Skip to main content

2009 Pittman Innovation Awards

As sailors we pit ourselves against the unknown, working to negotiate safe passages through ever-changing oceans and lakes and rivers in weather conditions for which the term “variable” should be considered a euphemism. While each passage or race is unique, one aspect of sailing is universal—namely, that innovation and new technology combine to make our sport easier, safer, and just plain more
  • Author:
  • Updated:

As sailors we pit ourselves against the unknown, working to negotiate safe passages through ever-changing oceans and lakes and rivers in weather conditions for which the term “variable” should be considered a euphemism. While each passage or race is unique, one aspect of sailing is universal—namely, that innovation and new technology combine to make our sport easier, safer, and just plain more enjoyable.

Take, for example, carbon fiber. This Space Age material has been around for decades, but has only fairly recently become affordable for sailors. Its admirable properties—its strength, light weight, and stiffness—make it an obvious choice for raceboat spars, and a growing number of cruisers now also choose carbon-fiber masts, booms, and sprits. The result: More sailors enjoying better boats and better gear.

It takes time for innovative ideas to become mainstream, but forward thinking is what has toppled virtually every “barrier” in performance sailing. More important, technological advances allow everyman sailors like you and me to have more fun while sailing safer and better.

Few sailing editors understand the relationship between innovation and the mainstream as well as Freeman K. Pittman, who served as SAIL’s technical editor for 14 years. Pittman was widely respected throughout the marine industry for his opinions and insights on innovation, and SAIL honors his memory with these annual namesake Innovation Awards. Each fall, editor-in-chief Peter Nielsen (Cruising Gear), senior editor David Schmidt (Racing and Safety Gear), electronics editor Ben Ellison (Electronics), and technical consultant Jay Paris (Systems) scour the boat shows on both sides of the Atlantic for gear that’s ahead of the curve. Here’s what they found this year.


Ronstan Boom Tent
It can be difficult to find a commercially made bimini that will fit any boat and isn’t a bear to set up, but Ronstan’s Air Arch inflatable boom tent will do the job. Curved inflatable struts (no stretchers or frames) give the cover an arched shape that provides good headroom, shelter, and UV protection (though not while you’re sailing). The silver fabric reflects sunlight and can be kept waterproof with regular applications of Scotchguard or a similar treatment. Three sizes are available, to fit boats up to around 50 feet LOA. From $549. Ronstan International; 401-293-0539;

Tallon Marine Rib Receiver
We gave Tallon Marine a thumbs-up last year for its innovative approach to mounting accessories, and now the New Zealand company has impressed us even more with its RIB receivers. These can be installed on an inflatable’s buoyancy tubes to secure heavy and/or fragile items—everything from padeyes to dive bottles to rod holders to bait tables to champagne-bottle holders—and keep them safe and off the floor. Unless you’re confident enough in your patching skills to cut holes in your RIB’s tubes, the receivers should be installed by a professional. From $65. Tallon Marine; 866-616-4063;

AIS Watchmate
As a collision-warning system, the AIS Watchmate can do things that radar and plotters cannot. It acquires AIS signals from other vessels and displays them on a waterproof screen you can mount in the cockpit. Its heading-up display shows the relative speeds and headings of AIS-equipped ships and flags them according to the likelihood of collision. Pop-up boxes give the names and details of the targets, and low-priority targets can be filtered out. A variety of alarms can be programmed for various situations. The AIS Watchmate can be hooked up to an AIS receiver or Class B transponder and linked to your laptop or plotter. It draws a fraction of the power of a radar set and, at around $500, it’s a fraction of the cost. Vesper Marine Ltd.;


Spinlock ZS Jammer 1014B
Spinlock’s new ZS Jammer 1014B has a featherweight carbon-fiber body with replaceable cast-aluminum internal hardware that can be spec’d for either polyester cordage (the “P” option) or for hybrid lines (the “H” option) whose jackets are built of a blend of synthetic fibers. Unlike bolt-on jammers, the ZS Jammer 1014B is bonded in place with epoxy; its body can then be painted to match the color scheme of the surrounding area. It can accommodate cordage between 3?8 and 9?16 inch in diameter and can carry a mind-boggling maximum load of 8,188 pounds (it can exert its max-load grip on line as thin as 1?2 inch). It can be operated remotely: a thin-diameter trip line can be affixed to the unit’s release mechanism, allowing crew to release a line from the protection of the cockpit. $2,500. Spinlock LTD.; 802-362-5258,

Harken TTR AirBlocks
The saying goes that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Harken’s designers kept the old wheel (the block’s sheave) and focused on making it spin more efficiently while under load. The result, the new TTR AirBlock, is an efficient piece of workhorse hardware (available in a number of sizes) with pure America’s Cup pedigree. Titanium roller bearings handle bearing loads, and Torlon ball bearings handle side loads; the inner and outer races are built of titanium for strength and light weight; and soft strop attachments allow the block to articulate freely while under load. Harken claims the block is 98 percent efficient under its maximum load and that it is the lowest-friction block they have made in their 40-plus-year history. This makes trimming easier and more efficient, so grinders can spin their winches in high gear for longer periods. Call for custom pricing. Harken, Inc.; 262-691-3320,

Karver KBTi Smart Block
The new Karver KBTi Smart Block is the first with a built-in load cell that wirelessly transmits data to your onboard computer and instruments. The block uses proprietary plug-and-play software that allows you to automatically plot the loads on the block; you can also export the data to an Excel file. You can select the intervals at which data is transmitted and recorded, thus saving battery life and/or improving reading accuracy (the block’s measurement frequency range is 1 to 10 Hz) The block’s titanium sheave is supported by carbon-fiber cheeks that permit lashing through the block’s center. The load cell is located on the sheave; the battery is located on one of the block’s cheek plates and is good for roughly 100 days. The block will automatically fall into sleep mode (and also wake up) based on how much activity it is experiencing. Call for custom pricing. EuroMarine Trading, Inc.; 401-849-0060,

Colligo Marine Emergency Shroud Kit
While some cruisers carry extra wire shrouds and some racers carry extra lengths of Element C6 or PBO fiber, most sailors simply trust that their standing rigging will continue to stand. Colligo Marine’s new Emergency Shroud Kit is a very clever, very important piece of gear that enables a skipper to carry a spare without sacrificing stowage space or adding weight. The kit includes a line terminator, a length of Dynex Dux fiber (12-strand, prestretched Dyneema SK-75; lengths vary based on kit, with custom lengths available upon request), splicing instructions, as well as lashing cord and chafe guards for where the emergency shroud passes through the spreaders. There’s no worry about the Dyneema ever rusting, and the kit is small and light; it’s an ideal backup if ever “just in case” becomes your reality. $399 for the 7mm kit; $569 for the 9mm kit; custom pricing available for custom lengths. Colligo Marine, LLC; 480-703-3675,


ActiveCaptain Mobile
Programs that provide alternate chartplotting and even portable vessel wind/speed/etc. screens are making smart cell phones into desirable navigation accessories. But the killer apps, like the new ActiveCaptain Mobile (ACM), will capitalize on the cell’s data connection and the Web’s infinite capacity for peer-to-peer information sharing. In fact, the cruiser/developers behind ACM spent over a year building the site into a lively visual database of cruiser-centric facts and reviews contributed by thousands of, um, active captains. Anyone with a Web connection ashore or afloat can participate for free, but ACM overlays the communal Web info onto a good little pocket plotter. The program currently runs on Palm and Windows Mobile phones and comes with NOAA raster charts specially formatted for fast display. In the works are an iPhone version, foreign charts, and killer-app options like having ACM track your boat on the Web. $20. ActiveCaptain; 207-326-9100;

Navico Broadband Radar
The Broadband scanner generates 1?10 the radiation of a cell phone. It starts up instantly and requires no tuning. The various Navico displays that are going to be updated to support Broadband Radar will have a range selection down to 1?32 mile. Navico claims its solid-state Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave technology has unparalleled short-range resolution with good performance out to 10 miles and a max range of 24. Navico; 800-324-1356 (Eagle, Lowrance) or 800-628-4487 (B&G, Northstar, Simrad);

Furuno Navnet 3D
The core innovation of Furuno’s NavNet 3D multifunction displays (MFDs) is a seamless 2D/3D presentation. But the MFDs are only the focal point of a complete sensor network that can include what’s arguably the best-performing conventional radar now available, as well as Ethernet-based Class B AIS, Sirius Weather/Audio, and more. Also, NN3D works well with NMEA 2000–compatible equipment. NN3D units range from the 8-inch MFD8 shown, at $3,195, to networked black boxes at $10,000 each. All can display raster and vector charts from multiple sources. 360-834-9300;

Standard Horizon HX850S
Standard Horizon has combined quality GPS and VHF features in a single handheld and endowed it with a complete set of DSC functions. With an HX850S you can place automated distress calls with precise location and identification data. You can also “direct dial” other vessels or ping the 850’s location from the mother ship. The 6-inch-high handheld boasts 6 watts of transmitting power and a 1,150 mAh Li-Ion battery that’s good for about nine hours (depending on GPS settings). The unit can output NMEA 0183 GPS data, and it floats. The HX850S, priced at $350 complete with dual chargers, could serve well on everything from an offshore yacht to a kayak. Standard Horizon; 714-827-7600;


Maretron SIM100 and ACM 100
Maretron's new monitoring units include the SIM100 Switch Indicator Module and the ACM100 Alternating Current Monitor, along with the DCM100 (for DC current). They generate a wide range of power and system data that can be monitored on NMEA 2000 network displays, or on computers running NMEA 2000–compatible software such as Maretron N2KView. The ACM100 enclosure is waterproof, with waterproof connectors, and is opto-isolated from NMEA 2000 to eliminate potential ground loops. It monitors AC power sources and generates data about voltage, current, frequency, and power. The SIM100 monitors such switch-closure devices as gas detectors, security systems (motion, vibration, breakage, and opening detectors) and ship’s systems status (valves and bilge water) and broadcasts the switch status of these devices to the network. Maretron markets a range of sensors suitable for use with the SIM100. From $375 to $450, model depending. Maretron; 866-550-9100;

