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A Boat That Thinks

Machine intelligence is cool, right? But, what if your boat gets so smart she decides to cruise alone?

It certainly was a big day in Gothenburg, Sweden. Abaft the boat I was standing upon—a 68-foot Azimut with an almost unnoticeable little sensor mounted under the hardtop overhang—there were literally thousands of spectators gathered, with the Swedish queen and maybe a princess or two (reportedly, the Swedish royals are into boats) crammed in amongst them. Cheers and Swedish flags flew. A benign cerulean sky swept across the firmament. And well off the Azimut’s starboard quarter, an empty slip beckoned, flanked on either side by a Volvo Ocean 65 racing sailboat, each of them a high-tech, carbon-infused wonder worth somewhere north of five or six million simoleons.

200w-Kent-Barton-POPEYE Bill Spot Art

Now, granted, a few of the folks on the scene had shown up to check out the afternoon’s semi-coastal festivities wherein seven speed-demon 65s would race each other as part of the famed Volvo Ocean Race, an around-the-world extravaganza that would soon conclude in the Netherlands. But on the other hand, lots of folks had no doubt come down to see the self-docking Azimut exclusively. It’s a pretty dramatic deal, after all, when a 68-foot powerboat backs into a narrow slot between two multi-million-dollar sailing yachts, with only a computer at the helm.

“You gotta be kiddin,” I remember thinking to myself when I looked over the shoulder of the Azimut’s captain, who was standing by just in case. He was eased back at the helm in the look-Ma-no-hands mode, eyeballing an iPad screen on the dashboard. At the top it said “Easy Docking,” Volvo Penta’s name for its still-experimental self-docking system; then a tad further down “In Catch Zone,” a notification that the boat’s sensor was within range of the four sensors installed at the four corners of the target slip; and then still further down, “Activation Possible,” a slightly scary, albeit tempting advisement.

All it took was a finger tap and va-va-vooom! The Azimut began backing down while rotating slowly, with her twin IPS drives evincing what seemed like an extra-human level of maneuvering delicacy. Then, with her swim platform sniffing the mouth of the slip, the big boat stopped, holding station in a perfect lineup despite a sporty, 15-knot crosswind, while a couple of Volvo guys prepared the fenders and lines. Once all was in readiness and the guys had returned to the cockpit, another finger tap sent the boat easing farther astern, all the way into the slip, where she again held station while a leisurely tie-up took place.

“Va coolt,” commented a young Swede with a TV camera standing behind me; meaning, I guess, that what we’d all just witnessed was an exceptionally cool thing.

“Va coolt,” I agreed, turning around while exercising and emphasizing my one and only Swedishism.

Of course, the guy was right. The virtues of a self-docking watercraft are fairly obvious I’d say, particularly if marinas and boatyards with self-docking sensors begin to proliferate, as Volvo Penta thinks they eventually will if Easy Docking goes mainstream over the next few years. After all, what’s wrong with taking a pass on a late-afternoon back-down now and again, especially if wind and current are against you and you’re tired out from a day on the water? And what’s so bad about having an alternate (albeit computerized) skipper on board, for safety’s sake or in case of emergencies? An extra hand never hurts, I always say.

But then again, you also gotta wonder. What happens to a guy’s prized boathandling skills if he only uses them under benign conditions? And what are the chances that neophytes are going to really bother to get good enough to truly enjoy their boathandling if an easy out is just a finger tap away? And finally, although I’m kiddin’ here (I suppose), what happens if your boat one day just decides to crank herself up and take off without you?

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.