It’s a familiar sensation to anyone who’s ever helmed a boat: You’re maneuvering toward the dock when you realize that the tide is taking you one way and the wind another, and you’re not entirely sure whether you’re going to sidle up smoothly or do an impromptu reenactment of the final scenes from Speed 2: Cruise Control. (Spoiler alert: you could say that a cruise ship makes a less-than-smooth approach to the dock, in that it ends up about a half-mile inland.) Inevitably, there are at least 100 people standing around watching.
If you’re like me, you might suddenly remember there was something you needed to do out in the ocean, then jam it into reverse and motor away. Sorry everyone! We’ll get fuel some other place. Or run out, maybe. Either way, it’ll be better than suffering the indignity of an ugly docking.
Raymarine has a solution in the works: DockSense, an automated system that uses stereoscopic cameras to help bring your boat to the dock without embarrassment or massive property damage. I tried out a prototype system on a 33-foot Boston Whaler Outrage at the Miami Boat Show, and it’s awe-inspiring.
Self-parking cars have been around for a while—2010-vintage Lincolns can parallel-park themselves just fine—but executing the same move on the water is exponentially trickier. Imagine trying to parallel park with no lines to designate the space while the pavement slides around in random directions, including up and down. That’s docking.
For me, the hardest part about using DockSense is learning to trust it. After thousands of self-guided trips to the dock, it takes some mental gymnastics to convince yourself to stand there at the helm and not steer or work the throttles. You push a button on the joystick control, then step back and watch the system go into action. I kept sane by telling myself that if we did slam into the dock, at least I had a good alibi: It was the boat.
But we didn’t slam the dock. First we held a position just off the dock, the boat shrugging off wind and tide to keep its port flank off a piling between the berths. A display on the dash showed us what the boat was seeing from its cameras: Here’s the pole, here’s the docks behind us. Don’t hit those.
As with self-parking cars, the system is enabled by advancements in steering technology. Cars couldn’t back themselves into a space until electric power steering made it feasible for a computer to spin the wheel. Likewise with boats, automated docking wouldn’t work with an old-school hydraulic steering system—you need a minimum of two engines that can steer and throttle independently to leverage the hull into position. Which means steer-by-wire and throttle-by-wire.
Again, there’s an automotive analogy: when the Verados pivot in opposite directions to induce the boat to crab sideways, that’s a move you couldn’t execute on your own no matter how good you are. It’s like a Volkswagen braking its inside front wheel in a corner to send power to the outside tire and tighten your line—you don’t have four brake pedals, so you can’t do that. The computer can.
As you might expect, DockSense will debut on expensive boats first: pod-drive Prestige yachts and multi-engine outboard setups. I’d expect the production version to look more integrated than the obviously retrofitted system in Miami (the FLIR stereoscopic cameras bolted to the top of the gunwales on either side of the bow would be snagging lines all day) but as proof of concept, it works.
In the meantime, we’ll all keep docking the way we always have: carefully, and with plenty of fenders.