Captain's Tips

Monitoring Systems - Early detection takes stress out of your travels

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January 2020
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By
Bob
Arrington

Modern marine engines have come a long way from the sputtering, oil-dripping beasts they used to be. Electrical systems with smart chargers, inverters and advanced sealed batteries are light years ahead of the leaky blocks of energy that used to start our engines and power our coffee makers. Today is the age of Monitoring Systems.

Despite improvements, items still wear, and parts break down. The challenge for vigilant boaters is to monitor a vessel's systems in a measurable way, so you know something is wrong before getting stuck at the pier on a beautiful weekend morning or calling for a tow when you're broken-down and adrift.

Early detection is the key to keeping small problems from becoming catastrophic aboard a boat. It's one of the reasons engine room checks are an important habit. Performing engine room checks while underway helps find small problems before they grow into larger ones, potentially causing serious damage.

Most problems aboard a boat are the culmination of a series of events. The alarm indicating an engine over heated began with a failing alternator, which caused it to over heat, which caused the alternator bearing to seize, which stopped the alternator from spinning, which caused the serpentine belt to break, which stopped the sea water pump, which ultimately made the engine overheat. Had you known early enough that the alternator was failing, you could have prevented the rest.

The Heat Is On

Your body has a normal temperature, and when you're sick you may run a high fever. Many components on your boat are the same. Knowing items' normal operating temperature will help you monitor performance. Alternators, hydraulic systems, transmissions, battery chargers and

Temperature Monitoring | Monitoring Systems | Marinalife

pumps are a few of the items whose temperatures can be monitored with a small handheld infrared temperature gun, which are inexpensive and readily available. I consider those so important to our boat's operations that I keep an extra in the spares kit.

Regular engine room checks with an infrared temperature gun can uncover many problems before they turn into large ones. It's best to develop a list of items to monitor in the engine room and perform them in the same order every time. You should do the first engine room check within the first 30 minutes to one hour after getting underway. This gives everything in the engine room the opportunity to come up to normal operating temperature and the chance to discover problems before you're miles offshore or while it's still easy to return to your marina.

On long runs, repeat checks on a regular basis through the entire trip. Some engine rooms are easier to access while underway than others. If you don't have a walk-in engine room, one of the advantages of the infrared temperature gun is that you can read the temperature of important items just from lifting a hatch. Always make sure you follow safe engine room practices, such as wearing hearing protection and removing loose clothing or sunglasses when near a running engine.

From the Engine Room to the Helm

The next level of performance is to bring as much of this engine room information as possible to the helm. In doing so, your systems' status does not solely depend on engine room checks. Large yachts and commercial vessels often have sensors permanently attached to critical components. These sensors send information to a display at the helm, programmed with alarm parameters, and give early notification of a problem. Several manufacturers have introduced similar systems for easy and economical installation on small and medium recreational boats.

The big benefit of these centralized monitoring and alarm systems is that you can easily configure them to suit a specific boat. From the temperature of a bearing to the cycle times of bilge pumps, the systems monitor a vessel's critical components and alert you when any piece of monitored equipment is outside its defined running parameters.

The systems allow you to set early warning signals at thresholds relevant to the specific equipment that needs monitoring. This improves alarms' accuracy and avoids nuisance notifications. When an alarm is activated, the unit at the helm will accurately pinpoint exactly what the alarm pertains to, and you can take corrective action immediately, with no wasted downtime trying to identify the problem.

Research the systems available carefully to select a system best suited to your boat. Some only operate on the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) network aboard a boat. More versatile systems are designed to also operate without a NEMA network by having analog and digital inputs allowing direct connections to sensors. These systems allow for installation on older or smaller vessels without a NEMA network but can also be coupled with a NEMA network to enhancethe installation.

Beyond monitoring engine data, many systems allow complete monitoring of all aspects of your boat's operation including navigation lights, fuel levels, battery voltage and DC charging systems. A critical piece easy to monitor with a helm-based system is coolant water flow. Most power vessels would destroy a sea water impeller and possibly even the sea water pump if they sucked up a plastic bag or otherwise blocked an engine coolant thru-hull. A simply installed water flow sensor would immediately sense a loss of water flow, potentially saving the impeller, pump and an over heated engine.

Who hasn't pulled anchor in the morning and run through the day, only to realize later that the anchor light stayed on all day? With multiple fuel tanks on many boats, more sophisticated systems allow you to total all the fuel and provide a single read-out of available reserves. You can program cycle times into many units to notify you if a bilge pump comes on more frequently than normal. Shore power can be monitored for voltage drops, giving a warning before sensitive equipment is damaged.

Helm-based monitoring systems offer an early warning that can prevent an otherwise simple problem from resulting in an expensive repair, downtime and the lost enjoyment of your boat. Voyages are more enjoyable knowing you are prepared to handle small problems when they arise. Protect your investment and the safety of those on board with a complete monitoring protocol for your boat.

