By Stephen H. Wildstrom
TECH & YOU PODCAST
Years ago when I used to sail a lot, the only electronic gear aboard most boats was a two-way radio and perhaps a depth sounder. The big fancy rigs might have radar and finicky Loran position-finding gear. But with the electronics available on pleasure craft today, about the only way to get lost at sea is by watching satellite TV instead of charts on the cockpit display.
I recently spent a lovely late-summer morning on Chesapeake Bay on a 31-ft. Contender sport-fishing boat loaded with the latest gear from Raymarine, formerly the marine electronics division of Raytheon (RTN).
The biggest breakthrough is the integration of a variety of data -- radar, sonar, electronic charts, satellite imagery -- into one display. Sensors on the Contender fed information to a 12-in. Raymarine E120 cockpit liquid-crystal display that was bright enough to be read easily even in brilliant sunlight.
LIFESAVING SYSTEM. Like anything involving boats, this gear isn't cheap. The E Series system with the 12-in. display costs $4,800 plus installation -- not including the cost of individual sensors, such as the $780 digital sounder.
For safety and convenience, the technology that offers the most to boaters is the global positioning satellite system. Many small boats make do with handheld GPS receivers to get coordinates that can be plotted on paper charts. But an integrated system adds real value, displaying your boat's position, speed, and heading on the chart and allowing easy identification of buoys and other aids to navigation.
On a calm sunny day, the system is an interesting diversion; on a rough night or in fog, it can be a lifesaver, especially when combined with a radar plot that shows nearby craft on the same display. The newest bit of safety gear that can be added is a collision avoidance transponder, such as the SeaCAS SafePassage AIS ($1,250), which allows pleasure boats to see and be seen by commercial traffic in busy waterways.
DINNER ANYONE? Pleasure boating is about fun, and there's no shortage of entertaining features available on marine electronics systems. Traditional marine charts show land mostly as a blank. The Raymarine E Series can superimpose Google (GOOG) Earth-style satellite images to give a 3-D view of the shore.
This makes it a lot easier to identify what you are seeing, especially on a relatively featureless shoreline like the Chesapeake, though it really is not much help in navigation. If you put the cursor on a point of interest on land, you get a pop-up that might include a dockside restaurant's phone number, so you can use your wireless phone to call for reservations.
There is some risk that such a complicated display can be distracting; under most conditions, the best way to operate a boat safely is to keep your eyes on the water around you.
NAME THAT FISH. Boaters now don't have to give up their HBO or ESPN, even on the high seas. There's a satellite TV receiver that can send programming to multiple displays on the boat. The stabilized antenna stays locked to a satellite even as the boat rolls. You can also hook up video cameras to keep an eye on the engine room or other areas of the boat.
We didn't have much use for television on our open-deck fishing boat. But we did have a sophisticated sonar-based digital fish finder that gave a rendering of everything below the surface with enough resolution to display both schools of bait fish and individual game fish. An experienced operator can identify the species of fish and whether the bottom is sand, rock, or muck.
A marine electronics system whose price can easily run into five digits still has its limits. We spent a couple of hours casting jigs near Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The fish finder showed what our charter captain said were rockfish -- the local name for striped bass -- swimming below schools of bait. But seeing fish is not the same as catching them, and for all our electronics, we returned to the dock empty-handed.
Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. You can contact him at email@example.com