Innovators: The Smart Boats

By Michael Vatalaro
Published: October/November 2012

Manufacturers build innovative solutions to boating's everyday hassles, and in doing so make your day on the water even better.

Boating for most of us is a retreat, so anything that can make a day on the water easier, cheaper, safer, or more enjoyable is a welcome addition to our boats. To this end, a lot of clever thinking has come out of the marine industry lately. Here are several examples of innovative ideas that just make boating better.

Illustration of Air is drawn through the intakes by the forward motion of the boat and funneled under the running surfaces
Air is drawn through the intakes by the forward motion of the boat and funneled under the specially-designed running surfaces, reducing friction and improving fuel economy by 15 percent.

Slick Hull, Full Wallet

Tiny bubbles aren't just for champagne anymore — they can also help speed your boat along.

If you make your hull slippery, you can drive it farther or faster with less force. That means a more efficient hull design burns less fossil fuel, and saves you money. One of the simplest ways to reduce drag is to reduce "wetted surface" or the amount of hull surface in contact with the water. An early adaptation on planing powerboats was the stepped hull, which modifies the traditional (long, continuous running) surface of the boat into three triangle-shaped contact patches. The total surface area of these three triangles is less than that of the unstepped hull, reducing drag. The steps increase the amount of air being introduced under the boat's stern while on plane, contributing to some tricky handling characteristics during turns. Still, properly designed and in the hands of a skilled helmsman, stepped hulls are faster and more efficient than their unstepped cousins, which is why most modern race boats feature some variation of a stepped design. Boat designers who worked with stepped-hull designs soon learned that introducing air under the running surface reduced drag even more than shrinking the contact patches. Two in particular have gone to great lengths to take advantage of this principle. Michael Peters Yacht Design drew up the hull for Invincible's line of center consoles, built around what they call a Stepped-Vee Ventilated Tunnel. The steps are vented to the hull sides, allowing air to be drawn down to the running surface, which in this case is a "tunnel" along the centerline of the rear of the boat. The tunnel traps the air under the boat, channeling it to the stern, reducing friction. The result is a hull with the lowest coefficient of drag in its class. Put another way, Invincible's boats are capable of 60 mph with twin outboards; the 36-footer hit 81 mph in a Mercury performance trial with triple 350-hp Verados on the stern. More staggering was the fuel efficiency, better than 1.5 mpg while cruising at 45 mph. For comparison, a Boston Whaler 37 Justice, which doesn't have a stepped hull, was also tested by Mercury, pushed by triple 300-hp Verados (not the race-tuned 350 SCi versions on the Invincible), and could only muster 0.7 mpg at the same speed and topped out at 55 mph. On a 37-foot Intrepid, which does have steps in the hull, triple 300 Verados averaged about 1.3 mph at the same 45 mph, and the boat reached 66 mph. Advantage bubbles.

Photo of Beneteau model Flyer Gran Turismo 34
Four Beneteau models will feature AirStep in the U.S., including this Flyer Gran Turismo 34

Other builders have taken this idea a step further. Beneteau recently introduced a powerboat technology called AirStep, which draws air in from ducting along the hull sides through dedicated pipes in the interior of the boat and out underneath the centerline of the hull. In addition, AirStep hulls sport two steps cut into the rear of the hull, but not in the normal configuration. With a conventional stepped hull, the peak of the triangle-shaped patches faces the stern of the boat. With the Beneteau design, the triangle is reversed, with the peak facing forward. In testing, this configuration provided better stability and a more predictable ride, particularly when coupled with long reverse chines on the outer edges of the hull.

An added benefit of introducing the air this way is better lowspeed performance. "As soon as the boat starts moving, air is sucked under the hull due to a vacuum," says Laurent Fabre, vice president for marketing and sales at Beneteau's U.S. powerboat division. "The boat starts trying to plane at 10 knots." The addition of air under the hull at low speed adds lift to the stern, reducing the displacement of the boat, which flattens the bow wave. The result is a boat that rises on plane sooner than expected for its hull length, with minimal bow rise. "We didn't expect the low-speed performance," says Fabre. Beneteau reports that boats with AirStep burn about 15-percent less fuel in testing against the same models without the technology. The company will have four models in the U.S. with AirStep in time for the fall boat shows.