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Making Your List and Checking It Twice
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Frequent analogies are made between piloting an aircraft and piloting a boat. Both require similar skills and place you at the mercy of the elements in a medium that's foreign to our bodies. Granted, being suspended in the air may be a tad more precarious than floating on the water, but when the downward spiral of a problem begins in either setting, it typically doesn't end well. For this reason, an aircraft pilot wouldn't dream of taking off without performing a pre-flight checklist. Boating is safer when using checklists, too.

boat row - captain's tips - marinalife
Courtesy of Lukas on Pexels

The concept of a pre-flight checklist was developed following the fatal crash of a test flight in 1935. Leading up to WWII, the U.S. Army Air Corps was looking for a new bomber to meet the demanding needs of long distant flights with heavy payloads. U.S. aircraft company, Boeing, submitted a new plane model for the Army to consider. The Army agreed to try it and scheduled a test flight to see how it would perform.Flying the plane that day were two highly experienced Army pilots, Boeing's chief test pilot, along with a Boeing mechanic and a representative of the engine manufacturer. After takeoff the plane began to climb, but suddenly pitched up, stalled and crashed into a ball of fire upon impact. All on board were initially rescued, but both pilots died from injuries sustained in the crash.The accident investigation determined that before takeoff, the pilots overlooked a safety lock on the elevator and rudder controls, which kept them from controlling the plane's pitch or attitude. Following the accident, a newspaper stated that the Boeing plane was just too much plane for one man to fly.Fortunately, this was not the end of the story, but the beginning of a life-saving idea that would transform how highly complex systems can be operated by average people. Out of this tragedy came the simple and effective concept of the pilot's pre-departure checklist. Time would prove the Boeing plane was not too much for one person, but just too much for one person's memory. Using a simple checklist on future flights would ensure that important steps required prior to takeoff were not forgotten.Checklists were developed for more and more parts of a flight, for emergency situations as well as more routine situations. NASA adopted the use of checklists for almost every part of the Gemini and Apollo space missions, and all astronauts were trained in how to use them. Astronauts logged hundreds of hours familiarizing themselves with and learning how to use these checklists. In fact, checklists were so important to the success of the Apollo moon landings that astronaut Michael Collins called them The fourth crew member.

Safety from the Skies to the Seas

Aboard our boat, we have several checklists for different applications. For example, we've found it useful to have two pre-departure checklists: one for leaving a marina and another for leaving an anchorage or mooring.Preparing for each is different enough that having a specific list for the different situations ensures that everything is safe to get underway.A checklist is also one of the best ways to manage your boat maintenance and personal safety. When your boat breaks down out in open water, you become vulnerable to additional problems.Reminder and to-do apps popular on smart devices today are a great platform for building a list of regularly scheduled maintenance tasks. The apps allow you to set a date to inspect items like fire extinguishers, or when engine fluids or anodes need to be changed. Using apps with reminders set, relieves you from having to remember critical items that need attention. They also have a notes section where you can record engine hours of the last change and numbers for any parts used in the process.

boat - captain's tips - marinalife
Courtesy of Dan Prat

Checklists are most useful for regularly reoccurring tasks, ones we believe we do so often we've memorized them tasks like starting your boat and leaving the marina. Therein lies the problem: It's easy to become complacent with reoccurring tasks and believe you've done this so many times you don't need reminders of how to do it.For most people, life is busy, so it's easy to get distracted while going through a task. I've seen it happen on many occasions the ever-present phone rings or a boat neighbor asks a question as you're preparing to get underway and the next thing you know you're pulling out with the shore power cord still connected. Before we started making checklists a habit, I was occasionally upset by a boat passing close by, without calling us on the VHF radio, only to realize I'd forgotten to turn it on.Checklists are also important when multiple people are involved in the same process, so we use checklists for departing from the boat as well. More than once on our Sunday drive home from the boat, we looked at each other and asked, did you take out the trash or did you turn off the propane? Using a boat departure checklist makes sure important items don't get missed and you don't assume the other turned off the water pump breaker or turned on the battery charger.Using checklists also has unforeseen benefits: The more you follow them, the more you benefit. The more you follow a routine process in the same order, the more you understand its faults and failings, allowing you to make improvements.It's easy to see the benefit when developing a checklist and when you first begin using them, but the real benefit comes into play when you continue using them even though you feel like you don't have to anymore. That's when they keep you from forgetting something important.

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Boat Towing Services
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The best advice I ever received about boating was from a salty old captain years ago. He said, "Safe boating is simple: keep the water out of the boat, keep the boat off the bottom, and everything else can be worked out." Truer words were never spoken, but despite their best efforts, boaters fail at one or both on a regular basis.For this reason, we are fortunate to have access to professional towing services, covering most recreational boating waters in this country. Whether boating in the ocean near shore, or in most large inland lakes and rivers, assistance on the water is just a VHF radio or phone call away.

boat towing - captain's tips - marinalife
Courtesy of Dori Arrington

Two national entities Sea Tow and TowBoatU.S., along with a few smaller regional companies make up a network of towing operators ready to help you on the water during a boating mishap. Towing service is not inexpensive, with the cost of a response averaging $1,000. That's why most boaters take advantage of the annual membership programs these companies offer, where the cost of service is covered by their membership plan.

