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Beneteau slips into joystick docking

Similar to powerboat systems, Dock & Go enables a sailboat to spin and move sideways or diagonally

Beneteau demonstrated its new docking system on a Sense 50 at the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Md., in October.Docking a 40- to 50-foot sailboat in strong crosswinds and currents is hard work, especially for a shorthanded crew or older sailors who might lack the physical ability to muscle the thing into a narrow slip.

And then there's the emotional drama. Who hasn't witnessed, commented on or been part of the drama that unfolds when a tired couple is trying to dock in a crowded marina. He's barking out commands from the helm while she's desperately trying to heave a dock line into the wind or fending off the heavy hull, which is about to crash into the piling in front of a packed restaurant deck. It's an aspect of sailing that many first mates would like to do away with.

Starting this fall, Beneteau is now offering Dock & Go on sailboats larger than 45 feet. Dock & Go features a joystick that synchronizes the boat's propeller-driven propulsion unit with a bow thruster, allowing a boat to spin on a dime and move sideways or diagonally. It's similar to popular powerboat

setups such as the Volvo IPS and Cummins MerCruiser Zeus pod drive systems, ZF Marine's new single pod system, the MerCruiser Axius sterndrive system and the Vetus Pro-Docker.

"Two years ago we started work on a rotating pod while developing a hybrid [drive] for monohull sailboats," says Bruno Belmont, sailing development manager at Beneteau. "The idea was to rotate the pod to increase the regeneration efficiency. We then found out that the rotating motor was capable of turning the pod 180 degrees in less than 0.3 seconds, so we decided to use this quick response for the reverse mode."

The reasoning was simple: If you can turn the pod to point backward, with the propeller still turning in the forward direction, it eliminates a weakness of folding props, which reduce drag when sailing, but aren't very effective motoring in reverse. From there, Belmont says, it was a short walk to connecting the pod and a bow thruster through a joystick to allow full control in every direction. "Dock & Go was born," he says.

Beneteau has a three-year exclusive agreement with ZF Friedrichshafen, a German company that designs and manufactures propulsion systems. Belmont did not share dollar numbers for the Dock & Go, but says the extra cost is about 5 percent for a 45- to 50-foot boat that is already equipped with a bow thruster and autopilot. Retrofitting existing models is not possible at this time.

Initially, Beneteau will make the Dock & Go system available for the Sense 50 and the Oceanis 46 and 50, which are equipped with a Yanmar 75-hp diesel.

Although Beneteau is the first production sailboat builder to market a joystick docking system, Dock & Go is neither the first nor the only such system available. The ComfoDrive is a German product that was developed through the Fit & Sail research project by the German Institute for Boating and Tourism. Fit & Sail analyzed age- and gender-related exertion levels while sailing. The data assisted the development of the ComfoDrive, which can help aging big-boat sailors (60 and up) who are dealing with physical limitations to stay in the sport.

"The key problems for older crews is hoisting the mainsail and docking," says Dr. Burkhard Weisser, a professor at Kiel University in Germany who conducted the medical tests for Fit & Sail with elderly sailors. Weisser recorded pulse frequencies of up to 149 heartbeats per minute during docking.

Wolf-Dieter Mell, the engineer behind the ComfoDrive, explained the key differences between Dock & Go and other factory-installed docking systems. ComfoDrive uses a large joystick with a three-axial movement and large tilt angles so it can be operated with one hand and great precision in all conditions, while other systems use a smaller joystick in combination with the throttle. The ComfoDrive also relies on a bow and a stern thruster (external, tunnel or retractable) and a fixed-shaft auxiliary engine rather than a rotating pod drive and a bow thruster. However, the objective, according to Mell, is the same: enabling safe and effortless maneuvers in crosswinds and currents with intuitive joystick control.

"Regardless of technology, Beneteau's market entry will increase the acceptance of such systems," Mell says.

Ironically, the first commercial ComfoDrive using Exturn external bow and stern thrusters was installed last April on a Beneteau Cyclades 43.3 that is chartered through Yacht- & Charterzentrum, a German company in Heiligenhafen on the Baltic Sea. "It is popular with smaller crews above age 60," manager Dirk Kadach says. "The system works as expected, and we hope it will help us acquire new customers in this demographic."

Kadach's statement validates the perspective of Bob Johnson, president of Largo, Fla.-based Island Packet Yachts, who has been promoting auxiliary systems on cruising boats for a long time. "Simplifying the operation of any boat has two advantages," he says. "It attracts people who are new to the sport because it minimizes the challenges, and it keeps them in the game."

Perhaps the biggest benefit of docking systems is their potential to save relationships. Unlike the U.S. manufacturers that stress the power, control and confidence that docking systems afford, Beneteau takes the relationship angle in an entertaining video clip (http://vimeo.com/13731789). The video shows the system's capability as a couple attempts to dock a

50-foot keelboat.

For information, contact Beneteau USA, Marion, S.C., (843) 629-5300. www.beneteauusa.com

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.

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