IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Boaters have seaworthy tech assistants

Whether you're trying to find that perfect bass in the sea, or want a way for someone to find you at sea, there are several nautical tech tools that are ready for boarding.
Image: Garmin GPSmap 440s Fishfinder Chartplotter
Garmin's GPSmap 440s Fishfinder Chartplotter ($640) is one way to keep track of all the fish in the sea.West Marine

Even though I grew up in Florida, I never went sailing until three years ago. We owned a powerboat for a few years, but my dad didn’t really let me at the wheel too often.

I don’t remember ever bringing any gadgets on board, but then again, we were very infrequent boaters and never went too far from home.

But, if you’re out on the water more often, you’ve probably already got at least the basics — a GPS unit and charts, be they paper or electronic.

While it’s always smart to have up-to-date paper charts on-board, for convenience sake, sailors do have choices in terms of electronic navigation.

There are two options to display electronic charts: on water-resistant chart plotters or on laptops. Those with boats smaller than 50 feet seem to favor chart plotters, while seafarers with more room and protection from the elements might choose the laptop route.

The charts for chart plotters are available on memory cards inserted into GPS units to give boaters a clear idea of where they are, and more importantly, where they’re going.

They’re available in many packages and regions, with premium charts displaying “real picture” satellite and 3-D images. Really high-end devices come with touchscreens instead of buttons.

California-based West Marine, with retail stores in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada, offered some recommendations on items boaters might find desirable.

Lots of fish in the GPS sea
One jam-packed combo is the waterproof Garmin GPSmap 440s Fishfinder Chartplotter ($640), because, c’mon, it is only natural that fishing goes hand in hand with boating.

This baby comes with a built-in sounder that scans depths up to 1,500 feet and also has preloaded marine cartography for all U.S. coastal areas. The four-inch, color QVGA display also helps offers crisp, clear split-screen viewing of sounder and map information.

Another trend in boating navigation is linking tools together. Having a laptop on board may expedite that. Plus, you also the benefit of a processor, RAM and hard drive to run software and make the most of it.

The Maptech Chart Navigator Pro ($500) provides 3-D and topographical images of the coastal U.S., and includes GPS planning tools and software. It can work with autopilot, radar and other instruments. Once connected to the Internet, it can also incorporate current weather forecasts.

Surfing at sea, unfortunately, is largely limited to wave surfers, not the Internet kind.

Basic e-mail service is available from SailMail via SSB (Single Sideband) radios, a laptop computer and a radio modem, such as the Pactor HF ($900). The cost for the e-mail service is $250 a year per vessel.

From there, systems skyrocket in price if you want to Web surf like you would at home. Inmarsat FleetBroadband is a hefty investment for several thousands of dollars. For that, you might want to wait until you get to port to use some free Wi-Fi.

Electronic message in a bottle
Safety is always paramount at sea. I’m a fiend for emergency kits, so I saw the SPOT Satellite Messenger ($150), a device that’s like a modern-day message in a bottle.

The SPOT Satellite Messenger ($150) uses a GPS satellite system to help locate seafarers who are lost or off course.

With a yearly $99 subscription fee, it uses a GPS satellite system to acquire its coordinates, then sends a link of the location via Google Maps and a pre-programmed message, again through a satellite network.

What makes it stand out, though, is that unlike personal locator beacons, the Messenger doesn’t just issue an SOS. It tracks where you are and where you’re drifting, or whatever “Lost” island you’ve ended up stranded on.

It can keep loved ones apprised of your situation using satellite communication in areas where cell phones may not pick up reception.

When it comes to the pleasures of being on the water, for me, music is vital, especially if you’re out to sea for more than a few hours.

The MS-IP500 Marine iPod Stereo ($400), by Fusion Electronics, is a docking system that moves with the motion of the ocean, protecting your MP3 player (but not iPhones) in a tough, waterproof drawer while also recharging it.

It’s also got FM/AM and satellite radio.

Living in a very nautical town, I see lots of floating hotel-like yachts moored at local marinas. I picture some mammoth flat-screen TV as the centerpiece in a posh, but tastefully decorated stateroom. But what’s a TV without HD channels?

For boaters, there’s the KVH TracVision M3 ($3,700), a very unassuming device that brings in DirectTV channels from as far as 200 miles offshore using a compact 14.5-inch antenna.

Mind you, you’ve got to have a ship that can also accommodate a 14-inch dish. With it, you’re never far from 300-plus channels, so your boating vacation gives you all the comforts of home.

Any kind of seafaring adventure is fine with me. I’m perfectly content going on day trips with my friends who own sailboats and are kind enough to let me tag along.

They may keep their gadgets discretely stowed — everything has its place on a boat — but just knowing they’re prepared makes me feel like I can let go and enjoy the day.