Joystick Retrofit

Photo of Optimus 360 system from Teleflex with outboards that can articulate independently
No, they’re not broken. These outboards can articulate independently, thanks to the Optimus 360 system from Teleflex.

Intuitive close-quarters maneuvering comes to outboard-powered boats.

Volvo's IPS opened the eyes of the boating world to the wonders of joystick docking (although Hinckley's Jetstick had been around long before). Cummins and MerCruiser brought out Zeus pods, and later MerCruiser introduced Axius, which brought joystick control to stern drive-powered boats. And Twin Disc and ZF both worked out how to mate straight-shaft inboards to a smart transmission and bow thruster to make inboard boats dance in much the same manner as pod drives. But all of these had to be ordered on new boats (or during major retrofits). Teleflex changed all that with Optimus 360, the first joystick system for outboard-powered boats. The best part is, you can add it to just about any twin-outboard setup. While it's hard to describe how weird it is to see outboard motors pointing completely different directions on the same transom, the result is an outboard-powered boat that can walk sideways, spin like a top, or move diagonally, all with the same simple joystick as the big boys.

Illustration of Optimus 360 system from Teleflex with outboards that can articulate independently
©2012 Mirto Art Studio

At the 2012 Miami Boat Show, the Optimus 360 system was rigged to a Dusky center console with a pair of Suzukis on the back. It spent most of the day pulling in and out of a slip, sliding around, and going back. The system consists of two electro-hydraulic cylinders, one for each outboard, a Pump Control Module, and CAN bus to connect it all. The amount of confidence you get from fingertip control, and the precision available through these systems, cannot be overstated.

Turn The Sound Down, And The Enjoyment Up

Photo of workers adding sound-absorbing fabric to the hull lay-up
Workers add sound-absorbing fabric to the hull lay-up.

Noise leaks like water through any tiny opening, making it devilishly hard to make open structures like a boat quiet. The solution: Build the sound dampening right into the hull.

Noise and vibration seem part and parcel of boating, particularly for those of us who grew up with loud two-stroke outboards, or click-clanking mechanically injected diesels aboard. But Sea Ray believes it doesn't have to be that way. Their engineers took on the difficult task of reducing the volume of noise produced when running their 25- and 27-foot bowriders, the 250SLX and 270SLX. But they began, not in the engine compartment, but in the lay-up of the hull itself.

Sea Ray added a patented sound-reducing fabric as a layer in the fiberglass lay-up of the boat; the difference is remarkable. Calling it Quiet Ride technology, they displayed two examples of fiberglass squares at the February Miami Boat Show — one with the fabric, the other conventional — and invited onlookers to drop a golf ball on both. When the golf ball fell onto the conventional fiberglass square, it rebounded briskly, with a sharp crack of noise. When it struck the Quiet Ride fiberglass, it landed with a dull thud, and didn't bounce nearly as high.

The boats are built with a patented, tuned transom, licensed from Omni Products, and Sea Ray designed the boats with full-width bulkheads below decks where possible to offer extra barriers to sound. Finally, improving the fit and finish of hatches, doors, and all the assorted latches reduced the rattles and bangs produced when underway. The result is a 10-decibel reduction in sound at key areas aboard, and an average of 6.8 decibels overall - or roughly half as loud.

Many boaters don't realize the toll sound and vibration take during a long day on the water, but they're major contributors to fatigue, which, beyond being a comfort issue, can become a safety issue. Many manufacturers have taken steps to reduce noise and vibration, particularly by using newer engine-mounting technologies, and increasing the insulation and sound-attenuating materials in engine compartments. But Sea Ray is the first to build those technologies right into the hull, and for that they won a 2012 Innovation Award from the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA).

