What is Innovation? Our Top 10 Most Innovative Marine Companies

Marine leaders that are redefining the industry.
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The winning team (from left): Zach Hutcheson, Brent Brewster, Angela Pilkington, Greg Meloon, Terri Schneider, Bill Yeargin, Sean Marrero, Eric Miller, Steve Carlton, Heather Llewellyn, Adam Greer, Andrew Cochrum. 

The winning team (from left): Zach Hutcheson, Brent Brewster, Angela Pilkington, Greg Meloon, Terri Schneider, Bill Yeargin, Sean Marrero, Eric Miller, Steve Carlton, Heather Llewellyn, Adam Greer, Andrew Cochrum. 

Soundings Trade Only’s third annual Top 10 Most Innovative Companies competition was a real humdinger. We were thrilled to see a 42 percent increase in applications from last year, with nearly all of the submissions showcasing the remarkable depth, vision, ingenuity, know-how and just plain roll-up-your-sleeves-and-work mentality of the recreational marine industry. The judging panel was composed of Trade Only editor-in-chief Jeff Moser and publisher Michele Goldsmith; Bill Sisson, vice  president and editorial director of the Active Interest Media Marine Group; Gary DeSanctis, president of the AIM Marine Group; and former members of the marine industry. We had some difficulties choosing the winners from so many impressive entries, but one thing was certain: Even while facing the unprecedented challenges of a global pandemic, facility shutdowns, supply-chain issues and more, the industry as whole continued to show remarkable resilience and kept pushing toward  progress.

Correct Craft

The year's highlights for Correct Craft include the launch of its electric wake-sports boat, continued debuts of new models, and events such as Promote Your Passion, which raises money for charitable organizations.

The year's highlights for Correct Craft include the launch of its electric wake-sports boat, continued debuts of new models, and events such as Promote Your Passion, which raises money for charitable organizations.

Correct Craft is our overall winner for the second consecutive year, for a number of reasons.

CEO Bill Yeargin has been the linchpin for the unfettered growth and innovation within this brand. Yeargin’s modus operandi is to embrace disruptive technologies via Watershed Innovation, a Correct Craft strategic subsidiary that turns sustainable propulsion solutions and other eco-conscious technology into reality.

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And the “quiet” revolution has begun, as the first all-electric Super Air Nautique GS22E boats were delivered to clients in the United States and Europe at the end of August. The boat was conceived by Ingenity, a division of Watershed. Ingenity developed a 124-kWh battery for the GS22E that is reportedly good for two to three hours of water sports use.

Also this year, three of Correct Craft’s facilities — Parker, Centurion and Supreme, and Merritt Precision — underwent expansions with the goals of efficiency savings and continued product innovations.

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Yeargin and his team also recognize the importance of altruism. Case in point: Senior executives throughout the marine industry learned about the power of culture at the inaugural Marine Industry Culture Summit, which Correct Craft hosted. The company underwrote the event’s costs and subsidized attendees’ hotel rooms. The two-day gathering Jan. 14 and 15 in Orlando, Fla., was a TED Talk-style event that included a stage and multiple presenters who spoke about the cultures in their companies.

“For a few years now, part of our vision has been helping other companies with their cultures,” Yeargin says. “We’ve seen how powerful it can be, not just with our people and organization, but with financial results. I wanted the people in the room to see that culture is not an expense, but an investment with a huge return. We wanted to change their paradigms.”

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As part of its application. Correct Craft submitted 100 reasons why it is the marine industry’s most innovative company. The originality of that thinking, and the emphasis on company culture, were impressive. The idea of “choosing to be a learner and not a knower” left little doubt that under Yeargin’s leadership, Correct Craft would continue to be an industry leader.

“We have support and resources from Correct Craft to be creative outside the think tank,” says Greg Warren of Watershed Innovation. “We can ideate with independence and little restriction that most big corporations have and allow people to cross platforms within our team, allowing everyone to think openly and away from tunnel vision. When the advancement of technology is above our own position and egos, we’re able to reach an entirely new atmosphere of innovation.”

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Brunswick/Mercury Marine/Power Products

Brunswick Corp., Mercury Marine and Power Products started the year with an appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show, giving 180,000 visitors a glimpse into how the future of boating may look. The Sea Ray SLX-R 400e with Mercury Racing 450Rs made quite the splash. But beneath those looks was the real news: the possibility of electrification in a vessel’s subsystems beyond propulsion, utilizing Mastervolt’s battery technology and switching systems to replace an on-board generator with a much more integrated, high-capacity energy storage system.

