Pulling a 42-foot boat alongside the dock at a crowded restaurant and easing it into a 50-foot opening with a throng of spectators watching would challenge even the most seasoned captains, but James Fleming doesn’t think anything of doing just that with his Scout 420 LXF.
“We can come in, pull about 30 feet from the dock and use the bow thruster and joystick,” he said. “It gives you confidence when the wind and current are fighting against you. It makes you look good.”
He’s 65 years old and, with his wife, Lynette, has homes in Springfield, Ill., and Sarasota, Fla. They keep the boat in Florida, where, during the past five years, he has moved up from a Scout 177 Sportfish to the 320 LXF to his current 420 LXF with four 350-hp Mercury Verado outboards.
It wasn’t long ago that a boat operator would step up 2 or 3 feet at a time and learn the nuances of handling the bigger boat with shifts and throttles. Then in a few years, he would move up again. Big parts of that learning curve have always been docking or maneuvering in tight quarters.
Today, technological advances have brought us joysticks, synchronization systems for four and five outboards or triple pod drives and bow thrusters that have boosted operator confidence in quantum leaps. Similarly, automatic trim systems have taken the mystery out of smoothing out a boat’s ride, while multifunction displays put control of all systems on one screen. For guests, Seakeeper and other products that eliminate boat roll have all but eliminated seasickness.
“This new technology today is all about making the boating experience the best it can be for the boaters,” said Ben Speciale, president of Yamaha Marine Group. “It makes larger boats feel like smaller vessels. That means making boating easy, more convenient and, in general, more fun.”
John Pfeifer, president of Mercury Marine agrees: “There’s a lot of different ways to continue to add features that are really convenient and make things a lot easier on a boat. You can imagine being able to point to a dock and being able to take control of moving it into that space.”
Volvo Penta introduced its Easy Boating initiative at the 2018 Progressive Insurance Miami International Boat Show. Ron Huibers, president of Volvo Penta of the Americas, said, “A big part of our Easy Boating strategy is to remove the fear factor when it comes to driving, navigating, maneuvering, docking and undocking a boat.”
If you’ve got it, use it
Fleming said he was quite comfortable running his twin-outboard 32-footer with just the motors, but with all that bow out in front of him on the 420 LXF, when he was fitting out the boat, he made sure he had a bow thruster installed.
“It’s kind of nice to be able to move the bow over, especially with the wind,” he said. “Whenever I come in to dock, I turn on the bow thruster and have it available to use. You don’t have the stress. It’s a smoother happening, and even when you add wind and current, it still works well.”
He also had the boat equipped with Mercury’s Joystick Piloting for Outboards and Skyhook Digital Anchor at the upper and lower stations. With the joystick and thruster, he says, he can move the boat wherever he wants. One unexpected hazard — if you could call it that — with the quartet of outboards flailing around in all directions when he’s using the joystick is that the motors can actually extend out past the sides of boat and possibly hit a dock if he’s really cranking a hard turn with the joystick. He uses the bow thruster instead and keeps his motors’ cowlings and graphics clean.
He said the Skyhook surprised him. The system uses a boat’s GPS to hold it in position instead of having to drop the anchor. “If you’re on the Intracoastal waiting for a bridge, it’s great,” Fleming said.
Jack and Nanca Bartell say they feel similarly about the joystick control and autopilot that are part of Yamaha’s Helm Master on their 31-foot Regulator that they use on Lake Erie. “You can put a boat anywhere you want,” Jack said. “There really is no stress. The ability to maneuver the boat is phenomenal.”
Joy to the world
One of the first advancements that enhanced operator experience was digital throttle and shift, which is available on all types of motors. Digital shifting basically takes the human element out of taking a boat’s transmission, drive or lower unit in and out of gear. Push the lever into forward or reverse, and an electrical signal does the shifting for you. No more clunk or grind. The same goes for applying throttle or decelerating. The digital control responds faster and more smoothly, improving efficiency and fuel economy. Additionally, cables don’t need to be replaced once they get stretched out.
