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MODERN MARINE NAVIGATION: Crashing the iPad

Canadian chart catalogue

Having decided that part of this summer's cruising program on Lunacy will involve a two-week jaunt over to Nova Scotia and back, it dawned on me that I needed to make sure I actually have charts for Nova Scotia. In the previous century, which really wasn't that long ago, this would have been a simple process. I would consult my ever-growing stack of paper charts, discover I had no relevant charts, and then call the Armchair Sailor in Newport. These people were personally known to me, and I was known to them. I would say: "Hi! Howzit going? I'm sailing to Nova Scotia. I need coverage from Yarmouth to Halifax." And two days later my charts would arrive in the mail.

No fuss, no muss. Alas, the Armchair Sailor is no longer, a victim of the Internet Revolution, and procuring charts is no longer so easy.

This is how the process runs now:

Step 1: Check the current inventory. Nope. No paper charts, and the chart card in my antique (read 7-year-old) Raymarine A65 chartplotter does not cover any part of Canada. But here! That Navionics chart app I purchased for my iPad does include Nova Scotia and indeed all of Canada.

Question: Is this all I need? Answer: Say what? I have never successfully navigated anywhere on my iPad, I can't really read its screen in daylight, and its GPS receiver (if it has one; I'm still not really sure about that) can't work belowdeck.

Yes, I know some people navigate exclusively on iPads now. But we know what happens to them! Take, for example, the sad story of John Berg, who lost his Nordic 40 Seaquel on the coast of Hawaii just last month. He was running an iPad with iNavX software, was approaching a waypoint outside a harbor, and... Whoa! All of a sudden the tablet screen was taken over by Apple, who wanted him to log into FaceTime and iCloud for some reason. No matter what he tried he couldn't clear the screen, and next thing you know...

Seaquel aground

He's up on the reef! Poor Seaquel in extremis

Seaquel destroyed

And they couldn't get her off, so she was destroyed by earth-moving equipment and hauled off to the dump. Apparently, the boat was also partly looted by locals beforehand

No sir! I want paper charts, plus I want a Canadian chart card for my plotter, and maybe along the way I'll practice with that iPad thing, which I have never understood, because there are no written instructions for it, and the only way to figure out how it works is through a long tedious process of trial and error.

Step 2: To figure out what paper charts I need I google "Canadian charts" and quickly find the webpage of the Canadian Hydrographic Service. Clicking on "Paper Charts" I am led in a few more mouse clicks to a PDF chart catalogue (see image up top, which actually represents only a tiny portion of the catalogue) that is very hard to read on a computer screen. After much zooming in and out and rotating this way and that, I at last extract the numbers for the eight paper charts I would like to have onboard for my cruise.

Step 3: Actually buying the charts at first looks easy. I press the How To Purchase button on the CHS paper-chart page and I'm led to a dealer-locator function that tells me the nearest dealer to me is the West Marine store in Seabrook, New Hampshire, just a few miles down the road from my home.

Brilliant! I call them up, read them my list of chart numbers, and am put on hold. Many long minutes later I am told the store has no Canadian charts of any description and that I should instead call this particular number at West Marine HQ and they will print out the charts for me and send them on post haste.

OK. That doesn't sound so bad. So I call that magic number, again read out my list of chart numbers, and am again put on hold. Many long minutes later I am told West Marine doesn't really sell Canadian charts, has no ability to print out charts of any description, and that what I really need to do is check out Bluewater Books & Charts in Ft. Lauderdale.

Step 4: I am familiar with Bluewater Books. They are the people who bought the Armchair Sailor in Newport and later closed it down. I have tried to buy charts from them before, with no success, so now I am getting wary. I check their website and see they do indeed purport to sell the charts in question, but that delivery for some of them may be delayed, which suggests an inventory problem.

Best then to call and see what the situation is. So I do that and, even before I get to read out my chart numbers, I am put on hold.

Many long minutes later I am still on hold, listening to elevator music. The people on the other end still have no idea why I'm calling. This, I remember, is what happened last time, and that I never got anyone to ever help me on the phone. So I press zero a few times, trying to get back to a live person.

That doesn't work, so I figure I might as well load a shopping basket on the website while I wait. This turns out to be incredibly difficult. The system is very balky and cumbersome, there are many steps involved in locating and depositing each chart in my virtual basket, and in all it takes about 20 minutes to complete the job.

Meanwhile, I am still on hold on the phone. I hang up, dial the number again, and I am once again put on hold before I can explain that I have already been on hold for at least half an hour.

