AIS tracking for yachts and small craft

In this article we look at AIS vessel tracking systems on boats and yachts and the value that different groups derive from both installing these systems and monitoring them.

AIS and tracking Boats and Yachts

Do I need an AIS transmitter on my boat?
Not everyone needs a boat tracker (an AIS transmitter). Those who go afloat only close to shore in uncongested waters, in daylight hours and in good visibility, can probably feel comfortable without one. However, the question that each boat owner must ask him or herself is; will I ever sail in conditions where for whatever reason another boat or ship may not be able to see me until it is too late to take avoiding action, and so place my vessel at risk of collision? If the answer to the question above is yes, then you should seriously consider getting an AIS vessel tracking transponder fitted on your boat. Tracking your boat and AIS is, after all, all about self-preservation.

What type of AIS should I buy?
Private pleasure boats of less than 300 GRT and not carrying fare-paying passengers qualify for simple ‘Class B’ AIS units. These transmit less information than commercial ‘Class A’ units, have a shorter range (to the horizon) and update less frequently (every 30 seconds). However, these are perfectly adequate for most leisure yachtsman, and for tracking they do exactly what’s needed. The UK yachting press often run comparative tests of AIS units, so it’s worth looking through the websites to find a recent one and see what they recommend.

The choice is then whether to buy a simple transmitter or something more interactive. A basic transmitter is a ‘black box’ that is fitted out of sight and connected to a GPS, a VHF aerial and a power supply. When active it transmits the yacht’s position and basic ID information that can then be picked up by any vessel with a receiver. This way, you may not be able to see them, but they can see you, and hopefully keep clear.

For those who want to see as well as be seen, an AIS transponder will both send and receive AIS signals. This can also be a black box, connected to a chartplotter, or more commonly be an integral part of a chartplotting system. As well as transmitting the yacht’s position and data these allow the user to view other AIS vessels within range on the plotter’s electronic chart along with their information and, on the more sophisticated versions, project their courses to see if they present a potential danger. Automatic alerts, alarms and other analysis options are available on many models.

Getting the most out of your AIS
With AIS, making yourself visible to other vessels is always the primary consideration, and the reason why the boat tracker was created in the first place. But with AIS data now readily available onshore to anyone with an internet connection and a device with a web browser, it can be put to other uses by yacht owners and their friends and families.

Find a friend – or family member, or indeed just about anyone who owns or is aboard a yacht with an AIS fitted (and switched on). Check to see where friends are when they are on a cruising holiday somewhere nice, see if a spouse really is becalmed in the channel on a race, or actually tied up several hours ago and is now probably in the clubhouse on his third pint, or, if your boat is connected to shore power, use it to check if it is where it is meant to be and hasn’t been ‘borrowed’ or stolen.

Tracking a fleet – for yacht clubs that organise races, particularly those offshore, AIS allows their race officers to monitor their fleets and check if anyone has stopped (could be man overboard or a broken mast), is seriously off course or has strayed into unsafe waters, or is limping home and might need support. In fair weather or foul, AIS delivers reassurance for those both afloat and ashore.

Monitor favourite waters – sometimes it’s just nice to pull up an AIS service and view your local waters to see who’s out there. On a hot summer’s day in the office it can be very pleasant, and admittedly a source of envy, for boat owners to see who’s afloat in their ‘patch’ and maybe make a few mental plans for the weekend.

There’s no reason not to….
Yachts and boats are valuable assets, and AIS provides an invaluable tool for protecting them and their occupants. Those ashore can also derive comfort and reassurance when loved ones are away at sea. AIS units represent a small investment with a big return guaranteed.

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