By the time I went to the delayed Ft. Lauderdale Boat Show, the deer hunting season was already noticeably underway here in Maine. Maybe that’s why I started thinking of the megayacht bridges I toured in terms of trophy racks, the morBe screens—or antler points—the more noteworthy. By that standard, Lia Fail’s powerful five-display glass bridge was almost ho-hum compared to the amazing nine-screen rack decorating the pilothouse of the tri-decker Janie. For megayacht gawkers like me, and maybe some owners too, it’s oh-so tempting to focus on the tech glitz. I had to pinch myself to remember that I was after other game, that I was trying to figure out what’s to be learned from installing and managing mega-complex electronics systems like these.
But, heck, first let’s enjoy the glitz a bit. The captain of Lia Fail can use his two 23 inch and three 18 inch screens to monitor the output of two Furuno black box radars plus numerous on board cameras and three dedicated computers, one each for Nobeltec and Transas charting systems and one for the extensive SiMON monitoring system. Each screen has at least two input choices, and everything is controlled via neatly labeled buttons, infrared mice, and/or touch screen commands. Various smaller screens apprise him of depth and wind, stabilizer and engine status, etc. and dead center are the ship-style gyro-guided autopilot and multiple steering modes (the little wheel backs up the big one) that let him handle the beast. Of course there are also radio, intercom, and phone communications near at hand, and back aft, over the skipper’s finely varnished desk, is a wall full of GMDSS-level long-range distress alarming and weather gathering tools. In both locations are Northstar 6000i plotters for further backup and situational awareness.
Plunk in the middle of all this control and display splendor is a large, raised settee where owner or charter parties can enjoy the Starship Enterprise ambiance. Such a perch seems to be an omnipresent feature on mega yachts, indicating how interesting all this gear is, even when you don’t do the driving. Aboard Janie the wheelhouse can become a sort of gentlemen’s hang out when at anchor. That’s because she’s set up so that her nine VEI 20 inch displays can not only show all the operational screens available on Lia Fail and most megas, but can alternatively put up the output of nine satellite TV receivers, all controlled by a Crestron remote with its own whomping 15 inch touch screen display. The sports-obsessed owner says, “It doesn’t get any better than that!”
In fact, entertainment systems are at least as big a deal on these boats as the elaborate glass bridges, and Janie, for instance, will soon be fitted with the super cool Kaleidescape DVD and CD server. The same goes for onboard computing, both for the ship’s and guests’ business, and for fun. Always-on high-speed Internet access is becoming the norm, as are multiple WiFi access points to it and, for the crew, to certain ship systems like SiMON and Nobeltec. That’s why seemingly over-the-top accessory products like ReVA (sidebar at top right) are possible.
However, don’t presume that mega yachts are suckers for the latest and greatest. When my eyes went saucer size taking in all this electronics extravagance, I noticed that my installer and captain hosts quietly rolled theirs. These very smart, and very polite, guys are much more concerned about getting all this stuff to work, and keeping it working, than they are about the “wow” factor. In fact, one thing I discovered behind the glitz was a certain conservatism. The brand name gear I’ve mentioned so far tended to appear on one bridge after another, along with other reliables like B&G instruments and Icom radios. The critical gyro, pilot, and steering systems were dominated by high-end names so old—Sperry, Raytheon, Anschutz, and C. Plath—that they are now intertwined in ways difficult to sort out.
Service and reliability are words I heard a lot. And what the top dog installers are proudest of is not all the screens, but how they’ve facilitated future servicing and upgrading.
The idea of the $3,500 ReVA (Remote Video Assistance from/to Anywhere) system is to troubleshoot a problem—be it a balky system or a medical emergency—using hands-free one-way video and two-way voice communications with an expert ashore. That’s a tiny color monitor near my right eye which helped to accurately aim the camera at my left temple. Clipped to my waist is a little WiFi wire-less video/audio server and loaded into the yacht’s computer would be “tunneling” software designed to get the 30 frames per second .mpg stream smoothly ashore via the vessel’s high-speed Internet connection. ReVA handles the shore end, either routing the problem to its own Nauti-Tech service operation or to any 3rd party with a fast Web connection.
Don Ehrlich, a principal of Yachtronics in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and the guy responsible for the navigation electronics on both Lia Fail and Janie, showed me how every cable and device is painstakingly labeled and cross-referenced to drawings and spreadsheets that live on the yachts’ computers as well as at his Ft. Lauderdale office. A WiFi transceiver tucked into a locker on a sky bridge even had it’s “Mac” address affixed, meaningless to most of us, but possibly a godsend to some hurried tech out in the islands, not to mention a skipper trying to make a very expensive charter run smoothly. Ehrlich also showed me how many systems were rack mounted with deep extensions or built into cabinets whose entire interior could slip out for better access (sometimes to his design). And he only sighed once remembering all the hours he spent inside the fixed helm cabinetry. Installing electronics at this level not only requires great organizational skills but physical agility!
I was also taken with how Ehrlich often seemed to find simple solutions to seemingly complex issues. After I’d seen a closet full of satellite and cellular voice communications gear, I asked if Lia Fail had what’s called a “least cost routing” device. His technique is to simply arrange the various “line outs” in cost order on the yacht’s PBX system. When in doubt, a user just goes from left to right until he or she finds a dial tone, and thus also the cheapest call. Now, mind you, before installing the Panasonic phone system, apparently another proven mega brand, Ehrlich had to take a week-long training. But it does interface with the ship’s PC network and can print out custom phone bills for charterers and crew. “Simple” is only a relative word in mega land.
Further insight behind the big electronics came from Steve Martin, captain of the Feadship Silver Cloud. Most of the megayacht skippers I’ve met seem as astute about technical issues as they are about nautical ones, but Martin’s a first as he actually built the computers that hum away in Cloud’s much upgraded pilothouse. Asked how he’d equip, say, his own 40 foot cruiser, he said he’d probably opt for a dedicated PC with Nobeltec-integrated charting and radar, plus some sort of monitoring software and as many smart sensors as he could find (hello, NMEA 2000®). Which is a pretty good example of how the high-tech, if conservatively careful, world of megayachting is slowing affecting smaller boats.
But Martin also noted how his tech savvy and long time relationship with installer Electronics Unlimited, another Ft. Lauderdale firm, had earned him the complete trust, and hence the home phone number, of its chief technician. And it was clear that the number is for him a more valued trophy than the rack of Sony 23 inch screens at Cloud’s helm. ME
About the author
Ben Ellison is electronics editor of Power & Motoryacht and Sail magazines, and also blogs at www.panbo.com. He has skippered and crewed aboard a variety of commercial and recreational boats. A version of this article originally appeared in Power & Motoryacht.