"Glass bridge? Nah...been there, done that!" That's George Wallner surprising me as we tour his splendid and almost-finished 94-foot Electra. I'm already intrigued.
It isn't just that Wallner has made electronics his vocation and avocation since childhood—hence the yacht's name—and founded a company that built millions of must-not-fail credit card terminals (hence the yacht). He's also an ardent boater who's already cruised an Electra-like 90-footer almost a hundred days a year for a decade, often serving as his own skipper and often venturing into gnarly Caribbean waters in pursuit of first-rate diving. While he tweaked many of Tumblehome's systems over those years, Electra, also built in Maine by Lyman-Morse, was his chance to start from scratch. And, wow, did he!
Now, Electra's upper and lower helms do each actually sport a little glass, specifically twin 15-inch VEI monitors able to flexibly display the outputs of a VEI Marci computer running Nobeltec Admiral charting and/or a Furuno black-box radar, plus various cameras including a mast-mounted FLIR Mariner thermal unit. It's a pretty standard high-end setup, though quite modest for a boat this high end. There's no dramatic three-, five-, or seven-screen array, and there's certainly no PC-based monitoring system running on the backup Marci, let alone a touch-screen distributed-power scheme, both items a marine-electronics aficionado like me might consider, if he could.
Wallner, you see, does not fully trust computers and software when it comes to his yacht's critical systems. There is a backup Northstar 6100i radar/plotter at each helm. He tried a full glass-bridge setup on Tumblehome—"fuel-transfer-pump controls and all," he reports, adding, "I used to have 250 software engineers working for me; I know what can go wrong!" He does very much like the distributed-power concept—mainly the ability to control everything from the pilothouse—but he put together a system that minimizes software. Thus, while his engine-room A.C. panel combines traditional breakers with solid-state relays, and D.C. panels around the boat use electronic combo switch/breakers, Wallner had individual wire pairs run from each switch to the bridge, rather than use a common bus to manage them all. It was labor-intensive, he admits, but the results are easy to troubleshoot and lack a single point of failure, plus there's no code. "I'm not saying a bus can't do the job; I'm saying a bus can't do it reliably yet," he explains.
Wallner's almost-antidigital bias runs deeper. He's even avoided microprocessors in most of the discrete subsystems that all those little switch wires lead to, i.e. the awesome set of custom panels extending across the pilothouse overhead. Yet they perform many of the sophisticated multistep tasks—automatically transferring fuel, say, or shedding/adding A.C. loads properly as a single switch changes the source from shore to generator tasks—that usually rely on some serious digital horsepower, if they're automated at all. Wallner can wax eloquent about how he used super-reliable industrial analog components to make all this work, and he returned from a month's trial/pleasure cruise delighted by how rarely he and his crew had to go down to the engine room. There's much more to this topic, but I must note that anyone hoping to duplicate Electra's control systems faces a serious impediment. Wallner essentially built the panels himself, along with some helpers in a little shop behind his Biscayne Bay, Florida, home, and has no interest in starting another company. Who would, when what's possibly the world's most luxurious and reliable dive boat is waiting at your dock?
Maybe some marine manufacturing company will emulate Wallner's devotion to simple yet powerful subsystems, and he may be willing to advise. But in the meantime other elements of Electra's systems are more immediately useful. Consider some of Wallner's electrical equipment choices, which stem from his contention that there are but two ways to build truly reliable electronics: large volume or high cost, either of which he thinks are challenging to the small, fragmented marine world. Thus he likes to shop for gear that, for instance, a cellphone company counts on to power a remote transmitter tower, which is how he found the impressive TDI inverters that he showing off at right.
Since Wallner likes to anchor out quietly, Electra has six of these rack-mounted 1-kVa inverters, which automatically run in parallel and which can be swapped out simply by yanking on the handle, as he's demonstrating in the photo at right. Not that failures will be common, as these units rate a Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) of more than 900,000 hours. The six modules to the right (four more coming) are 1,200-watt 24-volt D.C. to D.C. converters, unusual on any boat, but another power facet Wallner is adamant about. He reports that Tumblehome was plagued by D.C. problems like short-lived halogen bulbs, hot motors, and supposedly smart chargers gone haywire due to variable battery loads. That is until he routed those loads through converters like these TDI units; the problems vanished once everything was on stable, regulated voltage instead of direct output from the battery banks, which can vary almost 20 percent.
After much Wallner discourse on nuances like these, it dawned on me that he understands electricity as completely as a superb chef I know understands his basic ingredients—the science, the mechanics, the gut feel. When he explained, for instance, the right and wrong way to vary the speed of Electra's big A.C. air-handling motors, it was like learning to brown, not burn, butter. I've got a long way to go in both these fields, but for Wallner the goings-on inside a motor are as second nature as the chef's saucepan. That's why I'm going to keep bumming rides on Electra's test runs until she's gone south, and I'll also be covering more bits of Wallner wisdom on my blog Panbo.
But I don't want to close without acknowledging that, as elaborately electronic as Electra is, Wallner puts good boat sense above all. The evidence is that pilothouse shown below. Trial-run messy as it was, I found it the most righteously ergonomic big-boat helm I've ever dreamed the dream at. Note the huge view; the electronics at hand, but not in the way; and how the jog stick—no wheel—means that little shelf is just right to prop your tootsies on when the going is groovy. Perfect!
And one final thought, this along the lines of that old saying "write what you know." It may be trite, but it works. I think that George Wallner has designed his lifelong E.E. experience into Electra, with fascinating results. But recently I met (and will eventually profile) a successful software engineer whose beloved yacht is full of...software. There is more than one way to skin the electronics cat.
What's this about a glitch in the WAAS GPS correction system?—P. L., via e-mail
In July the Federal Aviation Administration stopped using two veteran satellites in the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), leaving two relatively new satellites to broadcast correction signals over the North American waters where they apply. Surprisingly some WAAS-capable GPS receivers, even some brand-new brand-name marine models, could not make this change gracefully. It's hard to know which models can now utilize WAAS and which can't; the new Garmin 545 (see screenshot above) and a five-year-old Magellan Meridian handheld do, but a new Raymarine A60 does not. My testing, detailed on my blog, also revealed the confusingly different methods manufacturers use to indicate WAAS use, satellites received, and presumed accuracy. If you're trying to test your own GPS, the only WAAS satellite that is now usually received in the Northeast is 51, sometimes called 138; the other one is 45 or 135 and should be visible with 51 over most U.S. waters.
My testing also suggested how good GPS has gotten even without WAAS. That A60, for instance, often locks in eight or more satellites and seems to fix a position that's more accurate than our charts are. I know Raymarine and other manufacturers are working on software fixes to make WAAS usable again, but I wouldn't be too worried about it. However, do worry about how reliable GPS is these days! Few of us have experienced a real failure, and some plotters and charting programs don't alarm failure that well. Have you tested yours? Stick a coffee can or steel pot over your GPS antenna and see what happens. And, of course, never completely trust any one source of navigation information.
This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.