01 - Using a Mobile Phone Aboard Your Boat
A Properly Outfitted Mobile Phone Aboard Your Boat Can Be a Valuable Piece of Gear

Many of us have spent hours shopping for marine electronics, be it researching the latest networked system or comparing prices on a nifty hand held. But the truth is that one of the most powerful pieces of gear in your arsenal is hanging on your belt or sitting in your purse right now: your mobile phone.

While most people carry a mobile for business and emergencies - and perhaps have an idea that their phone is capable of far more - few of us equate them with the marine electronics on our dashboard. This series will attempt to change that perception and show how a mobile phone can become an integral piece of equipment. Navigating on a dinghy Karen uses her smartphone to navigate on the dinghy.

Modern mobile phones like those made by Palm, Apple and Blackberry do far more than just send and receive calls. They can also transmit email; store information, such as lists of supplies and spares; call up data on weather, tides and currents; carry charts and help you navigate; and give you access to the Internet, where you can get still more information.

In this series, we will explain how to properly configure a mobile phone on your boat, with an amplifier and antenna. We will look at the applications available for high-end mobile phones, including those specific to boating, and we will examine the platforms that mobile devices use, such as Palm, Apple iPhone, Windows Mobile and Blackberry. We have also provided a Glossary of terms that you can refer to when you come across jargon you don't understand.

It's not possible to cover every aspect and nuance of the fast-changing and ever-growing mobile industry (a search on "mobile phone technology" under books on Amazon.com turned up 2,572 entries). But you should learn enough to be able to analyze each of the technologies in light of your needs, discuss these needs intelligently with mobile phone providers, and select a device, software and plan that will best suit your situation.

Your phone really can be used for so much more than just ordering pizza. The key is to understand how you can use the technology rather than letting the technology use you.


Before we get to some crucial items, such as how to evaluate phones and mobile plans, let's look at how this works in the real world. Coming from a high-tech background, we have cruised our DeFever 53 trawler, aCappella, from Maine to the Bahamas and Key West with an array of high-end computerized gadgets. In recent years we have found that using a mobile phone on our boat has changed our experience in many small but significant ways. It has made our trips safer, more convenient and more interesting.

Here is a typical day onboard before our mobile phone, a situation that might be familiar to many. We go to bed early hoping to move out in the morning as there seems to be a break in the weather coming. The alarm is set for 6 a.m. We get up, hastily pull on some clothes, head up to the helm and turn on the VHF. While coffee brews, we patiently listen, waiting for the portion of the report that actually pertains to us and hoping we don't miss it as we begin preparations. Finally it comes and we are disappointed to hear the winds will be increasing in the afternoon and turning to the southeast. It's now 6:30 a.m., we're wide awake and wondering what to do with the rest of our day.

That same day with our mobile phone is much different. We still go to bed early hoping to pull anchor in the morning. Our mobile phone's alarm is set for 6 a.m. and it is set beside the berth. When the alarm goes off we reach over and connect to the NOAA website going directly to the text report for our area, the same text being broadcast on the VHF. It says the winds will be increasing and shifting to the southeast later in the day. It's now 6:05 a.m. We disconnect, try to retrieve some of the covers from the dogs, and sleep until the seagulls wake us 90 minutes later.

The use of our mobile phone does not stop there. Over breakfast we send a quick email to our cruising buddies to tell them we will be staying put another day. Then we go online to look for a better anchorage. The one we're in was fine when the winds were from the north but leaves us wide open to the southeast. We quickly find a perfect cove a mile up river with a 4-star rating and protection in southeast winds. We make plans to weigh anchor in the afternoon but decide to run the dinghy to shore and explore a trail on the nearby island first.

We bring our mobile phone with us on the dinghy, running ActiveCaptain Mobile to direct us up the small creek to a landing. We hike to the top of a hill and sit to enjoy the view. Using our mobile phone camera, we take a picture and post it to our cruising blog. Another quick check of NOAA weather shows us the winds should start building after lunch, so we decide to hustle back and move the boat to the new anchorage sooner. The trip is quick and uneventful and we use our anchorage program to mark the anchor position. While preparing and eating lunch, the mobile phone is periodically checked to ensure we are holding firm.

