It's a bold claim that tech can change how we sail, but there are areas where marine equipment really is making a difference. Theo Stocker and Toby Heppell pick the best from METS 2019
It’s a well-worn marketing trope that this or that latest gizmo will transform your sailing life.
More often than not, the reality doesn’t quite match the promise.
The gear on display at November’s METS 2019 (Marine Equipment Trade Show) in Amsterdam, however, was very exciting indeed.
Among the rows of shiny new waterproofs, gleaming anchors and twinkling LED lights, three main themes emerged where onboard technology is changing dramatically.
Integration may not be an exciting word, but as manufacturers start to combine multiple technologies, the things they enable you to do seem to multiply, making interacting with your onboard electronics intuitive and using their full potential far easier than their clunky, stand-alone predecessors.
In this way, a handheld GPS also becomes a standalone chartplotter, a satellite messaging system, an autopilot remote control and a wireless instrument repeater too.
Or a man overboard tag is also an electronic kill cord, an anti-theft device and an MOB chartplotter marker.
Or there’s the radio combined with AIS, remote monitoring for your yacht, anchor watch, and remote control for your fridge and heating.
The list goes on.
Secondly, the arrival of two new infrastructure systems mark the largest change to electronic navigation in years.
The Galileo satellite system, which first became operational in 2017, is now accessible to cruising sailors, giving more accurate positions as well as a third layer of position backup, and return messaging for distress beacons.
Onboard, you might only just be catching up with NMEA 2000, but the new NMEA OneNet system promises up to 40,000 times faster data transfer, much bigger networks, built-in cyber security and the ability to directly power large devices.
Finally, the environment.
While an interesting mix of products is appearing in chandlers’ with varying degrees of eco-friendliness, it’s what is going on behind the scenes that’s really interesting, as companies scrutinise not only the green credentials of their products but also their entire operations.
Here’s what we made of these latest innovations, and plenty of other kit we also found at METS.
We have long been used to smartphones that do everything from taking photos, to social media, to satellite navigation and banking, besides calls and messaging.
Gradually, this level of integration is arriving on our boats.
Take for example the Garmin GPSMAP 86i.
This is a waterproof handheld GPS device with a 3in sunlight viewable screen.
While it can act as a SatNav in a car and has a built-in altimeter and compass, it’s the device’s ability to connect with your boat that makes it appealing.
It’s a wireless instrument repeater, a remote control for your stereo and autopilot (admittedly Garmin only), so if you’re singlehanding, you can tweak the helm while putting in a reef or clearing mooring lines away.
Should your onboard electronics go down, it’ll act as a stand alone chartplotter too.
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It’s not a dissimilar concept to the Vesper Cortex VHF and AIS system, which also puts much of that data into a waterproof, touchscreen, handheld unit, linked wirelessly to a black-box onboard computer.
This won’t act as a chartplotter or autopilot remote, but it will provide a genuinely seamless link between the targets you see on AIS and calling the correct ship via DSC VHF from the handset to agree avoiding action.
Its anchor watch function allows you to plot where the anchor was dropped, and to monitor your boat via mobile phone from the shore in real time in case it starts to drag.
This mobile connectivity also opens up the possibility of controlling on board equipment from the shore, such as switching the heating on, or flashing the masthead light on and off to find your boat in a busy anchorage.
The systems’ software is designed so that additional functions can be added as new technology and ideas arrive in the future.
Even winches are providing data.
The Harken PowerWinch sprocket enables a winch pedestal to track data about the forces being put into it, to monitor a sailor’s performance and the loads on the boat.
The internet of things (IoT) —devices talking to each other — is proliferating on board and this is where NMEA’s new OneNet network comes in, which we’ll come back to.
In a slightly different vein, this year saw a DAME award being given jointly to two trolling motors — small electric outboards used by freshwater fishermen.
What’s this got to do with coastal cruising, I hear you ask?
Well, the Garmin Force and the Lowrance Ghost motors claim to provide more power, quieter running and longer battery life than ever before, the technology for which will feed into yacht propulsion.
The other key thing about these two motors is that they integrate with the boat’s navigation systems.
Built-in sonars, chartplotter rout-following without a helmsman, and a ‘point-to- steer’ remote control takes the idea of autopilots up a notch, and potentially a step closer to driverless boats.
In some ways, that technology is already here.
Volvo and Dockmate already provide autonomous or semi- autonomous mooring systems.
Raymarine entered the fray this year with Docksense, which uses a stereo camera system to guide you into your berth.
At the press of a button, or the flick of a joystick, they will take account of wind and tide and bring you safely alongside, much as parking sensors and systems already do in cars.
Add into the mix the SeaDrive Electric POD, also launched at this year’s METS and you’ve got a self-mooring system for small yachts (with a bowthruster).
The SeaDrive Electric POD is an azimuth (360-degree rotating) electric motor pod for boats with speeds up to 15 knots, so it can be a normal saildrive, or it can become a stern thruster.
Press the button, sit back and fraught mooring manoeuvres could be a thing of the past.
Safety is a key area for technical innovation at a show like METS, particularly in the area of man overboard.
