Electronics nostalgia, 1984 transatlantic


This was my view from a borrowed mooring on Saturday night, and it was quite a nostalgic one as my one and only transatlantic was sailed aboard this very same Nautor Swan 59 from the Canary Islands to Martinique in December, 1984.  It’s hard to believe how very techy the boat’s electronics seemed at the time, how much they’ve changed since, and yet how old school they look today…

I wish I could remember the details better, or was still in touch with the owner, but the boat definitely had the first satellite navigation system I’d seen.  It was no doubt using the Transit system and only got a position every two to six hours as I recall, but it did put that position on some sort of very expensive electronic plotting gadget built into the surface of the chart table. Can anyone guess what that may have been?
  Meanwhile the three professional watch captains aboard (if you count me) taught the owner’s party celestial nav.  Not that you really need to know exactly where you are when crossing an ocean…until you get to the other side.  I learned how to make French bread, but I wouldn’t know where to start now.  We celebrated Christmas in mid ocean and my girlfriend of the time managed to fashion quite an elf outfit largely using some sort of silvery paper that came out of the weather fax machine, I think (memory fails).  We crossed in slightly less than 14 days and never had wind forward of the beam until we beat into Fort de France on flat water on New Years Eve.  That’s when the owner whipped out a night vision monocular (probably from ITT) that left green trails behind whatever it imaged, but was still incredibly useful for finding unlit marks (and later for spotting kids paddling out to us as we approached Dominica in pitch dark).  Just after we anchored, they set the fireworks off.

   During that trip, the owner struggled with the SSB High Seas system to stay in touch with family ashore and also to keep an eye on a late forming hurricane.  Now the boat has a KVH Tracphone 25 Mini-M system mounted on the mast (high, and out of the shot above) and probably more modern sat coms tucked away below. I was completely out of touch, except for an occasional port pay phone (also a struggle).  As you can see below, we did have some sort of radome on an aft post — in fact, there was enough stuff back there that we jokingly called her an “antenna powered Swan” — but that old open array radar seen above came later, as did the Raytheon radome on the mast.  I peeked into the cockpit as I exited the mooring area and saw an old Pathfinder screen at the helm.  She’s still a beautiful boat, but could use a fresh set of electronics 😉


Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now pleased to have Ben Stein as a very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague. Please don't regard him as an "expert"; he's getting quite old and thinks that "fadiddling fumble-putz" is a more accurate description.

12 Responses

  1. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Other memories:
    * The boat had a neatly lit mimic screen in the cockpit that showed the centerboard’s position. LEDs in 1984?
    * Systems were amazing. 11 people crossed the Atlantic, eating well, and still had ice cream when we got to the other side.
    * We also had a VCR, B&W TV, and tapes. Sometimes at night, there’d be a phenomenal blanket of stars above that weird b&w tv light wafting up through the hatches.

  2. bobc says:

    I’ll be it was a Yeoman plotter built into the nav table Ben. What do I win?

  3. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    I don’t think so, Bob; I remember something much James Bond like.

  4. Reed Erskine says:

    A nice look back on a time gone by. Keyboard in the cockpit, wow.

  5. bobc says:

    Just as you asked for Ben, a guess. But there was a model that was built into the chart table, not the clunky tablets that were marketed in later years. Do you remember if it had a mouse like interface and worked with paper charts?

  6. bobc says:

    Just as you asked for Ben, a guess. But there was a model that was built into the chart table, not the clunky tablets that were marketed in later years. Do you remember if it had a mouse like interface and worked with paper charts?

  7. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    That’s the owner on keyboard; in retrospect he was quite the gear head. The boat also had a cockpit stereo. To this day, I can not hear Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds without recalling times behind that wheel feeling the big Swan groove along.

  8. SanderO says:

    Sorry to go off topic. Ben have you seen this product?

  9. SanderO says:

    YIKES I had one of those transit SatNav units. It worked with satellites on polar orbits and returned a fix WHERE you had been and had to use their DR to update the actual current position as I recall. But they didn’t have much for position fixing off shore back then. My first Trimble GPS – NavTrac, I think was north of $5K – crude lat lon plots too. YIKES.

  10. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Thanks for the link to iAIS, SanderO! I heard about, and liked, the idea a long time ago, off the record, but DY hasn’t sent me a press release yet. It takes a village to keep up with new marine electronics, and I really appreciate how you and other readers help me out.

  11. John says:

    Ben, now there’s an idea for the next generation MFD’s…..a built in keyboard to entertain the crew LOL! I sailed with a club memner last weekend who is really not into his electronics. We used a compass, a few known bearings and a basic depth/speed instrument (a very old Autohelm TriData) and we had a lot of fun. Technology is good but sometimes “oldschool” can be fun as well!

  12. Avery says:

    I ran into some of your crew in Antigua not long after Hi Ya’s arrival that winter. DW’s son, Shawn, had done that trip with you and I’ll never forget the juxtaposition of two out-of-place Maine kids in exotic (for us) Antigua, talking about our first respective deepwater passages.
    Regarding his, Shawn said, in a thick Maine accent, “Jesus Christ, Avery. That boat [Hi Ya]…She’s a RIP-SNORTAH!”

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