An email arrives from our cruising buddies with the plan to meet tomorrow if the weather clears. We settle in for the rest of the day and when we turn in at night, the mobile phone is beside us, monitoring the anchor, waiting to awake us again at 6 a.m. for another try, and ready to give us tomorrow's NOAA predictions.

All of these are things that we have done with our mobile phone many times. In addition, we often check out possible destinations through local websites - almost every town has a website with a calendar - and look into available marinas and anchorages for the days and nights ahead. We have sought advice on maintenance issues, found the closest supermarket and even ordered a hard-to-find part and had it delivered to a marina. All without plugging in our laptop.


It is true that much of what we have described can be done on your laptop and our experience has been that about 90 percent of our fellow cruisers have a laptop onboard. But a laptop has some drawbacks over the mobile phone.

Your typical laptop computer was not designed to work in the harsh and often unforgiving marine environment. It is more fragile, takes up more space, has a longer boot up time and uses far more power. Finally, when it comes to true mobility, a mobile phone blows a laptop away. Try taking your laptop with you for navigation on your dinghy or connecting to NOAA while still under the covers! Windows Mobile Weather Forecast Windows Mobile phone showing a general weather forecast.

We are not suggesting that you can take your laptop off your boat -- at least not yet. There are still tasks that will most likely require your laptop. Some websites use embedded software such as Java or Flash, which will not run on today's mobile phones. And for some tasks, the small screen and keyboard may be a detriment. But we believe that 85 percent of what you are doing with your laptop today on your boat can be done as well, if not better, on a mobile phone. We believe the day may come when a mobile phone will be your only onboard computer.


Of course, you don't have to wait to use many helpful functions. Today's phones are amazingly capable.

Email is probably the single biggest use of any Internet connected device. We seem to do everything with email today - and the very nature of email lends itself perfectly to a mobile phone. Messages and replies are typically brief, and we have come to expect fast responses. Your mobile phone can be with you at the helm if you are waiting for an important message, and you can read and reply to communiques at will. The keyboard on your phone may look tiny, but they are surprisingly reliable. Best of all you can easily take it with you, going ashore, visiting another boat, or tootling around in your dinghy, and have access to your email, the Internet or other applications as needed.

Access to the Internet and email on our boat was literally a life changing experience for us. It made the difference between cruising several months of the year and staying ashore. For the past 5 years we have been able to run our business from our boat while exploring the east coast from Maine to Key West and the Bahamas. Now we are hardly ever out of touch with our customers and business partners. On our last cruise we managed to be continuously connected the entire distance from Castine, Maine, to Vero Beach, Fla., with the exception of 25 miles on the Pungo-Alligator Canal. And that included being up to 20 miles offshore. iPhone with Google Maps Apple's iPhone and Google maps.

As we all know, access to timely, accurate weather is critical for added safety and enjoyment. Your mobile phone is perfectly suited to this task, too. You can easily access and display NOAA marine text predictions from the NOAA website. General weather predictions are available from places like Yahoo and Weather Underground to find out what's happening ashore or back home. One of the things we liked best was being able to bring it with us. (For more information on weather applications on your phone, check out the article on Weather Forecasts.)

A couple of years ago we were stuck in Salem, Mass., for almost a week on our way south due to weather. It's not a bad place to be stuck. The Salem harbor is well protected and has an excellent launch service, so we went ashore every day to see the sites, have a nice lunch and just walk around.

As nice as it was, we were anxious to get to our next destination, a half-day trip to Marion, Mass., to meet friends. One quickly figures out the timing of the NOAA updates for an area, and we were able to check each one usually within 30 minutes of its posting. We didn't feel the need to be "tied to the helm" listening to the radio. We relaxed and awaited our opportunity for the weather to break. In fact, it was on a morning walk when we saw that the latest prediction had finally changed for the better. We were able to return to the boat, contact our friends, make our preparations and shove off before lunchtime.

