The general public continues to catch on: Be it via portable tablets or oversize smartphones, trusty desktops or cloud-linked laptops wherever they go, access to integrated information has evolved completely. What started out as a sideshow (“The picture I just took with my cell phone is on my computer!”) has passed straight through its status as a convenience (“Why doesn’t it sync automatically?”) and become an absolute necessity in our work and personal lives (“I’ve shared the projections with you via the cloud.”).
These folks are stepping onto a fast-rising elevator that boaters got on back on the ground floor. You may not remember exactly, but it started with you at your helm, looking to screens for real data from radar, chartplotters, and depthsounders that simplified your time aboard and helped make you more confident in your decisions.
But now there are more choices than ever before, and helm systems have grown both in capability and complexity. Increased processing power has combined with better user-interface design (and a raised level of public comfort) to make systems more accessible than ever. It’s a great time for a full helm upgrade if you’re due for that: Bright new touchscreens, great cartography, digitally processed radar and fishfinder signals, easy-to-use autopilots, and more.
We spoke to three National Marine Electronics Association Master Dealers to get their take on what the hot upgrades are. And while we’re sure all three guys would gladly speak to you about a full system refit, each of them had a very straightforward take on a single electronic upgrade that can significantly help you enjoy your boating now. Here’s what they had to say:
Only a Text Message (or E-Mail) Away
BoatLink+ is an alert system that uses hardware installed on a boat in conjunction with smartphone and tablet apps to notify the owner via text message or e-mail when battery voltage drops, bilge water rises, an intrusion occurs, engine ignition is turned on, a preset geofence is breached, the system is disarmed, and more.
The product was developed by DPL Group, a 40-year-old company based in New Brunswick, Canada, in conjunction with Dave Laska of L&L Electronics (www.llelectronics.com) in Branford, Connecticut. DPL monitors heavy equipment and assets such as pumps and generators and its growth has been based on seeking out more innovative, inexpensive ways to communicate. (Full disclosure: Laska has contributed articles to this magazine and its sister titles within the AIM Marine Group.)
“BoatLink+ is a 3G cellular system, so the antenna is an all-in-one unit,” Laska says. “Because it’s not a satellite system, that antenna doesn’t need an unobstructed view to the sky.” BoatLink+ is not an alarm system, but rather a notification system. Since there’s still a security aspect to it, most components are designed to be buried out of sight while those left visible look unremarkable. The system can be armed remotely and the app offers a screen that shows system status at a glance. Power draw is minimal, on the order of 2 milliamps when the system is sleeping, which will be most of the time—when an event wakes the system, power draw is 160 milliamps. All components come in a box for $749. Monitoring starts at just $10 per month.
The brain of the system is a black box manufactured by DPL and because the company develops its own software the system’s capabilities were up for discussion in the development phase. Laska advised the company to keep it simple. “The price point is key,” he says. “Using cellular lets you keep costs down and get all the functionality you need.” And knowing that any number of text alerts could be sent means you can relax when you don’t get any notifications: All’s well.
Let There Be Light … or Not
“The biggest splash on the market in the last five years is definitely the thermal imaging,” says Mike Spyros of Electronics Unlimited in Ft. Lauderdale (www.elec-unlimited.com). To put it very simply, boaters and fishermen often come to Spyros these days looking to upgrade to some buzzword they’ve read up on.
“They come in and say, ‘I don’t want night vision—I don’t need that, but I want CHIRP,’” Spyros says. “And we’ll say, ‘Why do you want CHIRP? Where are you going to fish, and how are you going to fish?’ In many cases, they realize they don’t even need CHIRP, and they would be better off putting that money towards a thermal camera, which would give them more time to use their boat at nighttime.”
Thermal imaging is different from other systems because it generates photograph-clear pictures of what’s around the boat. “That opens up a whole other thing for people,” Spyros says. “Most people aren’t comfortable looking at a radar screen and they don’t have the confidence in what they see on it or even how to interpret it. But with a thermal camera, the analogy I use is it’s kind of like a dishwasher: Once you have one you’ll always have one. It gives you that whole other time on the water. Especially if you have a family, you have a wife and kids, they’re going to feel a lot more comfortable going out for an evening for a ride when you can see things better. It looks just like it does in the daytime.” If your family can look at the screen and see what you’re seeing and understand it, they’re going to be more comfortable.
Know What Your Neighbors Are Doing
“AIS is slowly catching on,” says Mark Young of Young’s Electronics Systems in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts. “In New England it’s primarily pleasure boats so it’s a voluntary situation. All the boats that we seem to equip, say 35 or 40 feet and up, are all buying AIS and that wasn’t the case a few years ago.”
AIS was developed to prevent collisions by providing information such as the vessel name—to simplify direct communications in crowded waterways—course, and speed of boats in your vicinity. What started out as a short-range tracking system for commercial vessels has begun to infiltrate the recreational market simply because it makes sense to show up on the screens of the boats around you and to have them show up on yours.
“We primarily would sell the add-on peripheral to give the feature the most networking capability in the system,” Young says. “Because we would sell more the systems approach versus a single-product sale. As a dealership, we always sell safety first, toys second. First we ask, ‘Do you have a good radar and a good charting system?’ AIS is an added layer of safety. Then, depending on the budget, we’ll look at the toys.”