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Going overboard with smartphones


Going overboard is every boater’s worst fear and I for one have nearly done it on a few occasions. I recall the time I was solo-voyaging from North Africa back to Europe. Happily sitting in the cockpit until a pod of dolphins began surfing on the waves around the yacht, I briefly unclipped my harness to grab the camera when a freakish wave tipped the yacht. Before I could react I was half way over the side and only just managed to scramble back.

I wasn’t wearing a personal locator beacon (PLB) because they weren’t commonly available back in those days. Of course, in the last decade or so when I’ve done Category 1 races there’s always been a PLB in my pocket but when cruising, it’s a different story. Nowadays, we’re most likely to have one piece of electronics in our pockets at all times — the ubiquitous mobile phone. So it begs the question, are they any good in an emergency man overboard situation?

A resounding ‘oui’ or ‘yes’ would be the answer from French professional sailor Florence Arthaud. Late last year the former winner of 1990 of the Route du Rhum singlehanded transatlantic sailing race was pleasure sailing her yacht Argade II between Corsica and Elba when she needed a pee. Perched over the side (unclipped) a wave knocked her into the drink and to her horror she watched as her 10m yacht sailed off. Her saving grace lay within the pockets of her oilskins — a waterproof mobile phone that she’d just bought before setting off.

The sailor called her mother and brother in Paris, who contacted the French Mediterranean sea rescue centre. Authorities located the area in which she had fallen through her cell phone GPS coordinates. They then homed in by spotting the light from her head torch.

The 54-year-old sailor was suffering from hypothermia after being in the 18°C water for about 90 minutes. "When you think you're going to drown, it's a little bit frightening — very frightening in fact. You think of all your friends who have disappeared in similar conditions," said Arthaud.

She was so lucky, it’s unbelievable — unless close inshore you’re unlikely to have network coverage. Also, there’s not that many waterproof smartphones (these have GPS) on the market. A market snapshot reveals a few models though.

I recently was given the Motorola Defy to have a play with, which is described as ‘water resistant’ and can be submerged in shallow water, but doesn’t have an actual IP rating I believe. Looking like any other smartphone this Android handset has been videoed in a glass of water, held under a running tap and even immersed with its video recorder running. Rumour has it that the popular Samsung Galaxy will also be waterproofed as manufacturers respond to consumer demands for tougher smartphones.

At the February Mobile World Congress 2012 that took place in Barcelona, several handset manufacturers demonstrated tests of waterproof smartphones. Panasonic is returning to the mobile market with the release of a waterproof smartphone with an IP57 rating — meaning it can be dipped in shallow water. The Android powered ELUGA ships in in June.

Fujitsu is another manufacturer that has brought out a range of waterproof smartphones and tablets. Like Panasonic, Fujitsu handsets are not sold locally but according to Choice Magazine should work on Australian networks.

Protecting your existing smartphone is what most of us need, so look out for some aftermarket specialist companies including and They can supply waterproofing (nano-coating said to be 1000 times thinner than a human hair) to popular models such as the iPhone 4 and Samsung Galaxy S2. Alternatively, seek out a ruggedised case from companies like Otterbox, which also prevent these relatively fragile phones from going cactus just when you need them.

Using mobile phones for emergency communication is increasing and this led the National SAR Council to table the issue of using a mobile phone's GPS for navigation at its last meeting according to AMSA SAR policy adviser, Amanda MacKinnell, who spoke to Trade-a-Boat.

"During the 2011 flooding in Queensland, the State's police were receiving reports from members of the public, with positions provided from their mobile phones," said MacKinnell.

"These positions were highly inaccurate, being out by as much as 30km. This is due to the refresh rate of the system via the mobile phone network — your mobile will often only have the most recent position confirmed by the network, rather than your true position," she said.

The common sense advice from AMSA is that mobile phones are "useful" but that’s about it. They are no substitute for VHF/HF radios and sat phones for two-way communications and, of course, an EPIRB or PLB. So I wouldn’t go overboard just yet with my increasingly essential smartphone.

Elsewhere in Bright Sparks world, the release of the iPad 3 created yet another buzz around Apple Corporation. Looking very like its predecessor but slightly heavier, the attraction for us boaters is a screen resolution double its predecessor and bigger than anything else aboard at 2048 x 1536 pixels, and pricing matches the old model as well.

A fantastic screen for showing the new charting from the Garmin Bluecharts app arriving in June and Jeppesen’s C-Map (Plan2Nav) is now available as well.

Clear horizons and calm seas, but what happens if you fall overboard when solo?

The Motorola Defy has sufficient waterproofing to withstand immersion in a glass of water.

Waterproof your iPhone with Liquipel’s nano coating.

The iPad 3 has massive screen resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels, so ideal for 3D charting.

The next generation of Motorola’s great value for money Xoom tablet may be waterproofed.

C-Map charts and the Plan2Nav app is now available for iPhones and the iPad.

Garmin’s excellent Bluecharts will be available on the iPad around June.

From Trade-a-Boat Issue 426, Apr-May, 2012. Photos by Kevin Green; Apple; Jeppesen; Liquipel; Motorola.


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