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How Do Sailors Use Electronics?

Mind the Boom

What could sailors teach powerboaters about using Electronics?

B&G’s Zeus Touch

The laylines on B&G’s Zeus Touch show on the chart in red and green.

In these pages we often reference commercial mariners for their best practices at sea. After all, these guys have to make voyages in less-than-ideal conditions and have spent enough time on the water to have probably seen it all, many times over, and if they haven’t then they’ve shared a watch with someone who has.

Indeed the electronics that we have on our boats today got their start in either commercial or military applications, or both. All of it, from chartplotters and VHFs, to bottom machines and radar, to engine-monitoring systems and thermal imaging, began in service on ships and trickled down into recreational use. Which is all well and good as the lessons learned by the commercial and military guys can very easily apply to the needs of the recreational boater regarding safety and smart reliance on equipment. (As well as ways around it: Check out Capt. Bill Pike’s feature “What Next?” here).

Yet there’s another kind of enthusiast out there that today’s powerboater can learn from as well. I’m talking about sailors. Now many of you may stroke your finger across your iPad screen or flip the page to New Electronics in the printed version of this magazine after reading that sentence, but trust me—sailors aren’t that different from you and me, if you really think about it. 

Consider that sailors have to be in tune with their surroundings to get the most out of their boats. They need to look at how the course they’re on relates to just how their sails are set to optimize speed, or they won’t get anywhere. The best routes to their final destinations are usually a bit complicated, as sometimes any number of variables can come into play and push them off course a bit, or at the very least call for a few waypoint corrections along the way.

Sounds a bit like the cruising you do, huh? Sailors aren’t that different from powerboaters after all—they have electronics specific to their needs, and they tune them and set them up to give them the information that will help them enjoy their boats more. Electronics manufacturer Navico seems to be taking on these specific challenges with B&G (, a venerable brand of electronics (in this market anyway—the company was founded in 1955) that is focused on sailors in the same way the company’s other brands, Simrad and Lowrance, are focused on power cruisers and anglers respectively.

“With sailing, one of the challenges compared to power is that you can’t sail directly into the wind,” says Jim Deheer, global brand director for B&G. “So if you want to go in a direction that is upwind, you have to tack upwind. If the wind changes, that then affects the angles you tack upwind. It might mean you get there sooner, it might mean it takes longer. What B&G Zeus Touch has brought is the ability to quickly view laylines, which show you the best tacking angles for where you want to go.” Deheer is describing a program on Zeus Touch (B&G’s version of the Simrad NSS line that powerboaters may know about already—find out more here), a touchscreen multifunction display that is set up specifically to meet sailors’ needs and give them more data about real-time current and wind conditions—and how they influence the ultimate cruising goal—than electronics have ever given before. The SailSteer and SailTime programs allow sailors to get a big-picture view of how their sail trim and course heading affect their cruise time in relation to the conditions at hand.

“It’s basically keeping the sailor in tune with what he needs to do,” Deheer says. “We’ve included in Zeus Touch a wind plot, which basically shows over periods of time (whether it’s ten minutes, half an hour, whatever you choose) what’s happened to the wind. So the sailor can see, for example, that the wind is gradually increasing over the period of time. That tells the sailor that either it’s time to go home, or he needs to take a reef and reduce some of the sail, or if the wind’s reducing, he can shake a reef out and do more.”

B&G Sailing Academy

B&G Sailing Academy is an online resource that uses e-learning tutorials to help all users keep their knowledge base in Bristol fashion. Users choose topics from a matrix, then take the web-based tutorials, each followed by an interactive quiz. Access to the B&G Academy is free with a signup, and the completion of each tutorial level is rewarded with exclusive merchandise. Check it out at

Sailing School

To make way, sailors must remain tuned in to the conditions at hand—ever-changing though they may be. And in the digital age, that means electronics can help, provided the system is set up properly to allow it to share information in timely fashion. Note I said electronics help to do that. Electronics will never completely supersede that one thing many sailors do well: maintain a physical presence in their environment. Any sailor keeps one squinty eye out for cat’s paws on the water and gets accustomed to the wind on his face. Easy to see how some powerboaters, sometimes secure in the serene pilothouse and able to point the bow in any direction thanks to a pair of robust diesels, can begin to lose touch with the conditions at hand. But even at 20 knots, a strong side-setting current can cause surprises, and of course a good sense of wind and tide can be critical when docking. And when the going gets rough, many powerboats are more comfortable and safer if “tacked” up-wave or down.

That wind plot could alter even the saltiest sailor’s decision-making process. “I think it’s the averaging that’s useful, so you can see a trend as opposed to just seeing a snapshot of an instant,” Deheer says. “For example if a single gust comes through you can discard it, but if it’s regularly coming through, you can see and act on that trend rather than just reacting to a snapshot. This makes a key difference when you compare Zeus Touch with a standard instrument—it’ll say it’s 25 knots of wind, and then you look a minute later and it’s down to 15. If you base your actions on the instrument reading of 25 knots, you can make the wrong decisions.”

How dialed in is the information that electronics are sharing? Well just as an angler may want to tune his own fishfinder, so many electronics can be made more useful by calibration. “A lot of cruisers don’t calibrate their instruments, because they’re sort of generally happy with the out-of-the-box settings, and the 0.4-knot boat-speed difference doesn’t make much of a difference to them,” Deheer says. “The main two that they need to calibrate are wind and boat speed, as you need boat speed and apparent wind together to give you true wind. So if one of those two calibrations is slightly out, then the calculations are in turn even further out.” The largest model in the Zeus Touch line—the Z12 Touch ($3,999)—simplifies calibration by virtue of large-screen access to the settings.

And the system, called TouchSensible, integrates a physical rotary knob and keys with the touchscreen for simplified use when conditions get a bit sporty. “We did a lot of [user-interface] testing to make sure we got it right,” Deheer says. “We saw that people intuitively would try to touch the screen to do a waypoint, but then would go to the knob to zoom in and out or for certain things. That’s why we came up with the TouchSensible side. It’s similar in powerboating. If you’ve ever been bounced around in a RIB at 35 knots, you know you like to be able to grip and turn the knob rather than struggle to keep your hand still enough to pinch and zoom.”

But whether you’re in that RIB or on a sloop, the idea is the same: Set up your electronics so they can help you get more from your boat. Use them to understand the bigger picture of what’s happening around you, but always keep a watchful eye on the conditions of the real world. And be sure to enjoy the view.

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.