How Technology Is Changing Boating

2019-09-18 07:24:19

For our entire recorded existence, humans have been naturally drawn to the sea. Whether it’s for gathering food, exploring new lands, transporting goods or just for relaxation, the way we travel the Earth’s bodies of water has evolved over the past few centuries just as much as any other mode of transportation.


The boating industry itself has changed dramatically over the last few decades as technology is continually improved and applied to aspects like navigation instruments, equipment and overall boat design.

History of Technology and Navigation in Boating

Prior to early developments in navigational tools, much of sea navigation that took place while sailing depended heavily on visually tracking landmarks along shores. This method, while easy and reliable in the right conditions for fisherman and relatively local traders, limits sailors to staying within sight of coastlines and is generally ineffective in times of poor visibility and during foggy weather.


Over time, sailors developed innovative methods of more accurately determining their position and bearing while at sea, allowing travel across vast, open waters. One of the simplest ways sailors determined the trajectory of their ship was by watching the movement of the sun and stars. By observing the sun’s shadows during the day, tracking the movement of the stars at night and recognizing the locations of certain constellations, early sailors were able to gain a reference on their travel direction.


As science and mathematics improved, new devices were developed to aid in navigating at sea and determining metrics like speed, direction and ocean depth:

·      Leadlines: These measure the depth of water under the ship with a lead weight attached to a long rope. This tool was helpful in safely navigating through ports and along coasts where the depth may have been unknown.

·      Chip Log: This provided a method to calculate an estimated speed. Chip logs were weighted lines tied with regular intervals of knots and were cast overboard while sailing. As the line began to drag, sailors would count the number of knots that got pulled overboard in a specific time frame.

·      Compass: Compasses are magnetized needles that determine direction using the Earth's magnetic properties. While useful across all types of navigation, the compass was especially helpful for sailors in unfavorable weather when they couldn’t rely on the sun or stars.

·      Charts: Charts are maps of coastlines, landmarks, ports, ocean currents and wind directions. Though fairly inaccurate in terms of navigation, these early uses of compiled data helped sailors communicate observations to each other and more accurately describe certain routes.

·      Sextant: This allows for very accurate calculations of latitude and distance by measuring the height of the sun or stars relative to the horizon.

·      Chronometer: Chronometers are clocks that accurately keep time despite changes in humidity or temperature, allowing sailors to calculate their longitude with much greater precision.


Since the invention of these devices, seafarers have been able to navigate across oceans and seas relatively accurately. Other advancements, such as the design and build quality of ships, improvements in medicine, and general expansion in knowledge and technology have allowed for voyages to extend much longer and span across much greater distances, leading to the globalized methods of sea travel we have today.

How Modern Advancements in Tech Have Changed Boating

Technology has been shaping our world dramatically over the past few decades, and this evolution has carried over heavily to the boating industry. Whether it’s advanced satellite positioning systems, data-driven computing, or even artificial intelligence and virtual reality, many of today’s most popular facets of technology likely have an application on just about any size boat — from dinghies to yachts to cruise ships.

Modern Navigation in Boating

Gone are the days of staring into the sun, analyzing inaccurate charts and measuring weighted lines as they’re thrown overboard. Today’s technological advancements cater to simplicity and precision, eliminating the need for guesswork and complicated calculations.


Boating, especially as a leisurely hobby, is increasingly accessible due in part to all the modern computing systems now included standard in boats:

·      GPS: Although GPS units have been around for a few decades, their accuracy and ability to present easily readable information is continually improving and is the clear replacement for just about any manual navigation method of the past. Recently, GPS systems have also been used in conjunction with Automatic Positioning Systems (APS). Acting as a virtual "anchor," APS uses GPS satellite tracking to automatically maintain the boat’s current position just as a physical anchor would.


·      Self-Sailing: Similar to the self-driving car concept that is all the rage on land, the idea of self-sailing boats is becoming (and to some degree, already has become) a reality. Current commercially available autopiloting systems help keep boats on course without the need to constantly monitor speed and direction. Using advanced AI and continually updated wind, surf and weather data, the computing systems of tomorrow will plot adaptive courses based on the ever-changing nature of oceans and other large bodies of water.


·      Thermal Imaging Cameras: Navigating unfamiliar waters in the dark can understandably be a daunting task, as onboard lights can’t always highlight every rock or dangerous object. Thermal imaging technology gives sailors the ability to view their surroundings clearly by detecting small differences in temperature, not light — perfect for nighttime navigation or detecting small, hard-to-see obstacles.

Additional Boating Technology Advancements

Aside from the marine-specific innovations mentioned above, companies and individuals have found a number of other unique technological advancements to apply to the boating industry:

·      Digital Touchscreen Displays: While not a new concept, more and more commercial boat manufacturers are including touchscreen dashboards on their latest models. Much like the touchscreen dashboards and center consoles in modern cars, these digital displays offer the sailor access to a variety of information, from engine monitoring systems, fuel levels, and GPS positioning to the speedometer, water depth gauge and even stereo systems.


·      Drones: More readily used by ship surveyors and inspectors, drones equipped with cameras provide an aerial view that would normally be inaccessible, and they also play a part in testing exhaust emissions from ships. Drones are also used by fisherman and general enthusiasts to capture incredible photos and provide live aerial footage of the boat, offering a birds-eye view of the surrounding water. Users can monitor this live feed and view any nearby fish that would otherwise be hard to notice.


·      Advanced Data Analysis and Computing: As technology evolves, so does our ability to track, compile and effectively analyze data. With this evolution in data and analytics, we’re able to create systems that better predict weather cycles, understand fluid dynamics and offer safer and more efficient ways to travel the sea.

Boating Technology Is Still Coming of Age

There's perhaps never been a more exciting time to be a professional or hobbyist in the boating industry. As we shed older technologies and embrace the new, expect the world's waterways to become ever more accessible and enjoyable, not to mention safer and more efficient for carrying out shipping and commerce.

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