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During the past year, the company has made several technological advancements. Under the Mastervolt brand, Power Products developed a line of power conversion equipment that is designed to integrate through an NMEA 2000 network. In addition, the power conversion equipment integrates with CZone digital switching. The purpose is to simplify vessel operation.

Power Products also recently introduced the MLI family of lithium-ion batteries from the Mastervolt brand. They are designed to integrate into a network system, letting the batteries communicate with power conversion equipment such as inverters, chargers and alternators. The technology translates into new levels of system efficiency, power availability and safety.

The company’s CZone brand launched a line of self-contained, small-footprint modules that do not require an external NMEA network. Historically, digital switching systems were composed of multiple modules, all networked through an NMEA system; while this is a viable architecture for large-boat applications, it is not conducive to smaller inland boats, such as pontoons.

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Mercury also continued to introduce new products, including the Racing 60R engine and safety wearables. The brand also expanded its involvement in trade school and technical colleges, and entered the sterndrive wakesurf market with the MerCruiser Bravo Four S forward-facing drive. The drive will be paired with enhanced Smart Two digital controls that integrate with the boat’s wake and ballast systems.

Brunswick’s ACES vision (autonomy, connectivity, electrification and shared access) continues to impress, with a goal of delivering frictionless recreational marine experiences. Brunswick continues to leverage partnerships with MIT, Sea Machines and others to advance augmented boat operation. Connectivity via Nautic-On and Vessel View Mobile systems keeps customers connected to their boats, and Freedom Boat Club provides access for those who are new and returning to boating.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the Brunswick Boat Group and Mercury Marine have donated more than 26,000 pieces of personal protective equipment to first responders in the communities around the United States in which the brands operate boatbuilding facilities.

Malibu Boats

Close to three dozen builders have licensed Malibu's industry-leading Surf  Gate technology. 

Close to three dozen builders have licensed Malibu's industry-leading Surf Gate technology. 

Earlier this year, Malibu hit a milestone: 4 million work hours without a lost-time accident. Just after this, in February, the company reported a record second quarter. New models were scheduled to be introduced throughout the year, but in late March, the Covid-19 pandemic forced a halt across all of its brands including Axis, Cobalt Boats, Malibu Boats and Pursuit.

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After a period of closure, the builder reopened with strict social distancing guidelines at all its facilities, and continued to bring new products to market. Building on its recent acquisitions of Pursuit and Cobalt, Malibu launched several new models, including the Malibu M240, the Cobalt R6 and four new Pursuit models (the S 268, the S 378, the flagship S 428 and a fourth boat yet to be unveiled).

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The company also completed the first phase of a $15 million investment in Pursuit Boats with a new 182,000-square-foot site. The three-part project is expected to increase the builder’s manufacturing space to 773,000 square feet, and allow expanded production to meet consumer demand.

Garmin

Innovation is truly in Garmin’s DNA. A lot of companies claim this, but Garmin has proved it time and time again in the electronics and technology arenas. Garmin is a vertically integrated company serving five key market segments: automotive, aviation, fitness, marine and outdoor.

Garmin continued to refine its glass bridge MFDs and its wearables, including the quatix 6 marine smartwatches.

Garmin continued to refine its glass bridge MFDs and its wearables, including the quatix 6 marine smartwatches.

“Our intentional focus on being essential to people’s lives has resulted in Garmin products being used in nearly every facet of the fight against the coronavirus,” according to the company. “Every day, Garmin products are being used for air transport, shipping and trucking — delivering people, goods and services to affected communities. Our products are being used by first responders helping those who are ill or injured get the urgent medical attention they need.”

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In the boating world, Garmin offers products from GPS-enabled wearables to trolling motors, two-way satellite communicators to 24-inch touchscreen multifunction displays, high-definition radar to live scanning sonar.

A recent innovation that upended the market was the Panoptix LiveScope. Since Garmin first announced LiveScope live-scanning sonar in 2018, the company has brought the technology to the saltwater market. This year, the company introduced LiveScope Perspective Mode, a top-down view of what’s ahead of the boat up to 50 feet away, designed specifically for shallow water. Anglers can now see and interpret real-time images of what’s around and below their boat from three vantage points: forward, down and perspective.

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Garmin also has built on other platforms, introducing the GPSMap 86, a handheld series with global communication, mapping and chart plotter connectivity; the quatix 6 marine smartwatch series with solar charging; the EchoMap UHD series, which adds premium features and functionality to smaller, more affordable display options; GPSMap Plus series, a line that adds increased capabilities around integration; BlueChart g3 Vision/LakeVü g3, a high-resolution relief shading chart offering; and Navionics Platinum+ and HotMaps Platinum.

Volvo Penta

Judges gave the Swedish behemoth a high rank for its continued approach to innovation, which so far has produced industry firsts including the stern drive, Duoprop, and joystick controls matched to forward-facing IPS drives.

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Volvo Penta recently introduced D4 and D6 engines, investing more than 300,000 engineering hours and 40,000 hours of testing to re-engineer more than 85 percent of the engines’ components. New fuel-injection and fuel-management systems mean better efficiency, with an updated air cooler and a redesigned supercharger giving the engines a better power-to-weight ratio. For an easy repower, the D4 and D6 blocks maintain the near-exact footprint and weight of the power plants they replace.

The judges also liked how Volvo Penta doubled down on its Easy Boating concept, supplying integrated, innovative, easy-to-use solutions with the end goal of making boating more enjoyable. And when boaters are not on board, Volvo Penta’s Easy Connect app lets them view engine data, access maps and navigate a trip computer, with a variety of alerts and the ability to communicate with the dealer for service issues.

Volvo Penta also updated its Electronic Vessel Control with new architecture, including an On-Board Maintenance Assistant that informs users of service dates. Additional updates include faster software downloads and improved diagnostics, all through a single connection point.

More than 1,400 technicians in the Volvo Penta workforce have attended classes since the start of 2020, with nearly 900 as part of newly launched, instructor-led online training to comply with social distancing requirements.

And in another company first, Heléne Mellquist was named as president of Volvo Penta and a member of Volvo Group management, making her the first female CEO of any Volvo Group business area.

MarineMax

MarineMax, which aims to help boaters enjoy life on the water, recently reported a 37 percent jump in same-store sales. The company posted record results as the Covid-19 pandemic fueled widespread demand for boats across the United States.

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Headquartered in Clearwater, Fla., MarineMax is the nation’s largest recreational boat and yacht retailer, selling not only new and used boats and related marine products and services, but also providing yacht brokerage and charter services. It was a good third quarter for the company: Income grew 83 percent, and revenue jumped 30 percent.

In October, MarineMax made its largest acquisition to date with the purchase of SkipperBud’s, a sales, brokerage, service, marina and storage group with 20 locations in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, California, Washington and Florida.

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MarineMax has also been striving to create an online experience — a goal that dovetailed with the pandemic. The company launched its online boat show in 2018, drawing more than 1,500 registered participants. The platform has grown to include virtual tours, webinars, industry expert panels, videos and a way for consumers to shop virtually.

“These virtual boat shows generated a lot of interest and boat sales, prompting MarineMax to invest in technology and permanently implement new features into our Web platform,” according to the company.

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For after-sale support, the MarineMax App (developed with Fort Lauderdale tech company Boatyard) helps boaters curate services and streamline communications with the nearest MarineMax store. “The convenience alleviates common pain points often found with boat maintenance,” according to the company. “From routine maintenance and requesting a wash or fuel to a full repair, you can instantly chat with MarineMax boating experts for an exceptional customer experience.”

Several boating broadcasts and podcasts help bolster the engagement between customers and the dealership, and MarineMax offers “Women on the Water” classes and a variety of safety classes, as well as rendezvous events to engage boaters.

Dometic Marine

Dometic Marine's Electric Power Assist is designed for a range of boats, and builds on its Optimus outboard electric steering 

Dometic Marine's Electric Power Assist is designed for a range of boats, and builds on its Optimus outboard electric steering 

With 7,200 employees worldwide, Illinois-based Dometic Marine aims to make mobile life easier on a boat in the areas of climate, hygiene, food and beverage, and power and control. In the past year, the company unveiled five products: the Turbo Global Air Conditioning System, the Optimus E-Actuator, Next Generation Trim Tabs, Emerald Series Variable Capacity Split System Climate Control, and the VARCX/X30 Variable Capacity Cooling and Diesel Fired Heater System.

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The Turbo Global Air Conditioning System, which won a 2019 IBEX Innovation Award, eliminates the need for voltage devices. This means boaters can plug into any shore power around the world without worrying about compatibility.

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The Optimus E-Actuator, another 2019 IBEX Innovation Award winner, is the industry’s first all-electric, remote-mount steering actuator. It was developed exclusively for use with Dometic’s Optimus Joystick and Electric Power Steering. The system can be paired with most outboards, and mounts to the motor in place of the existing hydraulic steering cylinder.

