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Dock Magic

Our electronics editor didn’t think he needed a Dockmate wireless remote—until he did.

Many times I’ve wished I could step away from Have Another Day’s helm and control the engines from a better vantage point, or from where I want to handle a line. Enter Dockmate, a device that lets you control your boat remotely.

Dockmate started distributing in the U.S. in 2018, but the company began selling systems worldwide in 2012. Several thousand have been installed to date. Their latest model is capable of controlling two engines, one or two windlasses, a bow and stern thruster and a horn. The package includes a receiver under the helm, which is connected to each of the items being controlled, and a wireless remote.

The author can tend lines on the bow—and control the engines and thrusters—while his wife works the stern lines.

The author can tend lines on the bow—and control the engines and thrusters—while his wife works the stern lines.

This system has an array of options for integrating with engines, thrusters and windlasses to make the installation as simple and flexible as possible. On Have Another Day it controls my Volvo Penta QL bow and stern thrusters, twin Volvo Penta D12-EDC engines, horn and Maxwell 3500 windlass. According to the manufacturer, a five-function (two engines, thruster, anchor and horn) system with a twin remote will typically cost about $7,500 installed. A six-function (two engines, two thrusters, anchor and horn) with a twist remote connected to CAN bus-controlled engines will run about $12,500, but there is a litany of equipment-specific options that can influence pricing. It’s best to get a quote from a Dockmate installer.

Dockmate is designed to interface with electronically controlled engines. If you have mechanical engines with cable or hydraulic actuation of throttle and shift, Dockmate will refer you to Glendinning for a compatible mechanical-to-electronic retrofit. It also offers a transmission interface box to directly control transmission shift solenoids, thus bypassing proprietary engine control systems.

The receiver is a 9-inch-square box that mounts out of sight near one of the helms so that it can be connected to the various systems it will control. It contains a series of interface boards or relays to control each function. Critical ones like thruster and engine commands have double relays, both of which must close to engage the function. This safety mechanism avoids a stuck relay resulting in unintended actuation of an engine or thruster.

The small Dockmate receiver mounts out of sight at the helm.

The small Dockmate receiver mounts out of sight at the helm.

In the event of any failure, out-of-range condition, dead batteries or other unexpected events, the system will return to neutral and the engine controls at the helm will be active. Either 12- or 24-volt power can be supplied to the receiver from two separate sources for further redundancy. The receiver has a series of LEDs on top of the enclosure that light up when a function is activated.

Dockmate offers two styles of remotes, one with membrane push buttons available for either single or twin engine installs—called the Dockmate Single and Dockmate Twin—or the Twist, which is a joystick-style remote for twin-engine and pod--driven boats. The Twist provides joystick control of the boat, so for example pushing forward and starboard will result in the boat moving in that direction while a twist of the remote’s stick will result in the boat twisting as well. All remotes are waterproof and float, though Dockmate also includes a neck lanyard to help you keep the remote from going overboard.

The Twist remotes have rechargeable batteries that are juiced up using a wireless charging pad; the Single and Twin remotes use alkaline batteries. The pad uses the Qi wireless charging standard, so I was pleased to find I could swap chargers with the Raymarine Ray90 wireless handset as well as charge a Samsung -Galaxy phone. The receiver and remote link wirelessly over an FM spread spectrum link utilizing five different 433mhz frequency channels at the same time to avoid interference, and in my testing that worked well.

Immediately after installation I walked the remote down the dock and tested the range using the horn. In a marina surrounded by homes and full of boats, I found range to be in excess of 300 feet, and in regular use I’ve never had a single control input fail to transmit and execute the command. Incidentally, if the remote does get out of range, it will beep when a button is pressed and the link light will blink to indicate a failure (something I only experienced when I walked hundreds of feet down the dock).

Easy to learn and operate remotes reduce the risk of fumbling.

Easy to learn and operate remotes reduce the risk of fumbling.

Navigating your boat by remote control is a different experience than being at the helm. The Dockmate installer advised that it’s best not to turn your body 180 degrees because it’s difficult for your brain to handle the mismatch between the direction you push and the direction the boat moves. I’m not always good at listening to directions, so one of the first times I used the remote I found myself looking off the stern wanting to move away from the dock. I pushed the joystick away from the dock and of course—since I and the remote were facing the wrong way—the boat headed right for the dock.

I’ve had the system on board Have Another Day for a couple of months and have had the opportunity to use it while departing a slip, docking, anchoring and weighing anchor. We travel a lot and have worked out a good routine for each of these operations, so at first I wasn’t sure how regularly I would use a remote. But I’ve found it to be a useful aid even in those circumstances where it’s not an absolute must-have. When pulling out of a slip in high wind conditions, the ability to tend lines on the bow—and control the engines and thrusters—while my wife works lines at the stern is very helpful.

I also appreciate how I can stand at the bow while weighing anchor and carefully watch it come up while also keeping the bow in the right place. And when tightening lines it’s helpful to be able to stand on the dock with the remote in hand and thrust the boat over. Finally, we could have set up the Dockmate to wirelessly control the tender crane, although mine is connected to the windlass.

I’ve also come to like how invisible the Dockmate installation is, with only a master power switch and the charging pad showing at the helm. I had wished for a helm display to duplicate the receiver’s LEDs so that I could confirm received commands, but as I’ve used it more, I’ve gained more confidence that it will work.

A Dockmate installer can customize nearly every aspect of the system’s operation. Delays can be set for each function, throttle curves changed and for Twist systems, the propulsion components used for each maneuver can be highly tuned. For instance, Have Another Day’s torquey motors and big props mean that I can pretty easily spin the boat on differential thrust alone. So I asked that the joystick’s twist motion be set up to put one engine in forward and one in reverse while not using any actual thruster power. By contrast, I visited one of Dockmate’s single-engine demo boats with bow and stern thrusters where the twist motion only uses the thrusters. The range of configuration options makes me think that Dockmate can be tweaked to handle nearly any type of propulsion.

I’ve always looked at remotes as something that might be nice to have, but that I was okay without. But now that I’ve had the Dockmate installed for a few months, I don’t want to give it up. I am reminded of the value nearly every time we maneuver the boat. It may be a luxury, but it sure is a helpful and confidence-inspiring one.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.