But if there’s one control that most people point to as having the greatest impact on the operating experience, it’s the joystick. Hinckley Yachts, for years, has had its Jetstick system that uses jet drives and a joystick for docking and station holding. In 2009, I drove a 72-foot Pershing with twin 1,800-hp V-12 diesels and Arneson surface drives, and the primary rudder control was a joystick. The steering wheel was only for docking.
It could be argued that Volvo Penta became one of the driving forces behind the new era of joysticks when the company introduced its IPS pod drives in 2006. (One Volvo Penta customer told the manufacturer that the joystick system saved his marriage.) Most of today’s joystick systems are meant for slow-speed operation and docking, but at the Miami show in February, Volvo Penta’s joystick system allowed for steering a boat on plane.
I drove a Tiara 43 powered by twin Volvo Penta D11-725 inboards equipped with the engine manufacturer’s trip computer, cruise control, Glass Cockpit GRID and Inboard Joystick. I picked up the joystick’s nuances quickly. If I wanted to change speeds, I still had to use the digital throttle controls, which I preferred because doing so added a safety check. Accidentally pushing the joystick forward wouldn’t unexpectedly cause the boat to accelerate. Once I was around the docks, the joystick let me control the boat with one hand. It also let me turn over control to the autopilot (but drivers should still be on station, keeping an eye out for unexpected obstructions).
Mercury has joystick systems for stern and pod drives, and inboards as well as outboards, and the joystick is used for docking or running at slow speeds only. The Skyhook feature is a part of all the joysticks. Evinrude’s iDock system is also for slow-speed maneuvering, as is the joystick that is part of Yamaha’s Helm Master. Honda Marine is working with SeaStar Solutions for joystick docking and maneuvering systems on its motors, while Seven Marine has partnered with ZF to offer its joystick on high-powered outboards.
When asked if all this technology will drive up the cost of boating, Pfeifer said, “If you look at a joystick, putting it in single engine product brings it into the mainstream of boating. It’s not dissimilar to the automotive industry. When you first saw rearview cameras come out, they were a luxury feature, and few years later, they started moving into mainstream as the cost came down.”
For anglers, Helm Master has a suite of satellite-guided capabilities — FishPoint, DriftPoint and StayPoint — that can help hold a boat in an exact location, such as over a wreck, or make it easier to control a larger boat in rough offshore conditions using GPS navigation technology.
“When Yamaha came out with the SetPoint, HoldPoint and FishPoint settings with the GPS settings, those old salty guys jumped on the Helm Master situation because of what it does for fishing,” said Joan Maxwell, president of Regulator Boats, which makes offshore fishing boats. “Those are the things they’ve been looking for and asking for, being able to set up their boat on a drift and hold a position.”
Also introduced at the Miami show was the SeaStar Solutions Optimus 360 joystick control with a variety of command options. Zone 1 is conventional forward and reverse control for docking. Set the joystick on Zone 2 and the boat will spin on center, holding position. The joystick can also be used to hold position. Setting A keeps the boat in a position with a neutral heading, depending on the conditions. Setting C holds the boat’s heading while drifting, which would be useful for drift fishing. Using settings A and C together holds the position and heading. The SeaWays Autopilot holds course and heading.
For its inboard boats, MJM Yachts gave its owners more control by installing bow and stern thrusters.
“If you have two thrusters with your left hand, you can do just about anything that a single joystick can do,” said Bob Johnstone, CEO and founder of MJM Yachts.
Just as the presence of joysticks has become commonplace on most helms, so has the absence of traditional analog gauges. Multifunction displays now provide information on course heading, fish location, radar, engine condition and rpm, speed, stereo, climate control and more. Drivers can even watch a movie on a multifunction display, but that’s recommended only on the hook or in a slip.
No one would use the displays if he had to reread the manual every time he took the helm of his boat. Whether it’s Raymarine, Garmin or the Navico family of electronics (Lowrance, Simrad and B&G), ease of use has increased demand for having the latest multifunction display. Most boats have more than one, and when it comes to size, “the larger, the better” is standard operating procedure.
