HAX AND FLAX: Navico Electro-Junket in the Florida Keys

Junket boats underway

I spent much of last week at the Hawk’s Cay Resort in Florida hobnobbing with a large clutch of my fellow marine journos (a.k.a. the “hacks”) and an even larger clutch of brand and tech gurus from Navico, the marine electronics conglomerate, courtesy of PR mavens Rus Graham and Andrew Golden (a.k.a. the “flacks”). It was, I think, the largest marine-industry junket I’ve ever attended, with a total of 24 hacks running around in nine different test boats being chased by two different photo boats. And, yes, of course these chaperoned love-fests are inherently incestuous, but they are also exceedingly educational.

Navico, in case you hadn’t noticed, has been in serious PacMan mode and has gobbled up a number of marine-electronics companies over the past several years. In the process it has made itself into the largest player in the recreational market and has distilled what were once seven rather diffuse brands into a pure nucleus of three well-established power brands: Lowrance, Simrad, and B&G. The idea moving forward is that each of these will develop and market products specialized for their respective niches, as in Lowrance = smaller fishing boats, Simrad = larger power cruisers and sport-fishing boats (and also commercial vessels up to 300 gross tons), and B&G (of course) = sailboats.

Navico’s CEO, Leif Ottosson, has set a blistering pace re product development, and the company as a whole is now geared up to introduce at least one new product to the market every 20 days. In the not-so-distant future they are confident they can ramp this up to one new product every 15 days. In any other industry this would seem like gratuitous flack-speak, and you’d expect the “new” products to be only slight variations of older ones, but in electronics generally the market really does evolve that quickly. It seems that Navico’s real goal is to haul the once somnolent realm of recreational marine electronics that much closer to the larger industry’s bleeding edge.

Text roll

The Navico mythos, as interpreted by clever flacks in a video shown to us gullible hacks

What I was most interested in, of course, was the kit from B&G, particularly their SailSteer and SailTime instrument and plotter displays, which lay out nav data in very sailor-specific ways. I had played a small part in the process that saw these products top the list in SAIL‘s 2014 Freeman K. Pittman Innovation Awards, but I hadn’t yet had a chance to play with them on the water.

It’s very cool stuff. What it does basically is take the sort of hi-tech graphics you saw on your TV screen while watching the America’s Cup last summer and translate them to a display mounted on your boat, so you can actually make use of them while sailing.

In our case we were sailing a borrowed J/111, fresh from Key West Race Week, and ran a series of mock starts off a start line that had been laid out for us. We wheeled around either side of the line during the pre-start, pinging the marks, and once we’d done that had this very useful graphic to help us set up for the gun:

SailSteer start line

Here in one compact format we see numeric values for shortest distance to the start line (center top), plus the distance to either end of the line (top left and right). The graphic you see running across the middle of the screen represents the start line itself, which in this case is a green arrow pointing right, telling us the starboard end is favored. The wind barb to the right shows the wind speed and relative wind direction; the blue arrow to the left shows which way the current is running. The numeric values on the bottom are self-explanatory, save for the one in the lower right-hand corner, which tells us how much of an advantage we’ll have starting at the starboard end of the line versus a boat starting at the port end–in this case 9.1 boat-lengths.

Pretty nifty, no? Being a lowly cruiser, I normally have no idea what’s going on during a race start, but with this display in front of me I might just have a fighting chance.

During our beats up to our windward mark (also laid out for us by some Navico buoy elves), we turned our attention to this display:

SailSteer graphic

Ingenious this. Here we see in one graphic the true wind direction and angle (the green triangle with the T in it on the outer compass ring), the bearing to our mark or waypoint (the green dot), our own compass heading (the boxed number at the top of the ring), our course-over-ground (the gold triangle just left of our heading), and the current direction and speed (the blue arrow in the center of the display). Most importantly, we see our starboard- and port-tack laylines (the green and red dotted lines) AND the zones within which recent wind shifts have varied (the green and red cones surrounding each dotted line).

In this case, we can see at a glance that the tack we’re sailing on is not favored, but that we are pointing above the layline. Once the green dot lines up with our port-tack layline, we can safely tack over, and if we anticipate a lift or a header we can see exactly how much room there is to play with either side of the layline. Note, too, this is real-time data. The dotted laylines will immediately shift with the wind. And as an added bonus, the time and distance to waypoint values you see on the right are “real” values that account for the tacking you have to do to get there.

