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Boating’s age of innovation

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Led by GPS, joysticks and computer-aided design, the last 20 years have transformed the on-water experience


When Michael Peters began designing boats in the 1970s, he thought he had missed boating’s Golden Age. “If only I was old enough to be a designer in 1959 or 1960 when you had fiberglass replacing wood boats, the deep-vee coming on, the invention of the sterndrive,” says Peters, president of Michael Peters Yacht Design in Sarasota, Fla. “I always thought that must have been an incredible time to be there developing boats.”

Peters says he now realizes the most fruitful period of innovation has been from the mid-1980s until now. “I thought I had missed the show, but I didn’t miss it at all,” he says. “It’s just different stuff. Just look at the America’s Cup. The New Zealand team is running 50 mph.”

Peters and a half-dozen other leading designers, builders and safety experts say GPS-generated electronic navigation, joystick helm control and computer-aided design stand out as the top innovations of the past 20 years. The innovations fall under four categories: electronics, boat design and construction, safety and propulsion. The innovations — the very latest of which will be on display at the International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference Sept. 17-19 in Louisville, Ky. — have made boating easier for consumers and boatbuilding more efficient and less time-consuming for the industry.

The development of the 4-stroke outboard and cleaner, more efficient diesel engines, the increased use of resin-infused composite construction, the EPIRB and inflatable PFDs also rank high on the list. Surprises? Gyroscope stabilization.

“With every boat we draw now we have to have a planned space for [a gyroscope],” Peters says. “Five years ago we didn’t even think about this. It’s a huge development. It’s becoming much more prevalent than we thought. We thought it was just for guys with larger boats and deep pockets, but with everything we design over 40 feet the builder wants to know where the gyro is going.”

3-D modeling

Doug Zurn, president of Zurn Yachts, a design firm in Marblehead, Mass., has the gyro on his list, too. Without a doubt, however, computer-aided design ranks as his No. 1 innovation, with joystick helm control — and the engines and drives that utilize it — as a close second.

“From our standpoint, the most influential product development has come in the form of CAD products,” Zurn says. “From the smallest widget to the fully assembled yacht, CAD products have enabled us as designers and engineers to develop far superior products with vastly improved features than our counterparts 20 years ago.”

Steve French, owner of the industrial design firm Applied Concepts in Stuart, Fla., has been designing boats for more than 30 years and has watched computer use evolve. “Designing and building went from napkin sketches and paper drawings to 2-D CAD and then to 3-D CAD,” he says. “We 3-D-model small parts like latches and hatches and consoles in sufficient detail to work out new solutions and provide a customer with the confidence that they are getting exactly what they want.”

For about 20 years French has designed powerboats from 19 to 100 feet in 3-D. “Our computer models are accurate, complex assemblies, including systems,” he says. “The air conditioning, plumbing, the drive systems and every pump in the boat has been 3-D-modeled. The 3-D modeling environment allows everyone from the CEO to the marketing director to look at the boat before they spend the money for tooling and advertising.”


French uses 3-D CAD with another technology — 3-D printing. “I have a 3-D print of a stateroom,” French says. “A customer was curious whether the stateroom would look the way he wanted. He didn’t see it in the computer environment very well, so we put a stateroom in the palm of his hands within a couple of days. … You can see exactly how the room works. Stereolithography and 3-D and other 3-D printing technologies are here to stay — and in a really big and cool way. We use them to show our customers what they’re going to get way in advance.”

‘Joysticks for everything’

3-D printing serves as an example of how the industry can make boat buying more consumer-friendly, but making the operation of a boat easier has been a priority for the industry, as well, evidenced by the number of boats with joystick helm control. At today’s boat shows you’ll find joysticks married to a variety of power options, from outboards and sterndrives to pod drives and straight-shaft setups.

Hinckley was one of the first builders to develop and incorporate joystick control with its JetStick and waterjet drives. The company continues to improve the system and is now offering its third generation of the JetStick. The builder also now offers Volvo Penta IPS and joystick as an option, along with its own joystick/waterjet system.

Pod drives have had a hand in the joystick’s rise in popularity since 2005, when Volvo Penta’s Inboard Performance System hit the market. “We never knew IPS would have such a tremendous impact,” says Johan Wasterang, Volvo Penta Global vice president of product management.

Mercury’s Zeus pod system also incorporates a joystick, and ZF Marine links its pods to its Joystick Maneuvering System. ZF Marine’s JMS can be used with sterndrives as well as conventional inboards. Yacht Controller’s wireless remote control, though not a joystick, gives the skipper precise low-speed maneuverability by interfacing with a boat’s engines, transmissions and thrusters.