On The Horizon


Some very clever people are bringing us modern concepts that are changing our world, and our boating lives, one cool idea at a time.

Sea Fare To Science Fair

Diana Doyle, a longtime boater and co-author, most recently, of the new AnchorGuide for the Intercoastal Waterway, has been an avid birdwatcher since she was seven. For years she participated in the Audubon Society's century-old Christmas Bird Count, or CBC , but now she wants to expand the land-based bird count to the water. For that, she needs a little help. "There are a lot of boaters on the water," Doyle says. "If we can harness all those eyes, and get them to report what they see, they can contribute to the database at Cornell University's" Doyle's SeaBC , as she's dubbed it ( Aboard), is part of a growing trend called citizen science, where ordinary folks can contribute to a larger body of knowledge. There are programs from whales to weather watching, allowing amateurs to do real science. By virtue of their locations, boaters can be among the most valuable contributors. "The ocean is the last birding frontier," Doyle says. "We don't even know all the species out there." Since the SeaBC launched last year, reports have come in from Chile's Golfo de Penas to the Weddell Sea.

NOAA has long been a forerunner of citizen science at sea. Their Voluntary Observing Ships program, which calls on commercial mariners to send in weather reports from remote locations, traces its lineage back to the mid-19th century. Even with modern meteorological satellites, that information remains vital to weather-forecasting efforts. Almost 1,000 ships send in their barometer and temperature readings to the program, which involves minimal training for the crew.

"On-land forecasters have hundreds, if not thousands, of observations they can use," says Tim Rulon, of NOAA 's National Weather Service, "but as soon as you go out on the water, there is one or two, or none."

Websites like SciStarter ( collect various citizen-science projects, from looking for shad in the Pacific Northwest and sharks in South Carolina, to keeping an eye on reefs, rivers, and watersheds. NOAA also has a smartphone app for reporting marine debris, and invasive species.

Diana Doyle is hoping the SeaBC will catch on, partly for the information, but also to get people interested in what they see as they go out boating. Bird sightings, by land and by sea, can be reported to year round, not just at Christmas. "Somebody emailed me the other day and said 'I'm going to be on a cruise, Does that count?'" Her answer? "Absolutely."

I, Rowboat

Photo of I, Robot book cover

The boat of the future might not need you at the controls.

Here are the things that Eric Hansen keeps in his minivan: a jumble of guitars and microphone stands from last night's gig in Virginia Beach; a set of college courses on disc, dealing with the philosophy of the mind; and a paperback book, resting in the center console. That last was a gag gift, given to him after a recent lecture, but it's an appropriate present for a man who designs robot boats for the U.S. Navy. The book is called How To Survive A Robot Uprising, and Hansen is on the short list of people most likely to lead it. Hansen grew up playing with remote-controlled vehicles, and when we spoke last fall, he was working as a civilian contractor for the U.S. Navy's autonomous surface vehicle program. It's a big step, though, from remote control to true autonomy - a robot that can be set free to do a job without human interference. Hansen thinks the water is the best place to do it, and if he's right, robot boats could take on tasks from protection, to surveying, to driving you around.

The idea of our boats leaving the dock without us doesn't sit well with the average boater, but a true autonomous system has all kinds of applications. Hansen has a patent on an intelligent life raft, for example, which would sense that someone has gone overboard, and then go find them. More challenging parts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA ) Coastal Survey could be done more easily and quickly by a small robot boat. An intelligent autopilot could be a boon to long-distance cruisers, and robot boats could stand guard over protected marine areas, or challenge vessels that approach military ships. More peacefully, Hansen would like to see a robot boat with cameras traveling remote parts of the world documenting precious life there - in the Galapagos, for instance.

Photo of Robotics expert Eric Hansen and a model of one of his robot boats
Robotics expert Eric Hansen and a model of one of his robot boats.

