Powerful to the Cortex

Known for simple, intuitive products, Vesper doubles down on what they do best for an innovative new product.

Vesper has cemented a reputation for high performance, well-thought-out, feature-rich products. So, when they tease “the future is coming” in their recent promotional material, it’s worth paying attention. It turns out Vesper’s take on the future is about continuing their track record of innovative features while expanding their capabilities to VHF radios and boat monitoring.

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The Auckland, New Zealand-based company was founded by Jeff Robbins, his wife Deidre Schleigh and Carl Omundsen. Robbins and Schleigh set out cruising in 2000 aboard their 40-foot Nordic sailboat, Vesper, from Seattle, Washington. With many thousands of miles under their keel, they arrived in New Zealand and fell in love. During their voyages, several less than comfortable encounters with large ships inspired Robbins to begin working on software to interpret the relatively new AIS data and highlight potentially dangerous targets.

After testing their new device on a 2007 Panama Canal transit, Robbins and Schleigh partnered with Vesper’s CTO Carl Omundsen to form Vesper Marine. Their first product, the receive-only Watchmate 650, began shipping in 2008. The monochrome screen displayed a radar-scope-like view of all targets received, and highlighted those determined to be dangerous for easy identification and heightened situational awareness. These capabilities met a need in the market, and the company now ships thousands of their AIS products.

Earlier this year at the National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA) expo and conference in Norfolk, Virginia, Vesper announced Cortex, VHF, AIS and Monitor. Cortex is a modular system with a base unit, handsets and a mobile app. Cortex systems can start with just an M1 base unit which provides AIS and monitoring capabilities. Adding an H1 or H1P handset enables VHF audio functionality.

VHF

Vesper describes Cortex as “VHF Reimagined” and goes on to say that Cortex’s VHF functionality was developed with a “focus on what people use and need most.” A few minutes with the handset shows what they mean. The functions you might want to access are almost always right on screen. On the AIS target information screen, there’s a button to call a passing boater. This makes a big difference: I’ve tried to use DSC station-to-station calling on several radios, only to become frustrated by the number of button presses required.

A svelte, easy-to-use handheld combines smartphone and VHF technology.

A svelte, easy-to-use handheld combines smartphone and VHF technology.

To enable VHF audio functionality, at least one H1 or H1P handset must be connected to the M1 base unit. Vesper explained that there are quite a few regulatory requirements for VHF handsets that preclude them from using a mobile device with the Cortex app as a VHF handset.

Vesper is using an eight-channel radio in Cortex, affording a lot of flexibility and capabilities. At launch Vesper is using two channels for VHF audio: one for DSC and two for AIS. This leaves three channels available for future functionality. But each channel is dedicated to only one function, so no matter which functions are enabled, there’s no lag. Currently dual watch—monitoring 16 and one other channel—is the only priority watch feature supported. Vesper says they plan to implement additional scanning modes in the future and will use another of the eight available channels for scanning.

AIS

Cortex features an AIS B/SO transponder and retains all of Vesper’s excellent collision avoidance, anchor watch and MOB safety features. The use of a B/SO transponder means more frequent updates for higher speed vessels and pushier behavior by the radio to ensure transmissions make it out in congested traffic areas.

AIS targets can be displayed in a birds-eye view, plotter view or text list. Individual target details can be viewed by clicking a target in any of the views. Plus, all data is output over the M1’s NMEA 2000 connections so you can use your existing MFD or apps to display full AIS information. The combination of AIS and VHF functionality means tasks like initiating a station-to-station DSC call to a vessel visible on AIS becomes as simple as clicking on an AIS target and then initiating a call via the “Call Target” button displayed in the app or on a handset.

Monitoring

Vesper has a track record of using the data their products collect to deliver useful features. The poster child for this has been their anchor alarm, which makes use of the high-accuracy, rapid-update GPS receiver built into all AIS units. Previously, Vesper products utilized an external alarm that sounded via the AIS unit or the mobile app, but only when you were on the boat. Cortex includes a cellular radio, making the anchor alarm available anywhere with cell coverage.

But, they haven’t stopped with off-boat anchor alarm functionality. They’ve implemented a boat monitoring and control system for anchor watch, GPS position, battery level, temperature, shore power, security sensors, bilge pumps, heading, wind, depth, barometric pressure and control lights and refrigeration—anything that can be controlled via a relay.

Base unit

The M1 base unit is the core of a Cortex system. The strikingly compact—especially given all that’s packed inside—water-resistant box houses a dizzying number of modules. The M1 has WiFi and cellular radio, an eight-channel VHF radio (for AIS, VHF and DSC), NMEA 2000 connection, GPS input, an analog IO port (five channels are used for monitoring) and heading, barometer and battery voltage sensors. Plus, the M1 has a no-loss VHF antenna splitter to allow sharing the VHF antenna with another radio, allowing a single antenna to serve a total of two VHF radios and AIS.

Handset

To enable VHF audio, at least one H1 or H1P (the P is the portable version with a rechargeable battery) must be present in the system. Up to 10 total handsets can be connected to an M1 base. All handsets, with or without a power cord, communicate with the M1 via 2.4ghz WiFi. I had reservations about the use of 2.4ghz WiFi when I installed the Ray 90 VHF, but haven’t had any trouble using them on board.

The handsets feature an optically bonded full touchscreen covered with Gorilla Glass that Vesper says will work with gloved and wet hands. It’s clear and bright with excellent off-angle viewing. The handset snaps into a cradle that both holds it securely and charges the non-corded versions. The battery should last more than 12 hours.

Alerting

Vesper’s strength has long been alerting you of anchor drag, dangerous targets and MOB situations via the WatchMate App. But now, thanks to the monitoring capabilities of Cortex, the number of alerts has expanded and the way they’re delivered has gotten clearer. Alerts are now spoken through the 85-db speaker built into each H1, and displayed on screen. If you’re on the boat—or off the boat and have a paid subscription—alerts can be delivered to your phone as well.

I’ve had the opportunity to test Cortex demo systems a couple of times recently, and I think Vesper is on to something. They’ve done a nice job understanding how a boater will use the device, and making Cortex simple and intuitive. The handset feels good in the hand, is well balanced and seems easy to use one-handed. I haven’t had a chance to test a working system installed on a boat, but I’m looking forward to that opportunity.

A couple important features are missing. I certainly want hailing, weather alerts and scanning capabilities. But, because of the built-in splitter, Cortex can be installed alongside an existing radio that can help bridge any missing functions while they’re being implemented.

Pricing for Cortex depends on the configuration. A bundle of one handset and the base unit equipped with AIS, monitoring and VHF functionality is $1,800. Just the base unit will be priced at $1,300, which will provide AIS and monitoring. Additional handsets will be $600 and can be added to the M1 base at any time to enable VHF. Paid monitoring updates every five minutes (a free, twice-daily update of sensor status is included with all Cortex devices) delivers real-time alarm notifications, and allows control of devices on board. Paid monitoring is $10 per month when paid annually or $20 per month on a month-to-month basis.

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

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