In August during a tour of SeaStar Solutions, I found out about a soon to be released upgrade to the Optimus 360 joystick control system for outboard powered boats. The news was officially made public during the International Boatbuilders Exhibition and Conference (IBEX) in early October. I’m excited to share what I learned about SeaStar and their latest Optimus enhancement called SeaStation.
In a suburb of Vancouver, Canada, (Richmond) lies a giant in the marine industry. SeaStar’s Teleflex origins in the 1960’s were as a pioneer in small boat cable steering technology. In the mid 1970’s – after its purchase of Capilano Engineering – SeaStar introduced hydraulic steering to the recreational marine market. Recognizable brands such as SeaStar, BayStar, Shields and Sierra, all herald from SeaStar Solutions.
Today’s SeaStar is focused on very reliable hydraulic steering and electronic controls. They now dominate their product category with a high market share of the North American market. SeaStar aims to continually innovate with value added enhancements such as Optimus 360 and SeaStation which I’ll discuss further on.
Quality commitment starts at the top
I met with Eric Fetchko, Vice President and General Manager of SeaStar who kindly took me on a tour of SeaStar’s state of the art 210,000 square foot manufacturing facility. Eric worked his way up in the company and has held a number of roles including CTO and Director of Engineering. Eric designed the SeaStar helm. It was evident on our walkthrough that he has an intimate understanding of everything SeaStar manufactures. What really struck me though, was how many employees he knew on a first name basis. He is clearly proud of the quality and innovation that the company has achieved.
I won’t go into great detail about my tour because quite frankly some of it was confidential. What I can share I’ll show in pictures and videos because I’ve got lots to cover.
I’ll admit that I’m not a manufacturing expert. I can only guess that had I been accompanied by a knowledgeable engineer, they would have been as impressed as I was with what I saw on the plant floor. Most fascinating was the use of robots to sort, pick and assemble parts, as well as weld and de-burr them.
The thumbnail of the video below shows outboard parts kits that have had all the parts picked by a robot. They drop down that metal chute into a bag and then are heat sealed and binned. Play the video to see picking in action…
Another fascinating sight I saw was using a robot to assemble end glands for outboard pivot cylinders. You can hear Eric describe what is happening while the one minute video plays:
Optimus 360 and SeaStation
Optimus 360 is a joystick control upgrade for outboard powered boats with two or more mechanically or electronically controlled engines. It can be easily retrofitted to an existing installation. Joystick control makes low speed maneuvering pretty darn easy. SeaStation is the brand new option for Optimus that automagically holds a boats position, heading or both. It adds the ability for you to be a master station keeper with no hands on the wheel or throttle.
There are three modes of SeaStation. Mode 1 is heading hold. This is used for kite or drift fishing where you want to move at a certain speed while maintaining a particular heading. In mode 2 you are in a position hold which allows you to fish on top of a particular structure like a reef or wreck. Typically this would be when you are happy with the way the boat is naturally pointing – likely into the wind. A combination of both heading and position hold is mode 3. This virtual anchor is also great for fishing or perhaps if you want a break from the helm while waiting for a bridge to open or for dock space to clear. SeaStar supplies warning stickers to make sure you don’t use any of the modes when you are swimming – the engine is active!
One of the particularly noteworthy attributes of the core Optimus system is how much effort SeaStar has put into minimizing the shifting each engine is put through compared to competing systems. The algorithms must be incredibly complex to pull this off. Bill Bishop at the Marine Installers Rant just installed SeaStation. Bill made note of the lack of “clanking and banging” in his summary. I’d trust that Bill has tried most of what is out there. As a professional installer he understands these nuances more than I do.
The SeaStation enhancement comes with dual GPS antennas in a single housing which allows the system to maintain heading even without an electronic compass. Another noteworthy feature is the ability to adjust your heading in five degree increments by using jog buttons on the CANtrak display that is installed with Optimus. Overall it is claimed that SeaStation can maintain heading within 10 degrees and a GPS guided position within 10 feet.
After touring SeaStar and taking a deep dive into Optimus and SeaStation, I’ve concluded that this is fantastically useful technology. Hopefully it will get new boaters out on the water by making it easier to captain a boat in a variety of situations and conditions.