Too Much of a Good Thing?

With assisted docking systems, we may be forgetting to teach the basics of boat operation
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Raymarine’s DockSense creates a  “bumper zone” to avoid potential collisions. But will today’s boaters be ready to dock if they can’t use it? 

Raymarine’s DockSense creates a “bumper zone” to avoid potential collisions. But will today’s boaters be ready to dock if they can’t use it? 

At the Fort Lauderdale boat show last November, many press conferences focused on how companies are making it easier to drive boats. Then at the Miami boat show in February, Raymarine collaborated with Prestige Yachts, Mercury Marine and Boston Whaler to show off a prototype assisted docking system.

All of it left me asking this question: Are we getting closer to crossing the line between easier operation and a lack of basic boating skills?

Raymarine calls its system DockSense and demonstrated it on a Prestige 460 with Volvo Penta IPS, and on a Boston Whaler 330 Outrage with twin Mercury outboards. On the Whaler, Mercury and Raymarine collaborated, incorporating the technology into Mercury’s Joystick Piloting system.

DockSense is a collision avoidance system. It uses five FLIR (which owns Raymarine) cameras mounted on the boat. The cameras interface with the joystick to keep the boat from colliding with a fixed object, creating what Raymarine calls a “bumper zone” that won’t let the boat get closer than 2 or 3 feet to any obstruction the cameras detect.

Taking the helm of the 330 Outrage at Mercury’s Lake X test facility, I put the boat in reverse and aimed for the concrete pier. DockSense slowed the boat gradually, keeping me from backing into the concrete wall, and from knocking over people in the boat with an abrupt directional change. When I lined up alongside a dock to land the boat, the system held me at about 2 feet away. I had to shut DockSense down to pull alongside.

During the Miami show, Raymarine’s captain demonstrated DockSense on the Prestige 460. As he backed in, DockSense kept the boat off the dock and the pilings, and then he eased into the slip.

Now, my truck has a backup camera, and it doesn’t take much road grime to muck up the lens and render it useless. I asked Jim Hands, director of marketing for FLIR Maritime, what happens if the DockSense cameras get covered in salt.

“If it can’t see properly, the system will say, ‘I can’t function’ and will come up with a user alert,” he says. Each camera has a motorized cover that closes over the lens when it’s not in use.

Hands says FLIR Maritime’s goal is to have the system available to boatbuilders by the third quarter of this year. John Pfeifer, who was president of Mercury Marine at that point, said Mercury hoped to have its system operational by the end of the year.

I get the concept. Make a boat easier to drive, and more people will want to take the helm. Joysticks make it easier to maneuver in tight confines. Station-holding functions such as Mercury’s Skyhook and Volvo Penta’s Dynamic Positioning facilitate keeping a boat in position. Multifunction displays with touch screens let skippers monitor the boat’s course, and many on-board systems, on a single display.

But can a guy who bought a 25- or 30-foot boat because the joystick made him comfortable still operate the boat if the stick fails? Can he get home using paper charts and a compass if his touch screen goes dark?

“The fundamentals aren’t there,” says Tres Martin, owner of Tres Martin’s Performance Boat School, which offers courses for operating high-performance boats, center consoles and yachts. “We see guys who are short on the actual basic content they would need to operate a boat.”

At Miami, Prestige and Boston Whaler showed that collision avoidance works on both Mercury outboards and Volvo IPS engines.

At Miami, Prestige and Boston Whaler showed that collision avoidance works on both Mercury outboards and Volvo IPS engines.

Some companies are offering solutions to this problem. To ensure boaters can read a compass, Ritchie Navigation launched Ready to Boat, a program that provides free education. New boat owners can take an online course to learn about basic navigation and compasses.

Manufacturers are also aware of the need to balance new technologies with traditional boat-handling skills. Anders Thorin, manager of marine electronics at Volvo Penta’s Sweden headquarters, says he’s constantly thinking of ways to make boating easier. Last summer, Volvo Penta demonstrated an autonomous docking system.

“But the captain is still responsible for driving the boat,” Thorin says. “It is an automated function. It’s not an autonomous boat. There’s always the possibility to take over the control levers and drive the boat.”

Of course, companies wouldn’t be putting these accessories on boats if there wasn’t a demand for them. Rob Hackbarth, category director for controls and rigging at Mercury Marine, says that after Joystick Piloting was introduced in 2013, the company saw 70 percent growth in the sales of the system, year over year, for three years.

“Joystick was such a game-changer that today’s boaters are beginning to expect it,” he says.

Whether it’s Mercury’s joystick, which includes Skyhook station-holding, or Active Trim, Hackbarth says the company’s digital controls have “a ton of redundancy built in.” In the event of a malfunction, the system notifies the driver of a fault, and is set up so he doesn’t lose control. The joystick can only be activated when engines are in neutral. Moving the control levers or steering wheel instantly disengages the joystick. Active Trim shuts down when boat speed exceeds 50 mph.

With the technology rapidly advancing, questions about regulations arise. For instance, Jeff Ludwig, chief, recreational boating product assurance branch for the Coast Guard, declined to comment on assisted docking systems. In an email to Soundings Trade Only, he wrote, “the Coast Guard does not have any regulatory authority over those systems for recreational boats.”

The American Boat and Yacht Council writes standards for boats and equipment. Brian Goodwin, the council’s technical director, says ABYC has written standards for joysticks and dynamic positioning systems, but not for assisted docking systems, which are too new.

“From a standards perspective when new technology comes out we can’t address it immediately,” says Goodwin. “You have to watch it and see where it’s going.” And that’s something we’ll all be doing. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.

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