What The Tech: What Three Words For Boating


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If you’re going to be out on the water this summer it’s a good idea to prepare for anything. You don’t want to be far from shore and in distress without knowing how to call for help and let someone know where to find you.

Or maybe you’re out on the water trying to tell friends in another boat where you are so they can tie up together to enjoy the day.

Either way, trying to tell someone your location when there are no street signs and no landmarks is nearly impossible.

“What3Words” is a smartphone app that pinpoints the exact location of a cellphone down to a 3×3 meter square. Developers of the app mapped the entire world giving each 3×3 square three unique words. For example, I randomly picked a spot in the Gulf of Mexico using the What3Words app. That particular square is named “rowboat.flamboyance.monotonously”. Move a few yards and the 3 words are “massagers.eager.rivet.”

Each square and each grouping of words correlates to GPS coordinates. You may not be able to remember the string of numbers, but you can remember and communicate it with three words.

When you open the app, it detects your exact location marked by the unique grouping of words. The user can share those words with someone over a text message or simply tell them the words over a radio or phone. If they send it by text, the person receiving the text opens the map in Google Maps or Apple Maps where they can see precisely where the boat is located.

If the boat is fairly close to shore, opening the location in Apple or Google Maps will give direct step-by-step directions with an arrow. Farther from shore, like in the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean, the person getting the text message will see the GPS coordinates.

The public affairs official I spoke with from the U.S. Coast Guard had never heard of the app but agrees it could help rescuers find someone in distress even if they don’t know where they are and just use the three words.

Many experienced boaters have a VHF radio and a GPS device to call for help but weekend boaters and people enjoying the water in a kayak do not. What3Words could lead rescuers directly to their location and pull them to safety.

You’ll need an internet connection of course for the app to find your location, but the signal does not need to be strong. It also uses very little battery power. Sending a text is possible even with 1% battery remaining. Making a phone call to 9-1-1 uses considerably more battery power and if you don’t know where you are, making contact with an emergency contact isn’t going to be of much help.

What3Words is a helpful app for hikers, boaters, and anyone traveling alone. It is free for iPhones and Android devices.