Created: 28 Aug 2013 23:11
Updated: 28 Aug 2013 23:11

I was helping deliver a boat from Chichester to Falmouth last week and had a chance to try out a nifty new app designed with yachtsmen in mind, Boat Beacon. In conjunction with its sister app Boat Watch, Boat Beacon converts your smart phone into an AIS system for the princely sum of £6.99.

Boat Beacon was designed and developed by Pocketmariner’s sea-faring CEO after a near miss at sea – the app provides an affordable and reliable AIS-based collision detection system for iPhone and iPad or Android smartphones and tablets.

Downloading Boat Beacon to my phone was easy - I was sitting in Chichester station car park waiting for my lift to join the boat at Birdham Pool. Sure enough, by downloading the Boat Watch app (which allows you to track and folllow your friends running Boat Beacon) there was a nice blue blob showing up in the car park which when I tapped it gave me the boat name, size and MMSI number.

Pocketmariner, who have developed the app, give the following description of Boat Beacon and its features:

"Specifically designed for use on the water, uniquely providing Bearing, Range and Closest Point of Approach (CPA) calculations in addition to all the standard AIS information. Uses up to the second AIS feeds unlike the other AIS apps which can be a minute or even more behind real time. Transmits as well as receives AIS and the only app that continuously monitors CPA, notifying if potential collisions are detected even when the app is in the background."

Once we set sail, I didn't have time to think about the app, but it keeps running in the background anyway. It's slightly disconcerting when you're in a marina and a loud ship's foghorn blares out of your back pocket to warn you of an impending collision. But that's because I kept the app set to 'Underway sailing' and hadn't switched it to 'Moored'.

Talking of which - that was my only real problem with setting up the app. I wasn't aware, until told by the shore party that they couldn't track us, that I needed to switch the app to 'sailing' by tapping the boat icon on the home screen and making it go green. I filed a support email request with Pocketmariner and got a swift response which put me straight. Good service as well as a good app.

And the other concern was that the iPhone battery drained very fast - I left my phone plugged into a charger whilst we were sailing, which is an option on most yachts, but not good if you're on a very small boat. I did test it out one day without it being plugged in and the battery lasted nearly 7 hours though.

Apart from the fun of letting your friends track your progress down the Channel, the app really came into its own when we were off Falmouth with a large cargo ship coming out of Plymouth on a convergent course. A tap on the screen and I got boat name, speed, course and bearing from us so we were able to adjust our course accurately to avoid collision. We would have had some of that information with an AIS receiver of course, but not all of it or so easily accessible.

I would highly recommend this app - they say that AIS is better than radar. I wonder whether Boat Beacon is better than AIS?