Vesper Cortex update: Boat Networks, squashing bugs & more

New Boat Network setup screen seen on iPad and Android phone versions of the Cortex Onboard apps
New Boat Network setup screen seen on iPad and Android phone versions of the Cortex Onboard apps

Vesper Marine’s Cortex AIS, VHF, and monitoring system is the most innovative marine electronics product I’ve tested in a long time. But Cortex is also a serious challenge to review properly because it has so many useful capabilities — some of which look and feel strikingly different from their antecedents — and it’s also a system designed to evolve.

That’s the justification for this update, even though I recently wrote at length about testing the Cortex M1 Hub and haven’t yet attempted to fully describe the H1 handset/VHF portion of the system. It’s also why I’m delighted that others are now reviewing Cortex on their own boats, and often having different experiences with the details (as I’ll discuss at the end of this entry). It may take a village to help a studious skipper thoroughly understand Cortex, even after making the serious financial investment.

Cortex providing AIS and other data like Depth and Wind via Gizmo's WiFi boat router
Cortex providing AIS and other data like Depth and Wind via Gizmo’s WiFi boat router

The major recent change to the Cortex hub is its new ability to join a boat’s own WiFi network and then deliver its AIS and GPS data — plus other boat info it gathers from its NMEA 2000 and 0183 connections — to apps running on other devices also using the network. For instance, whenever I climb aboard Gizmo these days, my iPad automatically logs onto its “M/V Gizmo 5G” network and if I open a navigation tool like TZ iBoat, it’s automatically displaying all sorts of useful info streaming from the Cortex hub (as illustrated above, with the NMEA Connection setup only shown to illustrate what’s happening behind the main nav screen).

This means that I can also use the Cortex Onboard app while the iPad (or my phone) is still enjoying other benefits of Gizmo’s network, like detailed Victron power monitoring. And, yes, it’s possible that one day I’ll be comfy in my berth streaming Netflix (or doom scrolling Twitter) while the excellent Cortex anchor watch runs in the background ready to literally tell me if something goes amiss.

Configuring the Cortex Boat Network feature using the Onboard app is quite straightforward, as suggested by the iOS and Android screens at the top of the entry. It’s also nicely unusual because the app can actually switch the WiFi network your tablet or phone is using — to, or from, the M1 hub — when you toggle that Boat Network switch. Note too how the setup page shows the IP address — in my case “” — where the Cortex data can be found on Gizmo’s network. That’s what you need to set up nav apps like TZ iBoat and many others (along with the “39150” port address that Vesper has used for years).

A Cortex handset can also use the Boat Network feature, but...
A Cortex handset can also use the Boat Network feature, but…

A Cortex H1 handset can also connect to the M1 hub via a boat network, and that seemed to work fine when I tried it. But the only reason to do this, that I can think of, is if a direct WiFi connection to the M1 doesn’t work as well. In fact, Vesper recommends that at least one handset on a boat have a direct connection because the Boat Network feature does add a possible point of failure that’s likely also less robust than the Cortex modules.

Note that the Cortex Hub can connect directly to as many as 5 Cortex handsets, and simultaneously to 5 more handsets or app devices via a boat network. And that Vesper is saying the next feature up is intercom between handsets.

Meanwhile, my original M1 hub review did not cover its NMEA 0183 output mainly because I was blaming myself for not getting it to work correctly. Well, lo and behold, the problem was actually a typo in the Cortex manual — now long fixed — and what you’re seeing above are the nifty results of the Cortex feeding the HS 0183 port on Gizmo’s FloatHub monitoring device. The FloatHub sends AIS (and other) data to my private FH web page over WiFi and then forwards it to Marine Traffic (and other AIS websites), so my volunteer MT mobile station is happily back in action (and I receive valuable MT subscription privileges in return).

Actually, I wrote about FloatHub’s easy AIS forwarding ability in 2018, when a Vesper XB8000 was the source. And while I’m glad to have it back, those screenshots are also demonstrating how Cortex can still receive AIS even though Gizmo is now deep inside the windowless all-steel storage building you can see behind the JEM travel lift in this Google Street View (and that huge door is rarely rolled up these days). In fact, extremely difficult GPS reception inside that steel box is probably why my real-time FloatHub web widget shows Gizmo at anchor off The Bitter End Yacht Club right now (with the onboard air temperature at a decidedly un-tropical 40 degrees).

