iPad in Business

Safe/Sea Marine Rescue

Shipshape with iPad and iPhone.

When a boat is in trouble in the coastal waters off Rhode Island, Safe/Sea Marine Rescue is the company to call. Safe/Sea operates a fleet of six specially designed, custom-built rescue towboats and provides 24/7 boat towing, salvage, and assistance to recreational boaters. Each Safe/Sea vessel is outfitted with a fearless captain who relies on his iPad to not only receive the vital emergency data from dispatch, but quickly locate the boat and make the rescue.

“From the moment the call reaches me, I can instantly look at my iPad, get on my boat, and go exactly where I need to go,” says Phil LeBlanc, Senior Staff Captain. “I know who I’m going for, what their problem is, and where they are.”

When LeBlanc arrives on scene, he can immediately take care of the vessel and the customer. From start to signoff, he counts on iPad to deliver the critical charting and vessel information, weather, nautical maps, and customer data that makes Safe/Sea’s marine rescue process fast, thorough, and efficient.

Early Challenges

Safe/Sea was hatched with a straightforward plan and a single boat. “Twenty-five years ago, my father and I saw an opportunity to provide assistance services to boaters in Rhode Island and bought our first small tow boat,” says Pete Andrews, Vice President, Co-founder, and Owner of Safe/Sea.

Today, Safe/Sea has a fleet of 6 boats, makes over one-thousand successful rescues a year, and its service area has expanded to cover all of Rhode Island’s busy coastal waterways. The company has thousands of members in Rhode Island who pay an annual fee to get help and free towing whenever they need it. The Safe/Sea captains deal with hundreds of different problems, including broken engines, dead batteries, or boats simply running out of fuel. Solutions range from jumpstarts to fuel delivery to a tow back to the vessel’s home dock.

Before iPhone and iPad, coordinating marine rescue operations were a challenge for the business. “Early on, somebody had to be chained to a desk with a copper phone line and a hard-wired marine VHF radio, so we could listen for calls-for-help from boaters,” explains Andrews. “With iPhone and iPad — that has changed dramatically.”

Turbo Response with iPad

The key to efficiency at Safe/Sea is its communications system. Each Safe/Sea captain has his own iPad running FileMaker Go, connected to a FileMaker Pro database hosted entirely on Macs. The backend system uses FileMaker Pro and a custom application developed by Andrews in 2008. This system coordinates all of the information necessary for dispatchers to rapidly process requests for help and send it to the captains on the move. “Nowadays, we can get further from the office than we used to, but at the same time we’re in much closer communication using iPad,” says LeBlanc.

Once a dispatcher receives a call, he or she enters the data into the Safe/Sea system within Filemaker Go and then simply presses an on-screen button to send the information to the responding captain's iPhone via text and email. Then, iPhone and iPad become search and rescue essentials. The database generates a location URL that is included in the dispatch to the captain. He taps the location URL in the email and instantly plots the position of the caller using the iPad’s built-in Maps app.

Doing Business at Sea

Safe/Sea has used FileMaker Pro for 20 years, and iPad has extended the database capabilities with the FileMaker Go app. “FileMaker Go on iPad has enabled us to go entirely paperless,” says Andrews. At the end of every job, the captains capture the customer’s signature to release responsibility and turn the boat back to the owner. Running on iPad, FileMaker Go eliminates the need for any paperwork and sends the information wirelessly back to Safe/Sea headquarters, where the staff can get a receipt to the customer or send a bill for services.

A key iPad feature often used by Safe/Sea is the built-in HD camera. Captains shoot video and still photographs to better assess situations, and then distribute the video and pictures to other captains who aren’t on scene to get advice. “iPad allows us to develop the right solution for the problem,” says Andrews.

The pictures taken with iPad are also uploaded to the captain’s blogs and the popular Safe/Sea Facebook page. “I keep a blog of what it’s like to drive a rescue tow boat, and iPad allows me to take pictures of customers on the water. Our customers keep coming back to the blog to see what’s going on,” says Andrews.

Weathering Traffic and Storms

Safe/Sea uses a handful of weather apps on iPad, including WeatherBug and Radar Pro. The iHurricane HD app also comes into play to helps track storms in the Caribbean and make contingency plans. “If a storm looks like it is coming our way, we need to be prepared and ready to work,” says Andrews. The crew also uses Tide Graph HD on iPad to chart the ebb and flow along the coast.

“iPad is a one-stop shop for any weather conditions we need. We can see weather, wind, and radar in one screen and access everything immediately,” says LeBlanc.

Since Newport, Rhode Island, is a major shipping lane, Safe/Sea captains have to keep a watchful eye on local traffic. They use the Ship Finder HD app on iPad to see ships in the general area of each rescue, helping captains to communicate with other vessels--and stay out of their way. “Ship Finder HD shows me the boat off my bow, and I know who they are and what they are carrying. The app saves me a lot of time and effort and keeps us safer,” notes LeBlanc.

Captain’s Best Friend

With its wireless communications, built-in camera, maps app, and apps from the app store, iPad is an indispensable piece of gear for the Safe/Sea team. “As a business owner, iPad helps us take our mind off the mechanics of getting employees the information they need to do their jobs,” says Andrews. “When you’re in a business where people can get hurt, it’s important to focus on the services, not on the administration.”

Company Snapshot

  • Located in Rhode Island
  • Provide boat towing, salvage and assistance to recreational boaters
  • One of largest marine assistance companies in U.S.
  • Perform 1,000+ sea rescues annually
  • Safe/Sea

“Nowadays, we can get further from the office than we used to, but at the same time we’re in much closer communication using iPad.”

Phil LeBlanc, Senior Staff Captain, Safe/Sea


“iPad is a one-stop shop for weather conditions. We can see weather, wind, and radar in one screen and access everything immediately.”

Phil LeBlanc, Senior Staff Captain, Safe/Sea


“As a business owner, iPad helps us take our mind off the mechanics of getting employees the information they need to do their jobs.”

Pete Andrews, Vice President, Co‑founder, and Owner, Safe/Sea

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