. Not to mention that the card is from 2004 and I just cannot justify buying new cards every year or two to get important chart updates.

Cape Flattery, Summer 2011

I have heard a lot of complaints about inaccurate charts around Mexico. Maybe we haven’t been to enough places, but so far we have found the charts to be about as accurate as expected. Mexico doesn’t have nearly the amount of money to put into hydrographic charting as the US does. Of course, being hydrographers, we give anything that wasn’t charted within the last 10 years a very wide berth! And night sailing close to shore is out of the question almost anywhere. When we arrived in Ensenada we realized that our marina was too new to shown up on our chart-plotter. Luckily I had downloaded the latest charts (which showed the marina) onto my iPhone and we were able to come into port using it for guidance – though we quickly determined that the iPhone screen is too small to be used on a daily basis which reinforced our decision to buy something larger.

The iPad makes route planning a breeze. We like to sit together in the cockpit with a cruising guide and the iPad to plan our upcoming journey. Later we transfer the waypoints to the chart-plotter on the binnacle. This way the autopilot can track our course and we can kick back and keep watches from a more comfortable seat behind the dodger (which is where I initially wrote this post on the iPad while Mike was snoozing happily until his watch started).

iPad Navionics app being used to navigate into Ensenada Blanca, Baja Sur, Mexico. The track showing us on shore is a dinghy trip to the resort to use their free wifi.

Taken April 2012 in Bahia de los Muertos, Mexico

Since the iPad has a 10 hour battery it can make it through almost an entire night of watches without having to be recharged. When the battery does run out there is no need to run the generator or inverter. We simply use the same 12 volt plug we use for the iPhones and use the electricity we make with our solar panels.

We have a waterproof cover for the iPad so we can keep it at the binnacle while underway. Even in direct sunlight the screen is easy to see if the brightness is turned all the way up; though at night it can still be a bit bright even all the way turned down.

Turns out the iPad has many other great uses. Not to mention all the obvious ones like endless games, Facebook, internet research, dictionary, translator, email, etc…

Boat Log
We tried keeping a hand-written log of maintenance items, trips, fuel usage,etc but soon realized that after spending months trying to convert everything we had to digital we were once again using paper! We tried several of the boat log apps available for the iPad but none had everything we wanted. Finally we realized that all we needed was a calendar. We now use the calendar app and the best part is that we can search entries. So if we need to know how many times we have ran the Honda generator I simply search for Honda. From there we can figure out when it’s time to change the oil. By noting our location daily, I can cross-reference the dates with our digital photos. Check out our entire Boat Book here – it includes lots of free downloadable files.

Weather Updates
Aside from simply using weather websites we really like the Weather 4D HD app. For $2 we get all the weather updates we can handle in a really pretty display.

We haven’t tried this yet but we have an app that will listen to the HF radio weather fax signal and then display the weather fax on the iPad. How cool is that?!

To Do List
We use the reminders app (I have since switched to Google Keep) because, like the calendar app, it can work over the cloud and update the other iDevices. So, if I’m out and about with only my iPhone I can update our calendar or shopping or to do list and the other iPhone and the iPad will have the same update. It’s all rather brilliant! We like to take the iPhones to shore in the dinghy because they are lighter and easier to protect from getting wet than the laptop or iPad.

Movies and Music
I like to watch movies on my night watches. Since we like to stand two long night watches it helps make the time go by and keep me awake. I can only contemplate life for so long.  When on WiFi or near cell towers we can even watch Netflix. Oh, and if you want to know how to listen to Pandora from Mexico send me an email 😉

Here in Mexico WiFi isn’t always easy to access but you can buy Internet access by the day or month and by how much data you want. No need for a multi year plan. If you just email and do daily light surfing a month of Internet can be about $20. We have a chip for the iPad and a USB stick for the laptop and have been able to get Internet over 10 miles offshore. Great for getting weather updates!

By the way, if you buy an iPad outside of the US I hear (this is not confirmed) that it will not be unlocked like the US version, meaning if you buy it in Mexico it will only work with a Mexican carrier.

Phone Calls
Really cheap/free calls via Skype or Google Voice. Why did I ever pay for a cellular plan???

