Embrace America's Rivers

Smartphone Apps vs Printed Guidebooks

Being a writer of river guidebooks, I admit to being bit biased in my opinions of apps vs guidebooks, however, I do use electronic devices to some extent but would never completely depend on them when safety and reliable information is important (as when boating on a river). Internet based information is often driven by advertising instead of quality of that information. That is one of the reasons that I do not accept advertising in my guidebooks. I can never be accused of promoting marinas and businesses that are the highest bidders.

We all love our electronic gadgets. Tablets, I-Phones, GPS, and Notebooks to name a few. They are great but wise boaters do not rely on them 100% for the following reasons.
1.) Electronics breaks down and paper does not. Veteran boaters continue to use charts and guidebooks.
2.) Some say that charts and guidebooks go out of date, but so does information in the Internet. At least guidebooks are usually updated each year, but once information is on the Internet it never goes away (even bad information).
3.) A good deal of the information provided on gadgets comes from people doing research, while details in guidebooks is written by professionals who have been there and done it. Some smartphone apps allow input from boaters that is often wrong or placed there by marinas and other businesses for self-promotion.

4.) Apps will often give the location of hazards like lowhead dams, providing gps coordinates and perhaps which side to portage on. Guidebooks show the gps coordinates but also details on approaching the dam, the normal drop of the dam, how soon to take out, and photos of it. That kind of information can be life-saving and is only available in a good guidebook.

5.) Most river apps focus on bridges and boat ramps. Guidebooks will show where supplies can be purchased, lodging, campsites, anchorage locations, and contact information for all marinas and other services.
6.) Charts and guidebooks do not need batteries recharged or require a cell phone signal. They are also easier to read (especially in the sun) than smartphones.

Gadgets are fun and can provide additional features that are not found in guidebooks, but will never replace them as a valuable tool for boat travel. Towboat pilots have the latest in electronics in their pilothouse but they still have paper charts and other forms of printed material. Many pilots carry their own charts so that they can add their own notes to the pages, as do experienced boaters with their guidebooks.

Quote from Boat US:

Before we go any further, let's make one thing crystal clear: we do not support, promote, or otherwise endorse becoming dependent on a cell phone for onboard navigation, communications, or managing your ship's systems. Despite their improved reliability, cell phones can and do fail with startling regularity. If you rely on one, it will eventually let you down — they don't even cut it as back-up devices.

Attorney, Michael K. Pence

A major cause of boating accidents is reckless operation which can take many forms, but in general is an act that endangers others. One form of being reckless is the operator being distracted by a mobile device thereby rendering him or her unaware of other boaters, jet skiers or people in the water, posing the same danger that operating a motor vehicle while being distracted by cell or smartphone does.

Simply stated, distracted boating is as dangerous as distracted driving. Sadly, every summer people are injured or lose their life due to the recklessness of an impaired and/or distracted boat operator looking down at his or her mobile phone.


Anything that needs power will fail eventually. That's physics, and can't be denied. The marine environment is especially nasty to all things electronic. So if you're out at night, approaching the coast, do you want to have only electronic charts? Do you want only electric or hydraulic autopilots, or a windvane steering the boat? If you're looking up an anchorage on the ActiveCaptain web site (assuming you have Wi-Fi or 3G, not always the case around Vancouver Island) and the computer dies or can't connect, then you pull out Wagonner's and read about the unmarked rock in the middle of the channel, because he's been there, seen the rock, wrote about the rock, and kept updating the guide every year. Then you pull out the paper chart and put a dot on it for the rock, while you're there you see the marks you made ten years before on a trip around the island, and you remember getting out the dividers and the rulers and marking off the routes and figuring out lats and longs and looking for hazards and all the stuff that goes with having a full chart laid out on the table in front of you, and you remember all the fun you had. Tough to do when the computer's lying dead on the settee.

--Milt Baker, Nordhavn 47 Bluewater, Southwest Harbor, ME

The truth is that cruising guides provide perspective not available elsewhere whereas, for all the value it offers, a site like Active Captain will never be a stand-alone-this-is-all-you-need source of navigation information. Nor, I suspect, would you ever expect that of it. The well informed captain uses all the information at his or her disposal. In my book that includes ActiveCaptain, but it definitely also includes written cruising guides--the kind printed on paper. Don't ask which I'd choose first if I had to make a choice. I love ActiveCaptain but I'd never put all my navigation eggs in a single basket.

The image at left below is a navigation app and at right is a page from the Tennessee River Guidebook of the same section of river. The app does have gps, which is nice and it is in color but the guidebook page has much more information for the traveling boater, with an opposite page detailing marina, anchoring locations and other services along the shore. The guidebook map is more accurate and detailed. The phone image is very small and hard to see in bright light. The guidebook is a full 8.5x11 inch navigation chart.  Which would your rather depend on?