Of course, all this runs the other way, too, and shows you jibing angles when sailing off the wind.

You can also see this laid out on a conventional plotter display, like this:

SailSteer plotter display

And to help you track what the wind is doing more precisely, so that you can differentiate temporary shifts from trending shifts, you can look at your wind data comme cą:

SailSteer wind graphs

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that much of this information will also be valuable to cruisers just looking to get somewhere in time for a sundowner. Personally, I’m thinking it would be especially handy on an offshore passage, where you can really get bent doing tacking angles and wind trends in your head over very long distances.

Ralph Naranjo

See? I told you this was incestuous. This is me old pal Ralph Naranjo, formerly of SAIL, previously with Cruising World, and now with Cruising World once again, taking a turn at the wheel. Looks like his new titanium spine is working great!

Ben Ellison

That’s me brother-from-another-mother Ben Ellison, formerly with Ocean Navigator, previously with SAIL and Power & Motoryacht, formerly with Yachting and Cruising World, but currently now with SAIL and Power & Motoryacht again (and also SAILfeed!) doing the steering. That’s B&G product manager Rob Langford-Wood in the white shirt to the right of him; Ralph again with the camera in his crotch; and B&G global brand manager Jim Deheer in the green shirt in the foreground

Jim and Brad

That’s B&G’s Jim Deheer again on the left next to Brad Faber, owner of Utah, the J/111 we borrowed. Thanks for the great ride, Brad!

Rob and Dave

That’s B&G’s Rob Langford-Wood on the left again, with me compadre Dave Schmidt of SAIL and SailWorld

The other Navico product I was very interested in getting some exposure to was Insight Genesis, their user-created mapping system. This is a $99-a-year subscription service that allows you to record your sonar data while running your boat, then upload it to Navico, who will send you back an electronic chart displaying corrections based on the data you gathered.

This is aimed primarily at fishermen, who are acutely interested in bottom features, so I had to go out on a Lowrance boat with Gordon Sprouse, Lowrance’s global brand manager, to see it in action.

Gordon punching buttons

Gordon prepares to record our sonar data

But actually, when you’re running your boat, there isn’t much action. You just hit a button marked “record” and then go off and do your thing. So I got to see Gordon showing off a bunch of amazing Lowrance sonar products that not only show you where the fish are, but also show you what they’re thinking and what they had for lunch.

As I remarked to Gordon: “Man, the poor fish don’t stand a chance.”

To which he replied, proudly: “No, they don’t!”

Later, at the final dog-and-pony presentation, we were shown a chart with all the sonar data all us participating hacks had collected while scribbling about Duck Key on our various demo runs. The new data, with very detailed bottom contour lines, which also includes features like vegetation cover and bottom composition, is overlaid on top of existing off-the-shelf Insight cartography. There are various parameters to control for data quality. Only data collected at speeds under 20 mph is utilized (5 to 7 mph is the ideal survey speed), and all data is automatically corrected both for tidal variations and unique events like wind-driven tides and storm surges (via links to public buoy data).

The big kicker is that it will soon be possible, via a system Navico is calling Social Mapping, for Insight Genesis subscribers to share all their data with each other. This opens up the possibility of a brave new world of true crowd-sourced charts, where everyone everywhere who is running a boat with a depthsounder becomes part of a vast global community of chart surveyors.

Insight Genesis chart

Example of a user-generated Insight Genesis chart

It really is a bit staggering to think about.

Of course, again, it will be fishermen who most profit from this (at least as long as there are fish out there for them to catch), but it is also a technology that can benefit many cruising sailors, particularly those who like to explore places like the Bahamas, where shoals and channels are poorly marked and are constantly moving around.

And this is only the tip of the berg when it comes to what Navico is up to these days.

Pebble watch and iPad

Someday, no doubt, Gordon Sprouse will be able to control the world with his Pebble watch and his iPad, thanks to Navico’s GoFree wireless network and innumerable indepedent app developers

To follow it all in detail, I recommend you keep an eye on Ben Ellison’s Panbo blog at SAILfeed. Plus, you should obviously keep clicking on those Lowrance, Simrad, and B&G websites every 20 days or so.

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1 Response
  1. That would be a blistering product release pace. Its hard to imagine the market is large enough to support the overhead of development, sales, and marketing, let alone product support, spares inventory etc. WOW. I guess it is BIG!

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