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Checks and Balances

ABYC and NMEA decisions affect what manufacturers do — and do not — put on board
Watchdog: NMEA standards have been used by the industry for more than 60 years.

Watchdog: NMEA standards have been used by the industry for more than 60 years.

Brian Goodwin is the technical director for the American Boat and Yacht Council. Mark Reedenauer holds the titles of president and executive director for the National Marine Electronics Association. They get to see top-secret stuff that boat and engine manufacturers are working on before the rest of the industry.

They also see — and stop — potentially dangerous things that don’t make it into recreational boats. “We try to take a performance approach to developing standards,” Goodwin says. “We’re trying not to stifle innovation, but we’re trying to maintain a minimum performance level.”

In that capacity, Goodwin and Reedenauer are the latest stewards of organizations that have played an integral role in boatbuilding and marine accessories for decades. ABYC was founded in 1954, with the NMEA forming just three years later. Both groups have mission statements that focus on enhancing safety, and whatever the organizations decree can affect everything from helm electronics to engine configurations across the whole marine industry.

The Rules of Joysticks

For instance, as joysticks for boat operation continue to gain popularity, ABYC has had to address them with its standards, which most members of the National Marine Manufacturers Association agree to follow. Goodwin says ABYC reviews standards on a five-year cycle to address new trends.

That’s why joysticks have been worked into a standard with electronic controls and steering. “We’re addressing joysticks and combining steering, shift and throttle into one standard, and that was driven by the advancement of electronic controls and the application of those in more boats,” Goodwin says.

Some characteristics of electronic controls that ABYC considers are response times, hardening of the system, and dealing with interference. On one early electronic control system, Goodwin says, someone on the boat keyed a microphone and the engines accelerated. “We have to make sure the command and control system is robust enough,” he says.

A couple of years ago, when the industry started to see the proliferation of multiple outboards on transoms, ABYC changed the standard for steering loads to address triple and quad configurations. The council is also looking at a potential standard update for repowers to make sure a boat can handle the weight and increased power with today’s engines.

Around the corner is dynamic position keeping. As more joystick providers update equipment with station keeping that helps hold a boat in position, ABYC has to step back and consider the unintended consequences of advancing technology. “While the attempt on a lot of this is to make it simpler for the user,” Goodwin says, “on the back end, many times these systems get more integrated and complicated.”

Sometimes, the bad idea is obvious. Other times, the concern is subtler. “There were concerns when the trend of aft-facing seats popped up,” Goodwin says. “You’re putting people aft, facing closer to the propellers and engines, and we’re asking, Is that where you want to put people?”

When it comes to new technology, ABYC takes a sit-back-and-monitor approach. Recently, there have been developments in emergency shutoff switches, with Mercury and Fell Marine collaborating on remote devices that look like wristwatches and would replace the traditional, clip-on lanyard. Initially, the unit was configured to shut down the boat’s engines when anyone fell overboard. ABYC had a suggestion.“Our standard is that only the operator shuts down the engine, and a passenger should trigger an alarm,” Goodwin says.

When Soundings Trade Only saw the system demonstrated during a media event at Mercury’s Lake X test facility last January, only the operator’s FOB shut down the engine. Those worn by the passengers would sound an alarm.

Some might be surprised by the items on a boat that ABYC does not address. Standards do not look at ease of operation, automatic trim systems or autopilots. Standards also don’t deal with bars where drinks are served on boats or shock-mitigating seats.

And yet, even when there are not official standards, ABYC may weigh in. For instance, Goodwin commends wakesports-boat manufacturers for making drivers pay attention to multifunction displays. At startup, the driver must acknowledge safety messages that cover Rules of the Road, the weather, proper loading of the boat and more.

On ABYC’s radar are the wristwatch-like devices that wake surfers wear to control boat speed, wave height and more. In other segments, the council is looking at standards for tow-point strength for center consoles being used as yacht tenders.

“I’ve had some discussions with those companies and they said, ‘We’ve had to develop specific hardware for that application,’ ” Goodwin says.

SeaStar Solutions’ Richard Redfern installs equipment for ABYC’s testing of steering loads with multiple outboards.

SeaStar Solutions’ Richard Redfern installs equipment for ABYC’s testing of steering loads with multiple outboards.


Goodwin says that when it comes to multifunction displays and all the information they provide, ABYC has concerns about driver distraction. The council has an ally in that thinking: the NMEA. “We set interface standards, and what that means is how the devices are supposed to interoperate with each other on the boat,” Reedenauer says.

The NMEA has three interface standards. First is NMEA 0183, which has been around since the 1980s and is used widely on commercial vessels. NMEA 2000 is the primary data interface standard for recreational marine electronics. The newest standard is NMEA OneNet, an IPv6 marine ethernet standard that is for transferring video and similar content.

OneNet is not designed to replace NMEA 2000, which is good at transferring numbers. “Any sort of data on your boat that you need numeric information for, you can do that with NMEA 2000,” Reedenauer says. “NMEA 2000 does not transfer video because its bandwidth is limited for that good reason.”

Even with all the functions appearing on MFD screens, Reedenauer says, the network can’t get overloaded because the data is prioritized. “That means mission critical data is guaranteed to get through.” Numerical information such as GPS heading, depth and water temperature is mission critical. Stereo settings and videos are not. Installers have some control over prioritizing what information shows on the displays.

For installation of displays, NMEA 0400 is the standard designed to complement a manufacturer’s installation manual. If you’re installing a Garmin MFD, it’s recommended that you use the NMEA 0400 standard and the Garmin instruction manual. NMEA does not have standards for screen size.

The NMEA 2000 network is the electrical backbone of the boat’s electronics system. NMEA adopted the Control Area Network that is used in industrial and automotive applications, and adapted it for the marine space. Every piece of electronic equipment that an installer wants displayed on the MFD plugs into the network — with one big exception. Engine manufacturers have their own dedicated networks to protect proprietary data, and NMEA 2000 taps into those networks to acquire data that is displayed on the MFD.

Any new electronic product or system must be certified compatible with NMEA 2000. The manufacturer certifies the product and when it passes, sends an encrypted file to the NMEA to verify the certification. Before purchasing a new product, a customer can check the NMEA website to make sure it is certified.

“You name it, if someone wants to view the status of something on the boat, he’s using NMEA 2000 to see it,” says Reedenauer. “Going back to the late 1990s, the people who were starting with NMEA 2000, they had no idea that it would expand into what it is now.” 

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.



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