What the hell. Let's just buy this stuff and see what happens. So I attempt to buy the eight charts I have placed in my basket, and at the end of the process I am stuck on a frozen page, with no acknowledgement that I have purchased anything. I know better than to press Buy again, so I wait about an hour to see if an e-mail confirmation comes through. Nothing comes, so I have to assume I have not purchased the charts.

Step 5: I resolve never again to buy anything from Bluewater Books for as long as I live and figure I might as well try Boxell's Chandlery in Boston. Many moons ago I bought charts from them, and they were reliable, knowledgeable, and courteous. I find their website online, and though they do claim to have Canadian charts, and there is a mechanism for buying them online, I note the online shopping function looks positively neolithic and the site hasn't been updated in seven years. So I dial their phone number to do a reality check. No answer. The phone rings forever, and there isn't even voice-mail. I dial several more times over the course of the day. Same result.

Step 6: Having now spent a few hours on the problem without getting anywhere, I give up for the day. The next morning, however, I get a promotional e-mail from Landfall Navigation and am reminded by this that they too sell charts. I check their website and find a complete list of Canadian charts with no warnings about delivery delays.

I try loading a basket with my eight paper charts. It is a relatively easy process, and when I click Buy at the end I actually get an acknowledgement. Thirty seconds later another acknowledgement appears in my e-mail box.

Greatly heartened by this, I search their site to see if they have Canadian chart cards for my A65 plotter. Yes, they do! So I plop that in another shopping basket, along with a Canadian tide-table book and a copy of the 2014 Nautical Almanac, press Buy again, and again receive appropriate acknowledgements.

Step 7: Four days later I have received no follow-up notice from Landfall telling me my items have shipped, so (with some trepidation) I try calling them on the phone. Bingo! I'm talking to a human within seconds, and they don't put me on hold. What a thrill that is.

What I learn is that three of my paper charts, the tide tables, and the almanac are not in stock and have been back-ordered. Hopefully they'll be ready to ship in five days. Meanwhile, the chart card and five paper charts are good to go.

"Will I have everything within 3 weeks?" I ask, as this is when I plan to leave.

"You should," comes the answer.

So here I am, keeping my fingers crossed.

A65 chartplotter

The old Raymarine A65. I'm quite fond of mine actually, as the controls really are pretty intuitive, and I rarely need to consult the manual, which does actually exist. I have mine mounted below, simply because there really is no room for it in Lunacy's cockpit. In the cockpit I just keep a paper chart handy and eyeball stuff with that, the old-fashioned way

iPad nav display

An iPad nav display. It looks like a plotter, but isn't. It comes with no instructions, and the software is often updated, so functions often change, which means sometimes you have to figure out how to use it all over again. And apparently you don't have control of what's on the screen; Apple does

During this arduous quest, I was of course asking myself, do I really need all this stuff? And I decided I do. I want it all--the paper charts, my chartplotter, and of course I'll take the iPad and its charts. I might go without the plotter, if push came to shove and for some reason that card I bought doesn't actually work, but I'd feel very uncomfortable going without paper charts.

As for poor John Berg, former owner of Seaquel, I should give you a little more background on him. He really does rely on electronics to navigate, as he is blind. Evidently all his electronics are rigged to talk to him. He did have one sighted crew member on board when he lost the boat, but apparently what happened was the two of them got lost in tunnel-vision trying to clear the iPad screen.

John Berg

Mr. Berg, though blind, has been cruising his boat for 14 years and is highly experienced. To his credit, he takes complete responsibility for what happened to Seaquel

I should note, too, that Berg evidently wasn't relying solely on his iPad. The story in Latitude 38 I linked to above says there was also a chartplotter onboard displaying NOAA charts, but these, for reasons not specified, "proved inadequate."

I don't know about you, but I'd sure like to know what that means.

PS: Berg isn't the only one to have lost a boat due to iPad reliance. Please remember the story of the Swan 48 Wolfhound, which was abandoned (at least in part) due to a lack of iPad battery power.

PPS: The modern retail experience--and this is true of everything, not just charts--truly does suck. I could prove this by describing all I had to go through to purchase my current iPad, but that would be cruel and unusual punishment. I can only pray that this is only a phase we're going through and that someday retailers will rediscover the concept of customer service.

PPPS: I nearly forgot to mention--I assume the trick to avoiding Berg's fate iPad-wise is to turn on Airplane Mode while navigating so Apple can't contact you. But would this also turn off the iPad's GPS? Can anyone tell me that?

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