Sunbleached blond and sunburnt, Christopher Washburn figures he has sailed maybe 50,000 miles in the past 35 years and says he wouldn't venture offshore without a sextant and compass, the tools mariners have used for ages to navigate by the stars.
But when Washburn and his wife decided last year to spend six months cruising the Caribbean, they made the trip on a 42-foot Krogen power trawler equipped with more than $30,000 worth of electronic gadgetry, including computerized instrumentation, communication and navigation systems.
"For a sailor, the adventure is in the voyage," Washburn said, explaining why he went high tech. "For us, the reason for the voyage is to get to paradise and live in paradise when we get there."
The Annapolis couple, along with much of the yachting population, has sailed into the computer age. The same technological advances that fueled the personal computer boom onshore have launched a microprocessing revolution offshore and have given a boost to the small and specialized marine electronics industry.
Now when Washburn turns to the heavens, the lifelong sailor is more likely to look for satellites than for stars.
While cruising the Caribbean, he and his wife relaxed while one navigation system used signals from orbiting satellites to calculate their vessel's exact position at the push of a button. A radar device with alarms watched for possible collisions on the water, while the two depth-sounders watched for problems underwater. The single side-band radio-telephone enabled them to tune in to weather broadcasts and communicate ship to ship or ship to shore.
The yacht's automatic pilot, linked by computer to the navigation and sensing systems, steered the vessel home to Annapolis from Palm Beach, Fla., on the open sea in four days and nine hours--a trip that could take a month on the inland waterway.
"I spent not more than a minute at the wheel, only touching it when we cast off and when we docked here," Washburn said of the trip home, which included an elegant dinner, complete with china and silver, as they rounded Cape Hatteras.
The microprocessor--electronic circuitry etched onto tiny silicon wafers, or chips, has made it possible to pack great computing power into small, lightweight devices used for navigation, communication, instrumentation and safety, an important factor on a racing boat or on any vessel with limited space. Moreover, many devices have become easier to operate and use. Calculations of position, direction and speed--once laboriously made with charts, tables and measurements of time and distance--now are produced at the push of a button or the flip of a switch.
During the past decade, advances in computer technology have forced down the prices of such equipment while boosting the quality, industry experts say.
"There's been a revolution in the last eight years," said Thomas J. Closs Jr., owner of Electronic Marine Inc., an Annapolis retailer of high-tech yachting equipment. "The development of the microprocesssor has been the biggest single step in making marine electronics safer, cheaper, smaller and better."
A "satnav" receiver, which determines a vessel's position from satellite signals, sells for about $2,000 today, compared to $3,000 to $6,000 10 years ago. It is also quicker, smaller and easier to operate.
A good radar system could cost about $1,500 today, compared to $3,000 five years ago for a bigger, bulkier, inferior product. One model comes with an 18-inch antenna and a screen encased in a box 9 inches high by 7 inches wide by 3 3/4 inches deep and weighing 15 1/2 pounds. It has a suggested list price of $1,495.
Sales Figures Under Wraps
Now it seems that everyone has Loran-C, a navigation tool that calculates position by radio signals transmitted from land stations. The market has blossomed as the price has dropped to an average of $1,000 from about $3,000 five years ago. Discounters offer some for as low as $700. Although U.S. manufacturers and dealers do not disclose sales, a Japanese government agency said Japanese companies shipped about 40,000 Lorans in 1985, compared to 25,000 the year before.
If something goes wrong and the boat capsizes, a floating EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon) will send a distress signal that can be picked up by the Coast Guard, aircraft or even Soviet satellites. One bargain basement model that emits a signal over VHF radio channels has a suggested list price of $199.
It is not clear if advances in technology have translated into increased revenue for the small and secretive marine electronics industry, which is populated by many privately held companies that do not release sales figures. Although experts agree that more products are being sold, some also say the drop in prices has meant flat revenue overall.
"We're moving more boxes, but not necessarily making more money," said Dean Straw, product manager for Furuno USA Inc., a South San Francisco marine electronics manufacturer.
Straw would not disclose Furuno's sales figures, but said the industry's total annual sales could range between $50 million and $100 million. Closs of Electronic Marine said the total is at least $100 million. Other industry observers said the market is impossible to estimate.
"If you ask six people, you'll get six answers," said Charles S. Carney, executive director of the National Marine Electronics Assn., a trade group of manufacturers and dealers in this country, Japan and Canada, with about 250 members. "Our members are very closemouthed about what they sell."
Some experts speculate that spending on marine electronics has followed the growth in overall retail spending on boating, which reached $13.3 billion in 1985, up 48% from 1980 levels, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Assn.
Closs said "business is excellent," and his sales have tripled in the past four years. The market he serves is composed primarily of owners of 30- to 50-foot motor yachts and cruising sailboats. About 99% of his sales are to recreational yachtsmen, particularly club racers, he said.
"It would not be unusual" to spend about $20,000 or more for a complete electronic system on a larger boat, Closs said.
Although mariners have long survived without such gadgetry, the new tools are popular for many reasons, ranging from the serious to the frivolous. Safety is a major selling point. Any device that provides quicker, more accurate information about a vessel's position or movement, the weather, the water depth or obstacles in the fog is a valued asset.
Satellite Picks Up Signal
"For safety reasons alone, this (advanced marine electronics) is a godsend to everybody," said Persifor Frazer, a lifelong sailor who runs the Annapolis sales office of Yachting magazine. "If you've ever been lost in the fog, you know this doesn't take the fun out of sailing."
EPIRBs are lifesavers, literally. In July, the Coast Guard rescued two men clinging to their capsized boat off the North Carolina coast after a Soviet satellite picked up their EPIRB signal.
At current prices, even a marginal safety improvement can be a bargain. "Loran is not a necessity . . . but it will tell me exactly where I am and where I'm going, for $1,200," Washburn said. "And on a $200,000 boat, it's well worth it.
"Also, you might as well put it on and enjoy it, because when it comes time to sell the boat, it adds to the resale value," Washburn said. Yacht buyers today "expect a greater degree of comfort along with the adventure."
The new technology makes it possible to enjoy a certain level of comfort without a large crew, Washburn said. Without the electronic equipment, he and his wife would have needed at least four crew members and a much bigger boat to make the Caribbean trip in the same style, he said.
The electronic gadgets also provide an edge for racers. "Sailboat racing is a high-tech sport," said Neil Siegel, a Washington patent attorney who races on Chesapeake Bay at the wheel of his custom-built, 37-foot Peterson sailboat. "You're fighting for tiny increments of time and distance."
Siegel's boat, Whiskers, uses a Loran unit programmed to remember race courses on the bay, and is able at any moment to determine distance and direction from its current position to a given point on a course.
The Loran "can be a deadly advantage over other boats without it, especially at night," Siegel said while navigating the Chesapeake one hot afternoon this summer, accompanied by his wife, two children and eight guests. "It increases the level of competition if half of the competitors out there have Loran."
Uses More Gadgets
In addition to its Loran, Whiskers faces its competition armed with a VHF radio and computerized instruments showing boat speed, wind speed, apparent wind direction and depth--a total investment of about $8,000.
But has the computer revolution made sailing more fun?
"It's made it more expensive," said Siegel's wife Elizabeth, a government attorney.
"The fun is going out with a crew and beating the pants off the next guy," Neil Siegel said. "Ultimately, you've got to sail the boat. . . . If you spend too much time looking at the dials, you become less efficient. They're just crutches."
But even a sailboat with crutches can be fun, Siegel said. "It's like the supreme toy."