The robot boat has been deemed off limits today, so Hansen drives to a Norfolk office park. On the wall of an office, someone has taped a copy of the cover of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot. In the book, Asimov's robots are governed by a set of rules starting with "A robot may not injure a human being." For water-dwelling robots, the laws are set by the rules of the road. They need to be able to deal with any situation, without causing an accident, and the interaction between boats can be unpredictable. In a test of the autonomous system on the James River, the human crew had to take over when they encountered a badly overloaded fishing boat near the channel. The robot, oblivious, would have sped by and risked swamping the boat with its wake. It was not a problem with the rules of the road, but with Asimov's first law.

Hansen thinks the future of unmanned craft lies, ironically, with human controllers. Not onboard, but in a room somewhere, watching a set of monitors, waiting for a boat to call in with a problem. Hansen says we're heading into a world where the robot knows the probabilities that certain things will happen, and can learn from experience. "Some very interesting philosophical directions take off from that," he says.

Virtual Reality

When Captain Cook visited New Zealand's South Island, he paused outside the fjord pictured below long enough to name it Doubtful Harbor, before moving on. Turns out his instincts were right. The entrance to Doubtful Sound (as it was later renamed) is guarded by a large rock, just beneath the surface, called Tarapunga Rock, which has bedeviled mariners ever since. New Zealand's coastal authority, Environment Southland, has tried to mark the rock with traditional navigational aids, but 23-foot swells keep washing away the buoys, leaving the rock's location again in doubt for visiting boats.

Photo of New Zealand's South Island and Doubtful Harbor

Auckland-based Vesper Marine came up with a solution that has garnered international attention. The company makes automatic identification systems (AIS) for yachts and workboats. Rather than mark the rock physically, they decided to do it virtually, with an AIS beacon that sits 3.4 miles away on shore, transmitting the location of the rock to anyone with an AIS receiver, marking its position on a digital chart. The signal can be received more than 10 miles away.

AIS transmitters usually send out their own location, and this seems to be the first time anyone has used one to remotely signal the presence of a navigational hazard. Vesper Marine says the beacon can send out up to 50 location signals, raising the possibility of an entire virtual channel, and the signal can trip an alarm onboard the receiving ship, warning it away.

Vesper Marine has won innovation awards from Professional Mariner and IHS Safety at Sea magazines for the AIS beacon. In New Zealand, the press were quick to point to last year's grounding of the Rena. The oil tanker ran aground on the environmentally sensitive Astrolabe Reef off the New Zealand coast, spilling hundreds of tons of fuel oil and diesel. A system like Vesper's AIS beacon could have triggered an alarm on the ship, and possibly avoided the tragedy.

Swim Like A… Fern?

These plants shed water, giving new meaning to the term "hair coat".

Ferns hate water. Sort of. Salvinia molesta (or giant salvinia, or kariba weed) is an aquatic plant native to Brazil. It traps air on its leaves, keeping it there for weeks at a time to form a barrier between itself and the surrounding water. Researchers at the University of Bonn, in Germany, recently uncovered the fern's secret. Its leaves have tiny hydrophobic hairs, which keep water away from them. It's possible to create hydrophobic materials, modeled on nature; but according to the university, the effect doesn't last in moving water.

Photo of Salvinia molesta (or giant salvinia, or kariba weed) Photo: Mic Julien, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization

On the ferns, the tips of the hairs are hydrophilic (they attract water). Bonn professor Wilhelm Barthlott explained in a press release: "They plunge into the surrounding water and basically staple the water to the plant at regular intervals. The air situated beneath it can therefore not escape so easily." Surrounding a ship with a layer of air could reduce friction and fuel costs. Containerships lose more than half their propulsion energy to friction between the water and the hull, and Barthlott says, "Surfaces modeled on the water fern could revolutionize shipbuilding."End of story marker

Chris Landers is an associate editor of BoatUS Magazine.


Keeping Cool With Hot
New Fabrics


Sitting down in a swimsuit on a dark cushion on a sunny day usually results in a quick jump and a yowl. Burnt buns from hot vinyl is nothing new whether in your car or on your boat, but help is on the way in the form of a new material from Syntec Industries. CoolTouch is the brand name for a special vinyl technology that has a reflective pigment to help dark colors stay cooler even when in direct sunlight.

