Wireless Headsets – a vital accessory for larger boats

“Ok, Straight back. Ten feet, five feet, stop. Stop! STOP!” Have you ever been in a conversation like that with your spouse, on your boat? If your boat is reasonably sized then it has probably been pretty easy to talk to someone spotting your position or helping you with instructions from the lock master.

Now consider having to depend upon those same, important verbal queues on a much larger boat, perhaps one with limited visibility or a completely enclosed bridge.

Our latest boat, the MV KAYLA, is a good 15 feet longer and many tons heavier then our previous boat. While its larger size and weight has delivered comfort and stability, it has also proved more difficult to safely maneuver in tight spots – like our marina or the Ballard Locks. Even with the benefit that Zeus Pod drives and joystick control bring, there’s no substitute for clear communications among the crew when relaying important information.

No one wants to damage their vessel or, worse, risk injury with someone falling into the water while wrangling a line or assisting during docking.

When we first received the KAYLA last May we purchased a set of Eartec Simultec 24G wireless headsets. They promised clear, full-duplex (meaning we didn’t have to push any buttons and could have a normal conversation) communications that my wife and I would use when docking or transiting the locks. We used them a few times and, at in the beginning, they seemed to operate reasonably well. But, they weren’t very comfortable and the headset and radio were separate pieces that were, sometimes, hard to attach to our life vests.


More recently we upgraded to what we believed would be a superior headset – the Sena SPH10-10 Headset – and, so far, we’ve been very pleased. The units are easy to use and are far more comfortable than the Eartec units. The radio and headset are one unit. There’s nothing to dangle. No wires to worry about. The Sena headsets are all-digital, whereas the Eartec units were not and required flipping switches to change frequencies in case there was interference (we never had any).

Sena appears to be a recognized leader in wireless recreational headsets and counts the motorcycle market, among others, as their core audience. I first discovered them in a Yachting magazine and found that they were available directly on Amazon.com. At approximately $150 each they’re not inexpensive (the Eartec units are similarly priced). But, consider the cost of damaging your swim deck or the side of your boat because you couldn’t hear your spouse’s shouts from your pilot house or through the glass of your bridge.

Charging and setting up the SPH10-10 headsets was easy. Any USB power source will work, though the larger cubes designed for devices like iPads are better than the little ones that charge phones.

Configuring the units was also easy. We set ours up to talk to one another. However, the SPH10-10s can be configured to work with any Bluetooth audio device, such as a mobile phone.

Similar to the Eartec units, the Sena SPH10-10s allow you to conduct full-duplex conversations. That means you talk normally, as if the person you were talking to was directly in front of you. There are no buttons to push. Nothing to activate. The unit comes with two types of microphones. We opted to attach the included extension (and flexible) boom mic. When we’re in the locks I can usually hear the lock master as he or she delivers commands to Cathia at the same time she’s hearing them. When docking, and Cathia is near the swim deck, I can clearly hear her deliver distance and directional queues critical to my safely returning KAYLA to her slip.

There are other headsets available. Eartec even makes a professional set, but they’re way more expensive than the Sena units. If you’ve got a big boat, or one with limited access or visibility you might consider acquiring a set of wireless communication headsets. I’d label them important safety tools. Some have called them marriage savers.

Making Lists and Using Them

My Seamanship instructor and fellow ThreeSheetsNW blogger Bill Ray talked to the class one day about lists and how important and useful they could be to boaters. We had been talking about accidents and catastrophes and how they often begin, not because of one single event, but through a series of small mistakes or mishaps.

Lists can be an essential ingredient, if created and used properly, in thwarting accidents and catastrophes. It’s why they’re used and so important, for example, in aviation.

The Admiral expressed a desire to refine her boating skills so that she’d feel more comfortable taking the Laika out without me. While I’ve spent countless hours on the boat familiarizing myself with all the systems and taking numerous solo voyages into the lake, there hasn’t been an easy way of transferring that knowledge.