UPDATE (May 2012): After nearly dragging anchor onto a rock we tried to use the iPhone/iPad as an anchor alarm. The problem is that it has to be left on (screen lit) all night and connected to power. It also seems to shut itself down after some hours which turns off the anchor alarm. I’m not a fan of having to run out into the cockpit every time we get a false alarm on the chartplotter so we now use our handheld GPS with anchor alarm. We record our track and set the audible alarm. Works great and  there is no need to get out of bed!

UPDATE (November 2016): We are now on a new boat cruising the Pacific Northwest. And while the new boat has two chart plotters, we still primarily use the iPad because it is so much easier and quicker to make and change routes.

11 Responses

  1. Love the iPad too! We used it in conjunction with a small chartplotter crossing the Gulf, and the iPad/Navionics combination was a dream.

    I’m interested in how you get data on the iPad while in Mexico. Do you purchase a sim card when you get there? Or is there a different process?

  2. Great post. Generation Y cruisers! I liked the review about Ipad. I’m really thinking about to buy one. And we also use just a google calendar for boat log. And how about Netflix? Does it works with just 3g internet signal? Hugs and Fair winds, Cristina and Pieter, SV Onda Boa.

  3. @ Bettie del Mar: We purchased a sim card (sorry, I called it a chip in the post) from telcel. WiFi is locked pretty much anywhere you go and at the marinas is it very slow so having 3G really helps.

    @ Ocean of Dreams: Ha! Thanks for the compliment. We’re actually Generation X cruisers :). With only 3GB of bandwidth you can only watch a few Netflix movies (it works great) but I hear that iUSAcell has a 10GB plan for about $50 – we have yet to investigate this further. The Calendar app is on the iPad so we don’t have to be connected to the internet unlike with Google calendar (which I love!)

    @ Michael. Thanks! When are you guys coming to visit us so Patricia and I can go take photos together!?

  4. I’ve been reading a lot about using Ipads on board boats lately. Thanks for the informative post! Got to love that ‘assisted’ GPS.
    Also got to agree with you about sailing in the PNW. Summer is great, when you have wind. I think we live for summer up here. It’s pretty much the only reason to stay.

  5. Anonymous

    Been using an Ipad in the Gulf Islands and Desolation Sound but without wi fi, no fix. Anyone try a GPS accessory? Would like to know how that works.

  6. Great info guys! Mark and I have been on the fence about investing in an iPad and I think you guys pushed us over that hurdle. Can you give us some more details on how much GB you guys have (32, 64, etc), any other specs and if it’s adequate for your needs/wants. We don’t want to invest in the added memory if it’s not going to be used! Thanks!

    Katie and Mark

  7. Excellent and timely post! We love our iPads, and we use iCal for lots of things at home/work, but it never occurred to me to use it as a log (yayy for searchable content!) Are you putting each log entry in as a new event? Thanks for this!

  8. @ Anonymous: you must have the wifi only version. I’ve heard the GPS adapters work quite well. Maybe ask the geniuses 😉

    @ Katie: we have the smallest one (16 GB). I have the charts for the entire Sea of Cortez down to Puerto Vallarta on the iPad and they use less than 300MB. After that it’s just a matter of how much music, etc you want to store. Personally I don’t think any bigger is needed.

    @ Belinda del Pesco: depends on the entry. When I note where we are (La Paz Marina, at sea, anchored in Punta Mita, etc) I add an all day event. Things like cost/filling of propane/diesel are noted around the time they get done. When we leave a port we make an entry at that time (depart Mazatlan headed for La Paz) and then record the weather, sea state, engine hours etc in the Notes field for that entry. Same with security checks, sail changes, weather changes, etc…

  9. Nice post. The iPad is a fantastic tool. Don’t forget another great use – anchor alarms. It’s nice to know when you stray from your intended resting spot. As for GPS – the “geniuses” were simply mistaken. The cellular models all have highly accurate and extremely fast GPS radios and will work pretty much anywhere on the planet serviced by GPS. The newest iPad, following on the heels of the iPhone 4S, will likely also support the Russian GPS network GLONASS and automatically use both to provide a very accurate position.

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