Affordable AIS

At PYS, we are often asked for product recommendations; the challenge is what works for one boater doesn't necessarily work for another. As well, there are often compatibility issues between different equipment manufacturers. However, now and then, a product comes along that serves a purpose for all boaters at a reasonable price point. 

In this PY Teck Talk, we are going to look at the benefits of Automatic Identification System (known as AIS) and recommend a product that we have been installing for the past couple of years that has been receiving great feedback. When asked about AIS, we often use the example of exchanging virtual boat "business cards" on the water.  AIS information includes the vessel name, call sign, vessel size, and navigation data such as present location, course on ground, and speed on ground.  AIS information can be used on its own, but most often the information is displayed on your boat's chartplotter by overlaying each AIS target's physical location, SOG, COG, and other information in relation to your position and SOG/COG. Most chartplotters will even predict potential collisions and warn the operator.

Since AIS information is transmitted over VHF frequencies, it does better than line of sight, and commonly can receive AIS broadcasts over low mountains or islands. Unlike radar, AIS can "see" around corners. This can be a huge safety benefit in inclement weather or when navigating the many islands and passes on the BC coast, and it is an excellent complement to your existing radar. Also, because AIS includes the vessel's MMSI number and name, hailing a particular boat over VHF can be simplified.

All you need to take full advantage of AIS is a VHF or AIS antenna and AIS receiver (and/or transceiver), plus a compatible chartplotter or smartphone/tablet. Sharing of AIS information between vessels is free, and no subscription is required.

Passenger ships, such as ferries, tugboats and most large commercial vessels, have a Class A transceiver (12 watts) to send and receive AIS information on VHF frequencies. However, some recreational boaters opt to transmit AIS information using a Class B transceiver (2 watts).

So, what is our favourite AIS product? A company called Em-trak, based in the UK, offers several AIS options for recreational boaters.  The website has a short AIS selector quiz that allows you to choose the best system for your boat, whether you have a motor cruiser, offshore sailor, day sailor, RIB, tender or even a jet ski.  Many of the solutions include an integrated splitter so you can choose to use it with your existing VHF radio antenna, and you don't have to install a separate antenna.  You also have the option to connect your AIS wirelessly to your smartphone or tablet.

The most popular model we sell for the Pacific Northwest is the standard power B923 (2W CSTDMA).  It is a Class B transceiver that is small, lightweight and allows you to receive and transmit. It draws very little power and has a built-in power surge protector. It includes a high-performance internal GPS receiver, but you can add an external GPS antenna if you prefer. 

The B923 has guaranteed connectivity and interoperability with any app, chart plotter, smartphone, tablet or PC. This ensures that you are not limited to any one navigation device and can maximize all of the AIS related functionality such as weather, MOB, anti-collision, anchor safety as well as vessel tracking.  It is NMEA 0183 and NMEA 2000 compatible.  It even has a silent mode (transmit off), so your coworkers can't find you. All of the Em-trak marine products are ruggedized and designed to withstand vibration, shock and extreme temperatures.  They are water, pressure spray and damp proof.

If you have been considering AIS on your boat, there is no better time.  Products, like the Em-trak B923 are plug and play, feature-rich and available at a great price point. 

About the author: Jeff Cote is the owner of Pacific Yacht Systems, a full service shop delivering marine electrical and navigation solutions for recreational boats. Visit their website and blog for info and articles on marine electrical systems, projects and more: