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  • Writer's pictureBJ

In Search of the (Almost) Perfect Sailing Logbook

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

I never kept a printed logbook in all my years of sailing. I purchased a few commercially available logbooks and attempted to maintain them, but I quickly realized it was mostly an effort in futility. Even the logbook I meticulously kept the first time I circumnavigated Vancouver Island became circular file fodder 2 years after sitting on a bookshelf on the boat collecting dust. Most logbooks suggest hourly entries, or entries made when conditions aboard change. Even updating a logbook every 4 hours, or on watch changes seemed nothing more than a mundane task without much purpose. Unless there is a well understood reason to keep a record of sailing activity logging a waypoint and some other tidbits of information into a book is about as useful as a post on Twitter that may be seen by 1 of your 2 followers before it rapidly disappears into the ethernet of other useless data.

13th Century Portolan Nautical Charts Crafted From Ship's Logs

I am not suggesting that logbooks are not good. In the 13th century logbooks were probably the first example of “big data” put to practical use in creating highly accurate portolan charts. A log or record of some sort is important while pursuing a USCG OPUV license, or other certifications to document experience. Now technology offers automated positional logging so friends and family can see our position and the tracks we took on our voyages. And, although I never kept a proper log per se I always kept a journal of passages, recorded time at sea, notes on anchorages, and noted important events and fond (and sometime not so fond) memories.

But now my life has changed from day sails, weekend trips, and periodic passages with friends and family to long distance cruising to remote locations. My family and friends are more concerned about my safety and interested in following and reading about my personal “quests of discovery.” (Well, maybe they don't really care about my day to day trials and tribulations. Maybe they just want to know the location of my boat and whether I am still alive.) Responsible boat ownership should include at least some minimal amount of record keeping. For example, a record of upgrades and periodic maintenance is valuable to potential buyers of a used boat, or tracking expenses for personal budgeting. I also record time underway and miles sailed for my sailing resume and as evidence of experience for insurance purposes. So, I sat down and asked myself 3 questions.

  1. Why do I want to collect and preserve information?

  2. What specific information do I need to collect and preserve?

  3. How should I record and preserve that information?

Annotating data in a logbook merely for the sake of data collection without purpose is silliness. So, the first and most important thing before considering a logbook is to ask yourself, “why do I need this information and what will I do with it?” If the data being collected does not serve a purpose it becomes little more than rote annotations on scraps of paper (that happen to be bound in a book). Data and the information derived often has more than one purpose. But it helps to have at least one solid reason in your mind for why you want or need to collect data and what purpose that data will serve.

Recording data in a logbook for the sake of collecting data is meaningless!

Once you figure out why you want to collect data and how that information can or will be used then you can start to define the specific data you want to collect. For example, it serves no purpose to record the percentage of cloud cover each day during a passage in a logbook. There is a reason to annotate percentage of cloud cover if you do daily check-ins on the Pacific Seafarer’s Net. Bottom line…do not collect data for the sake of collecting data. Data is not the same as information.

We also need to decide if we need to preserve that information for later reference. For example, we might want to keep a log of upgrades and maintenance for historical purposes, insurance claims, or information to prospective buyers should I ever decide to sell the boat. This is not only information I want, but I want to preserve a permanent record. Conversely, I download weather data in the form of GRIB files that provide me with prognostic weather forecasts that is information I need for the purpose of safe routing underway. I do not maintain the data GRIB files on my computer, because the data contained in GRIB files 5 days ago is of no value to me personally.

After we know the information we want or need, and the specific data necessary to provide that information, and whether we need to maintain that data long term, the final step is to decide how best to record the data so we can make use of the information. There is a plethora of options for sailors today. From the traditional bound paper logbooks to ‘hi-tech’ computer / smart phone apps. Most printed logs books are essentially identical with entries to record date/time, latitude/longitude, speed, and course, etc. Most logbook applications are merely ‘electronic’ versions of a paper logbook with some fancy bells and whistles to automate the process, record tracks, and allow photos to be embedded with a ‘log’ entry. To further complicate things, all logbooks have morphed to try to satisfy the desires ALL boaters. They remind me of the crazy Swiss Army knives with 32 ‘functions’ (none of which are particularly good at their intended function).

When I began planning for my long distance cruising I knew I wanted to not only keep a journal of my passages, but should collect additional data for various purposes (I will outline the specific data I collect in another post). But I knew I did not want to buy a bound logbook. They just do not make much sense for non-professional sailors. Seriously…nobody is going to read your hourly position, course and speed reports recorded on a page in some logbook; not even you! I also knew I did not want to create my own custom pages and have them printed and bound into book form. After all, this is the 21st century!

So, hi-tech was the direction for my logbook solution. I would keep an electronic logbook, with a backup copy of that logbook aboard on another device at all times, and I would have a backup of data in cloud storage. I knew some of my requirements for an application. My primary ‘computer’ underway is an iPad. These are small, lightweight, lots of memory, easy for 2 people to view, supports external keyboard, and they are energy efficient. I also knew that I wanted to be able to sync data between multiple devices for redundancy and allow cloud sync when I had an internet connection. A plus would be a laptop or desktop version of the application as well. And finally, I wanted to be able to export data for analysis.

So, I began downloading and testing various applications on my iPad. I tested My Captain, NauticLog, Boat On Pro (French only), Ship’s Log for Captains, Tracklink NauticEd, Logbook Suite, Boating Suite, Keep Sailing, Sailor LogBook, Odyssea, Skipper Tools, Aiolos Lite, Yacht Panel, and a few others. Some of these only worked with cell data or internet. Hint to app-devs…there is no cell service 100 miles off any coast. Some did not provide sync’ing data between devices, or to a ‘cloud’ server (important for redundancy and data preservation). Some were limited to smart phone only. Needless to say, I was not overly impressed with any of these solutions, and actually greatly disappointed.

Then it dawned on me that at the heart of all these applications was a simple database wrapped with a pretty user interface with some extra bells and whistles (as long as you have a cellular or internet connection). My first recollection of a computer database was working with an application called dBase way back in…(well, never is not important). The dBase app was amazing and amazingly complicated. But fast forward 40 years and some clever developers figured out that databases are useful for many people for a variety of reasons, and more importantly they do not have to be complicated. So, once again I headed to the ‘App Store’ in search of a simple database application that allowed users to create their own tables and data sets.

Again, I began downloading and testing a variety of database applications from the App Store. I found the Airtable application to be intuitive and powerful. It also had cloud sync’ing capabilities and a desktop application as well for the Mac. I built a table on the iPad, entered data, sync’d the data and tried other features. Things were looking great. Then, I turned off the wifi connection on the iPad and tried to launch the Airtable app to test offline entries. Imagine my shock when the Airtable app on my iPad failed to launch without an internet connection. WTF??? So, I went online to search for help with this problem. Not only did the folks at Airtable not support offline work, they had no intent on supporting offline work in the future.

So, I decided to go with the MobiDB application. It is a little quirky, but it does what I need, and it is quite easy to use. It supports sync’ing using Dropbox, iCloud, and Google Drive . Some of the things I find quirky are…

  • I set my time on the tablets to Zulu or Greenwich Mean Time (Zulu). MobiDB does not support 24-hour time formats and changes time entries to AM/PM formats. (Dumb!)

  • MobiDB is supported on the iPhone, iPad, Android devices, and Windows 10 laptops/desktop computers. I have both a Macbook Pro and a Windows 10 laptop aboard for use in port. (It is not really a big deal for me as I carry both…it just seems odd to me there is no Mac support.)

MobiDB database is my multi-purpose logbook for data I want to track.

Of course, if you are not familiar with databases you should take a quick crash course from their online help. Then you can create your own custom forms to collect data into the appropriate tables. For the $20 basic version (or $25 for the Premium version) you can create your own perfect sailing logbook to enter the specific data you need to gather the information that is important to you, and sync that data between multiple devices.

Daily log tracks specific data important to ME!

In the next post, I will discuss the various data I record, why that data is important and how the information is used. But, for now…I am adding a few more tables to my (electronic) logbook and transcribing the data so I have a permanent record accessible whenever and wherever I am in my almost perfect and logbook that is customizable to suit my needs.

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