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The Golden Age is now

Perhaps no other period has seen as many advances in boating as the past two decades. Experts give us their top picks

When Michael Peters began designing boats in the 1970s, he thought he had missed boating’s Golden Age. “If only I was old enough to be a designer in 1959 or 1960 when you had fiberglass replacing wood boats, the deep-vee coming on, the invention of the sterndrive,” says Peters, president of Michael Peters Yacht Design in Sarasota, Fla. “I always thought that must have been an incredible time to be developing boats.”

3-D computer-aided design of the Pandion 25 runabout

Peters says he now realizes the most fruitful period of innovation has been from the mid-1980s until now. “I thought I had missed the show, but I didn’t miss it at all. It’s just different stuff. Just look at the America’s Cup,” he says, referring to the AC72 catamarans that reached speeds of 50 mph on hydrofoils.

Peters and a half-dozen other leading designers, builders and safety experts say GPS-generated electronic navigation, joystick helm control and computer-aided design stand out as the top innovations of the past 20 years. These innovations as a whole — which fall under the categories of electronics, boat design and construction, safety and propulsion — have made boating easier, boatbuilding more efficient and boats stronger and lighter. The development of the 4-stroke outboard; cleaner, more efficient diesels; the increased use of resin-infused composite construction; the EPIRB; and inflatable PFDs also rank high on the list of important innovations.

For Doug Zurn, president of Zurn Yachts, a design firm in Marblehead, Mass., computer-aided design ranks as the No. 1 innovation, with joystick helm control — and the engines and drives that utilize it — placing second. “From our standpoint, the most influential development has come in the form of CAD products,” Zurn says. “From the smallest widget to the fully assembled yacht, CAD products have enabled us as designers and engineers to develop far superior products with vastly improved features than our counterparts 20 years ago.”

Steve French, owner of the design firm Applied Concepts Unleashed in Stuart, Fla., has been designing boats for more than 30 years and has watched computer use evolve. “Designing and building went from napkin sketches and paper drawings to 2-D CAD and then to 3-D CAD,” he says. “We 3-D-model small parts like latches and hatches and consoles in sufficient detail to work out new solutions and provide a customer with the confidence that they are getting exactly what they want.”

French has designed powerboats from 19 to 100 feet in 3-D for about 20 years. “Our computer models are accurate, complex assemblies, including systems,” he says. “The air conditioning, plumbing, the drive systems and every pump in the boat has been 3-D-modeled.”

French uses 3-D CAD with another technology: 3-D printing. “I have a 3-D print of a stateroom,” French says. “A customer was curious whether the stateroom would look the way he wanted. He didn’t see it in the computer environment very well, so we put a stateroom in the palm of his hands within a couple of days. … You can see exactly how the room works. Stereolithography and other 3-D printing technologies are here to stay and in a really big and cool way. We use them to show our customers what they’re going to get way in advance.”

‘Joysticks for everything’

Zeus pod system joystick

At today’s boat shows you’ll find joysticks married to a variety of power options, from outboards and sterndrives to pod drives and straight-shaft setups. Hinckley was one of the first builders to develop and incorporate joystick control with its JetStick and waterjet drives. The company continues to improve the system and is now offering its third generation of the JetStick. (The builder also now offers Volvo Penta’s IPS and joystick as an option.)

Pod drives have had a hand in the joystick’s rise in popularity since 2005, when Volvo Penta’s Inboard Performance System hit the market. “We never knew IPS would have such a tremendous impact,” says Johan Wasterang, Volvo Penta Global vice president of product management.

Mercury’s Zeus pod system also incorporates a joystick, and ZF Marine links its pods to its Joystick Maneuvering System. ZF Marine’s JMS can be used with sterndrives as well as conventional inboards. Yacht Controller’s wireless remote control, though not a joystick, gives the skipper precise low-speed maneuverability by interfacing with a boat’s engines, transmissions and thrusters.

Most major engine manufacturers have a joystick option now. In addition to Mercury (which uses Cummins engines) and Volvo Penta, Caterpillar and Yanmar have joysticks. Four of the five major outboard companies — Mercury, Evinrude, Yamaha and Suzuki — equip their engines with advanced steering and joystick controls.

“It started with joysticks for [waterjet boats], and now it’s joysticks for everything,” says John Deknatel, president and owner of C. Raymond Hunt Associates in New Bedford, Mass. “In today’s market, you need something new and better to convince the guy he should buy a new boat.”


The construction of boats has made major strides in the past 15 years, say designers and builders. Gone are the rough fiberglass edges, warped decks, ill- fitting hatches and doors, and crooked cleats that you’d find on the new boats of 15 to 20 years ago. And technology is the reason, specifically the use of five-axis CNC routers, Peters says.