“The ease of use for Garmin is one of our selling points,” said Dave Dunn, director of marine sales for Garmin Marine. “None of us gets enough time on the water, so when you do get those hours on the water, you don’t want to have to relearn how to use your electronics. It does make boating easier, and it takes the apprehension away from stepping up to a larger boat.”
In addition to keeping boaters on course, electronics companies are programming plotters to “plot” the course, taking autopilot to the next level. With Garmin’s Auto Guidance, boaters program in the height, draft and other dimensions of a boat, and the system builds a “safe” route around any structures. Autopilot follows the Auto Guidance route.
Raymarine offers similar technology with Lighthouse III software in its Axiom and Axiom Pro MFDs. Enter the boat’s dimensions and the plotter will map a course that takes into account draft, height above the waterline and more to ensure that the boat will not hit any obstructions. Of course, the captain should still keep an eye on the screens and out ahead of the boat. Raymarine also has agreements with Lumishore, Seakeeper and Mazu satellite communications, and can link with Netflix and Spotify. Axiom units have a touchscreen, and Axiom Pro is a hybrid touch with rotary knobs that also has a 1kW dual-channel Chirp sonar.
FLIR and Raymarine have a high level of integration between FLIR cameras and the Axiom displays. ClearCruise IR analytics uses a FLIR camera to project an image of the sea forward of the boat. It figures out the horizon and then scans the water for obstructions such as other boats or lobster-pot buoys. Potential obstructions are highlighted on the screen, and an audio alert sounds. The chart is displayed in bright, contrasting colors for depth changes and obstructions to make them easier to differentiate.
“It’s like having an extra set of eyes,” said Jim McGowan, Americas marketing manager for Raymarine and FLIR. “The cameras have been there for a while, but now the camera is actively working for you.”
The cameras can also pan and tilt to let the user focus on something on the screen. A function called slew to cue, which tells the camera where to point, can help a captain find a marker in the fog or at night. Slew to cue works with every combination of FLIR cameras from the M232 to the M400 and M500 series.
To give customers the automotive feel that the industry says is in demand, most MFDs are installed flush in a panel. They are also growing in size. Raymarine’s largest display is a 19-inch unit, while Garmin offers screen sizes up to 24 inches.
“I don’t think anyone has come up to us at a boat show and said, ‘My screen is too big,’” McGowan said.
With so many gadgets available, there is the possibility that a captain could get distracted.
“We want to keep pushing technology forward, but operators need to understand that you can’t sit back and let the boat do all the work,” said Garmin’s Dunn. “It’s great to use as peripherals and situational awareness, but you need to know how to navigate if things go wrong.”
If there’s one thing we’ve learned with electronics, it’s that they get a lot of upgrades. At last fall’s Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, Garmin introduced ActiveCaptain, an app that now downloads software upgrades, such as charts, directly into a unit.
“We’ve had an overwhelming response to that,” Dunn said. “We’re used to that outside our boats, but the adoption rate has been a lot faster.”
Switching from electronics to electrical, Torqeedo has its own MFD and controls system for its engines that run on battery power.
“Torqeedo motor systems have featured onboard computers and intuitive displays for years,” said Steve Trkla, president and general manager of Torqeedo USA. “A digitally controlled motor system lends itself naturally to the high-tech user interface customers expect today.”
Torqeedo’s TorqTrac app can display all motor information including range, remaining run time and state of charge in real time on a smartphone. It displays location on a map with a ring showing range at the current rate of speed.
“If you keep the waypoint marked ‘home’ within the orange ring, you know you can make it back, effectively eliminating any range anxiety,” Trkla said. A user can also track and share a trip on social media.
