Un­charted Wa­ters

Ma­chine in­tel­li­gence is cool, right? But, what if your boat gets so smart she de­cides to cruise alone?

Power & Motor Yacht - - IN THIS ISSUE - By Capt. Bill Pike

Capt. Bill Pike won­ders what will come about when boats be­come smarter than their cap­tains. Will they not need us?

It cer­tainly was a big day in Gothen­burg, Swe­den. Abaft the boat I was stand­ing upon—a 68-foot Az­imut with an al­most un­no­tice­able lit­tle sen­sor mounted un­der the hard­top over­hang—there were lit­er­ally thou­sands of spec­ta­tors gath­ered, with the Swedish queen and maybe a princess or two (re­port­edly, the Swedish royals are into boats) crammed in amongst them. Cheers and Swedish flags flew. A be­nign cerulean sky swept across the fir­ma­ment. And well off the Az­imut’s star­board quar­ter, an empty slip beck­oned, flanked on ei­ther side by a Volvo Ocean 65 rac­ing sailboat, each of them a high-tech, car­bon-in­fused won­der worth some­where north of five or six mil­lion simoleons.

Now, granted, a few of the folks on the scene had shown up to check out the af­ter­noon’s semi-coastal fes­tiv­i­ties wherein seven speed-de­mon 65s would race each other as part of the famed Volvo Ocean Race, an around-the-world ex­trav­a­ganza that would soon con­clude in the Nether­lands. But on the other hand, lots of folks had no doubt come down to see the self-dock­ing Az­imut ex­clu­sively. It’s a pretty dra­matic deal, af­ter all, when a 68-foot power­boat backs into a nar­row slot be­tween two multi-mil­lion­dol­lar sail­ing yachts, with only a com­puter at the helm.

“You gotta be kid­din,” I re­mem­ber think­ing to my­self when I looked over the shoul­der of the Az­imut’s cap­tain, who was stand­ing by just in case. He was eased back at the helm in the look-Ma-no-hands mode, eye­balling an iPad screen on the dash­board. At the top it said “Easy Dock­ing,” Volvo Penta’s name for its still-ex­per­i­men­tal self-dock­ing sys­tem; then a tad fur­ther down “In Catch Zone,” a no­ti­fi­ca­tion that the boat’s sen­sor was within range of the four sen­sors in­stalled at the four cor­ners of the tar­get slip; and then still fur­ther down, “Ac­ti­va­tion Pos­si­ble,” a slightly scary, al­beit tempt­ing ad­vise­ment.

All it took was a fin­ger tap and va-va-vooom! The Az­imut be­gan back­ing down while ro­tat­ing slowly, with her twin IPS drives evinc­ing what seemed like an ex­tra-hu­man level of ma­neu­ver­ing del­i­cacy. Then, with her swim plat­form sniff­ing the mouth of the slip, the big boat stopped, hold­ing sta­tion in a per­fect lineup de­spite a sporty, 15-knot cross­wind, while a cou­ple of Volvo guys pre­pared the fend­ers and lines. Once all was in readi­ness and the guys had re­turned to the cock­pit, an­other fin­ger tap sent the boat eas­ing far­ther astern, all the way into the slip, where she again held sta­tion while a leisurely tie-up took place.

“Va coolt,” com­mented a young Swede with a TV cam­era stand­ing be­hind me; mean­ing, I guess, that what we’d all just wit­nessed was an ex­cep­tion­ally cool thing.

“Va coolt,” I agreed, turn­ing around while ex­er­cis­ing and em­pha­siz­ing my one and only Swedishism.

Of course, the guy was right. The virtues of a self-dock­ing wa­ter­craft are fairly ob­vi­ous I’d say, par­tic­u­larly if mari­nas and boat­yards with self-dock­ing sen­sors be­gin to pro­lif­er­ate, as Volvo Penta thinks they even­tu­ally will if Easy Dock­ing goes main­stream over the next few years. Af­ter all, what’s wrong with tak­ing a pass on a late-af­ter­noon back-down now and again, es­pe­cially if wind and cur­rent are against you and you’re tired out from a day on the wa­ter? And what’s so bad about hav­ing an al­ter­nate (al­beit com­put­er­ized) skip­per on board, for safety’s sake or in case of emer­gen­cies? An ex­tra hand never hurts, I al­ways say.

But then again, you also gotta won­der. What hap­pens to a guy’s prized boathandling skills if he only uses them un­der be­nign con­di­tions? And what are the chances that neo­phytes are go­ing to re­ally bother to get good enough to truly en­joy their boathandling if an easy out is just a fin­ger tap away? And fi­nally, although I’m kid­din’ here (I sup­pose), what hap­pens if your boat one day just de­cides to crank her­self up and take off with­out you?

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