Similar to weather are tides and currents. There are excellent applications that run on mobile phones and provide tide and current predictions as tables or graphs. Our trip to Marion harbor required us to pass through the Cape Cod Canal, which is notoriously difficult against maximum current. After seeing the positive weather forecast on our walk, we quickly checked the current flow prediction for the canal based on our anticipated arrival time. If conditions weren't good, we could have had a leisurely lunch and made our plans for the next day. (For more information on tide and current applications on your phone, check out the article on Tides and Currents.)


Phones are also good for light web browsing. As we mentioned before there will be some sites that will not display properly, but the majority work just fine. And as high-end mobile phones become more popular, more websites will consider mobile phone access when they design their services. We have used our mobile phones to research potential marinas and anchorages, to look up information about possible destinations, and to seek advice solving problems. NOAA Weather on Palm Palm operating system showing a NOAA marine weather forecast and a radar weather animation.

We still have a shelf of cruising guides, but we find that we go to them less often. How many times have you chosen a destination based on a glowing description of a restaurant, gallery or event only to find it had changed hands, closed or was no longer being held? It no longer makes sense to depend on a printed source of information that is dated the moment you buy it. When we are looking for destinations, we start by going online and looking at the local town's website. They often have an overview of the area, links to local businesses and an event calendar.

Last year while we were cruising through the Chesapeake Bay, we looked up Chestertown, Md., a place we wanted to see. Its web site was full of information about their annual Chestertown Wildlife Show happening a couple weeks hence. We adjusted our plans to make the show and enjoyed a wonderful weekend visiting the many carving displays and events. Email on a Palm Centro Email on a Palm Centro.

A few years ago, we began running a blog while underway so that our friends and family could "participate" in our cruising adventures. It has been a great way to stay in touch, share our experiences as we go along and just feel more connected to those we miss. An added bonus was getting to know many other cruisers and would-be cruisers who found and followed our blog. It turned out that we didn't know the vast majority of people visiting our blog, at least not then. They were a great source of information, support and even friendship.

Having a mobile phone with a built-in camera made our blog easier and more relevant. We could capture daily events as they occurred and quickly add them to our blog, including photos and videos. It was fun to see comments from others as we went along and added to our sense of safety when we went on multi-day passages offshore. We were pretty certain someone would notice if we missed more than one day on the blog! (For more information on email and blogging applications on your phone, check out the article on Other Applications.)


Incredible advances in navigation have also been occurring on mobile phones. More and more manufacturers are building in GPS hardware, giving you a very small and mobile navigation device along with your phone. If your mobile phone does not have a built in GPS, there are solutions in the $50 range to add one. For more information see Adding a GPS.

We use our phone's navigation capabilities in several ways. First, it is a backup to our onboard navigation system. Having spent our careers in the computer field, we know that all technology will eventually fail. And following Murphy's Law, it will fail at the most inopportune time possible. So we keep ActiveCaptain Mobile running on our mobile phone, displaying actual NOAA charts and following us while under way. Often we will have the mobile phone displaying a zoomed out version giving us an overview of where we are heading, while the onboard system is showing more detail. We also have our paper charts out at the helm and update our location with a post-it arrow every 15 minutes or so. You might call us paranoid but we don't mind. The web on Windows Mobile Browsing the web on a Windows Mobile phone.

Having NOAA charts on our mobile phone means that we have them with us no matter where we go. Sitting at the marina bar chatting with a fellow boater who mentions a great anchorage, we can take out our mobile phone, look at the location on a NOAA chart and even place a marker. If either of us becomes bored while standing in line at the grocery store, we can take out the mobile phone and look at our route for the next day.

