Yachting - - FEATURES - by david sch­midt

A mul­ti­year cruise and a few close calls led Jeff Rob­bins to cre­ate tech­nol­ogy that could help mit­i­gate po­ten­tial col­li­sion haz­ards.

Bright, con­fus­ing lights punc­tu­ated the south­west­ern sky­line as Ser­afin, a Lib­erty 458, ex­ited the Panama Canal en route to Tahiti. Her crew’s at­ten­tion was riv­eted to all four hori­zons. ¶ “There were hun­dreds of ships ahead — it looked like a city,” says Jeff Rob­bins, co-founder of Vesper Ma­rine, who, along with his wife, Deirdre Sch­leigh, was on board in May 2007 with Ser­afin’s owner. ¶ For­tu­nately, Rob­bins had spent the pre­vi­ous two years cruis­ing New Zealand aboard his Nordic 40, Vesper, and de­vel­op­ing a stand-alone, black­box de­vice that could re­ceive Class A sig­nals from the au­to­matic in­for­ma­tion sys­tem transpon­ders that com­mer­cial ships carry. Those AIS sig­nals dis­play each ship’s range, bear­ing and cross­ing in­for­ma­tion. Rob­bins’ box, likely the world’s first recre­ational-level AIS de­vice, em­ployed al­go­rithms to help sift through the tar­get-rich hori­zon. ¶ “Which ones pose a col­li­sion risk?” Rob­bins says. “The lit­tle de­vice said to ig­nore all of these ships and just watch these two. It was amaz­ing.” ¶ To­day, fol­low­ing the years that he and Sch­leigh spent sail­ing and ap­ply­ing a pas­sion for com­put­ers, their com­pany, Vesper Ma­rine, has helped to rev­o­lu­tion­ize AIS use aboard recre­ational yachts — and con­tin­ues to de­velop and lever­age AIS tech­nolo­gies. ¶ As a teenager, Rob­bins, now 60, was drawn to com­put­ers and emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy. “I didn’t go to col­lege,” says Rob­bins, adding that the com­puter in­dus­try was tak­ing its nascent steps in 1976 when he grad­u­ated from high school in Con­necti­cut. “I was pre­pared for col­lege, but I was of­fered a job writ­ing soft­ware. I learn by do­ing, so this wasn’t a hard de­ci­sion.” ¶ In 1978, Rob­bins ac­cepted a job work­ing on oper­at­ing sys­tems and en­ter­prise-level soft­ware at a com­puter firm in Colorado Springs, Colorado. That’s where he met Sch­leigh in 1985. ¶ “We did a ton of hik­ing and ski­ing, but I al­ways wanted to learn to sail,” he says. Rob­bins also dreamed of be­ing part of a startup ven­ture. ¶ In 1993, he ac­com­plished both when they moved to Seat­tle to help launch a tech com­pany. Seven years un­furled in a flurry of late nights and long hours book­ended by time on Puget Sound. ¶ “We joined sail­ing clubs, char­tered boats, leased boats and, in the late 1990s, we bought our Nordic 40,” Rob­bins says. ¶ Slowly, a shared dream of ply­ing dis­tant hori­zons formed. ¶ “You can al­ways make more money, but you can’t make more time,” Rob­bins says. In 2000, they weighed an­chor. Years be­fore, some Seat­tle-based friends had left for a long-an­tic­i­pated cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion, which a can­cer di­ag­no­sis cru­elly trun­cated, shat­ter­ing their re­tire­ment dream. When Rob­bins ex­plained the some­day scheme that he and Sch­leigh shared, their friend said: “If it’s your pas­sion, go now. You’ll find a way.” ¶ “We were gone within the year,” Rob­bins says. “We wanted to do it while we were young and healthy. We didn’t have a ton of money, but we had time, and we had us.” ¶ Res­ig­na­tion let­ters were writ­ten, the house was sold, and ar­range­ments were made for Janelle, their 20-year-old daugh­ter, to fin­ish col­lege, join­ing her par­ents at in­ter­est­ing points en route. ¶ “We had no fi­nan­cial plan, and we had no ob­jec­tive,” Rob­bins says. “We just said that we’d keep do­ing it un­til we weren’t en­joy­ing it any­more, and we each had a veto card. Luck­ily, we both wanted to keep go­ing.” ¶ Their jour­ney started with a shake­down cruise from Fri­day Har­bor, Wash­ing­ton, to south­east Alaska, fol­lowed by good­byes in Seat­tle be­fore Vesper sailed for San Fran­cisco. Rob­bins and Sch­leigh spent a yearplus gunkhol­ing through Mex­ico to Costa Rica be­fore sail­ing to Panama and mak­ing a pas­sage to the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands. ¶ While Vesper was prop­erly equipped, con­tainer ships’ speeds — cou­pled with their size, ever-in­creas­ing num­bers and lack of ma­neu­ver­abil­ity — had long since de­bunked the big-ocean the­ory. ¶ “Ev­ery jour­ney has a sur­prise,” Rob­bins says. At one point, he says, sud­denly “there was a ship right be­hind me. It