I know it’s a weird test, but isn’t it impressive that Cortex AIS, GPS and cellular radios have all been working much of the time inside what is essentially a huge Faraday shield? I did detach the main Shakespeare antenna from the tilted mast to get it standing upright, but I’m also hearing reasonably clear VHF conversations in about the same full Rockland Harbor range seen on the FloatHub AIS display. On the other hand, a GPS fix takes a very long time if I reboot the Hub — though I consider the month of tracking shown above quite good in the circumstances — and the cellular monitoring connection has been broken a fair amount in recent weeks (snow on top of the steel roof?).

Also, note that the free 90-day Cortex Premium Monitoring trial is long over on my test system, so what I’m experiencing now is the free-for-life Monitoring Lite. And it’s not bad. NMEA 2000 boat data is still visible from afar, though only updated twice a day, and the same for analog sensor inputs like the one watching Gizmo’s door. Those values are also roughly logged and graphed, and I think that the battery bank screen above — though actually it’s the power measured at the hub — could be quite useful, especially when the boat is stored. (As to what’s going on there with Gizmo’s Firefly bank, sad story to come.)

It sure looked like the correct password, but D0H!
It sure looked like the correct password, but D0H!

So Cortex continues to impress me, but that now includes how tiny bugs can impressively slip through rigorous testing of complex systems. Besides the early NMEA 0183 manual error already mentioned — which was essentially just “+” and “-” signs transposed — doesn’t the M1 WiFi password entered on my H1 handset above look correct?

I didn’t have to manually enter that password anywhere until November because the Cortex V1 kit comes already paired and the QR code works great for the app devices. Also, the handset pairing never failed until I joined the Cortex beta program, though manual pairing will be necessary if I get more handsets. And it drove me nuts until a Vesper representative wondered if it could be a zero versus capital O issue, although they’d eliminated both characters from passwords early in the Cortex roll out.

Well, I not only received an early Cortex, but had also faithfully entered what I thought to be a zero, many times, until that prompt got me to notice how CORTEX is printed near the password and realize that Vesper had also used a compressed font. As Homer Simpson would say: DOH! Or Cortex manual style: D0H!

Please turn your sound up for this video

Of course there may be more serious Cortex bugs than I’ve encountered so far, but encountering them can depend on the particular install, usage, and location. For instance, toward the end of Steve Mitchell’s thorough Cortex review, he describes losing parts of VHF conversations due to what he thinks is over-aggressive squelch. That’s not good, and apparently Vesper intends to provide more squelch control, but in the less VHF busy area where I’m testing, Cortex’s automated squelch seems nearly perfect as is and I’ve rarely even used the two settings besides Normal.

Then again, I have had noise problems on channel 68 that Cortex squelch won’t fix, but then I realized that there’s also some un-squelchable noise on the Standard Horizon GX6000 using the same antenna, though on 67 instead, and that Ben Stein’s Cortex channel 68 is working fine in Florida. So it seems like a Gizmo problem.

And while the AIS MoB Test Alerts on/off switch is a bit hard to find in the Cortex menu system, I certainly understand why Kees Verruijt might think that an annoying bug after installing his Cortex in a Caribbean harbor where 48 cruise ship lifeboats test their AIS MoB devices weekly. I also learned from Kees that the Cortex monitoring on his U.S.-sourced system does not work in Aruba and can not be changed over for European cellular when he sails back home in the near future. That’s disappointing, though I gather that Cortex monitoring will eventually learn to use other shore connections that might be available via Boat Network.

I’m hoping we’ll hear how Cortex performs during Kees’ Atlantic crossing (and highly recommend his recent Panbo PodCast). I also appreciated Chuck Batson’s Cortex review, and am quite baffled about how his Instrument screen can show depth in feet and inches, let alone 9′ 12″. That’s what I mean about different reviewers experiencing different Cortez quirks, and probably niceties too. The more reviews the better, I think, and I’d also like to see more videos of the handset in action, sound included. Which is my excuse for the rather crude attempt above.

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.

