iPad on board

Sailing the Sea of Cortez
Sailing the Sea of Cortez, with iPad on board
The iPad was one of he best purchases we made before leaving the US.

We bought it at the last minute after realizing that buying new chart cards for our rather outdated chart-plotter could become quite expensive in the long run.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” (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 just fine well over 100 miles from shore 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 North West – 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.

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 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.

iPad Navionics app being used to navigate into Ensenada Blanca, Baja Sur, Mexico
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.

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. This country doesn’t have nearly the amount of money to put into 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.

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).

Since the iPad has a 10-hour battery it can make it through almost an entire night of watches without having to be recharged.

To recharge our iPad we use the electricity we make with our solar panels
To recharge our iPad we 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.

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 Mike needs 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.

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 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 get 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 also 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 23, 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 chart plotter 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!

This article was published on April 23, 2012 in Verena Kellner’s website PacificSailors.

About Verena Kellner

Verena Kellner was born and raised in Germany as an only child to German parents. In the late 80s Verena and her parents set off from Germany on their 38 foot sloop Joy to immigrate to California. In 1992 they became proud US citizens.

After high school in San Diego, Verena received her degree in geography and cartography from a small northern California college.

Not knowing what to do next she applied to every job that sounded fun and ended up on a hydrographic research ship in Alaska where she met “her captain”, Mike. Right away she set out to sell him on her dream of going cruising again. After Alaska became too cold and wet, they moved to Portland Oregon where, for the next five years, they focused all their energy on saving up for their big adventure.

Thanksgiving 2011 they spent their first night aboard their new boat Camille – a 38 foot sloop.

Verena’s favorite past times are photography, creating websites and cooking. Always looking for new galley ideas she set up a website where boaters can share their galley recipes and tips:

Verena and Mike are currently cruising the Sea of Cortez and have plans of sailing west in 2013. They share their adventures on their website

Read also on this website

Do you use an iPad or tablet aboard? What for? How useful is it for you?

Let us know.

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3 comments to iPad on board

  • I have had an iPad (3G model) for the last 2 years and love it. I don’t use it for primary navigation – our Garmin chartplotter at the helm is still my first choice. But I do use the iPad charts for planning and choosing routes. And since I do carry it ashore with me to check email, find my way around ashore, etc, it has successfully navigated us back after dark in the dinghy…..
    It is important that boaters get the 3G model NOT the wifi only model. The 3G model is the only model that has the built-in true GPS chip which allows you to use it for navigation when in the middle of the ocean far from cell phone towers and wifi.
    I have a host of weather apps and when in the range of cell signal or wifi I can track thunderstorms and fronts as we rush to get into port ahead of the latest cold front….
    These days in the Bahamas you can get a chip for about $20 and have internet most places for a cost of about $30 per month. In the Exumas and Eleuthera, the service isn’t fast but still IT WORKS! I can use the web, check email, use my apps.
    Also I now use my iPad together with my computer to maintain our inventory of ships stores and find this works much better than the old computer+paper system ever did. I can much more easily update the inventory on the iPad, and sync it with the computer. I can bring my iPad along easliy for provisioning trips and quickly look up my inventory when I see a good deal and wonder how man I have onboard or need to know the model number of a spare part.
    Plus I maintain an extensive library, manuals, etc aboard on my iPad. PLUS, PLUS, computers use lots of power and really can easily become a major power drain on the boat. My iPad lets me compute without running down the batteries.
    Plus, I love languages and in addition to my books (Spanish and French for Cruisers) always like to carry BIG dictionaries aboard – I can have the equivalent of my big dictionaries at hand without the weight by way of apps.
    Etc, etc, etc.
    These are just a few of the MANY ways I use my iPad. Guess I am a bit of a nerd, but I love my iPad aboard and while traveling!

  • Hi there. I have a few connectivity questions (I’m sold on the Ipad but still a little confused about the details):

    1) Are either of you paying for a monthly service provider?
    2) Do you need to pay Verizon or AT&T monthly for the GPS access chip to work?
    3) Are you downloading NOAA charts as well as using a nav. app? (Any recommendations on apps?)

    Thanks so much for your insight on this!

    molly dilworth
    s/v Betty Jean

  • Hi Molly,
    1) When I am in the US, I have been subscribing monthly to ATT service for $25 per month. Since we spent winter in the Bahamas, I bought a BTC sim card in the Bahamas and subscribed to their data service for $30 per month.
    2. The GPS chip works without any kind of cell plan or coverage or wifi. However, you need to get some sort of navigation app that will have downloaded the navigational charts that you need ahead of time, so that your position can be displayed on the relevant chart.
    3. I have several navigation apps – I have a Navionics app (I don’t see the exact app that I have offered in the app store now and certainly it was cheaper whan I bought it than the current Navionics offerings) that I use because it covers the Bahamas. However it doesn’t include the Explorer Charts so I use it more for planning than heavy duty navigation. Still trying to figure out what navigation app is best.

    Kathy Parsons

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