wasn’t dan­ger­ous, but it was a how-did-that-hap­pen mo­ment.” ¶ Some­time in the late 1990s or early 2000s, Rob­bins had read an ar­ti­cle about AIS tech­nol­ogy and how it was be­com­ing man­dated aboard in­ter­na­tion­ally bound com­mer­cial ships. Rob­bins re­al­ized that if he could re­ceive these sig­nals and in­te­grate them with his yacht’s own GPS in­for­ma­tion, he could write soft­ware that would alert him — miles in ad­vance — of on­com­ing ships and iden­tify the dan­ger­ous tar­gets. As Vesper sailed for New Zealand, Rob­bins be­gan writ­ing soft­ware, launch­ing what he thought would be just an­other one of “Jeff ’s mad sci­ence projects.” He’d done pet soft­ware projects be­fore, aimed at de­liv­er­ing cus­tom so­lu­tions to spe­cific prob­lems. He gave them away as gifts. ¶ “It was my prob­lem, my puz­zle,” he says. “I built my own de­vice and sailed around New Zealand us­ing and fur­ther de­vel­op­ing it. I showed other cruis­ers, and ev­ery­one was adamant that I mar­ket it.” ¶ Rob­bins wasn’t sold un­til 2007, when he ne­go­ti­ated the Panama Canal’s hec­tic western en­trance aboard Ser­afin and his home­spun de­vice au­to­mat­i­cally dif­fer­en­ti­ated dan­ger­ous tar­gets from back­ground lights. Dur­ing the next sev­eral months, he started an AIS com­pany in New Zealand, where he and Sch­leigh would be­come cit­i­zens. ¶ Rob­bins’ back­ground, cou­pled with Sch­leigh’s pro­duc­tion and lo­gis­tics ex­per­tise, made them a for­mi­da­ble team, but they needed some­one with ex­pe­ri­ence de­sign­ing ra­dio-fre­quency hard­ware. ¶ “We met Carl Omund­sen over email, and he be­came our part­ner,” Rob­bins says. The three founded Vesper in Auck­land in Oc­to­ber 2007, and they shipped their first prod­ucts in March 2008. “We weren’t the first com­pany work­ing on recre­ational use of AIS, but our fo­cus then was on the unique needs of off­shore sailors. We got it all go­ing in six months. I’m pretty proud of this.” ¶ Vesper’s first-gen­er­a­tion AIS de­vice, the WatchMate 650, was a low-power-draw, re­ceive-only unit with a mono­chrome screen that iden­ti­fied dan­ger­ous tar­gets and pro­vided sim­ple, graph­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of up­com­ing cross­ing sit­u­a­tions. ¶ “Our mantra was that it has to be easy to use, es­pe­cially for own­ers who only use their boats a few times a year,” Rob­bins says. ¶ The WatchMate be­came pop­u­lar with recre­ational boaters, and by 2009, Vesper be­gan win­ning in­no­va­tion awards. ¶ “We ini­tially thought, Wouldn’t it be cool if we could sell a few hun­dred of these?” Rob­bins says with a laugh. ¶ His com­pany now reg­u­larly ships thou­sands of AIS units to deal­ers and mariners on all seven con­ti­nents while ex­plor­ing larger-scale AIS ap­pli­ca­tions (see “Un­ex­pected Hori­zons”). Early Class B AIS transpon­ders be­came avail­able in the United States after the U.S. Coast Guard ap­proved them in 2009, and by 2011, nu­mer­ous com­pa­nies were sell­ing them. Vesper be­gan man­u­fac­tur­ing Class B AIS transpon­ders in 2010, with fea­tures that could eval­u­ate col­li­sion risk by fil­ter­ing out unim­por­tant tar­gets, and that amounted to the ma­rine in­dus­try’s first AIS an­chor watch. Later, Vesper added NMEA 2000 trans­la­tions and Wi-Fi com­pat­i­bil­ity, which al­lowed data to be dis­played on third-party net­worked mul­ti­func­tion dis­plays, PC-based nav­i­ga­tion soft­ware and app-based wire­less de­vices. ¶ Ear­lier this year, Vesper re­leased its lat­est AIS de­vice, the WatchMate Vi­sion2 smartAIS Touch­screen Transpon­der. It sports a high-res­o­lu­tion LCD screen, Wi-Fi con­nec­tiv­ity, a USB port and an NMEA 2000 gate­way. The unit also in­cor­po­rates a re­fined ver­sion of Rob­bins’ tar­get-fil­tra­tion soft­ware that guided Ser­afin in 2007. ¶ “It’s enor­mously re­ward­ing to me to know one of our AIS units helped pre­vent a col­li­sion,” Rob­bins says. “I re­mem­ber get­ting my first GPS. It was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary feel­ing, and I re­mem­ber think­ing that no one would ever want to go off­shore with­out one. I had the same thought in 2007 ex­it­ing the Panama Canal. Once peo­ple have AIS, they won’t go to sea with­out it.”

Rob­bins re­al­ized that if he could re­ceive these sig­nals and in­te­grate them with his own GPS in­for­ma­tion, he could write soft­ware that would alert him — miles in ad­vance — of on­com­ing ships.

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