Possibly our favorite use is navigating to and from the boat, using ActiveCaptain Mobile and our mobile phone as a navigation device for our dinghy. It has been a godsend when coming back from dinner in the dark, and we always mark our position on the mobile phone before leaving the boat. Whether using it to navigate up a stream or to a nearby beach, it allows us to explore our surroundings with added confidence. With the many car navigation applications available, you can also use the mobile phone to get to the nearest grocery store or find your way back to the town dock after a hike.

Of course, there are many, many other applications you may wish to use. You can do document creation, bill paying, list creation, maintenance reminders and we can't forget games. A game of solitaire can go a long way to keeping you awake during a midnight watch.


The first step on this journey is to assess the phone and the plan that you have and decide whether to upgrade. This series covers the different types of mobile phone and platforms in more detail later in other articles. For now a definition of each type will give you a basic understand of what is available. ActiveCaptain mobile on Palm ActiveCaptain mobile on a Palm phone.

Feature Phones offer very limited capabilities for adding software other than simple programs called JAVA apps, which are usually games. Most users will be limited to what the phone manufacturers equip their phones to do. The applications included are general in nature, such as calendars or contact lists, and they don't include boating specific applications.

These phones may still be feature rich; that's why they're called Feature Phones and not Dumb Phones. But they generally do not allow you to access your email, browse the web and do many other productive tasks. Many users find these phones simpler to use, because what runs on the phone is limited.

However, if you have read this far, we're assuming you are interested in using your mobile phone for more than making phone calls and playing games. You want access to the boating specific applications that are emerging, and for this you will need a high-end mobile phone, sometimes referred to as Smartphones.

The high-end mobile phone has a standard operating system such as Palm OS, Windows Mobile or Symbian, which allows you to add third-party software applications, much like you can to a computer. There are literally thousands of applications to choose from, which provides you with far greater flexibility than simple feature phone and lets you take advantage of new and emerging applications and functions. They generally support real email directly on the phone, as well as light web browsing.

High-end mobile phones typically have faster processors and larger, high-resolution screens. Many now include full QWERTY keyboards. Most can be used to connect your laptop to the Internet. These phones are themselves approaching miniature laptops, with robust and powerful applications running in the palm of your hand. In fact, we saw a documentary on the first moon shot that stated there is more computing power in today's typical high-end mobile phone than there was on the Apollo 11 spacecraft! Feature phones Some examples of feature phones.

While high-end mobile phones certainly offer far greater flexibility and power, they also require a bit more technical savvy and they are generally - but not always - more expensive. Care must be taken when selecting and installing software to ensure your phone continues to work properly. But with new and improved applications appearing daily, this device can easily become an indispensable tool on your boat.


Before you begin looking at phones, it makes sense to look at providers and their plans. All of the major carriers have a wide variety of phones to select from, so it makes sense to first look at providers and the price of their plans. Let's look at the 4 major U.S. carriers and the networks they support.

Most people are familiar with the major mobile carriers, such as Verizon and AT&T, but few people are aware that there are two main standards for all mobile phone networks: GSM and CDMA. Which one you choose can be important, particularly if you will be taking your boat outside the U.S. or if you wish to use different phones with the same mobile phone number.

CDMA stands for Code Division Multiple Access. CDMA networks are more common in the U.S. than in the rest of the world, and CDMA phones do not use "SIM" cards, which makes it more difficult to move your mobile phone number to another phone. CDMA typically has the best sound quality and data service. If you have no plans to take your boat outside the U.S. and no need to use your mobile number on different phones, a CDMA network will work fine for you.

GSM stands for Global System for Mobile communications. This is the most common networking standard for mobile phones in the world. If you travel internationally and need to use your network, this is the type of service you should consider. A GSM phone will come with a SIM card that is used to identify your phone on the network. You can move your SIM to another GSM phone and your mobile number will be active on that phone.

GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) is an enhancement to GSM networks. GPRS can give you data rates between 30 Kbps and 90 Kbps. EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) also offers data rates between 30 Kbps and 90 Kbps but is generally slightly faster than GPRS.

