|Building a Boat Brain|
The Sea Ray Navigator may change the way boaters pilot boats and engineers develop marine electronics.
By Ben Ellison — March 2002
Bosun’s Mate Greg Allain handled the 27-foot Coast Guard utility boat with cool expertise, skipping over the lumpy remnants of hurricane Olga at 35 knots. The hits telegraphing directly through the welded-aluminum hull were very close to painful, but my two fellow passengers were grinning broadly. We were taking this licking off Cape Canaveral to see if a remarkable new device called the Sea Ray Navigator (SRN) would keep on ticking, and it did. EchoFlight systems vice president Rob Knapp and Maptech development team leader Talbot Pratt had already spent more months than planned struggling to realize this radical vision of a central boat computer, and the personal discomfort was minor compared to their pride and pleasure watching the SRN stand up to this bone-jarring step in Sea Ray’s rigorous testing process.
At first glance, the Navigator looks like yet another chartplotter or marine PC monitor, but actually it’s both and more. The vision is a deeply integrated "boat brain" that can bring the advantages of the megayacht "integrated bridge" to medium-size vessels and go further by integrating a marine electronics package into a whole line of boats, factory floor to water. The result is a dedicated Windows-running computer built like a brick you-know-what, loaded with specially designed software, and bristling with connectivity.
The first thing you’ll notice is the touch-screen interface. Here Windows itself is invisible; instead the dedicated screens have a curvaceous and decorative style that says "Sea Ray." Second, it’s quickly evident that the software was carefully designed to work with a blunt-finger pointer, unlike some optional touch screens I’ve tried. (The auxiliary "joystick mouse" is useful for times, like during our test, when your hand wants to stay in one place.)
After the initial delight of dragging a chart around the high-bright screen with a fingertip, you’ll find a rare blend of PC power and plotter simplicity. Developer Maptech has been creating PC charting software (and data) for years but started this project with a blank sheet. Pratt says the design mantra was "more features, less complexity," and their success is apparent. All the fancy stuff–photo maps, contour charts, pilot books, infinite routes, etc.–is on (finger) tap, but it’s near impossible to get lost in menu thickets. Pleasantly missing are all the setup screens common to PC programs, which come up when PCs must recognize and adapt to a wide variety of hardware. I imagine the programmers also appreciated designing for a unified hardware package and were better able to focus on user features like the nifty "look ahead" data window, which projects a single contour along the heading line, even issuing alarms if it sees a user-configured danger depth ahead.
This article originally appeared in the February 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.