Seeing in the dark

Here’s an email I received earlier today:



Scott Bulger suggested that I contact you. I am considering a number of electronic upgrades, one of which is noted above and Scott indicated that you may have some comments to share regarding this technology. Any light you can provide on this dark subject would be greatly appreciated.





This is one topic on which I not only know nothing, I’m the worst possible guy to ask. The best I can do is to share my experiences, in the hope it might help you.


First off, I do not have FLIR on my boat. I have a competitive product, which was insanely expensive ($70,000!) and has been very mediocre.

I don’t honestly know if the problem is that my exectations were unrealistic, or if the camera is just not great. I was aboard a 220 foot Delta recently and to my surprise they have the same camera, and were just as underwhelmed as I. Last year, I sent mine back to the factory for an overhaul, and it still isn’t great.


The camera I bought has three modes, using three different techniques: day light, light magnification and thermal imaging. Samples of all three modes can be seen here.


One problem, that is strictly mine, is where I mounted the camera. It is on the brow of the fly bridge, and can only be reached by someone brave enough to hang off the front of the boat. I’ve done it in a marina, reluctantly, but wouldn’t begin to do it at sea. When we take sea spray, the camera lens becomes caked with sea water, and the camera is useless. Sea spray that high is rare, but not as rare as I’d like, and once you get the lens wet, visibility is impossible until we reach port.


One cool feature I liked on this camera was that I could access it via the local area network on the boat. Unfortunately, the resolution is poor enough that this feature has been useless.


All of this would be forgivable, except that the camera fails at the one thing that is most critical. It sees great in marinas, but is almost useless in real world settings. I wanted it for two reasons:


1) Entering and exiting marinas at night

2) Looking for unlit pangas and sail boats at sea


It could work for entering marinas, but unfortunately, in night vision mode, the lens is FIXED ZOOM. You can’t zoom in or out. In one of the two night modes (amplified light), you can choose between three zoom levels, none of which ever seem right, and in thermal imaging mode, you have ZERO options. I’ve found it totally useless in exiting or entering marinas.


For spotting unlit boats at night, it doesn’t work because it has a VERY short range. During the Fubar, I was running side by side with 13 other yachts. We were so tight to each other that I was afraid to even think about taking off auto pilot. We shouldn’t have been as tight as we were, but that’s another whole story. Amazingly, my night vision couldn’t see the other boats! Its range seems to be well under 100 yards. In light amplification mode, it would show points of light, but the thermal mode was totally useless. Looking out the window was much more effective.


All of this said, I do use it regularly. I’ve crossed several times unlit sail boats, and pangas. Since the boat Earthrace fatally ran over the unlit panga off Nicaragua a couple years back, I’ve been paranoid about doing the same. And, of course there are all those shipping containers allegedly floating at sea. I dedicate a monitor at most times to night vision and we do watch it. Small pangas are generally missed by radar. We only get about a 50 to 100 yard look out in front, but that might be enough to save a life if we react quickly. I wish I had greater distance!


In an effort to improve over what I have, I recently purchased a Gen 4 night vision monocular.


Honestly, I haven’t tried it yet, and can’t say if it does a better job that what I have. I’m hopeful, but the delivery skipper who brought my boat up from Costa Rica did try it, and said he wasn’t impressed.


My “guess” is that it does a better job than the NVTI system that I currently have, and will be useful entering and exiting marinas, but that for constant use, I’ll rely on my NVTI system. There’s something to be said for having non-stop night-vision going when under way.


And.. on a different topic, I received a great email commenting on my blog from yesterday. It seems to argue a very different position than my own, however, I tend to agree with most everything that this guy is saying. Simple is good. I remember a year ago writing my blog, and arguing that the right boat is NOT the biggest you can afford, but the smallest and simplest that meets your needs.


-Ken W



I have to disagree on some of your comments on complexity. You state you want this level of gadgetry for comfort and safety. However, in a marine environment most electromechanical systems stop working and unless you are psychologically prepared to continue on your journey without things (generator, invertor, etc) you will be stuck in some foreign port waiting for repairs and parts. Also, the more complex your engine system is, the less safe you are due to a breakdown at a dangerous moment.

I believe that the most successful long distance cruises were executed by people who built their own boats and kept them simple. They then knew all the systems in and out and could make repairs along the way. It is not practical for someone to home build a Nordhavn so (IMHO) the simpler the better in a production boat. The yacht Idylwild is the best example of a simple boat that made a great round the world voyage with no problems.

I am presently in the process of refitting a Willard 40 in Mexico (San Carlos, Sonora). I have removed two built-in electric heaters, an electric toilet, a toaster oven, a TV, a front opening refrigerator and a lot of smaller stuff. I am considering removing the generator but since it serves as a backup drive system I will leave it. For each thing that is removed there is one less thing to go wrong. After 50 years of boating I find that none of the things I remove contributes to my creature comforts.. When the boat is sufficiently simplified to be safe, I may leave for a journey to Europe via Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland and Scotland.

Your desire to have a boat feel like a five star hotel may lead to big problems along the way of your journey. If I want a five star hotel I would go there and get it out of my system.. When I am on a boat I want it to look and feel like a boat!! Not a house, not an apartment and not a hotel.