We’ve reported on the OLAS man overboard tags before — small Bluetooth transmitters that link to a mobile phone and when the signal is lost an alarm is sounded; co-ordinates, distance and bearing to the casualty given.
Using a mobile phone as a key safety device has limitations, so Exposure have developed two parallel products, the OLAS Guardian and the OLAS Core.
Both are permanent base stations for the OLAS tags, worn in a lifejacket or on the wrist, that will work even if your mobile phone is switched off.
The base station sounds a loud alarm and flashes a bright visual signal to alert for a MOB signal.
The key difference between the Guardian and the Core is that the Guardian is wired into the boat’s 12V system, and functions as an electronic kill-cord for powerboats.
While this may not be so relevant on a yacht, it does mean that your MOB alarm system can be permanently wired in without using the kill-cord function.
The OLAS core is a portable 5v version of the same system, making it portable between boats, and can be connected to any USB socket to keep it charged.
Both will cover a boat up to 50ft and 15 tags, and an extender unit can be added for larger boats.
This isn’t currently integrated into a NMEA network, but Exposure are working on building this in so that it will be able to mark the MOB position on the chartplotter, which would remove the easily-forgotten step of hitting the MOB button on the chartplotter when someone goes overboard.
As Tom Harrop of Exposure explained: ‘This isn’t conceived as an alternative to personal distress beacons or AIS, but to ensure an instant alert is raised on the boat and to improve the chances of a vessel recovering their man overboard.’
Other companies have also developed similar products, such as Mercury Marine’s 1st Mate system.
With a base unit hardwired into the boat, it can support up to eight individually worn fobs, including one on the boat’s keys.
If any of the registered fobs are out of range, the engine won’t start, so it is both an anti-theft device and a MOB alarm and kill cord.
One of the biggest changes in safety equipment to land this year would be easy to miss.
It’s a little blue light, or small message screen that has appeared on a number of satellite distress beacons.
In fact, this represents a fairly seismic change to satellite distress signalling.
It means that instead of having to wait in hope that someone has seen your distress signal, you will now receive an active acknowledgement that Rescue Coordination Centre has received, and is acting on, your message.
As Sean McCrystal, marketing manager for Orolia Maritime (makers of the McMurdo and Kannad beacons) explains: ‘Numerous studies have documented the positive impact on survivors of knowing the outside world is aware of their situation, that help is on its way.
‘We have seen too many situations where people have attempted to swim to safety. The blue light of RLS means all is not lost, help is coming.’
Launched at the show were McMurdo’s new SmartFind EPIRB to include the new Return Link System and an integral AIS beacon, as well as the FastFind Return Link PLB, both of which are ‘multi-GNSS’, of which more in a moment.
ACR have taken this technology a step further with a message screen on their ResQLink View PLB for the first time.
Not only do you see a light to acknowledge your signal has been received, but a small LCD screen tells you the status of your PLB, with a countdown every 52 seconds, when it sends out the 406MHz distress message and GPS position, and a message once your message has been received.
Return Link is not the only significant advance in satellite communications and positioning.
The secret lies in the term ‘multi-GNSS’ or Global Navigation Satellite Systems.
While GPS is ubiquitous, the arrival of the European Galileo satellite constellation, means that alongside the Russian Glonass system, there are now three satellite constellations as part of the Cospas-Sarsat system (a multi- national agreement that makes satellites available for distress signalling) that can be accessed by sailors.
Crucially, Galileo is a Medium Earth Orbit (MEOSAR) rather than Low Earth Orbit (LEOSAR) system, which greatly improves its accuracy, speed of position acquisition and signalling, and reduces susceptibility to black spots.
Having three functional satellite constellations available also increases the resilience of the system.
If GPS were ever to be jammed, spoofed or switched off, there would be two other systems to fall back on.
Products such as the Digital Yacht Trinav GPS160, released this year, is a multi-system position antenna that can be retro fitted to your NMEA network, which can access all three systems and feed the position seamlessly into your navigation system.
Orolia, in its real world tests since 2017, has found that the new systems bring the signal and position acquisition time of a distress signal down from a 45-minute best case scenario to a 3.5-minute best case.
That is a 13-fold improvement that could see help on its way to you over 40 minutes quicker.
And there’s more coming in the future. In the next two years Cospas-Sarsat is aiming to reduce dead zones that have poor satellite coverage, facilitate the notification of false alarms, and the switching off of incorrectly triggered beacons, as well as instantaneous distress and location signalling, with no delay at all. Watch this space.
CYBER SECURITY ON BOARD
As boats become ever more integrated with our phones, devices and data, keeping yourself protected, as we already do online, is becoming an issue.
NMEA, the National Marine Electronics Association, is about to launch the next generation network that will one day replace NMEA 2000 — even if it feels like most of us are only just catching up with that.
Cyber security is built into OneNet, with data encryption, device encryption and device pairing meaning that any data on the network is secured against data breaches or hacks.
Conceived as the basis for an internet of things on your boat, OneNet is like a standard Ethernet connection, offering a huge increase in capacity of both bandwidth and power.
OneNet will be able to support power-hungry devices such as chartplotters and radars each up to 25.5 watts through the network.
