Command and Control of a Vessel evolves from Wired to Wireless

Friday, June 28, 2013

Several years ago, new remote controls were introduced at boat shows for separate functions ranging from opening and closing of a power vent in a windshield, to dropping and retrieving the anchor. I had teased a colleague already encumbered with a cell phone, pager and compact VHF at his waist that the number of wireless boat controls he might take aboard these days threatened to surpass the available clip-on storage space on his belt.

In reality, these new remote controls solved very specific problems of access. I have seen designs with windshields raked so far aft and set so far ahead of the helm console that only by crawling on your belly could you hope to operate a manual vent. To increase interior cabin volume, some boatbuilders have narrowed side decks to little more than a tightrope walker’s training facility, making it tougher than ever to get forward to handle basic anchoring duties.

With the advent of electronically controlled engines and thrusters, it didn’t take long for the technology wizards to consider how to transform and improve the fine art of docking. Their rationale was reasonable: Even if you provided a competent helmsman with bridge wing control stations or one in the cockpit, there was always the chance of damage to the hull or, worse, injury to an inexperienced crew member or guest because you couldn’t see all sides easily. Numerous design factors also complicate docking scenarios: The full-length boat deck that covers the cockpit and makes alfresco dining so pleasant becomes a barrier to visibility aft.

Tethered control boxes plugged into weatherproofed receptacles on the foredeck or aft allow the helmsman more flexibility rather than trapping him in the pilothouse or on the flying bridge, by letting him walk from side to side and see the situation at water level. As he backs the boat into a slip, he can spy details unseen from the flying bridge—the errant nail or bolt sticking out that could destroy paint or gelcoat, or exactly how much space remains between the end of the hydraulic-lift swim platform and the concrete bulkhead.

When the Yacht Controller was introduced at the Miami International Boat Show two years ago, dock watchers marveled as an operator roamed from side deck to bow to swim platform, pivoting and backing and filling a 50-footer with the thumb (tumbler) switches of this innovative wireless device. He controlled electronic engine shifting, as well as bow and stern thruster direction, wirelessly. Suddenly there was no need to yell back and forth to crew on the bow trying to pick up a mooring line, or listen for warnings from crew in the aft cockpit as the boat closed too rapidly on a concrete piling. With the Yacht Controller in hand, the operator simply walks to the bow and bumps the yacht forward in idle just enough to make mooring line retrieval easy for the crew, or for the operator alone. And what better place to be standing when, in your judgment, the boat is in position, clear of other boats, to step on a windlass button and let go the anchor? In fact, an anchoring control is optionally available with the Yacht Controller. For safety, all actions return to neutral when the switch is released and, should a loss of signal occur between the handheld transmitter and its receiver, control returns to shipboard systems.