By Steve Katz
Don’t you wish you had a mate who could work 24 hours a day without tiring, in all conditions, checking on the boat and all its systems, for little pay? Well, with today’s advanced electronic remote boat monitoring and managing systems, you can have all of this and more, and let your mate get back to rigging ballyhoo!
Boat Monitoring Relieves Worries
The savvy captain seems to know exactly where other captains, crews and boats are docked, fishing or traveling to next. They also know where the fish are biting, the weather forecast for a week out and the status and condition of their boats while on board. But what about when they are off-site? Evenings, weekends, holidays and time off can take us away from the boat. Is the high-water alarm going off? Did the shore power breaker trip? Is the air conditioner pump strainer clogged? Or worse yet, did the boat get broken into or stolen? These are some of the most common concerns captains and crew have when a vessel is left unattended for any period of time.
While away from the boat, but still responsible, most crew keep their phones nearby, knowing that a marina neighbor might call if there is a glaring issue that needs to be addressed in an accelerated manner. But wouldn’t it be great if the boat was like a social media friend, checking in with us, telling us how they are feeling, telling us where they are and where they have recently traveled to?
Well, today’s smart boats practically have a mate watching over around the clock. The systems and electronics suites are easy to install and operate, and available for any size vessel. There are a few distinct categories of systems available for the marine market, and some manufacturers offer products that include numerous features and functionality in a single solution. If you operate a center console with multiple engines in south Florida, then you already know most insurance companies require satellite tracking to be eligible for insurance coverage. This in itself has led to the development of numerous solutions to meet these demands.
Most tracking systems will notify you of unplanned boat movement via text or email. GOST is an industry leader and can also offer live assistance during a boat theft event, working with local authorities to track and recover stolen assets. Designed to take full advantage of Inmarsat’s new constellation of satellites, the GOST IDP series offers near real-time satellite control and retains a 90-day tracking history with text/email alerts. While a tracking system might be needed to fulfill insurance mandates, it won’t deter theft, burglary, or vandalism or alert you to critical mechanical problems.
A marine theft deterrent system is similar to a home or car alarm system but designed for our favored environment. While you may not think that your entire boat will be stolen, there are numerous expensive goods targeted by thieves, such as electronics, fishing rods, coolers and even teak step boxes. Many of the theft protection devices use sensors such as basic door and hatch monitors and motion detectors. More complex systems might employ pressure sensors embedded in the deck or boarding area and pull sensors attached to the dock. Once an unauthorized event has occurred, numerous alerts can be triggered, such as lights, strobes, sirens, acoustic barriers and even cloaking devices that dispatch an impenetrable cloud of smoke.
Automated devices monitoring a boat’s status and systems have become much more popular in the last few years, with offerings
now available from mainstream electronics manufacturers along with focused firms who specialize in such operations. The most effective systems monitor components like bilge pump function—both frequency and duration—high-water, shore power, battery power, temperature and other key vessel devices and diagnostics. Remote control of appropriate devices is also supported, and some intuitive systems can even be configured to automatically take corrective action.
Tracking, theft deterrent and monitoring systems often overlap in features or become grouped together by manufacturers and boaters when reviewing the fine print. Some manufacturers offer all three of these functions, while others specialize in one aspect of the capabilities. It is best to determine your needs and desires before shopping for a system, this way you can select a manufacturer that can support all the requirements, so you do not end up with an overly complex system.
The entire category of tracking, theft and monitoring systems is not new but is constantly evolving. There’s a wide range of costs for these systems, beginning at less than $100 for a self-contained battery powered device like the SPOT Trace satellite tracker, to higher priced electronics suites such as the high-end Poseidon from Oceanic Systems costing thousands of dollars and offering a myriad of features and functionality.
The sweet spot for many captains and owners seems to be the standalone vessel monitoring systems, designed to supervise basic onboard devices. While tracking and theft prevention is also critical, those systems are often installed only when required or needed, whereas the monitoring system is often optional and helps the owner and crew maintain the boat.