Most major marine engine manufacturers have a joystick option now. In addition to Mercury (which uses Cummins engines) and Volvo Penta, Caterpillar and Yanmar have joysticks. Four of the five major outboard makers — Mercury, Evinrude, Yamaha and Suzuki — now equip their engines with advanced steering and joystick controls. “It started with joysticks for [waterjet boats], and now it’s joysticks for everything,” says John Deknatel, president and owner of C. Raymond Hunt Associates in New Bedford, Mass. “In today’s market, you need something new and better to convince the guy he should buy a new boat.”

The top 10 advances Here is our list of the top 10 innovations in recreational boating during the past two decades, compiled through our interviews with leading designers and engineers: 1. GPS and electronic charts 2. Computer-aided design 3. Pod drives and joystick helm control 4. CNC routing 5. Gyro stabilizers 6. 4-stroke outboards 7. Modern diesels 8. Vacuum bagging, resin infusion and all-composite construction 9. EPIRBs 10. LED lights HONORABLE MENTION • Proliferation of the stepped hull • Inflatable life jackets • Night vision cameras • Automatic Identification System • Switch from mechanical to electronic engine/steering controls and controller area network, or CAN bus technology • Lighter and stronger fiberglass fabrics • Panoramic sliding glass doors and hull-side windows • Adoption of compound curves in boat parts, windshields and hardtops • Transition from cotton to Dacron sails • Boat storage: dry stack and boat lifts • PWC braking systems


Part of the sales pitch for new boats today is their construction and craftsmanship — no rough fiberglass edges, warped decks, ill-fitting hatches or doors, or crooked cleats. The use of five-axis CNC routers has made it all possible, Peters says. “They came into our industry about 15 to 20 years ago, but I would estimate their rampant use began about 10 to 12 years ago,” he says. “Almost everything we do goes directly from a 3-D file to a machine that cuts the full size with a router. We just had a 75-foot hull cut for Viking.”

The routers put the marine industry on the same level as the automotive world, Peters says. “They are precise right down to the millimeter; the human eye can’t pick up any imperfections. So we’ve gone from boats and their parts that have a few wiggles here and there to dead-on perfect.”

The materials and methods used to build fiberglass and composite parts have improved, as well. Although resin-infusion technology has been on the scene more than 20 years, it has only taken root in the past 10 years, designers and builders say. “The glass-to-resin ratio produced with resin infusion is much more consistent, much leaner and more predictable,” says Bill Prince, president of Bill Prince Yacht Design in Port Washington, Wis. “This ratio has tremendous influence on the boat’s weight and strength. Whether using vinylester or epoxy resin, you need to fully saturate the cloth but at that point stop. Controlled vacuum infusion really helps meter out the resin to create the strongest, lightest combination of cloth and resin.”

Prince remembers a fellow designer who, prior to resin infusion, stored barrels of resin in his office to manage the liquid polymer’s use. “[The construction crews] had to come into his office to get the go-ahead to use more resin,” Prince says. “It was his way of policing the amount of resin they were using in the laminate to keep the boat light.”

Resin infusion has become more understood and production-friendly, enabling builders to produce high-performance structures, says Robert Kaidy, CEO of Ocean5 Naval Architects in Stuart, Fla., which designs SeaVee boats. “If you look at the boats of 20 years ago, they almost never had liners,” he says. “You would open a box in the deck and you would have a raw glass surface underneath.”

Those days are over. “It has become commonplace that everywhere a customer interacts with the boat, he or she sees an engineered surface,” Kaidy says. “In other words, when you open a deck hatch, you find the back side of that hatch is a gelcoated, molded surface, and the inside of the locker you just opened is a gelcoated, molded box.”

Those surfaces look better, clean up easier and last longer. It does, however, cost the builder more to make it happen, which contributes to the rising price of new boats, Kaidy says. But innovation also has led to price reductions, especially in the world of electronics.


GPS units are relatively inexpensive for the technology they deliver, Kaidy says. “I can go to West Marine or Bass Pro Shops and buy a GPS/chart plotter for 300 bucks that has charts, a depth sounder, a color screen,” he says. “It might be only a 3- or 4-inch display, but an average guy can afford that. This mere fact has changed everything about how we boat because I now can have the chart for my area immediately.”

The GPS has had the greatest impact on boating of any technology, says naval architect and designer David Gerr, director of the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology. “You know exactly where you are at any moment,” he says. “It’s truly a revolutionary change in the way people go boating and use their boats and think about being on the water.”

