Pass the Glass, Please

Yachts International - - From The Masthead -

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.

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