A self-supported monitoring system is something affordable enough for every boater to use. These systems initially appeal to the owner or captain for use when the boat is unattended overnight or longer at the dock, boatyard or even in dry storage. Some of the most popular and simple standalone monitoring systems are offered by Boat Command and Siren Marine. These basic information platforms use built-in cellular data—therefore are only operational where there is cell signal—though this can often include popular international locations in the Bahamas, Caribbean, Mexico as well as Panama, Guatemala and Costa Rica. There are numerous options such as FloatHub, Boat Fix, Yacht Sentinel, Nautic Alert, AtlasTrax and BG-Link.
Most of these monitoring devices are installed and function similar to each other, with a central processor box containing the brain behind the system and sensors located throughout the boat. Some of these systems can use an optional satellite connection instead of or in addition to the cellular data connection, which is great for use in remote areas or while out at sea. The most complex remote monitoring systems can also connect into the boat’s NMEA 2000 data network, digital switching systems and engine interfaces to create a fully connected boat that also lets you control many systems remotely. Some of the major marine electronics manufacturers have also developed integrated vessel monitoring products.
Garmin recently introduced their OnDeck remote monitoring and management solution. When paired with the ActiveCaptain app, OnDeck keeps users connected to their vessel by monitoring the boat’s battery status, bilge activity, door/hatch sensors, GPS location and more through a 3G/4G cellular connection. Similarly, last year Simrad introduced the BoatConnect hub that monitors your vessel’s location and battery, tracks trips/movement and optionally monitors bilge water level, inside temperature and entry door, all using a 3G/4G cellular connection.
Let’s take a closer look at the popular Boat Command device that retails for $299 and requires an $8.99 monthly subscription. It is a small black box, about the size of a pack of cigarettes, with a bundle of wires hanging off the back end. This contained device comprises a GPS receiver and cellular data transceiver. After the unit is mounted where it can obtain a good cellular and GPS signal, wires are run to the components you want to monitor, such as battery, shore power, temperature, etc.
The black box transmits your boat’s diagnostics via GSM cellular signal over a secure network to the Boat Command data center, which then processes the information. This data becomes instantly viewable on your smartphone or tablet through the Boat Command website or Android app. The device has the capability to monitor shore power on/off, two battery bank voltages, two bilge pumps on/off and duration, inside temperature, high-water, GPS location and also provides history for all of the sensors.
While high-water alarm monitoring is great, sometimes it is nice to know you have a problem before an alarm is triggered. Systems like the GOST Apparition can connect to one or more of your existing bilge pumps and keep a record of how many times the pumps cycle over a defined period of time. This provides users a lot more information than just a high-water alarm. You can also configure the system to alert you if the bilge pump operates more than a predetermined number of cycles in a 24-hour period or if it runs longer than a preset number of minutes. This granular information is vital to monitoring a boat whether you are aboard or not. Having a history of data allows you to see if there is a trend in a particular system, allowing you to address the issue before it becomes an emergency.
Boat Monitoring Is for You
Whether you choose Boat Command, Siren, GOST or another monitoring system, the ability to remotely monitor your boat is easier and more affordable than ever. During the coronavirus pandemic these monitoring services were particularly important, with U.S. captains restricted from international travel capable of constantly monitoring their boats while in locations such as Los Sueños, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, knowing the shore power status, battery voltage, inside temperature and much more. And with the new NMEA OneNet standard around the corner, there will be even more ways to monitor and interact with your smart boat in the not-so-distant future.
Steve Katz has a long history in the marine industry and is the owner of Steve’s Marine Service Inc. in Ocean City, Maryland. He is the Vice Chairman of Board of Directors for the National Marine Electronics Association and holds ABYC Master Technician certification, NMEA AMEI and NMEA2000 certificates. This is in addition to extensive factory training from many manufacturers.