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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—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 three of the leading navigation apps available for onboard use right now.

This navigation app has features like 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.


This navigation app 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 as a $10 per year subscription, 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.


iNavX 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.

Accurate, intuitive and free (and advertisement-free) weather forecast visualization apps such as Windy deliver quality information to aid boaters in course-plotting around weather systems or general itinerary planning.

Accurate, intuitive and free (and advertisement-free) weather forecast visualization apps such as Windy deliver quality information to aid boaters in course-plotting around weather systems or general itinerary planning.

In addition, iNavX displays Theyr 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 WiFi 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.


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 need it.