Boat owners forget about the high level of technology behind those display screens, he says. “Just the GPS alone, never mind the chart plotter, uses some of the most advanced quantum theories to make it work properly,” he says. “It’s really an amazingly complicated system.”

The GPS/plotter has become the hub for myriad technologies. For example, a function within the Volvo Penta and Mercury pod drive and joystick systems works with the GPS to hold the boat on position — at a bridge, fishing spot, etc.

Electronics integration with propulsion has kicked into high gear in the past few years. Case in point: Volvo Penta’s Glass Cockpit system collects all navigation information and delivers it to the skipper via one or more displays. It virtually eliminates the need for physical gauges and switches at the helm.

Another part of the Glass Cockpit is the Interceptor automatic trim mechanism (made by Humphree) that uses vertically mounted trim tabs on the transom to generate lift and drag so the skipper can control the boat’s attitude in all directions and at virtually all speeds. The lower portion of the blade extends and retracts automatically — together or independently — to change boat position.

“The Interceptor system is smart because they move with less power and quicker than conventional trim tabs,” Deknatel says. “Most boats with pods bank more than they did with conventional drives, and the Interceptor deals with all those issues. If you are on a flybridge and into a 30-degree bank, you are going to fall out of the darn thing.”

New propulsion


Technology in the engine room and on the transom deserves recognition, as well. The transition of the outboard from carbureted 2-stroke to direct fuel-injected 2-stroke to 4-strokes with variable valve timing has changed the boating experience. Today’s outboards burn less fuel are quieter, cleaner and more efficient.

Five of the outboard manufacturers offer a full line of 4-strokes — Honda, Suzuki, Mercury, Tohatsu and Yamaha. Tohatsu and Mercury also carry 2-strokes. Evinrude is strictly 2-stroke.

Today’s high-horsepower outboards have fueled the center console’s rapid growth from 25 to 45 feet, Kaidy says. “It was a single- or twin-outboard world,” he says. “Now it’s three, four, even five outboards. I can remember when a 26- or 28-footer was a big center console. The advent of the large, wide center console has changed the business, especially the fishboat business.”

SeaHunter and Intrepid build 45-foot center consoles, and a few others — Yellowfin, Hydra-Sports, Invincible — are building 40- to 42-footers. The center console on steroids has allowed us “to design monster consoles and monster leaning posts,” Kaidy says. “It has turned the center console into the ultimate sport utility boat in the true sense of the word.”

Let’s not forget that today’s diesels are also cleaner, quieter and more fuel-efficient. Companies such as Ranger Tugs take full advantage of the electronically controlled diesel. Environmental mandates have pushed engine manufacturers to build more powerful engines that produce fewer emissions. “I have a friend with a 10-year-old diesel boat, and when you take off you’re leaving a black trail for the first mile,” Deknatel says. Besides running cleaner, this generation of diesels weighs less, takes up less space in the engine room and packs more power, Deknatel points out.

The conversion from mechanical to electronically controlled engines should also be considered an innovation, experts say. The technology — used on outboards, sterndrives and diesels — has eliminated the need for throttle and shift cables. “Mechanical shifter throttles were notoriously poor in the saltwater environment, and it really detracted from the customer’s user experience,” Kaidy says. Fly-by-wire engine controls and the use of a controller area network, or CAN bus, which allows different electronic devices to communicate, have improved that experience.

Safety advances

The development of the EPIRB with integral GPS is the single largest improvement in boating safety in the past 20 years, says Chris Fertig, an expert on boat handling. This technology’s maturation has made the EPIRB affordable for most boaters, says Fertig, who works for Maersk Line Ltd. as a general manager of its maritime technical services business unit in Norfolk, Va., which provides U.S. flag transportation, ship management and technical services to government and commercial customers.

The EPIRB enables first responders to rapidly determine a boat’s position and coordinate response assets accordingly, says Fertig, who was part of a special Coast Guard unit that chased drug runners in the Caribbean. “They’re less than the cost of a tank of fuel for most boats, so every boater who ventures out of sight of land should have a GPS EPIRB on board,” he says.

The inflatable PFD belongs on the innovation list, too, Fertig and others say. “Many manufacturers have developed stylish, non-intrusive inflatable life jackets that are truly comfortable to wear during routine boating activities,” says Fertig, who has held the record for fastest passage from New York to Bermuda (the Bermuda Challenge). “The focus on comfort and style of these new lines of inflatable life jackets is driving product sales, but more important it’s increasing the use of life jackets throughout the boating community.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue.



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