Pass the Glass, Please
Ihave this little habit whenever I board a plane. I go through the door and glance left into the cockpit. If I see analog instruments, I pucker. If I see glass, I figure my chances of making it to Atlanta or Nice or wherever are on the uptick. For one thing, I know the aircraft is of recent vintage, which calms my nerves when the chop kicks up and the wings start flapping. For another, I know the pilots will be navigating, communicating and monitoring with the highest-tech equipment.
Heavy reliance on electronics may make some gnarly salts queasy, but I see it as a benefit. During the long transition from triangulation by sextant to radio direction finders to loran and then to satellites, there was much hand-wringing about the death of skills, the fear of power failures and the complexity of using the gear. Some might differ with my assessment, but for the most part, electronics have made life on board easier and safer. You might find a sextant in a drawer next to a collection of outdated paper charts and signal flags on a yacht bridge, but good luck finding a captain who wants the bother.
Integrated glass bridges on yachts began showing up a decade or so ago. Typically, they comprise a series of monitors arrayed along the windscreen with “guts” from Raytheon, Furuno and the like stowed out of sight. The latest versions allow a captain to designate which screens display what from charts, to radar to engine particulars to CCTV and more (I suppose you could watch “Gilligan’s Island” reruns on them if you wanted). The reduction in clutter has made the modern superyacht bridge a minimalist thing of beauty.
Unlike the world of small-boat electronics, which thrives on feeding new standalone products into the West Marine pipeline every year, large-yacht electronics tend to evolve at a more leisurely pace. The most rapid development in recent years has occurred in lighting, monitoring and onboard entertainment. As you’ll read in our electronics feature in this issue, bridge systems integrator Team Italia is working on a head-up display, the first of which will appear on a yacht due for delivery next year. If you’re wondering why an 18-knot yacht might need a feature generally found on Mach 2 military aircraft, you wouldn’t be alone. But when you think about it, even with sexy, high-resolution displays on the new glass bridges, a head-up display might come in handy when the weather is messy or you’re navigating up a curvy, tight channel in fog.
Still, as anyone with a laptop or smartphone knows, electronics can short-circuit your day, especially when a “kluge” rears its head. Dudley Dawson, in his Sternlines column this month, references a Wall Street Journal article about a book that defines kluges as “overly complicated, inelegant, cobbled-together messes,” particularly electronic ones. The clean, smart-looking glass bridge seems to me to be kluge-resistant—a model of elegant simplicity—but Dawson is not sold on leaving the machines in charge. He relates a personal anecdote about a boat he once was piloting whose electronic fly-by-wire steering system went rogue and took him in multiple random directions at 40 knots. He may have a point, but I still like my glass.
Nothing is kluge-proof, from a smartphone to a superyacht electronics suite. But I’ll take my chances on land, at sea or in the air and trust the geeks have gotten it right.