Photo of CoolTouch seat cushions from Syntec Industries
Photo: Sea Doo

CoolTouch can be used with many base products including regular vinyl or even on Syntec's NanoBlock vinyl which resists abrasions, ink marks, and mildew, because it is a special additive. Price will vary with the base product it is applied to, but is estimated to be $30-$50 per yard. It doesn't change the weight of the fabric, which is still in the range of 26 to 35 ounces per linear yard, but it will stay 10 degrees cooler than other vinyl and leather. It is available in limited colors. Today, navy, brown, burgundy, black, or charcoal colors can be created with CoolTouch technology, and the material retains its original luster so it doesn't get shiny just because there is a reflective pigment added.

Photo of a boat with CoolTouch seat cushions
Photo: Sea Doo

You can't buy this at your local canvas shop just yet because currently, it is only available in the industry's OEM market. That means certain boat manufacturers will be offering it on some new models as an option. But keep an eye out as this product is expected to be available aftermarket within a year and that means you may be able to revamp your cushions with hot colors that will keep you cool.


Clam Digging

Razor clams dig into the seafloor at a rate of about 1 cm per second before anchoring themselves in place. Their anchoring force — the measure of how well they hold fast compared to the energy they expend in getting there — is 10 times better than the best boat anchors, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where they studied the razor clam's abilities. The clam does it by making quick up-and-down movements and opening and closing its shell, turning the sand around it into quicksand that it can burrow through quickly.

Photo of a RoboClam
Photo: Donna Coveney, MIT

Trying to create a lightweight anchor that held fast, but could be unset easily, MIT came up with the RoboClam, which uses the razor clam's digging method to burrow down, before expanding to set itself. The robot's digging method could be used to search for oil or underwater mines, and the RoboClam could be the basis for a whole new way of commercial anchoring and mooring.


An Environmentally Friendly Bottom Paint? Can it Be Done?

Luritek has patented an environmentally friendly two-part epoxy bottom paint, Eco-Clad, that claims to release the lowest amount of biocide into the water, while lasting two years in fresh and saltwaters. Based on bio-mimicry, using models in nature to solve human problems, the coating mimics how fish create a film that repels marine growth. Similarly, Eco-Clad creates a bio-film that attracts microbes that repel barnacles. This hard coating uses only a small amount of metallic copper, less than traditional paints. Luritek also claims it doesn't harm marine life in the water column. More good news: This paint can be applied by brush, roller, or spray; only needs one coat; and with proper prep and primer can be used over most common bottom paints.

Photo of a environmentally friendly two-part epoxy bottom paint, Eco-Clad


Take Your "Green" Marine Product Idea To The Next Level

The annual West Marine Green Product of the Year competition is free and open to individuals, manufacturers, distributors, and/ or inventors of boating products that promote sustainable innovation. Entries accepted until November 23. For info,


The Innovators – The Second Age Of Sail


Lane Briggs originally put sails on his tugboat because he wanted to go to a party. It was in 1975, and Briggs, the owner of Rebel Marine in Norfolk, Virginia, was hosting a sailing regatta. Someone pointed out that his tug didn't qualify him to attend his own party. Sails rigged, party attended, problem solved. Later, he tried the idea out for real, and it actually worked. In just the right conditions, sails added about 1.6 knots to his speed and cut down on the amount of fuel he used. He commissioned a new tug with a gaff schooner rig, called it the Norfolk Rebel, and Briggs' "tugantine" set sail in May of 1980. An analysis by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science found that the Rebel saved 20 to 30 percent of its fuel when its sails were set. Lane Briggs passed away in 2005, and his son runs the Norfolk Rebel now. The idea that started as a joke, however, is being taken seriously by some big players in the shipping world.

