Skip to main content

Smartphones have enough processing power, sensors and capabilities to augment or even replace navigation equipment. While I still believe boats should have at least one dedicated display, as mobile devices are susceptible to moisture, heat, dead batteries and falling overboard, the list of mobile apps is extremely long, with more coming out every day.

Today’s navigation apps, for instance, have features and functions that rival, and in some cases beat, those that come with dedicated hardware. One of the biggest advantages a mobile device has is an (almost) always available internet connection. This connection makes updating charts and other data easier and more frequent. Here’s a look at some of the leading navigation apps available for onboard use right now.

This navigation app has dock-to-dock auto-routing, community-sourced SonarChart and easily downloaded daily chart updates. In the past year, Navionics added support for ActiveCaptain Community crowdsourced data, and the display of AIS data from an onboard AIS receiver. Here’s how SonarChart Live works: It records depth data from an onboard instrument and displays it in real time on a chart. That data is also recorded and shared with Navionics, which creates a SonarChart layer based on data received from many boaters.

This app also has Plotter Sync. If you’re using a B&G, Lowrance, Raymarine or Simrad multifunction display, then you can synchronize your routes between the display and the app, which has an annual U.S. and Canada subscription priced at $22.

Aqua Map 

It displays Waterway Guide and ActiveCaptain Community crowdsourced information about marinas, anchorages, hazards and navigational features. The app also has an anchor alarm. U.S. and Canadian charts are available for $40, with lifetime updates included. An added feature set called Aqua Map Master, available at $10 per year, lets boaters display Army Corps of Engineers surveys overlayed onto charts. Aqua Map Master also includes Route Explorer and the ability to display AIS and instrument data. Many of the features were developed for cruising the Intracoastal Waterway.

The Aqua Map app shows a route down the Caloosahatchee River, with Route Explorer data visible in the top right corner. 

The Aqua Map app shows a route down the Caloosahatchee River, with Route Explorer data visible in the top right corner. 


This company has been offering mobile device marine navigation since 2008. Its app costs $5 with access to free charts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Additional charts are available within the app’s store, and the app supports the broadest range of chart sources of any mobile app. In addition to NOAA sources, they include Navionics, Canadian Hydrographic Service, Explorer ChartBooks’ Bahamas Charts, Blue Latitude Press’ Mexico charts, NV Chart’s worldwide coverage and Delius Klasing’s European charts. In addition, iNavX displays the weather and Waterway Guide companion content as chart layers, allowing boaters to display additional information on top of a chart.

If the boat is equipped with an AIS module and Wi-Fi gateway, then iNavX can display AIS and other information. And, iNavX can display AIS information even if the boat doesn’t have an AIS receiver or transceiver. With the AISLive service, iNavX uses a series of receiving stations to transmit AIS information to the mobile device via the internet. This data isn’t updated as quickly as the information coming directly from an onboard AIS receiver, but it can be useful without AIS equipment on board.

Other Types of Apps 

Boating apps aren’t limited to navigation. The U.S. Coast Guard and BoatUS each have apps aimed at making boating safer and easier.

The BoatUS app lets skippers check the weather, look for local discounts, check membership and insurance status, and call for a tow. The Coast Guard app lets boaters fill out a float plan and file it with friends and family; report hazards, pollution or suspicious activity; and learn about recommended and required safety equipment, rules of the road, state boating regulations and sign-ups for a Coast Guard Auxiliary safety check.

Weather apps are also a growing category. Coastal and offshore boaters might want dedicated marine weather applications, while inland and river cruisers might be better off with a general-purpose, land-focused weather app. Almost all weather information in the United States comes from NOAA sensors; the main differences among weather apps are the forecasting model applied to the data, and the way it’s displayed.

Overall, the combination of various apps and a mobile device may or may not be a full-fledged replacement for dedicated equipment on board a boat. However, the apps can make boating easier and more pleasant. They keep information at your fingertips, keep you updated when conditions change, and can summon help when you really need it. 

This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue.



The Technically Rich and Powerful Cortex

Vesper unveils combination AIS, VHF radio and boat monitor.


Perfect Pairing

Vesper Cortex combines a VHF RADIO with AIS technology to make your boat more visible


Garmin's New High-Tech Handheld

Garmin’s GPSMap 86 series offers more tools than the average handheld unit.


We test Raymarine’s Ray90, a black box VHF radio with wireless handsets and Bluetooth audio

I believe that VHF radios from the big four MFD manufacturers are primarily offered so that boat builders and customers can put a single brand of electronics at the helm.


Navigational App

Seapilot’s Social Boating Facebook integration lets users see friends who have attached their Facebook account to an AIS target, and search for their boats.


Wireless MOB Systems

Which wireless man- overboard system is right for your style of cruising?


Mobile Tech

The ROAM app released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection lets boaters report their return to U.S. waters by way of smartphone or tablet.


Machine Learning

A slew of monitors, products connected to one another (the Internet of Things) and “smart” devices will be on display at the boat shows this fall, promising to make all of our boating lives better.