WIRED FOR EASE

New electronics systems make boating simpler
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Sea Ray is one builder offering total control at the helm with multifunction displays.

Sea Ray is one builder offering total control at the helm with multifunction displays.

Modern marine electronics advance at such a rapid pace that if you don’t pay constant attention, it’s easy to lose track. Countless new gadgets premiered at the fall and winter boat shows alone. If you’re thinking about upgrading your system—or replacing it entirely—then there are three product categories to watch closely as technological advances translate to real benefits for boat owners.

Integration with Power Systems

The integration of electronics and power systems is nothing new, but the marriage has matured and now rises to a new level. The virtual anchoring technology that has allowed boat owners to press a button and hover the vessel in place is now available with more sophisticated control options.

Systems such as the Yamaha Helm Master, Mercury Marine Skyhook and SeaStar Optimus 360 (which can range in price from $10,000 to several times that amount) all let boaters hold position—and maintain orientation to the current and wind. Or, they can allow the boat to drift off-station, yet maintain the same orientation to the sea state, such as bow-to or beam-to. These functions are now available as part of new systems and, in most cases, can be added to existing systems.

Yamaha’s Helm Master

Yamaha’s Helm Master

While these new features are useful to anglers for pinpoint positioning over wrecks and reefs, or for keeping the bow into the wind while drifting and kite fishing, they also come in handy for cruisers. They’ll be convenient if you have to wait for a bridge opening or an open slip at the fuel dock, for instance. They also offer the captain the opportunity to make micro-adjustments in positioning, such as jogging a few feet this way or that.

Other systems mirror this type of integration at the bow instead of the transom. Minn Kota and MotorGuide electric trolling motors can interface with a multifunction display to allow virtual anchoring and positional micro-adjustments—plus a few other functions, such as following depth contours or operating the system with a key fob. These systems are proprietary and require you to have an all-Humminbird/Minn Kota or MotorGuide/Lowrance system, but that also means they’re installed in packages of components that play together nicely.

There are developments in handheld controls that integrate with power systems, too. One of the newest to hit the water is the Dockmate Twist ($6,800), a wireless handheld remote that’s about the size of an iPhone; a joystick is positioned in the center of the unit. The remote gives a skipper the ability to dock and maneuver with a joystick that he holds in the palm of his hand. Dockmate can be operated from anywhere on board, and allows for thruster and windlass operation. Imagine being able to stand anywhere on the boat while docking, instead of being glued to the helm. That’s the kind of convenience these systems now offer.

Remote Monitoring and Control

Several remote-monitoring and control  systems went live a decade or so ago, based on 2G cellular technology. But the phaseout of 2G (which began in 2016 and continues through 2020) is forcing a shift to 3G cellular, which gives monitoring and control systems more room for expanded capabilities.

Now, owners can interact with a boat from virtually anywhere via a smartphone app. Systems such as Siren Marine’s MTC provide real-time updates on bilge pump cycles, geo location, battery charge levels and more, all with a swipe or two on the smartphone’s screen. And if a high-water alarm goes off or the boat breaks through geofence coordinates, the Siren system sends an alert via text, email or both.

dockmate-twist
Yamaha’s Helm Master lets you hold position and maintain orientation to the current and wind; Dockmate Twist is a wireless remote joystick device.

Yamaha’s Helm Master lets you hold position and maintain orientation to the current and wind; Dockmate Twist is a wireless remote joystick device.

While Siren’s MTC ($599) is relatively easy to install, far more complex and comprehensive systems are available as well. The latest from GOST Global is the Apparition, which won a 2018 Product of Excellence Award from the National Marine Electronics Association. The Apparition can handle as many as 32 sensors (or more with additional modules) to monitor everything from motion sensors to door contacts. The system also has a 4G/3G GSM communicator that allows  texting and SMS messaging for remote arming, disarming and notifications. Cost starts at several thousand dollars, with monthly data plans required.

Similar but slightly pricier satellite-based systems from GOST and Mazu Marine can do all of the above while adding security and communications. The additional features range from remote video monitoring to SMS and email messaging while at sea. By combining, say, Mazu’s mSeries ($1,095) satellite-based monitoring system and SkyMate’s satellite connectivity ($9 to $99 per month), skippers have not only global coverage for remote monitoring, but also a true satellite communications system. Controlled via an iPad app, the system’s emergency features let users send an SOS to search-and-rescue personnel, access GRIB weather forecasts and Nexrad weather imagery, and see real-time NMEA navigation data. This system stands alone and need not be compatible with any other system aboard.

mazu
Siren’s MTC enables an owner to check on the status of his boat’s systems via a smartphone app.

Siren’s MTC enables an owner to check on the status of his boat’s systems via a smartphone app.

Perhaps the biggest leap forward with these types of remote systems, however, is the ability to flip a boat’s switches from afar. Thanks to digital switching (or, in some cases, the addition of a relay to analog switching systems), some apps can put unlimited-distance remote control into the palm of a boater’s hand. You can flip on the boat’s air conditioning, turn on the lights or trigger an alarm, even when the boat’s in Washington state and you’re in Washington, D.C.

Combine Skymate with Mazu’s mSeries and you can monitor your boat remotely from anywhere.

Combine Skymate with Mazu’s mSeries and you can monitor your boat remotely from anywhere.

Parallel to these add-on systems, some boat manufacturers are incorporating control of digital switching systems via multifunction displays. Simrad’s Information Display system is scheduled to begin appearing on new boats within the next year. It has an automotive-like display for running everything on the boat from a touch screen. Models from Sea Ray, Scout and Hinckley are incorporating this type of control at the helm. As a result, in the coming years, those big switch panels with toggles and rockers will become less common.

Simrad’s Information Display

Simrad’s Information Display

Forward-Looking Sonar

During the past decade, few electronics items have advanced as dramatically as fishfinders. CHIRP sonar from multiple manufacturers has improved performance and target separation in waters where depth can be measured by the mile. New scanners utilizing high frequencies can display every sprig of weed on the bottom. There are side-scanning units that can expose structure and fish that are hundreds of feet off to the sides of the boat, and 3-D imaging offers a fish-eye view of what lies beneath.

The latest development, however, has to do with looking forward. Garmin’s Panoptix LiveScope, which has won multiple awards, can provide such detailed views that it’s possible to make out the individual fins on a fish. Anglers can now differentiate between some species merely by watching a fishfinder screen.

How is such a dramatic increase in detail possible? The LiveScope transducer emits a multifrequency burst, as opposed to a series of pings at multiple frequencies (as CHIRP does), or an individual frequency pulse like traditional fishfinders do. The system does so with three elements arranged in a fanlike shape.

Meanwhile, an attitude heading reference system constantly adjusts the sonar beams to account for the boat’s rocking and rolling, and to eliminate the effect of wave motion. Then, the LiveScope’s unit’s electronic brain stitches all of the returns together and projects them onto the LCD screen.

Garmin’s Panoptix LiveScope provides detailed views of fish.

Garmin’s Panoptix LiveScope provides detailed views of fish.

Panoptix LiveScope can offer views as deep as 200 feet, as well as all around, because the transducer has a down-looking element.

One fishfinder system does not, of course, make for a trend. However, considering how competitive electronics companies are and how quickly the dam breaks after a new technology is introduced, it’s a fair bet that LiveScope will start yet another arms race among sonar manufacturers. The winners, of course, are recreational boaters.

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue.