The Future is Now

A Sea Ray shows the world where boating technology might go next
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To show off the latest boating technologies, Brunswick Corp. put a new Sea Ray SLX-R 400e with an exact replica helm station on display at the CES trade show in Las Vegas.

To show off the latest boating technologies, Brunswick Corp. put a new Sea Ray SLX-R 400e with an exact replica helm station on display at the CES trade show in Las Vegas.

In January, the world’s most glorious geeks all descended on the Las Vegas Convention Center for a trade show called CES. It’s an event where companies as large and varied as Tesla, Sony and Coca-Cola display their latest and greatest in technology, as well as concepts for how future technology may look and work.

And this year, CES attendees saw a powerboat that shows what the future of cruising may become.

Brunswick Corp., the parent company of numerous marine brands, created a display around a Sea Ray SLX-R 400e with triple 450R Mercury Racing outboard engines. It wasn’t the first time anyone had displayed a boat at CES, but it was the first time a new model had been introduced at the tech show instead of at, say, a boat show—and more people saw it than attend the entire Miami International Boat Show, according to Brunswick’s calculations.

“Our CEO came from Ford. He has an automotive background,” says Lee Gordon, director of public relations at Brunswick. “We’ve always just kind of said, at some point, wouldn’t it be great to go and exhibit and set a new standard not for just what we should look like, but for what the marine industry should look like? The marine industry has more advanced technology than automotive and sometimes even aerospace.”

The display held the Sea Ray up in the air, via a cradle, at a 20-degree angle so it looked kind of like a hanging sculpture. There was gallery seating around the boat, and then an exact-replica helm. When someone at the replica helm moved the controls, everyone in the area could see what happened on the boat.

And, everyone could see what might be able to happen on boats in the future. Tech features Brunswick is “toying with,” according to Gordon, include voice recognition (think Alexa and Google Home) and gesture recognition (think of playing the electronic game Simon without touching the light-up color panels).

“The one thing our CEO always says is, if you have it in your car and you have it in your house, you should expect it in your boat,” Gordon says. “If you have the Ring system or an alarm that you can turn on and off from your phone or certain technologies in your car, you’re going to say, ‘Docking is one of the hardest thing to do in the boat,’ so with assisted docking and Skyhook, the younger generation says, ‘OK, so I push this button?’ If people aren’t getting into boating because it’s too hard, then it’s up to all of us to make it easier.”

Even some of the most tech-savvy people in the crowd took notice. The magician David Copperfield, Gordon says, grabbed a Sea Ray brochure. “He said, ‘This is cool. I never really thought about boats.’” Barry Diller, the billionaire chairman of Expedia Group, stopped by too. “He looked at me and said, ‘This is a great boat. It would make a great tender for me.’”

Those are the same kinds of forward-thinking people that all kinds of boat and product manufacturers have been trying to reach through recent tech advances, at all price points. New and improving features are being made available constantly, ranging from tech-based, eco-friendly products to tech-based maintenance and other products too.

For instance, take a look at Huckins Yacht—a brand that dates to 1928, and that most boaters associate with tradition and classic styling. Huckins has been promoting a Hybrid Sportsman 38 that has diesel power for speed and extended cruising, as well as electric motors for quiet and eco-friendly cruising.

There’s also Wider Yachts, an Italian superyacht builder that just started promoting thermionic converters—devices that can transform heat into electricity with no moving parts. Historically, the tech has been used to power Earth-orbiting satellites, but now, Wider says, it’s possible that thermionic converters might become part of the tech specs on superyachts. “I cannot conceal the pride and the emotion in presenting this innovative technology that will bring us closer and closer to a 100-percent electric propulsion,” Wider President Marcello Maggi stated in a press release that mentioned the builder’s 150- and 165-footers.

Over at Outer Reef Yachts in Florida, there are tech-based owner programs, including a new service video capability. Boat owners can access how-to videos by holding their smartphones over QR codes that are strategically placed on the boat’s equipment. “The goal of these service videos is to equip each owner/operator with key information via an easy scan of a QR code with any mobile device,” according to an Outer Reef press release.

Brunswick Corp. is “toying with” voice and gesture recognition technologies for boats.

Brunswick Corp. is “toying with” voice and gesture recognition technologies for boats.

Volvo Penta has a new silent shift feature, which allows for what the company calls “silent shifting” across its whole range of sterndrive engines, aiming to bring the auditory experience of boating closer to that of silent-operation electric vehicles.

Similar thinking is in play at Torqeedo, which makes electric outboards. That company is now making its smaller, already eco-friendly power plants even quieter.

“We have the lower-power Travel Series, which is the portable tender/small sailboat motor, and there’s a big change for this year,” says Capt. Todd Sims, director of project sales. “We’ve been making this product for 15 years, a Travel motor, but it always had a gear reduction to multiply the torque and spin a large propeller. We’ve redesigned it as a direct-drive motor, which makes it completely silent. There’s no gear noise. People expect electric power to be silent. The only noise is the water moving.”

Sims says Torqeedo made the change for the same kinds of reasons that Brunswick is thinking about voice-recognition technology on its boats going forward: Consumers already have similar options in other, non-boating parts of their lives, and so they want to see similar features on their boats too.

“Electric cars are very quiet,” Sims says. “If they’re going slow, you don’t hear any noise, so people are expecting that in marine propulsion as well. There’s still a drive shaft and a propeller spinning, but we got rid of the gear noise.”

And in the fun department, helm-electronics maker Garmin just unveiled a redesign of its Fusion-brand Signature Series marine speakers and subwoofers, which have LED lighting built in. The system can give center-console, cruising and sportfishing boats the feeling of being at an on-shore disco or club.

The interest that consumers have in seeing improved tech everywhere in their lives is undeniable, Sims says. The desire has even become the basis for commercials during America’s favorite game on Super Bowl Sunday.

“If you watched the Super Bowl, I didn’t see any pickup truck ads,” he says. “I saw an electric Hummer and an electric Porsche. There was a complete absence of a Ford F150 trying to pull a Chevy Silverado or whatever. It was all electric cars and solar arrays—the green message. There’s a new energy economy.”

Gordon says that many boaters, who tend to be middle-aged or older, may not realize how differently the world looks to younger people today. He recently got a stark reminder of that fact from a member of his own family.

“My son walked up to a pay phone and asked what it was,” Gordon says. “I told him to pick it up, and he said, ‘What’s that noise?’ It was a dial tone.”

“The younger generation coming in has these expectations, and they don’t know what they don’t know,” he adds. “We need to create products and technologies that mean something to them.”

Brunswick plans to be back at the CES show next year, Gordon says, and going forward, it wouldn’t be surprising if other leading companies from the world of boats end up there too. All kinds of technology, from helm electronics to onboard engines to onboard security, is advancing at a fast pace and showing up aboard boats all along America’s coastlines. Some of that technology is trickling down into boating, and some of it is trickling across and into boating from homes and automobiles. But all of it is what consumers seem to want—and, if these companies are right, will want more of—in the future.

“Other companies in the marine industry,” Gordon says, “what I hope they’re thinking is, Thank you. I’m glad that somebody from the marine industry put us in the same conversation as the Teslas and the Sonys and the Samsungs.” 

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue.