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Digital Tracking Systems

Some might say that seamanship has been sidelined by technology, with safety and security more dependent on button pushing than sail changing. There may be some truth to this. But at the same time, there’s no question that today’s technology does fill some very real needs.

There was a time when offshore sailors dreamt of great escapes and savored the idea of getting away from it all. But now bluewater sailing is much more mainstream. Boats and sailplans are easier to handle, systems are more reliable, and cruising rallies stand ready to smooth off many of the sport’s hard edges. Some might even say that seamanship has been sidelined by technology, with safety and security more dependent on button pushing than sail changing. There may be some truth to this. But at the same time, there’s no question that today’s technology does fill some very real needs. 

Ever since the development of GPS-based position-forwarding trackers, connectivity in particular has become increasingly important to today’s sailors. These units offer a wide range of capabilities, but all emit radio signals that carry digitally encoded GPS coordinates. 

Each breadcrumb in the trail you leave relies upon your lat-lon position fix flying through the ether, bouncing off satellites, and finally landing at a base station. After processing, the information is automatically forwarded to chosen friends and relatives around the world. 

This last step involves a web-based e-mail link that can shuttle a Google Earth map to all your e-mail recipients. The frequency of these position updates can be set at random intervals, or updates can be sent automatically daily, hourly or even every few minutes. The more closely you want to be tracked, the more a service typically costs.The mode of transmission varies from cellular networks to low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites to higher-flying Inmarsat geosynchronous satellites. Equipment like the SPOT personal tracker is smaller than a deck of cards and sports its own battery power and built-in antenna. Just push a button and it’s ready for autonomous operation. 

Another alternative is a fixed-mount stand-alone or networked unit, such as GOST’s NavTracker, a position-forwarding gadget you wire to an existing power supply and an Inmarsat communications link. In addition to broadcasting your position, this system can be networked with other onboard sensors to provide navigational and system-sensing data, like boatspeed and whether or not your bilge pump is running. 

No matter what sort of data is sent, GPS reception and a good communications link are vital. Data is downloaded to an automated data-handling facility and forwarded via an Internet link to an e-mail list created by the subscriber. Many of the units available also provide a push-button emergency alert. It’s important to note that this function, in most tracking systems, is not part of the EPIRB/PLB 406MHz COSPAS/SARSAT system. Nevertheless, these commercial trackers have successfully summoned help in numerous emergency situations.

The first tracker I encountered was a system devised in 1982 by U.S. Naval Academy electronic communications guru Bill Bruninga, an engineer with a fondness for ham radio. He was well ahead of the curve when he lashed up his Apple II computer to a single-sideband HF radio and wrote code that allowed Loran C lat/lon coordinates to be sent back to the Naval Academy by midshipmen crews aboard training craft. This precursor to the Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) involved manually sending the Loran coordinates and carefully selecting an appropriate HF band and frequency. Often these digital signals made it through when voice messages could not. Bruninga’s work evolved into the Connectionless Emergency Traffic System (CETS). 

Once GPS was up and running, a wider interest in automated position reporting took hold. The result was exponential growth in a technology that could track soldiers in the field, trucks on the open road, and ships at sea. The foundation for an innovative industry was in place, and sailors soon saw its relevance. Currently it’s being used by race committees to track race fleets, and by cruisers who like to keep their friends and family updated.

Picking the right system for your boat begins with thinking about what you want it to do. Many sailors see great value in sending out an automated track that allows friends and family to follow them across the ocean on a Google Earth map. This may be reassuring when it’s working, but imagine what goes through Aunt Milly’s mind if your system up and quits in mid-ocean. As John Marino, the owner of the Annapolis School of Seamanship often likes to say, “It’s not whether or not a piece of electronic equipment will fail—it’s when.” 

With this in mind, ocean passagemakers should have more than one means of communication. Your backup might be an old-fashioned SSB radio, or a new Iridium Extreme sat phone. You should also make sure those in your update loop understand that the sea and electronics equipment have a tenuous relationship at best. If ever you find yourself in big trouble, the backup to the backup should be a 406 EPIRB that’s properly registered with a set of current contact numbers, including those for the people listed on your tracker update list. 

Again, fixed-mount trackers provide lots of versatility. Some systems even allow you to remotely monitor your boat from home, your office or via a smartphone link when you’re on the go. These systems can check for rising bilge water and dropping battery voltage and confirm your boat’s location. A “geo fencing” feature will send you an e-mail alert if your boat leaves its slip or mooring. 

Many sailors may not need an automated “neighborhood watch.” But it’s all part of the growing safety-through-surveillance mindset. Keep in mind, again, there is always the possibility of a system malfunction—and your smart phone may falsely report that your boat is sinking or is headed to Fiji without you. As with most good things, there’s probably a balance between extra security and absolute indifference that’s right for each of us.

Some of the Systems

Horizon Marine’s iBoatTracker system has tracked participants in the Marion Bermuda and Bermuda Ocean Race, plus a host of other events featuring automated vessel progress reporting. The company also provides a cruising version of its service and demonstrated its wide-range functionality during the Around the Americas expedition that recently circled North and South America. 

Commercial mariners favor systems like PortVision, which uses AIS data and GPS info to feed its satellite links. The “hot sheet” reveals AIS contacts in the vicinity of the vessel, and the data is relayed once every minute to a home office or to multiple contacts hundreds or thousands of miles away.When the NAIS system is fully up and running in U.S. waters, it will include a satellite picture of all AIS contacts in the littoral region and will also track AIS contacts hundreds of miles offshore.

A leader in small-craft tracking is Yellow Brick, a company that has developed an app for iPhones and iPads. The system harnesses an Iridum satellite link that allows position reports to be forwarded from Apple smartphones. Even more interesting is their stand-alone rail-mounted sailboat tracker, which is completely self-contained and waterproof to 50 meters depth. The small unit sports a 50-channel GPS receiver lashed to an Iridium uplink. When the unit is set to automatic, it updates your position every two hours for a full month on a single battery charge. (Increasing or decreasing the update frequency shortens or extends battery life.) The unit can be connected via Bluetooth to a laptop or other text-generating device, and short text messages can be sent via the satellite link. The unit is race- and cruise-proven and retails for around $2,000, with a monthly connection fee of approximately $40. 

The DeLorme inReach also taps into the Iridium satellite constellation and can send short text messages. There’s also a feature that confirms the receipt any message sent. The unit has a one-button emergency call function, and it is compact enough to serve as a portable tracker. Priced at about $250, the inReach affords a lot of tracker/communication capacity to those interested in a portable approach to digital connectivity. 

World Tracking Solutions specializes in land-based vehicle tracking, but its miniaturized SageTracker is an inexpensive GPS/GSM unit with a rechargeable battery that lasts up to 10 days and installs in about 30 seconds, making it useful in offshore applications as well. Those sailing in areas with good GSM phone coverage will find this to be an especially effective tracker. In fact, the technology is getting so good that some racing sailors may be tempted to start tucking these compact units into the competition’s sea bags so they can keep track of them. 

Sailors with a propensity for hijinks might also be interested in the Tramigo T-22, a unit that includes an open microphone option. Imagine watching on your iPad the other guys sneak through Fisher Island Sound while listening to their conversation in the cockpit. Soon we’ll have to sweep the boat for bugs before slipping the dock lines! 

Trackers are like Facebook for your sailboat. They’re a great way to let friends and relatives know how the race is going or where your cruising plans have led. In fact, one chap I spoke with said that his father-in-law had taken such a fancy to following his boat’s progress through the Antilles that every time he and his wife lolled at anchor for more than a day or two they would get an email wondering when they were going to get moving again. 

Tracker connectivity via email delivers a very accurate record of progress to everyone on the mailing list, and it can become a valuable safety link. These time sensitive position reports may prove vital if a search and rescue situation were to occur. However, it’s important to note that trackers are not part of the international GMDSS communications system. Nor do they replace EPIRBs and PLBs as preferred rescue beacons. But that said, it was a SPOT tracker signal relayed to the USCG that informed them of the capsize of the Kiwi 35 Wingnuts during the stormy 2011 Chicago Mac Race. So even if trackers are not embraced as a primary means of signaling a mayday, they have certainly proven their value as a useful secondary backup. 

Image courtesy of Horizon Marine



Global Ocean Security Technologies

Horizon Marine




World Tracking Solutions




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