36 Responses

  1. Ray Goff says:

    I’ve had a Cortex since I could get one. I really didn’t need it but trying different technologies as I hope to cruise a lot more on the future. I recently had a situation where post upgrade the cell link stopped working. Vesper was great trying to fix the problem. They are sending me a new M2 so they can diagnose the issue back it the labs. Reason I am posting to the commend the great support I have received.

  2. BoatGuyBill says:

    I am the Build Manager for North Pacific Yachts, so I have been enthusiastically suggesting Cortex to our new boat buyers. For context, the Cortex system is a $350 upgrade from the less integrated items we have been installing (including the AIS8000). A no brainer IMHO. I am so glad that Vesper is just making this better and better. And that sites like Panbo are giving context for its use. In other news, I am close to justifying a Cortex on my own boat! Question: Why get the wired handset? The Vesper rep says that wired only means power.

    • Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

      Thanks, Bill. I can confirm that the H1 tethered handset cable only attaches to 12 or 24v DC power. So there’s very little difference between it and the H1P portable, except maybe that the latter’s charging cradle could fail or you could misplace it because it is portable (and hopefully that doesn’t mean overboard). But I haven’t tried the portable and haven’t seen any independent reviews yet.

    • Hi Bill,

      I have both the wireless and wired handset; I’ve just swapped them so now the wired handset is in the front cabin next to our pillows, with the wireless in the doghouse ready to take outside (… with stern warning from the Admiral not to lose it!)

      One thing I would like is the ability to automatically switch the handset off when it is in the cradle and I shut down the power on the circuit (now it starts alarming, which is okay; and I understand Vesper’s decision to do it this way — it means you will be notified if battery power cuts out accidentally.)

  3. Dan says:

    I have found several Items I find annoying.
    1. The menu to turn alarms on and off are only shown when on the plotter display, but not on the collision avoidance display.
    2.When in some display modes you can’t get back to the VHF display using the VHF button on the handset without backing out of the current display or letting a display timeout such as adjusting display brightness. Since this handset is mainly a VHF unit that button should take priority over everything.
    3.The touch and drag feature on display to change channels seems cool but it is too easy to end up with VHF on wrong channel and not realize it, can’t count the number of times this has happened.
    4.Connections to my Furuno wifi network (wifi radar) seems to be problematic, ais gps and 0183 information not showing up reliably on iPad that is connected to Furuno radar.

    • VLL says:

      #3 is one of my bigger complaints as well (on a system I basically love and would not part with). Yes, VERY easy to jump VHF channels, and a problem that it is so easy. I cruise several weeks a year where I am more or less in constant contact with other boats, either channel 68 or 71. The touch and drag feature makes it easy to change channels inadvertently because I’ve grabbed the handset quickly for a call-out to the group. Then, only to find I jumped channels and my transmission didn’t go through.

  4. jim Henault jim Henault says:

    Ben, Have you done any testing with Coastal Explorer? I’m wondering if the Cortex could take place of the NEMO gateway and if would open the engine monitoring features of CE that are only available for display with the NEMO gateway.

    • Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

      Jim, I think that the NEMO has several unique features, as mentioned in part by Bill (below), but Cortex will definitely feed all the nav data it collects to CE. I haven’t actually tried it with CE on a PC, but I’ve used CE for years with all data supplied by a Vesper XB8000, at first via an Actisense USB gateway, and later via WiFi. Actually, CE is the best Nav app for seeing the details of what’s coming from a Cortex as shown at the end this recent bit about the CE on an iPad:

  5. BoatGuyBill says:

    Hi Jim! I’ve been told by Rose Point that the unique feature of the Nemo is it’s ability to duplex 0183 signals in addition to n2k. But this is done with some newer products now. The other element to the story is that any gateway needs to transmit all nmea information via 0183 in order for CE for iPad, for instance, to read it. I don’t have any 0183 transmitters aboard my older boat anymore. So the hardware connections provided by the Nemo aren’t needed in my case. So I bought a $200 Yacht Devices YDEN-02 to do the job, and it’s working great. As for Cortex, I think the question to ask Vesper is does it transmit all information in 0183.

  6. Dan Winchester says:

    I think you will find that the Cortex cant send engine data because it is limited to sending 0183 sentences over wifi and there are no 0183 sentances for transmitting engine data.