So, we decided a set of lists would be useful. There are a bunch of little steps required to be performed every time we take the boat out, or bring it back in. Thus was born the Captain’s Guide for the M/V Laika. Incidentally, M/V stands for motor vessel. You’ve undoubtedly heard the term SS used. That stands for steam ship. A whole list of these can be found here.

I selected a 5×8″ format in landscape orientation. I created the booklet in Apple’s Pages program, but could have easily done the same using Microsoft Word.

A sample page from our quick guide flip book

A sample page showing fuel locations near Seattle

Our first version of our guide is nine pages. Color coding was used to differentiate the guide’s sections:

  • Heading Out
  • Emergencies
  • Fuel Locations
  • Returning Home
  • Vital Vessel Information

It was important that the guide be JIS-5 rated, so I went to Fedex (Kinkos) and laminated each of the pages after producing color copies on 32lb bright paper and trimming them down to a reasonable size. I drilled some holes and bound the pages with notebook rings.

We’ll be testing the guide out over next few weeks and making changes as necessary. One section I plan to add soon will provide a quick overview of the steps and documentation necessary to travel between the US and Canada using our NEXUS status. Another will contain vital insurance and accident reporting information.

If you’d like a copy of the guide you can grab a version I created without all our personal information. There are versions in PDF, Pages and Word formats.

Sample guide:

  • PDF: click here to download
  • Pages: click here to download
  • Word: click here to download

Novel way of getting a VSC

If you haven’t obtained a vessel safety check (VSC) it’s a good idea to schedule one. They’re free and offer you a quick, seasonal way of getting an objective view of your boats water worthiness, safety level and compliance with local regs. A good place to start in terms of finding a qualified individual that can visit your boat and perform a VSC is the Safety Seal site.

This past week my wife, daughter and friend of ours were in Lake Union heading toward the locks for a planned outing to Poulsbo. It was 9:30 in the morning and with Morrison’s Fuel Dock in site and almost no other marine traffic we spotted a brightly colored Coast Guard pontoon boat. We were traveling well within the 7 knot speed limit and had a low wake. But, something told me, since we were practically the only boat out there at the time, that we were in for a boarding. And, that’s exactly what was going to happen.

The Coast Guard boat turned on their flashing blue lights and approached our boat. When it got closer it used its speaker to request a boarding. Naturally, we brought the LAIKA to a stop and prepared to welcome our boarding party. With armed Coast Guardsmen on a boat with a menacing 50 caliber bow mounted gun what other action do you take?

Interestingly, we had just installed Skyhook for our boat, a Bayliner 340SB with Mercury’s Axius system. Axius delivers a computerized control-by-wire system that independently controls the two stern drives for amazing control (like parallel movements using a joystick). If you’ve ever played a video game you already know how to perform dock maneuvers with our boat – or any boat equipped with Axius or Zeus (the same system for pod engines). Skyhook delivers a virtual anchor for the boat. Using GPS it’s capable of literally keeping the boat in one place – regardless of currents and wind. If the boat moves the system senses where it should be and uses the engines to scoot back into position. It’s accurate to within a few meters, provided you have good GPS coverage.

So, the Coast Guard boat moved into position and two of the officers stepped onto our swim deck and into our cabin. They were extremely nice and requested to see our documentation (we’re CG documented), PFDs, extinguishers and other safety equipment (like flares, whistle, flags, etc.). They also examined our engine compartment and complimented us on its cleanliness.

The whole event took less than ten minutes. They were also gracious enough to pose for some pictures which my daughter thoroughly enjoyed.

We have friends that have been boating for decades that have never been boarded. Here we are, new boaters, out before the season officially begins and we received our first Coast Guard Boarding. It was a success because all our safety and mechanical gear was in great shape. It was also fun to test out the Skyhook feature, which worked perfectly. We intend to use it mostly when waiting for the locks to open.

So, while a VSC remains a great idea (and we have one planned), we already know we’ll pass – thanks to our Coast Guard boarding and inspection.