On the other hand, if you hire a full time engineer who can maintain your systems then this level of complexity seems fine. Of course then you give up your privacy and feeling of accomplishment.

I suggest the correct level of complexity for a long distance cruising motor boat is: single main engine plus a wing engine serving also as a generator. radar, laptop navigation, small top-loading fridge, Dickenson type diesel heat, hydraulic steering and autopilot, paravane stabilizers, anchor windlass, SSB and VHF, epirb plus a few other things. Email would be great also since you can get weather with it.

Good luck and keep blogging.

Richard P





7 Responses

  1. The Night Vision Technologies stuff is just awful. Thank you to David for the reference to MoroVision. Their gear is military grade and the quality seems exceptional. Expensive but awesome.

  2. It depends on a number of factors. If the water is glassy smooth (as it often is at night in the San Juans) and part of the log is above the surface, there is a very good chance I’d spot it. If it is rough out it’s much harder to spot floating objects, and I slow down accordingly. If the object is fully submerged, all bets are off, even in the daytime.

    I’ve never hit anything that has caused damage to either gelcoat or the motor. I have, however, hit small floating things that make lots of noise but don’t cause any problem. Probably the scariest are deadheads, which float vertically. This makes it so all of the pressure from the strike is put on a small area of the hull and also makes it very difficult to spot them since very little, if any, of the log is above water.

    There is no doubt that boating at night is more dangerous and demands more attention, but I believe it can be done safely even at speed. The reality is that boating is not always perfectly safe and we are not in a controlled environement. Charts (at least where I boat) are very good and radar works pretty well, but submerged logs and debris are picked up by neither. So, we take our chances, use reasonable precautions, and keep safety gear aboard just in case.


  3. Here’s an excerpt from an email I received from David Sidbury, owner of the second N68:

    Saw the NV blurb on the blog

    I think you are aware we have the FLIR camera that is built into the Carlisle and Finch spotlight – Night finder 200. Works good in clear weather and in fog and rain you can’t see more than a few hundred feet in front of the boat. I run the camera on a screen at night but only feel good about it in clear weather.

    The below binoculars however are the deal. They ARE NOT gen 4 but gen 3+ but special image tubes. They turn night into day and I can actually see out the windshield with them. If you go out the PH door at night to ID a target it is like daytime – you can see everything. Pricey but pretty darn sweet. ( Also use either a lithium 123 batter or have an adapter to use AA. batteries last 40 hours of use so I turn on when we go on night watch and leave on. Individual eye focus. Everyone who has looked thru them including NV oldies are shocked.

    If you decide to buy a set make sure to ell them to hand pick the image tubes. This is important as the way the image tubes are made they have tiny flaw dots. if you can get a set of image tubes with not dots then that makes a big difference.

    Hope all is well

    David M Sidbury

  4. Sam: Be careful out there! While we were waiting for our Nordhavn, we had a 27′ Glacier Bay power cat we ran around the Pacific Northwest. It would easily cruise at 35 knots. Our first run was to Seattle up to Roche Harbor, and it was a great ride. Coming back, we smacked a lot at 30 knots, just off Deer Harbor, and it was a LOT less fun. Luckily I didn’t sink it, but I did take a big chunk out of the fiberglass. That was a real wake up call, and we were MUCH more careful, and much slower, after that. Having a fast boat in the Pacific Northwest is not always good.

    One thing I remember from my college physics is that the force of a collision rises exponentially with speed. In other words, striking something at 30 knots isn’t three times as bad as hitting at 10 knots, it is exponentially worse.

    Our Nordhavn has a steel plate at the bow, at water level. Hopefully, if I ever hit one of those shipping containers, between the steel plate, and the low speed, it will be a non-event.

    -Ken W

  5. I do quite a bit of running at night in the San Juan Islands to access a home that is on an island without ferry service. Most of the time I run at roughly 18 knots, during both the day and night. In fog I slow down to displacement speeds. If there are any questionable lights or radar returns I slow down until I can determine what they are.

    I have no night vision equipment onboard. Instead, I rely on the radar, a sharp lookout, and a spotlight. So far this combination has worked well and I haven’t had any close calls. The thing that concerns me most is floating debris like logs. Just last Saturday I was coming out of the Swinomish Channel at 18 knots and passed a barely submerged 55 gallon oil drum about 5 feet off my starboard side. I avoided it only by chance, and this was during the day with fair visibility.

    My point is that sometimes it doesn’t matter how much equipment you have onboard. Some things are only avoided by going ridiculously slowly or not going at all. To me this is unacceptable. I think your best bet for nighttime boating is a very careful watch of the radar, slowing down, and using your spotlight when you question any target. Unlike Earthrace, you have 2 very powerful radar sets, which when tuned and operated properly will be able to pick up very small targets.

    It seems to me the combination of spotlight, sonar, radar, gps, and chartplotter should be able to get you into most any marina at night and help you to avoid all collisions with other boats and most collisions with floating debris. But this equipment must be operated correctly to be of any value. As I recall, Aurora (now Inside Passage III) collided with a larger commercial boat on its way north to Seattle during its delivery because the watch stander failed to react or recognize the target on radar or AIS.


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