As for bandwidth, it will be able to support from 100 megabits per second up to 10 gigabits per second, which is from 400 to 40,000 times faster than NMEA 2000’s data speeds.
Data hungry functions, such as video and audio that are steadily appearing in navigation equipment, will have plenty of bandwidth.
It also removes the limitations on the size of the network, though it’s hard to see many cruising yachts needing more than the 252 devices that NMEA 2000 can accommodate on one network.
If the thought of replacing all of your instruments again fills you with dread, don’t worry.
The new network will work via a gateway with NMEA 2000 devices.
Given the high profile of environmental issues these days, it’s no surprise that companies are doing their best to ‘go green’, and this can be seen in a slew of ‘green’ products being launched.
Marlow’s Blue Ocean dockline, for example, is made from 100 per cent rPET — polyester yarn made of recycled plastic bottles.
English Braids has also launched a braid on braid line, suitable for cruising yachts halyards and sheets, made entirely of recycled plastic.
There is no difference in its performance to their standard polyester braid on braid.
Then there’s the Ultramar cleaning tools made from recycled plastic and the Allen Brothers Eco plain bearing blocks that uses plastic waste from the company’s manufacturing process, and 20 per cent less material overall.
As Darren Elwell, Allen’s design manager explained: ‘We wanted to create a recycled plastic block, but as there is less strength in recycled plastic, we hadn’t done this before.
‘When we started experimenting, we found that the plastic more than met the strength requirements for plain bearing blocks.’
This discovery was part of a much larger initiative within the company using Marine Shift 360, a ‘life cycle assessment tool’ that looks at all of their processes to improve design and manufacturing processes, as part of which, the Eco blocks’ construction went from a nine-stage process to two-stages.
Clearly, this saves money and time as well as resouces, and is a green policy that makes commercial sense.
Similarly, flares manufacturer WesCom (Pains Wessex) have looked at everything they do, from responsible disposal of flares, to banning single-use plastics across their whole site.
This is a direction that the industry is moving in, but real progress will only be made, regulation aside, if it makes commercial sense, or we the customers are willing to pay for it and actively demand it.
**DAME OVERALL WINNER**
The U-Safe lifesaving drone is an impressive bit of kit.
It can be thrown into the water and will operate either way up thanks to two jets housed in the body that simply flip over depending on which way up they are.
For the controller still on board, the joystick operation remains the same no matter what: left is always left, right always right.
When correctly installed the mounting point for the buoy is also the charging point for both it and the joystick controller and it offers around 30 minutes of operation from full charge, and will last several months in standby mode.
Weighing 13kg, it can get to a casualty and pull them out of danger at up to 2.7 knots.
Whether it’s on board a yacht, safety boat, on the pontoons, or in a clubhouse, it could be the future of lifesaving equipment.
GARMIN GPSMAP 86i
This handheld GPS device measures 17.8cm x 7cm x 4.4cm with a 3in sunlight viewable screen and is IPX7 waterproof.
It can be a backup or stand alone chartplotter, an instrument repeater and an autopilot remote control.
It also acts as an InReach satellite tracker and Iridium SOS messaging device as well as receiving forecasts by satellite.
LUMITEC MORAY FLEX LIGHT
This flexible, smart lighting strip won best interior equipment award. Its LED technology and inbuilt microprocessor make it easy to install and operable via a standard lighting switch, while having very low power consumption (0.6-2.7A) and RGBW colour switching for any ambience on board.
LIGNIA WOOD YACHT DECKING
£79 per square metre
Lignia Wood continues to impress as a genuinely sustainable real wood alternative to teak.
It is made from 20-year-old Radiata pine rather than 100-year-old tropical Burmese teak.
It’s infused with resin and cured, giving it similar grip to teak. It’s very hard wearing too.
KARVER KCW & KWH
COMPACT WINCH AND WINCH HANDLE
Having bought out Pontos winches a couple of years ago, Karver have reinvigorated this line of winches.
Known for their orbital gear four-speed winches, the Compact Winch is a more basic but no less powerful winch.
It claims that in the body of a size 20 winch, it generates the same power as a 46 winch, while being twice as fast in first gear.
It’s suitable for yachts from 6-12m and is paired with a beautiful, if expensive, locking carbon winch handle with ceramic bearings.
Price: compact winch £855, winch handle £132.
WATERPROOF JACKET & SALOPETTES
Claiming to be the lightest weight waterproofs on the market, this suit offers still offers maximum protection, as well as high breathability and stretch material.
The design from the Canadian company is fairly minimalist, with few luxuries such as hand-warmer pockets or storm guards for your face, but if you want something that keeps you dry with a minimum of fuss, these could be the waterproofs for you.
Price: jacket: £238, salopettes £278
Aimed squarely at the inland fisherman, these two electric trolling motors might not be top of your shopping list, but the technology they contain could be coming your way in the near future.
The Garmin Force connects wirelessly to a chartplotter and includes autopilot as well as anchor lock functions.
A handheld remote lets you point to where you want to go and it will follow.
The Lowrance Ghost also includes an integrated sonar, GPS anchoring and a brushless motor.
As published in the February 2020 issue of Yachting Monthly