The ultimate real-world test
About a year ago, Raymarine and FLIR designed a Scalable Integrated Navigation System (SINS 2) to standardize electronics equipment across the U.S. Coast Guard fleet, so officers can move from one vessel to another and know the systems. Fleet equipment was at least 10 years old and needed to be upgraded. Raymarine and FLIR will start by providing equipment for 2,000 Coast Guard cutters in the next five years, and those boats will be in the fleet for an estimated 10 years without needing updates. The hardware is off-the-shelf commercial components, but the Lighthouse software has been customized for the Coast Guard’s primary function: search and rescue. — Eric Colby
The majority of the technologies are designed primarily for the boat operator. The reduced stress while docking certainly carries over to everyone on board, but two systems have been developed that all passengers can appreciate: anti-roll or stabilizing devices such as Seakeeper’s, and automatic trim systems with products from engine and trim-tab manufacturers.
“Those things have been game changers in the way people have the confidence to go offshore,” said Owen Maxwell, vice president at Regulator, about Seakeeper products. “The difference if you’ve been on a boat with Seakeeper and then they turn it off, it’s absolutely amazing.”
Like so many innovations, Seakeeper products were first introduced on larger yachts. These vessels used hydraulic stabilizer fins to reduce roll, which worked well but was limited because of the space required for the fins and the equipment that drives them. In 2017, the Seakeeper 3 became the first stabilizer that operated solely on DC power. Today, the company has the Seakeeper 2 and Seakeeper 3, and the critical component in each is a spinning flywheel in a gyroscope. When the boat rolls, the gyro moves fore and aft, exerting torque to counter the vessel movement.
The difference between the two units is the angular moment of the gyro and the weight of the flywheel and the footprint of the product. More angular momentum is required to counter vessel movement. The Seakeeper 2 has 66 percent of the angular momentum of the Seakeeper 3.
Currently, Seakeeper units are being used on boats down to 27 feet long, and there are plans to develop a unit for boats as short as 20 feet. Power consumption is 800 watts for the Seakeeper 3 and up to 600 watts for the Seakeeper 2, which is designed for twin-engine boats. The company says a boater with triple outboards can run the Seakeeper 2 with no drain on the battery.
“We had a lot of success with that product, and we had demand from smaller boats,” said Andrew Semprevivo, president and CEO at Seakeeper. “It’s the only product that enhances the experience for everyone on the boat.”
With the Seakeeper 2 and Seakeeper 3, the company offers a retrofit option that allows customers to replace the leaning post on a center console with one that Seakeeper designed and mounts the gyro within the leaning post. It bonds to the deck with Plexus adhesive.
Regulator worked with a naval architect to address the structural needs for adding a Seakeeper to its 41-foot center console. Owen Maxwell said the stringer system and the coring were reconfigured to accommodate a Seakeeper 5.
Johnstone, of MJM, said that when he first heard of an antiroll stabilizing device in 2013, he checked out Seakeeper on an Intrepid. “To me it was a no-brainer,” Johnstone said. “I came back and met with Brook Stevens of Seakeeper and said, ‘How many have you delivered so far?’”
MJM made a Seakeeper 9 standard equipment on its 50-footer. The Seakeeper 5 is an option on the 40z, and the Seakeeper 3 is available on the 35z. Johnstone said that of the 70 or 80 boats that MJM has sold since he made the device available, all but two people have ordered a Seakeeper.
Regulator also includes a Seakeeper 5 and Yamaha’s Helm Master as standard equipment on its 41. “We made the decision that with that level of boat and at that price point, that it should be a standard,” Owen Maxwell said.
On the Level
While Seakeeper keeps passengers comfortable when the boat is at idle or running at slower speeds, automatic trim systems are designed to do the same when the boat is on plane. If a driver is inexperienced with how to use the engine and tab trim to smooth out the ride, he can push a couple of buttons and let the automatic system do it.
Regulator includes Lenco’s Auto Glide system on the standard equipment list for its 41-foot center console. Considering that Regulator has an exclusive partnership with Yamaha for motors and that Yamaha owns Bennett Marine, Lenco’s rival, it wouldn’t be surprising if Regulator changes to Bennett. Bennett has its own Auto Trim system for its trim tabs.
On the engine side, Mercury has Active Trim, Evinrude offers iTrim on its E-TEC G2 motors, and Trim Assist is part of the Yamaha Helm Master system.
