Captain's Tips

Get the Latest Scoop on Boat Monitoring Systems

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October 2021
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By
Bob
Arrington

When we last visited the subject of remote boat monitoring, it was an emerging technology with young innovative companies developing smart phone apps that informed you if your boat's battery died or a bilge pump came on when you were away from the boat. Today, those startups have matured into sophisticated technology companies, offering a range of services to help manage and monitor your boat.

Siren Marine - captain's tips - marinalife
Siren Marine

These companies began their businesses from different starting points. Some technology companies adapted their products to boats. A few were boaters who saw a need based on their boating experience and developed products to address that need. The differences show up in some of their application programs and ease of use for the boat owner.

All the systems generally follow the same concept, using a series of sensors or actuators connected to a hub or base station. The hub then communicates the sensor's information through a Wi-Fi, cellular or satellite network to an app installed on a smart phone or tablet.

When selecting a monitoring system, first consider what method of communication best suits your needs. If your boat stays in a modern marina with a stable Wi-Fi, a system that communicates over a Wi-Fi network may be acceptable. The downside to Wi-Fi-only systems is their need to use a mobile hotspot or other means of connecting to a data network to report a problem when you're away from a marina.

If you travel aboard your boat to remote locations or internationally, a system that communicates over cellular or satellite networks may be more reliable. Be mindful of differences in cellular network equipment: some work great in the United States and Canada but may not work elsewhere in the world. Look for cellular networks that work over a wide area. It's best to know where you will be cruising before selecting.

The costs also vary with the system type, with Wi-Fi being the least expensive, then cellular and satellite typically the most expensive. When selecting a system that uses a cellular network to send notifications, it is also helpful to know which generation technology is used: 3G, 4G or the growing 5G. We are accustomed to 4G networks being the norm for voice communication, but many systems still transmit data using older 3G technology, which in parts of the country is being eliminated from cellular towers. This can affect how well the unit will work in different coverage areas as you travel.

Many of the systems require ongoing fees or subscriptions to stay active. If the system you choose has a subscription, verify if you are entering an annual contract as part of the agreement. If your boat is hauled out during part of the year, it may be better to find a system that allows monthly terms or the option to suspend the service during the haul-out period.

Method of Linking Components

All systems work on a sensor and hub network. Individual sensors monitor specific information such as battery voltage, integrity of shore power connection or bilge pump activity. Systems use either hard-wired or wireless sensors. The wireless systems are easier to install, but also may have some limitations. For example, there is a maximum distance the sensors can be from the hub, in some cases as little as 30 feet. If your boat is very large, it may require more than one hub.

The early wireless systems used either Bluetooth or ultra-high frequency radio waves as the link between the sensors and hub. The connections were generally stable; however, it's not uncommon to have interference from materials or other electronics on board. Today, industry-leading companies use an LTE Category-M communication protocol, which allows high volumes of IoT data to be transmitted at lower rates of power. The latest version of wireless sensors also uses a more reliable advanced sub-gigahertz network.

Matching Hardware to Application

Knowing which components you want to monitor or control may help you decide on one brand over another. Some systems come prepackaged in a kit form with a few specific sensors and a hub unit. For small boats, this may suit your needs perfectly. A prepackaged arrangement may be inadequate for larger or more complex boats.

Sentinel Marine - captain's tips - marinalife
Sentinel Marine | sentinelmarine.com

An a-la-carte capability to tailor the system to your vessel may be a better choice. All systems can monitor battery voltage, but if you have multiple battery systems or engine-start batteries of 12 volts and a 24-volt house bank, you'll need a system that can monitor those independently.

Some systems enable a video feed from onboard cameras; some do not. Not all manufactures' systems allow device control, such as turning on or off the air conditioning or lighting. Consult system capabilities if device control is a feature you intend to use.

Method of Communication

The method of communicating varies among the systems. Some send notifications through an app on your smart device. Some systems send SMS text messages; others use email or a combination of both. A helpful feature on certain systems requires the boat owner to acknowledge the notice or it will send a repeat message or a notice by a different method.

The more advanced systems are also monitored by a central station like a land-based alarm company. If the notice isn't acknowledged, the station operator will attempt to locate the boat owner. A few of the companies offer web-based computer access to your hub if you are away from a cellular connection. Lastly, look for systems that allow more than one person to be contacted.

Theft Deterrence & GPS Tracking

One of the most valuable features of remote monitoring systems is theft deterrence. With this feature, when the system is set, alarms and lights can be programmed to come on when an intruder attempts entry. More advanced systems prevent engines from starting when activated. If the boat were to be moved, the systems provide GPS tracking to locate it.

An added benefit to all these features is a possible reduction in insurance premiums. The GPS tracking feature on some systems can also allow family and friends to follow along on your travels.

Ability to Update

Make sure the system can easily accept firmware or software updates over the Internet and does not require the components to be returned to the manufacturer to install updates.

Remote monitoring technology is advancing rapidly. New features are introduced at boat shows every year, providing more ability to monitor and control boats when life takes you away from your favorite pastime.

Monitoring Technology Manufacturers

Across Ocean Systems

acrossoceansystems.com/index.php/products

Boat Command

boatcommand.com

BoatFix

boatfix.com

Gost Global

gostglobal.com

Sentinel Marine

sentinelmarine.net

Siren Marine

sirenmarine.com

Yacht Brain

yachtbrain.com

Y

acht Protector

yachtprotector.com

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The best plan is to have a dedicated mate to act as a lookout; one that is willing to join the party once the boat is safely anchored or tied to the dock. Or conversely, have a mate tend to guests while you focus on driving the boat. I give our guests the same speech each time we go out, "Please forgive me if I don't pay much attention to you while we're underway. The waterway will be busy today, so I'm going to pay attention to the boat. If you see, hear or smell anything on board or around us that doesn't seem right, please don't hesitate to let me know. Now, sit back and enjoy the ride."

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On longer runs, captains may have to turn over the helm to a mate for a break. In doing so, make sure you communicate everything you know when handing over the helm. Don't assume the person taking over sees the navigation aids ahead. If in the ICW, remind them what side the reds are on for this stretch of water. Alert them to any other vessels you're tracking. If you made an adjustment to your speed to conduct a safe passing arrangement with another boat, it could be dangerous for them to take over the helm and ask themselves "Why are we going so slowly?" and resume a normal cruising speed.

When most boaters free their lines and head for open water, they do so in a mild state of denial, an innocent but dangerous unwillingness to admit something could go wrong. Staying safe is more than just having the proper safety equipment aboard your boat, it is a state of mind to make the conscious effort to act in a safe manner, keep a look out for trouble and be unwilling to become a boating accident statistic.

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