“Almost everything we do goes directly from a 3-D file to a machine that cuts the full size with a router,” says Peters. “They are precise right down to the millimeter — the human eye can’t pick up any imperfections — so we’ve gone from boats and their parts that have a few wiggles here and there to dead-on perfect.”

The materials and methods used to build fiberglass and composite parts have improved, as well. Although resin-infusion technology has been used for more than 20 years, it has become more widespread in the past 10 years, designers and builders say. “The glass-to-resin ratio produced with resin infusion is much more consistent, much leaner and more predictable,” says Bill Prince, president of Bill Prince Yacht Design in Port Washington, Wis. “This ratio has tremendous influence on the boat’s weight and strength. Whether using vinylester or epoxy resin, you need to fully saturate the cloth, but at that point stop. Controlled vacuum infusion really helps meter out the resin to create the strongest, lightest combination of cloth and resin.”

Viking's computer-operated five-axis milling machine shapes a deck assembly plug from which a fiberglass mold will be made for the new 52 ST.

Prince remembers a fellow designer who, prior to resin infusion, stored barrels of resin in his office to manage the liquid polymer’s use. Construction crews had to go to his office to get the go-ahead to use more resin, he says. “It was his way of policing the amount they were using in the laminate to keep the boat light.”

Resin infusion has become more understood and production-friendly, enabling builders to build not only stronger and more durable boats, but also boats that are easier to maintain and hold their value better, says Robert Kaidy, vice president of engineering and chief naval architect for Miami-based SeaVee Boats. “It has become commonplace that everywhere a boat owner interacts with the boat, he or she sees an engineered surface,” Kaidy says. “In other words, when you open a deck hatch, you find the back side of that hatch is a gelcoated, molded surface, and the inside of the locker you just opened is a gelcoated, molded box.”

Those surfaces look better, clean up easier and last longer. It does, however, cost the builder more to make it happen, which contributes to the rising price of new boats, Kaidy says. But innovation also has led to price reductions, especially in the world of electronics.


GPS units are relatively inexpensive for the technology they deliver, Kaidy says. “I can go to West Marine or Bass Pro Shops and buy a GPS/chart plotter for 300 bucks that has charts, a depth sounder, a color screen,” he says. “It might be only a 3- or 4-inch display, but an average guy can afford that. This mere fact has changed everything about how we boat because I now can have the chart for my area immediately.”

The GPS has had the greatest impact on boating of any technology, says naval architect and designer David Gerr, director of the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology. “You know exactly where you are at any moment,” he says. “It’s truly a revolutionary change in the way people go boating and use their boats and think about being on the water.”

Boat owners forget about the level of technology behind those displays, he says. “Just the GPS alone, never mind the chart plotter, uses some of the most advanced quantum theories to make it work properly,” he says. “It’s really an amazingly complicated system.”

The GPS/plotter has become the hub for myriad systems. For example, a function within the Volvo Penta and Mercury pod/joystick systems works with the GPS to hold the boat on position — for example, at a bridge or fishing spot.

Sonar and radar have come a long way, too, with electronics companies racing to produce the most advanced, accurate systems showing highly defined structures below and above the surface. Lowrance, one of the Navico brands, offers a technology called SpotLightScan. “It allows you to move a transducer mounted on a trolling motor and actually look at different segments of the water,” says Louis Chemi, Navico executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Boaters will continue to hear about such sonar advancements as CHIRP — compressed high-intensity radar pulse. Instead of one frequency, 50 or 200kHz, CHIRP uses different frequencies and, therefore, delivers a wider range of information, resulting in a better image with more “structure separation.”

Broadband radar delivers improved short-range target discrimination, compared with conventional radar, using a continuous transmission wave with linear increasing frequency. Transmitting power and range also have improved with this technology.

Electronics and propulsion integration has kicked into high gear in the past few years. Case in point: Volvo Penta’s Glass Cockpit system, which collects all navigation information and delivers it to the helm via one or more Garmin multifunction displays. All-glass systems such as this reduce clutter at the helm, says veteran electronics installer Dave Laska ( “On a typical 5-year-old twin-diesel powerboat, the engine-gauge package takes up more than 30 percent of the available space at the helm,” he says. “Another advantage is the ability to receive and display a wide range of engine data. Most new marine engines are electronically controlled via the CAN [controller area network] bus protocol for better fuel economy and emissions compliance.”

Glass helm technology has emerged as the latest innovation in electroncis.

Raymarine, Simrad and Furuno also now offer “glass” systems, says Ben Ellison, who runs, a leading source of information on marine electronics. “While they all scale up well to big yachts, they’re also proving popular on high-end center consoles, so I’m sure the manufacturers will be bringing their attributes down to smaller screens,” he says.