What joysticks and MFDs are to operating a boat, connectivity is to owners who want to keep track of their boats. At the Miami International Boat Show in February, Brunswick introduced Nautic-On, a service that keeps a boat owner apprised of his vessel’s location and systems remotely, and that keeps the service provider connected to the boat as well.
Like smart homes that let owners check on the thermostat and kitchen appliances from a smartphone or tablet, Nautic-On creates a smart boat with a centrally installed hub and remote sensors for the engine, batteries and bilge pump. It’s intended for boats 20 to 40 feet long that are kept in marinas.
“Our customers told us they want to maximize their time on the water, and that’s what we’re solving for them,” said Adam Schanfield, co-developer and general manager of Nautic-On. “Boaters are worried about their boat when they’re not there. We know that it takes too long to get boats back on the water.”
Nautic-On streamlines the diagnostic process, he said. Instead of a boat owner getting an alert about a problem that’s already happened and then calling his dealer to have a technician check out the issue, Nautic-On spots potential problems before they cause a breakdown, which results in time lost on the water. For instance, Schanfield said, while many systems monitor battery voltage, Nautic-On keeps an eye on voltage, current temperature and more.
“We can tell you when your battery is getting low and should think about replacing it,” he said.
For bilge pumps, the system monitors water level, and looks at pump voltage levels and operating temperatures. because fluctuations in either can be indicators of a potential pump problem.
For engines, the sensors plug into a Mercury SmartCraft CAN Bus system or any NMEA 2000-compliant equivalent and pulls info from the network. The system communicates wirelessly with a hub that can be mounted in a console, cabin or engine compartment. Data is sent to the cloud, where the boat owner can get alerts on a smartphone and the service provider has access through a portal. The NMEA 2000 compatibility means Nautic-On can be used to monitor virtually any engine.
Additionally, through GPS tracking, an owner will receive an alert if the boat unexpectedly changes position, such as breaking off a mooring or being stolen. The starting price for Nautic-On is $600 for the basic hardware, and sensors can be added. The subscription is $150 for boaters who are on the water year-round and $99 for a seasonal pass.
Also introduced at Miami was Volvo Penta’s Easy Connect mobile app. It lets boat owners view boat, engine and route data on mobile devices. When used on board, an owner can be in his stateroom and see a dashboard display with real-time boat and engine data. When used away from the boat, the app can recapture stored routes and data, and can share maps of previous cruises via social media. Easy Connect also can provide engine data and troubleshooting codes to the dealer, whose contact information can be stored in the app for easy access.
“From our discussions with boat owners and dealers, we know today’s consumers want the convenience and functions that smart technology offers in a seamless way,” Huibers said. “They’re accustomed to being connected with their homes, their cars, their offices and their friends and family any time and place, and they expect the same when it comes to their boating experience.”
The dashboard-style screens can be personalized, to each user’s preferences and there are two basic operating modes. Captain’s View shows route, engine speed, coolant temperature, fuel tank levels, battery status, engine hours, oil pressure and alarms. Home View accesses information stored from previous journeys, including maps and routes.
To get started with Easy Connect, an owner connects the Bluetooth® interface to the boat’s engine and downloads the free mobile app to one or more smart devices. Easy Connect works with new and installed Volvo Penta EVC gasoline and diesel engines from 2003 onwards, and with older non-EVC gasoline engines since 2006. The Easy Connect interface also includes NMEA 2000 functionality, enabling it to connect with other NMEA communications networks on the boat. In addition, it can convert engine data for NMEA 2000-compatible chart plotters and multifunction displays.
As of early April, the Easy Connect app was available for iOS 10 or later devices, and an Android version will be launched in the coming months. The Bluetooth interface is available from an authorized Volvo Penta dealership.
For maintenance, Volvo Penta has its Easy Drain system that lets you drain and fill the cooling system in its sterndrives without hauling the boat out of the water.
Regardless of which piece of equipment is the reason why a new boater enters the sport or a relatively inexperienced one steps up to a bigger model, the end desire is always the same.
“I just want to get on the boat and turn the key and go,” said Johnstone.
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue.