Making Sailing Easier: Electric Winches, Integrated Solar, and More
These five innovations help shorthanded or older sailors handle bigger boats with less effort.
July 15, 2015
As legendary sailboat designer Bob Perry said during a recent conversation about technology, “…as cars are easier to drive, boats are now easier to sail, and it is now possible for new sailors to jump straight into a cruising boat.”
He is correct; here are five trends that are making life easier and more comfortable for sailors.
1. Electric Winch Systems
Winches on sailboats are like cup holders on a pontoon boat—a core element in their design. But there may be a day when the daily grind we have today will be relegated to the scrapyard.
The electric winch, which is standard on mega sailing yachts, is already the norm on many production cruisers and has increased the size vessel that the average couple can handle. Whether you’re tacking the jib or raising the mainsail, you can simply press a button alongside the winch. In some cases, you’ll even use a joystick at the steering station. And if you really want easy, check out the Harken Rewind electric winch, which provides two-speed trimming, yet with a flip of the switch shifts the winch into rewind mode (so you can ease the sheet without removing it from the self-tailer).
The latest electric winches are not just an automated version of the old standard. One innovation I’m excited to see is captive under-deck sheeting. Below the deck, the winch now looks more like something you see on the front of a Jeep 4x4. But on deck there’s just a simple hole with sheet running through it.
Seeing the demand for this type of product in 45’ to 60’ boats, Harken offers 1.5-ton and 3-ton sizes with standard 12-volt and 24-volt power. Easing the sheet sends power back to the batteries. The layout is very clean and eliminates the traditional tangle of lines on the cockpit sole. Having a good feeder (tensioner) system that pulls the line away from the winch is critical for captive winches, as an override could result in a serious situation.
2. Automated Steering
There are self-driving cars with sensors and cameras, so why not self-driving boats? We’re not there yet, but today’s autopilots are better and better. I really like some of the advanced features such as the Simrad Autotack. Combining a modern autopilot with a self-tacking jib system can dramatically reduce the physical work load on the crew.
The latest autopilots also make sailing in heavy weather on auto more feasible. With products such as the Garmin Reactor Series, solid-state gyro technology greatly minimizes heading error or course deviation, even when the boat is pitching and rolling.
3. High Arch
Mainsail sheeting is moving from the cockpit sole to overhead arches. This is not brand new, but it is increasingly common. Credit goes to Hunter with its move to the arch about 12 years ago. Today on many Beneteau models such as the Oceanis 38 and Sense series, the arches provide end-boom sheeting while keeping travelers, blocks, and cleats largely out of the cockpit. We’re also seeing some interesting arch designs on custom sailing yachts.
The arch also provides a solid attachment point for a dodger or satellite antenna, and a higher boom means less risk of being hit on the head. You do lose the traditional traveler system in some instances, and on some boats the boom can be so high that you can’t reach the clew or head of the sail unless you’re an NBA player.
4. Battery Power
There’s evidence that electric and hybrid drives are gaining traction. We covered some new models from Beneteau and Hunter last year, and now J/Boats has jumped into the space with the new J/88 using the Oceanvolt Saildrive system.
The Oceanvolt electric motor system has hydro-regeneration capabilities, so energy will be transmitted back to the batteries while sailing. This is a perfect use case for a boat that typically would use the engine to get out of the marina and to the starting line. Retrofits for existing saildrives don’t appear too onerous, either. I was surprised by the ease of
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5. Integrated Solar
With increasing demand for electricity onboard there are some new options to capture more power from the sun, and we’re not talking about those hard rectangular panels bolted to the stern rail. The latest innovations in solar move the panels onto the sails and Biminis with flexible solar cloth. The Solar Cloth System integrates photovoltaic film onto the lower portion of the mainsail, either by lamination into a new sail or by bonding to an existing sail. The flexible film allows the sail to still be rolled or folded, while electricity can be transferred to the boat’s batteries via wire and silver paste circuitry inside the laminate.
New technology such as this isn’t for everyone. Remember, the stick-shift has yet to go the way of the carrier pigeon. And new technology of any sort often brings with it mixed blessings. But if these push-button sailboats get more people on the water, or enable older adults to keep sailing, that to me is a good thing.