3G (3rd generation) refers to high transfer speeds giving you the pipeline to handle streaming video, music and other data-intensive features. There are several different types of 3G networks, including EV-DO and HSDPA. EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) is a CDMA enhancement that increases the data speed to between 144 Kbps and 2 Mbps allowing you to handle streaming video and music. HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) is an upgrade to GSM networks offering higher data rates.

AT&T and Cingular merged last year and are now simply called AT&T. They support a large GSM network with GPRS over 100 percent of their coverage area. They have EDGE high-speed data on most of their network. In addition they have 3G data support with HSDPA available in most major metropolitan areas.

Verizon uses a CDMA network with high-speed EV-DO data technology in most areas. Their coverage area encompasses the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska, and Puerto Rico.

Sprint's network utilizes CDMA network technology. In addition they offer EV-DO high-speed data technology in most areas. They are also building a separate WiMax network offering faster speed than EVDO. Sprint's coverage area is the continental U.S., Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

T-Mobile had the first nationwide GSM network and GPRS service. They have EDGE high-speed data on most of their network. Coverage is nationwide in the U.S.

There are many other mobile network providers. You will need to determine which providers are available in your area and in the areas where you intend to take your boat. Armed with an understanding of the terms outlined above, contact each provider to determine which offer the services you need. Tides and currents Tides and currents shown on a smartphone.


The next important step is selecting your plan. The number and types of plans being offered seems to increase exponentially. While we tend to think of choice as a good thing, it can also lead to confusion and poor decisions.

There are several things to keep in mind when considering a plan for use on your boat. First, all minutes are not created equal. There are "voice minutes" and "data minutes" (or bytes transferred). When you are making a phone call to check on the availability of a slip for the night, you are using your voice minutes. When you go on the Internet to check which marinas are nearby, you are using bytes of data. So when considering a plan, make sure you look closely at the data portion of the plan.

Mobile network providers offer a variety of data plans for connecting your mobile phone to the Internet. You will typically select a plan for your voice minutes then choose your data plan. There will be several voice plans to choose from including unlimited voice plans which are about $100 per month. Unlimited data plans are no longer available except for those lucky users who have an existing unlimited data plan contract. Enjoy it while you can as all of the providers are finding ways to end the unlimited data plans.

You may have a choice of data plans, for example Verizon offers a 250 MB or 5 GB per month plans, while AT&T offers only a 5 GB per month plan. A 5 GB data plan is about $60 per month. Select your plan carefully as this allows you to budget what your monthly costs will be avoiding costly overage fees. When you have real email and web access on your phone, the uses will grow. You'll find that you have access almost all the time for your laptop, too (although you won't be powering it up as much if you have a high-end mobile phone).

While the unlimited plans are no longer available you will find that 5 GB of data per month will be more than sufficient for a typical user who is doing email and web browsing. We are what many would consider heavy users and have never gone over our 5 GB allotment. The exception will be if you are using Skype or looking at videos with something like YouTube or Slingbox. These are activities that will use large amounts of data. Our suggestion is to wait until you have a WiFi connection before using Skype or downloading your favorite TV program.

Find out if the plan allows you to turn off your data plan when you are not using it and if there are any restrictions. Many providers allow you to turn the data portion off and on per day, and will prorate the charges accordingly. This can be a real savings if you go cruising for part of the year or only want data access for longer trips and not for daily outings.

Also, be sure to ask what your overall monthly bill will be, including all taxes and fees that apply. Armed with a basic understanding of the most common terms used to describe mobile networks, the difference between feature phones and high-end mobile phones, and some sense of how you will be using your phone, you should have a greater comfort level when you approach a mobile network provider with questions, and be better able to understand their answers. In the rest of the series we look at phones, applications you may find useful and some add-on equipment that can enhance connectivity.

And if all this gives you a headache, fear not. When you find that perfect out-of-the-way anchorage and want to just sit and enjoy, there's an off button on that phone.