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“The marine division is dedicated to providing the global boating industry with innovative technologies and products that — in keeping with our overall mission — best meet the needs of our boatbuilding partners while fundamentally enhancing the overall boating experience,” the company stated in its application. “We are driven by identifying problems faced by the boating industry and boating enthusiasts, then developing groundbreaking solutions to these issues.”

Seakeeper

From the manufacturer whose brand name — like Kleenex or Xerox — has become interchangeable with its product came what might be its most innovative product to date: the Seakeeper 1. It’s the smallest gyroscopic stabilizer in the brand’s lineup, designed for boats from 23 to 30 feet and up to 11,000 pounds. Like larger Seakeeper units, this one promises to eliminate as much as 95 percent of a boat’s rolling motion.

The smallest and newest model in Seakeeper's lineup is designed for boats from 23 to 30 feet. 

The smallest and newest model in Seakeeper's lineup is designed for boats from 23 to 30 feet. 

“Since Seakeeper started, this is the product we wanted to bring to the industry,” Seakeeper president and CEO Andrew Semprevivo says of the Seakeeper 1. Before the product was announced to the public at the 2020 Miami International Boat Show, more than a dozen builders — including Cobia, Jupiter, Regal, SeaVee and Sea Pro — had planned to integrate it into their lineups from 23 to 30 feet, according to Seakeeper.

Unlike other Seakeeper models, the Seakeeper 1 is housed in a flush-mounted case that’s just under 16 inches tall. The design allows for more installation options, including beneath on-deck seating. The unit also comes with what Seakeeper calls the ConnectBox, a control keypad atop the case that lets the user control the stabilizer from the helm or directly from the unit.

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Connectivity to multifunction displays from Garmin, Simrad and Raymarine is still available, and 12-volt DC power obviates the need for a generator.

To meet consumer demand, Seakeeper expanded its Mohnton, Pa., facility that houses unit assembly, development and testing teams. The company can now build around 20,000 units a year. It says that more than 60 percent of new boats built each year are equipped with Seakeeper stabilization.

Siren Marine

Siren Marine has been using the Internet of Things to help solve a unique challenge that boaters face: How do we stay connected to our obsessions with 24/7 access from the water?

Siren Marine's new 3 Pro hub has two harnesses with 24 inputs and up to 15 wireless sensors, as well as built-in NMEA connectivity and 2/47 access via any 
connected device. 

Siren Marine's new 3 Pro hub has two harnesses with 24 inputs and up to 15 wireless sensors, as well as built-in NMEA connectivity and 2/47 access via any connected device. 

The judges recognized the company’s continuing dedication to improving its part-hardware, part-software systems. Earlier this year, Siren unveiled the latest iteration of its Connected Boat technology: the Siren 3 Pro. Like previous systems, it can monitor battery and bilge levels, shore power and engines. New features mean it can be paired with ZF transmissions, Smart Command controls and joystick maneuvering systems. A gyroscopic stabilizer can be added to the network, and an owner can track his boat’s position and set a geofence to prevent unauthorized entry and theft.

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For the 3 Pro, Siren developed a program that uses the Siren app to display branded OEM-specific tiles for a given accessory, such as a stabilizer or generator. The app displays custom metrics to connect the customer with support teams to address potential problems.

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Siren also has expanded across the pond, and now has European distribution through U.K.-based Argo Yachting Ltd. (a sister company to Princess Yachts, Siren’s OEM partner) with facilities in Southampton, London and Plymouth, as well as in Marbella and Mallorca, Spain, and in Germany.

BRNKL by Barnacle Systems

The Canadian start-up Barnacle Systems, after three years in the marine industry, impressed the panel by leveraging Internet of Things smart home standards and integrating them into boats for a consistent experience between home and vessel.

Barnacle Systems partnered with Samsung, using its low-cost home sensors for its own remote monitoring system. 

Barnacle Systems partnered with Samsung, using its low-cost home sensors for its own remote monitoring system. 

What Barnacle does with BRNKL Mate (pronounced “barnacle”) made several of us ask, “Why didn’t anyone think of this before?” The company partnered with Samsung SmartThings, using its low-cost home sensors for a remote monitoring system. The smart home sensors communicate to the BRNKL mobile app and to a vessel’s NMEA 2000 network and digital switching systems.

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“Since these smart home products are already in the homes of millions of users worldwide, they have already gone through the early adopter tests and have been refined for maximum reliability and durability while also providing a superior user experience,” according to the company.