Walker Bay Airdock
The AirDock is a lightweight, inflatable floating platform. The larger dock (8 feet by 8 feet) weighs just 49 pounds and collapses to a 30 inch by 26 inch by 14 inch package; the smaller dock measures 6 feet by 6 feet. Ballast bags at each corner of an AirDock capture water to keep the dock from slipping sideways on the water’s surface. The larger dock looks stable enough to support off-center loads and to serve as a dive platform for swimmers. Walker Bay states that the AirDock has a rigid surface and will support tables and chairs. D-rings around the perimeter would be handy for joining up multiple units, but if you want to tie up an AirDock alongside your boat, you should come up with a way to protect the boat’s topsides. $1,299 to $1,999 (model depending). Walker Bay; 604-682-5699;

Steyr Motors Hybrid
This serialized hybrid-propulsion system from Steyr has an electric motor that operates in four different modes. In Starter Mode it cranks its companion diesel engine (the conventional starter can be eliminated or retained as a backup); in Generator Mode it functions as a 7kW generator, putting out 56 volts to charge its nominal 48-volt battery bank; in Electric Cruise Mode the motor is unclutched from the diesel engine for low-speed maneuvering and silent running; and in Boost Mode the high torque of the electric motor is coupled to the diesel. The hybrid package adds three components and 165 pounds of weight (not including the battery bank) to a Steyr MO Series 4- or 6-cylinder diesel. The major component, the Electromechanic Power Unit, is fitted in lieu of a conventional bell housing and requires only an extra 4.2 inches of space. The Hybrid Control Unit, which routes power to and from the battery bank, is monitored and controlled from the Steyr Electronic Control (SEC) via an engine-control unit. When operating under electric power, the battery status is displayed on the SEC. $15,000 upgrade to a Steyr engine. Steyr Motors North America; 850-784-7933;

EvrSafe Marine Technologies ISS-1040
EvrSafe’s new Integrated Safety System (ISS) is now available in the U.S. Each of the ISS-1040’s sensors can detect and measure carbon monoxide, butane, propane, other hydrocarbons and smoke, as well as nitrogen dioxide, which is a combustion product of diesel engines. The ISS-1040 comes with four sensors but is capable of monitoring as many as 130. If any sensor detects a dangerous toxic gas, the central processing unit emits an audible alarm and displays the location of the reporting sensor, the type of gas, its presence in parts per million, and whether levels are increasing or decreasing. The CPU can be set up to issue spoken commands and activate external equipment, such as fans, to restore air quality. Data can be logged for up to 12 months and reviewed to show the presence of any persistent leaks. From $1,250. Sea-Fire; 410-687-5500; (for technical info), (U.S. distributor).




Cruising: Safety Lessons Learned

It’s not often that sailors get a chance to put their rescue and MOB training to the test, rarer still that they do as quickly as newbie California sailor Khosrow “Koz” Khosravani did recently. If and when an emergency situation ever arises, though, it pays to be prepared. This more


At the Helm: Sailplans

The first thing you notice when you look at the sailplan for the Farr 65, Falken, which Mia and I recently added to the fleet here at 59-North, is the sheer number of headsails. Falken was built in 1999 as a racing boat to go around the world, and the crew would have carried the more


Racing Class Reunion

Where does an old VO70 go to retire? Right back to the racing circuit, apparently. This spring saw a remarkable contingent of Volvo Ocean Race one designs back on the water and duking it out on the Caribbean circuit. While it’s no surprise that some of the VO65 teams intending more


Charter: Sweden

With 2,000 miles of coastline, 270,000 islands and seemingly countless bays and inlets, Sweden is truly a sailor’s paradise. One of the top sailing destinations here is the archipelago just outside the country’s second largest city Gothenburg (locally known as Göteborg), on the more


Crowdsourcing Age-of-Sail Weather Data

Although big, multi-million-dollar projects like the Large Hadron Collider and the human genome project with their legions of PHD’s tend to grab headlines, there’s still a part of play for the “citizen scientists” of the world. Amateur birders have long contributed to an more


Ultims to Race Solo Around the World

For years now, maxi-trimarans, both solo-sailed and fully crewed, have been racing the clock on their own around the world in an effort to set ever faster records for the world’s fastest circumnavigation under sail. Back in 2000-01 there was also a no-holds-barred more


Juneteenth on the Water

Discovering Amistad and Mystic Seaport Museum have partnered to organize their third annual Juneteenth festival, featuring concerts, speakers and a reflection on the lasting legacy of racial injustice in America. Declared a National Holiday in 2021, Juneteenth celebrates the end more


New Multihulls for 2022

Lagoon 51 In keeping with many of the more recently launched models created by French multihull builder Lagoon, the Lagoon 51 is all about comfort, “en plein air,” in particular, as the French might say. Topside, a whopping 80 percent of the boat’s flybridge is given over to more