Touch-screen MFDs certainly represent the latest in navigation technology and user-friendliness, but they have their limitations — for example, if they’re exposed to weather or if the skipper is operating in conditions where it might be difficult to tap, touch or pinch-to-zoom. Most models also incorporate a module for manual control using buttons, knobs and switches.

Another part of Volvo Penta’s Glass Cockpit is the Interceptor, an automatic trim mechanism (by Humphree) that uses vertically mounted trim tabs to generate lift and drag so the skipper can control the boat’s attitude in all directions and at virtually all speeds. The lower portion of the blades extends and retracts automatically — together or independently — to change the boat’s position. “The Interceptor system is smart because they move with less power and quicker than conventional trim tabs,” Deknatel says. “Most boats with pods bank more than they did with conventional drives, and the Interceptor deals with those issues. If you are on a flybridge and into a 30-degree bank, you are going to fall out of the darn thing.”

Other companies also offer automatic trim tab systems. Lenco’s is the Auto Glide Boat Leveling System (


The outboard’s transition from carbureted 2-stroke to direct-fuel-injection 2-stroke to 4-stroke with variable valve timing has helped change the boating experience. Today’s outboards are quieter, cleaner and more efficient. Honda, Suzuki, Mercury, Tohatsu and Yamaha all offer a full line of 4-strokes. Tohatsu, Yamaha and Mercury also offer 2-strokes, and Evinrude’s lineup is all 2-stroke.

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Today’s high-horsepower outboards have fueled the center console’s rapid growth from 25 to 45 feet, Kaidy says. “It was a single- or twin-outboard world,” he says. “Now it’s three, four, even five outboards. I can remember when a 26- or 28-footer was a big center console.”

SeaHunter and Intrepid build 45-foot center consoles, and a few others — Yellowfin, Hydra-Sports and Invincible — are building 40- to 42-footers. Outboards packing 300, 350 and even 500-plus horses have allowed the design of “monster consoles and monster leaning posts,” Kaidy says. “It has turned the center console into the ultimate sport utility boat in the true sense of the word.”

Let’s not forget that today’s diesels are cleaner, quieter and more fuel-efficient. Companies such as Ranger Tugs take full advantage of the electronically controlled diesel. Environmental mandates have pushed engine manufacturers to build more powerful engines that produce fewer emissions. “I have a friend with a 10-year-old diesel boat, and when you take off you’re leaving a black trail for the first mile,” Deknatel says. In addition to running cleaner, these diesels weigh less, take up less space in the engine room and pack more power, he adds.

The conversion from mechanical to electronically controlled engines also should be considered an innovation, experts say. The technology — used on outboards, sterndrives and diesels — has eliminated the need for throttle and shift cables. “Mechanical shifter/throttles were notoriously poor in the saltwater environment, and it really detracted from the customer’s experience,” Kaidy says. Fly-by-wire engine controls and the use of a controller area network, or CAN bus, which allows different electronic devices to communicate, have improved that experience.

All of this advanced technology does beg a question: Will boaters have trouble finding qualified technicians for repairs and service? Robert Hellyar-Brook, a marine systems consultant, says yes. “We are not keeping up with the innovation,” says Hellyar-Brook, who was the systems manager at The Landing School in Arundel, Maine. “The training is not there. It’s expensive for a manufacturer to send their people to training. There are so many boatyards that are independent and don’t have access to manufacturer training, and customers with innovative products can find it tough to get them fixed after the fact.”

It’s a change that the auto industry already has had to deal with, he says. “Car dealerships are now filled with electronics techs instead of mechanical techs,” he says. “That is happening with boats now.”


The development of the EPIRB with integral GPS is the single largest improvement in boating safety in the past 20 years, says Chris Fertig, an expert on boat handling who was part of a Coast Guard unit that chased drug runners in the Caribbean. This technology’s maturation has made rescue beacons affordable for most boaters, says Fertig, who works for Maersk Line Ltd. as a general manager of its maritime technical services business unit in Norfolk, Va.

The EPIRB enables first responders to rapidly determine a boat’s position and coordinate response assets accordingly, he says. “They’re less than the cost of a tank of fuel for most boats, so every boater who ventures out of sight of land should have a GPS EPIRB on board,” he says.

The inflatable PFD belongs on the innovation list, too, according to Fertig and others. “Many manufacturers have developed stylish, non-intrusive inflatable life jackets that are truly comfortable to wear during routine boating activities,” says Fertig, who holds the record for fastest passage from New York to Bermuda (the Bermuda Challenge). “The focus on comfort and style with these new lines of inflatable life jackets is driving product sales, but more important, it’s increasing the use of life jackets throughout the boating community.”

See related articles:

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- Advances in innovation over the last 20 years

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May 2014 issue