  7. A good feature for Vesper to implement in Cortex is the sort of filtering and source prioritization that Nemo can do. (I hadn’t heard of Nemo before today, but Steve’s writeup at is very enlightening…)

    Cortex seems to favour its own GPS (fair enough) when sending NMEA0183 (over TCP port 39150) but it can’t handle my multiple depth and wind sensors. The latter may be peculiar to Merrimac being a B&G test vessel 🙂 The Cortex just writes out MWV and DPT sentences as it receives them on NMEA2000; at least it should use a different talker ID for different N2K sources; even better is a Web GUI to define which sources should be forwarded with which priority and which talker ID.

  8. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Cool! My AIS collision alarm video will soon be outdated, because the calm sounding lady will soon be more specific with her alarms, as in “collision alert, starboard bow.” And there are more new features (I hadn’t heard about) coming soon in update 1.5:

    Also note that Cortex is so advanced that this news was published on Feb. 13 😉

  9. Carl Nelson says:

    Very exciting news that a loud hailer might be coming. As I expect Vesper reads these – I’ll pass on that the most frequent use of my loud hailer is the timed fog horn signal in Maine fog. My current one also lets me set the tone of the horn (hz) to a nice low pitch so I sound like a bigger boat in the fog…..

    • Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

      Carl, I’m curious to know which VHF lets you customize its fog horn tone. I’ve experienced how effective it is to sound like a much bigger boat than you’re actually on.

  10. Ray says:

    The comment on your Firefly bank has me a bit worried having just installed 6.

    • Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

      Ray, they will probably work fine for you, but do keep a close eye for possible problems with individual batteries. Also suggest you check out the many Firefly threads on the Cruisers Forum, like this one:

      In short, many Firefly users are quite pleased with them after many years of use, but there are also some like me who have had problems. I do have excellent Victron data on the last six months of my four G31 bank and hope to do some forensic analysis with OPE. But I’m shopping for a lithium solution now.

      • Carl Nelson says:

        Ouch. I’m another Firefly user. So far, so good. But I’m in the process of having a new cat built and she will have Lithium batteries. While I recognize that batteries are a little off the traditional Panbo topic, it might be a good extension to your tests as so many of your readers are tackling this new territory. There appears to be a sea change going on where the LiFePO4 banks with cells separate from the BMS (Lithionics) are being overtaken by the drop-ins. The “old guard” are adamant that the drop-ins are not as good but they seem to be loosing the battle to the much lower cost (and 8-10 year warranties) of the drop-ins. The large sailing cats have been routinely installing 1200-1800 AH banks of drop-ins for several years with few problems (of course, you need an installer who knows what he’s doing). In my own case I’ve been consider Battleborn, Relion, but especially LifeBlue that comes with bluetooth and an app that reports status and history from the BMS on each battery. And new drop-in brands are appealing regularly.

  11. I’m looking forward to reading the details of your findings. We’re full-time cruisers and have 1000 watts of solar and 800 watts of wind so this bank rarely gets below 75%. Most morning we wake up to over 90%.

    We got caught out in Florida a couple months ago with a dead AGM bank and were on our way to the Bahamas so we didn’t want to spend the time switching to lithium. We do have BB or Relion in our future but that will come with big changes such as all electric galley to take advantage of the batteries. Big job that’s now set to take place after the FF have lived their life.

  12. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Cortex software improvements continue at a nice pace and here’s one I’m especially pleased about as previewed in the latest Beta release:

    “Collision Profiles
    The collision profiles have been extended on and the naming convention has been changed. The Anchored and Marina profiles are for when you are not underway. Harbour, Cruising and Offshore are for when you are underway. In the future we will use these definitions of underway and not underway when Cortex automatically prompts you to change your profile when it senses you may want to. To change the settings that each profile uses, go to Alarm Settings. The settings selected will be saved against the current profile. ”

    They’ve also redone the overall alarm presentation and configuration in ways that sound easier to understand and manage. And, mind you, the collision profiles and various alarms were already well beyond the norms.

