Computers Come Aboard

Despite needing a low-salt diet, electronic technology is here to stay.

The future is in computers, and while I don't claim to have invented the Internet, my fascination with the integrated chip began more than 20 years ago. At the time, I was writing engineering programs that helped reduce the tedium of yacht design. Today, I have at least 10 computers scattered about my home and office, and frankly, I could not do without them. Still, I am cautious when I bring computer technology aboard, as silicon does not always mix well with salt.

One of the most successful applications of electronic technology at sea has been the computer-controlled marine diesel. An adaptation of on-highway horsepower, it offers improved performance, increased fuel economy and reduced emissions. The fundamentals, however, still apply. While it is possible to electronically trade smoke for throttle response, if you can read a Clive Cussler adventure in the time it takes to reach maximum speed, things are not ideal. There is no match for properly matching propeller and gear to displacement and horsepower.

While analog diesels require little more than air and fuel to operate, electronic engines are far more particular and prefer a low-salt diet. Mist filters fitted to a vessel's intake air plenums help. A vessel's electrical supply must be clean, consistent and uninterrupted. Ideally, each engine and its controls should have a dedicated DC source separate from the house supply. Radio frequency interference can also be a problem and communications equipment must be isolated. I may be old-fashioned, but I also prefer a mechanical backup (throttle and gear). Flushing the head, chatting on the VHF or a loose wire should not send thousands of horses off course.

Recent advances in communication and navigation electronics have been stunning. Now it seems the challenge is to offer everything on one screen—a "PLOTPOSCOMDAR, perhaps? I suppose it might simplify things, however, I still feel there is some value in separation of power. At the least, I would insist on a backup monitor. Here again, a dedicated power supply (well above the bilge) is a nice touch. I also recommend carrying a handheld VHF and GPS, just in case.

A number of yacht builders are pioneering electronically controlled ship's systems and I have been favorably impressed with the results. Gauges, switches and idiot lights are being replaced with menu-driven touch-screen monitors and touch pads. Terminal blocks and ring connectors are being replaced with enclosed relays and modular plugs. Like the modern diesel, much of this technology has been applied and proven shoreside. I do not doubt that computers have the potential to revolutionize onboard diagnostics and marine service, however, in my view, it is essential that any hardware or software that goes to sea should be approved for the purpose.

It is likely that sooner than later all onboard functions will be monitored or controlled by the microprocessor. While I can live without a head with a hard drive that monitors toilet paper consumption, I believe the sensible application of this technology will continue to improve our pastime. The motherboard has moved aboard and is here to stay.