I absolutely recommend membership in one or both national companies. While Sea Tow and TowBoatU.S. have boats in most popular boating destinations, neither covers all areas. Having a membership with both assures you can access help in most locations. In joining, it is important to know what you're getting in return for your membership fee, what the service covers, and maybe more importantly, what it doesn't cover.

Although commonly referred to as such, a membership with a towing service is not insurance. Towing services offer no coverage for loss of your boat or boating equipment, nor do they cover personal injury or any sort of liability. Within the terms of their membership agreement, both national companies provide similar services to their members. While each differs slightly in what they provide, the basics they both offer are towing, fuel, jump starts for dead batteries and delivery of easily accessed basic parts for a mechanical breakdown.

It is important to understand having a membership is not a promise of rescue and is restricted to the services that can be provided by the equipment available in the specific area at the time of need. Each individual towing operator is an independent business, which provide services under an agreement with or as a franchisee of the national company. Their equipment could vary from small single engine center-consoles to medium sized commercial RIBs, or in some areas large offshore vessels.

For offshore assistance, all towing companies have limits on how far they can go to offer assistance, but it varies. In Sea Tow's case, they state: We do not have specific offshore distance limits. How far offshore Sea Tow will go to get you is only limited by the sea conditions, fuel capacity of our boats and our ability to communicate with you. If, for any reason, Sea Tow cannot respond, we will assist in arranging for an alternate provider and provide reimbursement up to $5,000 per incident. In most cases, if we are unable to respond no other commercial assistance provider will be able to either, so we will defer to the U.S. Coast Guard.

If you frequently boat offshore, know how you will communicate with the towing providers. In practicality, the offshore range they are capable of reaching could be up to 30 or 40 nautical miles from the towing company's base. Keep in mind this could be out of mobile phone or VHF radio range. It will do you no good if they can help you, but you can't reach them. Ask if the towing provider in your area can communicate with a satellite texting device like a Garmin inReach or a satellite phone.Occasionally a dispute between towing operators and boaters arises over the thorny issue of whether you simply needed a tow or whether the assistance is considered salvage. Both national towing services attempt to describe the difference in their agreement; however, despite their best efforts, it can still be highly subjective. If it is considered salvage, the terms of the assistance changes dramatically.

Your towing provider will likely ask a lot of questions before dispatching a boat in order to arrive properly prepared to assist. However, they cannot know the exact degree of assistance needed until they actually arrive on the scene and assess the situation. When they arrive to offer help, always ask the towboat captain if this is a tow or salvage operation. The difference in the cost and who pays the bill could be substantial.

Given the potential for subjectivity between towing and salvage, it is imperative that you know the nature of the assistance you're receiving. Salvage is historically and more importantly legally defined as the rescue of a boat from a peril at sea.

Sea Tow | Marinalife
Sea Tow | Marinalife

The definition of peril may take many forms. Typically, a marine peril involves a dangerous situation at sea, wherein a vessel may incur damage if it is left to the forces of wind, waves, weather and tide without prompt assistance. Any number of simple boating mishaps can quickly descend into peril if left unaddressed. What may have been a soft grounding on a sand bar can quickly become a salvage operation, with an ebbing tide and slight shift of the wind.

Marine salvage laws have existed for centuries. They were derived to incentivize salvors to come to the assistance of vessels in distress, thereby saving the loss of property and possibly life. Marine salvage laws date back to a time when most vessels at sea were commercial and have changed little with the growth of recreational boating.

Many boaters believe salvage laws do not apply to them and think salvage only applies to big ships, not their 33-foot express cruiser. Marine salvage laws apply to every vessel upon navigable waters, from a kayak to a 600-foot container ship. They are not limited to only vessels engaged in commerce. This opens all recreational vessels to claims for salvage rewards.

When selecting a towing provider, read and understand the terms you are agreeing to for dispute resolution. Many towing providers will ask the boat owner to sign a contract before towing. In signing these contracts, you may be agreeing to some form of binding arbitration, which is intended to provide for a quick determination of the appropriate amount of the salvage reward. You may also be acknowledging that the services provided will form the basis of a salvage claim, where the salvor could be entitled to a lien upon your boat in the amount of the claim.

Too frequently boaters discover the difference between towing and salvage when presented with a bill for something they believed was covered under a membership plan. Boaters also must be careful when accepting assistance from a passing boater. It is not necessary for a salvor to be a professional towing company. If you accept assistance from a passing boater, they may have the right to claim a salvage reward; legally these are referred to as chance salvors.

Assistance to boaters is offered regularly without any extraordinary needs or costs, but exceptions occur often enough. Read and understand the terms of service offered by your towing provider. The national companies offer excellent service within the terms of their agreements and individual towboat captains do their best to assist boaters for the least cost; however, sometimes assistance truly deserves to be salvage. Always protect yourself by knowing which you are receiving before you connect a towing company's line to your boat.

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Get the Latest Scoop on Boat Monitoring Systems
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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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