A few months ago, we did a couple of articles on innovations: 10 Great Inventions and Innovations in Modern Boating, and 10 Great Innovations in Modern Sailing. These articles were about the things that have forever changed boating. However, we’d be remiss not to mention equipment that is either new or has been much improved over the past two decades, which does what we all want – it makes our life on the water easier.
What the marine electronics companies have done with GPS since the 1980’s has completely changed the sailing cockpit. With the merging of radar, chartplotter, and instrument repeater technology, the MFD (multifunction display—see our article Modern Marine Electronics Networking Basics) has made navigation under sail simpler, safer and smaller – meaning it takes up much less of the valuable real estate on a sailboat. No longer does anyone have to leave the helm to go below to check the radar screen. With an app on a tablet or smartphone, the skipper can be anywhere on the boat and keep an eye on its location and direction. The variety of 3-D photography and charting is downright James Bond-ish and translates to safer passages and easier entries into distant harbors.
AIS stands for Automatic Identification System and it’s a tracking system mostly used by commercial and military vessels, until it was brought down to the recreational level. The system exchanges data with nearby ships and is primarily used for collision avoidance. AIS can be integrated onto an MFD, can be a standalone unit like Vesper Marine’s WatchMate, or is even available as a smartphone app. It has saved a number of vessels hidden by fog or darkness, and has made it easier for us to relax, secure in the knowledge that we have an added layer of safety.
Autopilot – it’s the extra crew, the one that stands long watches without complaining, drifting off to sleep, or getting hungry. Once the most notoriously failure-prone piece of equipment on a boat, the new autopilots have gained respect and we rely on them more than on just about anything else aboard. Every major marine electronics manufacturer now has one and they integrate seamlessly with the rest of the electronics suite. Best of all, they’re much more robust than they used to be—so don’t leave home without one.
The VHF radio has also changed to enhance safety under sail. First is the RAM or Remote Access Microphone, a type of VHF repeater so a smaller version of the radio is now in the cockpit and not just down below, and out of earshot. Second is DSC, or Digital Selective Calling, (See How to Use a VHF Radio) which automatically places a call to all radios within reach and to the Coast Guard simultaneously, along with position coordinates. Multiple boats in the vicinity can render assistance whether the boat is on fire, is taking on water or has lost one of its crew overboard. This serves to decrease response time and increase the number of vessels providing aid in an emergency.
5. Night Vision
A technology that has been taken out of the realm of military ops and spy novels is night vision, and today, it’s been made affordable for the average sailor. FLIR, a company that specializes in thermal imaging cameras, has introduced products including handheld versions for maritime use, which start under $2,000 and can be taken from vessel to vessel. Entering a new port at night is always risky, but now you can see in the dark—making it easier than ever before.
6. Cell Phones
Cellular phones have also come a long way and provide apps for just about every function on a sailboat, including navigation. (Read the article 10 Navigation Apps and Smartphone Hits for more information). Now, a company named Bad Elf has even enabled iOS devices to plug right into satellite technology so you can navigate with your phone-based charts offshore and away from cell towers. And when you get back in the slip, they’re a handy way to order pizza.
Here’s a nod to the sail management systems that have made short-handed sailing easier and safer. Roller furling has been around for decades, but its reliability has been less than stellar. Jammed and frozen furling drums with salt-encrusted bearings have been replaced with smoother mechanisms less prone to failure. In addition, in-mast and in-boom furlers have made mainsail reefing manageable and even gennakers can be put on a furler. Today, a couple can sail a 50-footer with much less apprehension.
Self-tailing, two-speed winches went a long way to reducing the need for extra crew, but now, electric winches like Lewmar’s Evo are popping up as an option on most new production boats. That means smaller crews can manage bigger vessels.
9. Electrical Systems
Batteries could easily be considered a safety item, as they provide power for bilge and sump pumps, running lights, and radios. But mostly, batteries are about comfort because a boat without a microwave or flatscreen TV is an anomaly these days. Affordable and sophisticated inverters have also become widely available. A 3 kW pure sine wave inverter can power a microwave, blender and blow dryer, and also sensitive personal electronics and computers. These power systems, along with LED lighting and other less power-hungry appliances, have made sailing less of a camping experience and more of a comfortable cruise.
Refrigeration has come far since long-distance mariners worried about waxing eggs, salting meat, and drinking warm beer. Better insulating materials and more reliable and efficient compressors have brought refrigeration to just about every boat built today. Easy-to-use drawer refrigeration is appearing on more production sailboats, so it’s no longer about the cook hanging upside down into the reefer in search of that last stick of butter.
Salty sailors tend to take pride in roughing it. Some scoff at things that make life aboard a little nicer, more comfortable and convenient. I say let them have their hank-on sails, dim lights and tepid beer. I’ll take an autopilot and frosty glass as I roll out my headsail by pressing a button and glance at the electronic chart from the comfort of the cockpit. Cheers.