Security Call

Modern boat and yacht security is light-years ahead of where it was a few short years ago.

There was a time not too long ago when owners had to wonder if their boat would be sitting where they left it, whether that was in a slip at a marina or on a trailer parked next to the house. For years there simply weren’t any security systems designed specifically for marine use on yachts and boats. When GPS tracking became common, locating stolen yachts became far easier. Of course, that was only if the thieves didn’t find and destroy the system. And even if an owner recovered his boat, he may not have been entirely happy with what he got back.

Eventually companies began designing security systems specifically for boats and yachts. GOST (Global Ocean Security Technologies) deserves credit for being a pioneer in marine security, creating systems purely for use afloat rather than marinizing land-based security systems. Today yacht owners have a number of options to choose from to ensure their boat remains where they left it, and as technology continues its never-ceasing march forward, owners can find a range of layers of protection.

GPS trackers remain a simple and inexpensive option. Marine trackers such as Spot Trace are very affordable at around $100, but most tracking systems usually require a service plan that can cost from $15 to $30 a month. And as has always been true of trackers, they don’t deter the theft; they make recovery much more likely.

The most basic security systems that attempt to prevent the theft in the first place are exactly what one would expect: alarms wired to trigger when a nefarious individual begins fiddling with the boat. Much like car alarms, these are fairly simple and commonly consist of an audible siren, perhaps lights and/or a strobe, and triggering mechanisms. By necessity the triggers are, however, often different than those created for automobiles or homes. Boats don’t always have standard-issue doors. Those that have such doors, yachts for example, can certainly utilize a contact, but other more creative triggers specialized for boats have been developed, such as snap sensors that trigger when a boat’s canvas cover is unsnapped, and pressure mats that can be placed in boarding areas.

These simple systems, available from manufacturers such as Aqualarm and TH Marine, are inexpensive — plan to spend between $100 and $300 — and can be installed in a matter of minutes, but thieves, being thieves, can disable such systems.

One big step up the anti-theft food chain are communicative systems. These not only sound an audible alarm and/or flash lights but also alert the boat’s owner to the situation, usually via an SMS text message. More rudimentary systems send only an emergency text, while the better systems send a text, call the owner and/or blast an alarm on the scene, all at the same time.

Since these types of systems are commonly GPS-equipped, they simultaneously serve the function of a tracker. Made by the likes of GOST and Lookout, they can be set off by either a physical trigger or when the boat crosses a pre-programmed GPS geofence. Once activated, they alert the owner and provide him with critical data that includes the boat’s exact location and its direction and speed of travel. As one would expect, however, the cost of these systems is commonly double or triple that of the simple alarms. On top of that, monthly satellite and/or cellular fees are required to keep them active.

Even more advanced systems from the likes of GOST, Siren Marine, Eye On Board and Yacht Protector essentially make a yacht a part of the IoT, or Internet of Things. They not only sound an alarm, send a text or phone alert, and track the boat’s position, but they also allow an owner to interface with her boat from afar via an app on her cellphone or to access a website from a desktop computer. Some are advanced enough that the owner who receives an alert saying her boat is being driven out of the marina without permission can shut the engines down, live-stream a video camera from aboard the yacht or set off other types of alarms.

One unique form of alarm is GOST’s Cloak, which can flood the cabin of a boat with fog created by vaporizing a glycol solution. It’s harmless to the boat (and the thief) but makes it impossible for anyone to see outside the enclosed space and sends criminals scrambling for an exit.

As expected, the price for systems of this nature can be steep, easily running up to several thousand dollars, depending on what type of base station and sensors are included. But, just how effective can these systems be? In April thieves stole thousands of dollars of electronics — and did thousands of dollars of damage to five different boats in the process — at a West Palm Beach, Fla., marina. On boat number six, they encountered a GOST NT-Evolution 2.0 system, which triggered a siren and a strobe when they stepped aboard. At the same time the owner was alerted via text, cellphone and email — and the protected boat sustained no damage.

“Thieves are after soft targets on boats, where they can seamlessly get on and off,” said GOST’s chief technology officer, Brian Kane. “Defense is very important, with quality sensors triggering sirens and/ or strobes while sending out alerts. It’s very common for customers to call our support team telling us a story about how the system scared would-be thieves off, yet their neighbors’ boat four houses down the canal had all their electronics and rods stolen the very same night. It still amazes me how many people think it won’t happen to them.”

While many people purchase these more advanced systems purely for security, truth be told they can go far beyond this one purpose. Sensors can be added to monitor everything from bilge water level to pump cycles to air temperature, and owners can keep tabs on those sensors via a smartphone app, which allows worrying owners to check on their boat’s status anytime.

Relays can be added that allow owners to flip the boat’s switches from virtually anywhere, turning on or off systems such as the air conditioning, lights or pumps while they lounge on their living room sofa. On a marine machine that has a digital switching system, the sky’s the limit when it comes to what can be controlled from afar.

Jonathan Banks, COO of Siren Marine, says that when it comes to cellular-based systems, the phase out of 2G pushed manufacturers to upgrade to 3G, and that upgrade opened up a lot of new opportunities.

“Using 2G limited us to short, binary messages,” Banks said, “but using 3G we can do things like build a map of the boat in our app, and provide multiple forms of information at a glance. It also means we can look back at a history and connect with the boat in real time.”

The use of 3G isn’t, however, a panacea. Cell coverage isn’t perfect everywhere, and if a boat is taken offshore or deep into the backcountry, a cell-based system can be neutralized merely because it can no longer communicate with the internet or the owner. If this is a distinct possibility, satellite communications are the only way to ensure complete protection.

The downside to a satellite-based system is, naturally, cost. While an average cell plan for a marine security system can commonly be secured for less than $20, satellite service can go for twice as much. On the flip side of the equation, many marine insurance companies do provide discounts for their customers who take such protective measures. And certain systems are equipped with a mix of cellular, satellite, and Wi-Fi communications ability, and can be set up to use whatever the least-expensive method is at any given time.

The bottom line? As with most things in the tech realm, the options and levels of sophistication are incredibly diverse when it comes to yacht security and monitoring. Every boat and every boater will need to take cost, level of service and protective abilities into consideration before making any choices.

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