In addition, when the company learned about a need for Vessels of Concern, a Canadian Coast Guard division that tracks derelict boats and ships, it created BRNKL Rapid Deploy: a portable, solar-powered (with an integrated battery) tracking product housed in a Pelican case that can be placed on vessels deemed an environmental or navigational threat. The Coasties can now monitor these boats from any connected device, and be alerted if a derelict vessel takes on water, begins to drift and more.

Honorable Mentions

Derema Group

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of distributor shows, this RV and marine product representation company needed a new way to get products in front of its dealer base, and to help manufacturers understand which new products were in high demand.

The marine and RV rep's one-day virtual show SHOWUP2020 Live! was a rousing success. 

The marine and RV rep's one-day virtual show SHOWUP2020 Live! was a rousing success. 

“All the normal metrics you would use in the past [to place orders] are being thrown out. You have to bring in all these new metrics,” president Kurt Forsman says. “It’s just this uncharted area.”

The answer was SHOWUP2020 LIVE!, a one-day virtual event hosted by 11-time Emmy-award-winning broadcaster and producer Lou Tilley. The speaker lineup covered a range of RV and marine-industry topics.

Those who attended the event — including our judges — found the vendor booth tours, new product introductions and product demos easy to navigate and a refreshing update to the boring live feed that a virtual show can often turn out to be.

Scout Boats

Even with the Covid-19 pandemic raging, Scout Boats introduced five new models during the past 12 months. They are the 330 LXF, 305 LXF, 277 LXF, 235 Dorado and 215 Dorado. Innovations are designed into each boat.

Scout has captured market share by continuing to improve and refine 
its model line, while 

Scout has captured market share by continuing to improve and refine its model line, while 

“Being first to market with countless industry-changing innovations has been something we’ve garnered a reputation for, and one we’re proud of,” according to the company.

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In 2019, Scout had double-digit growth in total retail sales, and added to its market share year over year. Its digital efforts increased during the pandemic via advertising, social media and videos that let customers look at the company’s brand philosophy, as well as go behind the scenes into its manufacturing processes. These efforts resulted in increased digital leads.

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Suzuki Motor of America

One of the things that set Suzuki apart are the OEM, contra-rotating props on its 350- and 300-hp outboards.

One of the things that set Suzuki apart are the OEM, contra-rotating props on its 350- and 300-hp outboards.

Several things continue to set Suzuki apart, including its OEM contra-rotating stainless-steel props, which are on its most powerful 350-hp outboard and are new this year to its 300-hp model.

In addition, this past July, Suzuki announced that the DF115BG and DF140BG outboards (2.0-liter, inline 4-cylinder models rated at 115 hp and 140 hp) will offer fly-by-wire steering. In production this month, they’re the first 4-stroke outboards in their class to include factory drive-by-wire technology. And to support the bevy of electronics aboard today’s boats, a high-output, 40-amp alternator is part of the package.

The Japanese manufacturer is also increasing its U.S. presence with plans for a Suzuki Marine Technical Center in Panama City, Fla., on an existing 20-acre waterfront site. The center is expected to be used for new-product launches, tech training and more.

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Suzuki is also looking to help improve the environment, outfitting its engines with a world-first collection system for microplastics. Installed under the outboard cowling, the device filters cooling water as it passes through, collecting plastics and other pollutants. The cleaned water is then returned to the sea.

Yanmar

Judges were impressed with Yanmar’s continued dedication to developing technology beyond its line of common-rail diesel power plants that are known for running clean and quiet while surpassing Tier 3 environmental standards. One such technological advancement is a fuel-cell system for maritime applications that the company is developing with Toyota. Fueled by hydrogen, the fossil-free power train has the potential to affect the marine industry in a massive way.

The X47 was penned by the former head of design for Pininfarina and features many of its parent company's technological solutions. The company is also developing fuel-cell power. 

The X47 was penned by the former head of design for Pininfarina and features many of its parent company's technological solutions. The company is also developing fuel-cell power. 

Yanmar is also looking to autonomous boating by testing and implementing this technology on commercial vessels, such as pilot boats, surveying ships and more. Later, the tech could be implemented in recreational vessels, assisting in navigation and docking for an easier boating experience.

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In addition, the company cemented a partnership with Correct Craft, bringing its 8LV engine to the wakeboat segment as optional equipment on G23 and G25 Super Air Nautique models. Yanmar also announced a partnership with Smartgyro, a gyroscopic stabilizer company based in Italy, allowing the upstart to accelerate its design and development of stabilizers for recreational and commercial applications. The first two units premiered at the Genoa Boat Show in October.

This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue.

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