People who want to transport cargo under sail tend to be dreamers. The idea of a port lined with tall ships unloading cargo may capture the imagination, but it doesn’t necessarily inspire the opening of wallets. Recent forays into trailing-edge technology include a shipment of coffee bound for Texas and the El Lago Coffee Company aboard the 47-foot aluminum ketch RedCloud. The ship sank with her cargo in January 2008 and the crew was rescued by Coast Guard helicopter. The coffee company says they're raising money to try again.

Photo of parasailing

The 2011 maiden voyage of Mast Brothers Chocolate, of Brooklyn, New York, was more successful. The artisan chocolatiers brought a year's supply of cocoa from the Dominican Republic to New York City. Their vessel — the three-masted, 70-foot schooner Black Seal — was captained by an Alaska harbor pilot who built the boat himself in his Cape Cod backyard. The voyage saved on fuel, but the Wall Street Journal reported that Mast Brothers spent an estimated 25 to 30 percent more than usual on the overall shipment. Mast Brothers' Derek Herbster says, "We are talking about another sailing trip. It is just a matter of when we can make it happen."

At $9 a bar, Mast Brother's chocolate is a luxury item. If it takes a little longer to arrive, or costs a bit more, they can chalk it up to their do-everything artisan philosophy. For everyday goods, the kind that make up the overwhelming majority of cargo, that isn't practical. There's a race on, though, to develop new ways of harnessing the wind that don't require large crews, but still save on fuel.

Sky Sails, a German company, has already introduced its namesake product — a parachute-like kite that tethers to the bow of a ship. It doesn't need the complicated masts and rigging of a full-rigged ship, and it doesn’t cause boats to heel over, so it works with existing hull shapes. The kite is controlled, launched, and recovered from an electronic panel, and flies between 300 and 1,000 feet above the water to take advantage of stronger winds.

Beluga Skysails, a 433-foot cargo ship, was the first vessel built to take advantage of the new kites. Launched in 2008, the vessel can reportedly save 10 to 15 percent of fuel costs, using a 1,722-square-foot kite. The U.S. has taken notice of the project, chartering the Beluga for the Military Sealift Command; shipper DHL has also used the kite-equipped boat. Swiss agricultural giant Cargill announced last year that it will retrofit the sail to an existing boat between 25,000 and 30,000 tons, making it the world's largest kite-propelled vessel. On the opposite end of the scale, Skysails has partnered with another German company, SolarWaterWorld, to bring the sails to the recreational market. SolarWaterWorld says they expect a prototype of a zero-emission yacht (using kite and solar power) by the end of this year, with production starting in 2013.

Kite sails may be furthest along, but other companies have plans for adding sails to cargo ships. Wallenius Wilhelmsen's Orcelle is a solar/wind-powered concept ship designed in 2005. Its "sails" are rotating towers made of carbon fiber and covered with solar panels. The company has no plans to build the ship, but hopes that some of the ideas will eventually be used, and has established an Orcelle grant for green shipping innovations.

A British company, B9 Shipping, does plan to build its concept vessel. It uses computer-controlled square sails set on three masts. The sails are stored inside the masts, and can be struck quickly, in case of sudden squalls, but lack the complicated running rigging of a traditional sailboat, keeping decks clear for cargo. The system was designed by a German engineer in the 1960s and was used by the 289-foot megayacht Maltese Falcon. Research and testing are underway on the B9 ship's rig and hull.

Of course, it's possible to transport things under sail without designing or building anything at all. The Salish Sea Trading Cooperative runs cargo between Seattle and Port Ludlow, across the Puget Sound with four sailboats, such as owner Dave Reid's 27-foot TK and a Catalina 34 for longer runs. They ferry produce from small farms to market, as part of a community-supported agriculture program. Reid's sailboat has no engine, reducing the fuel consumption to zero for their twice-monthly trips.

Salish may be upsizing, though. In June, co-founder Kathy Pelish told the Seattle Weekly that they were outgrowing the small boats they'd been using, and added, "We'd like to get two small schooners built for us."