  13. Carl Nelson says:

    I was wondering if the Cortex monitoring would work in the Bahamas where Vesper doesn’t offer a monitoring plan. Ted Dixon responded to my email that the upcoming 1.5 update would:

    “…… be able to connect the Cortex to an onboard cellular router if you have one on the boat, which is already connected to the BTC or other cellar providers in the Bahamas. With this connection you will be able to monitor the Cortex monitoring systems”

    A great solution.

  14. I own 2 units, one on a sailboat and one on a motorboat. I must say that I’m very disappointed by Cortex monitoring capabilities, robustness and software quality. It loses the cloud connection frequently, and while sailing for one week I had to restart the hub every day to even connect the Onboard app. Aside from buggy apps and firmware, I see the following shortcomings:

    – DSC calling via chart plotter is not supported.
    – Can’t reliably measure batteries > 12V
    – No SOC measurement
    – No CZONE support (Sentinel, Siren Marine and other monitoring products have it)
    – Not enough I/O ports to be useful for switching
    – Handset UX difficult to use under stress

    I would recommend to wait until the product matures. They seem to have a very small software team as updates come slowly and at best fix a few bugs but introduce others.

    • Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

      Hi Stephan,

      I’m in the Cortex beta program, and yesterday just enabled a new feature whereby the Cortex monitoring can use its connection to a boat WiFi network if its own cellular isn’t working. Gizmo is a great test site for that as she’s in an all-steel building with a very shaky cell signal but pretty reliable WiFi to a boatyard hotspot. And the new fail over feature works great, at least so far.

      It should be easy for Vesper to add N2K derived SoC to Cortex monitoring but I don’t think it will ever be a complete substitute for what Siren, Sentinel, and others are offering, but then again I think that the AIS/VHF features are so good, and have so much room to grow, that the monitoring can be seen as a nice extra if you can use it. By the same token, though, the handset is unfamiliar to all of us, though I’m also seeing some good UI improvements in the latest beta, and am about to write about others they just previewed to the press.

      In short, I don’t think you’ll regret your purchases in the long run, and I know that you own one of the most beautiful and technically sophisticated vessels I’ve ever been aboard 😉

  15. Ray Goff says:

    Latest Cortex Issues:
    1. Hub failed to connect to Cell after an update. Worked with support resolve, but they ended sending me a new unit. Works fine now and no connection issues.
    2: Wired Handset wasnt turning on, power to unit by no joy. Sent back to factory and waiting on reply.
    3 Wireless Handset not seating properly. I have put a “wedge” behind the upper part of the handset to get connections to work and charge. They sent 2 new cradles but same issue. Not sure if something on handset or what – still waiting on what they can do for me..

    Anyone else having issues with wireless handsets?

    • Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

      Yike! But — largely because I’m in the beta program — I’ve been through about 10 updates of my M1 hub and H1 handset without anything permanently breaking. I have had situations where the update ground to a halt forcing a candellation, or the H1 failed to connect afterward, but reboots all around always solved the issue (and now I try to remember to reboot the hub before an update).

      Meanwhile I’ve had no trouble with wired H1 power, though I shut it down every time I leave the boat. And I don’t have wireless handset, though I’m hoping to fix that before summer on the flybridge. But Ben Stein has one and may chime in regarding the cradle fit.

  16. The ability to make it part of an existing WIFI network is important, great to hear it is coming. I forgot to mention two other misses: it is impossible to be connected to more than one boat at the time, and only one app can connect to a hub – resulting in a strange 1:1 relationship between a phone and a boat. You have to decide whether the boat keeper or owner has access – why not both? And the boat keeper usually manages several boats in a marina. Both Sentinel and Siren Marine handle this.

  17. Raymond Goff Raymond Goff says:

    Re linking to one boat….when they replaced my HUB, it was a pain to get the app back to the new Hub. Took several emails back and forth and some magic on the backend to get the “system” relating the new hub back to me and my monitor app

  18. Ray says:

    I’m looking to get one of these units and a couple handhelds to replace our B&G VHF (that keeps failing) and the AIS.

    A couple questions if someone can help.

    Our current B&G radio has a loud hailer on the mast and I read that Vesper has a firmware update that includes a hailer function. Has anyone used it yet?

    I’m currently using Signal K connected to the B&G GoFree wifi unit to track basic sensor data. We are getting ready to add additional sensors for environment, engines, tanks and Victron charging. Will the Vesper unit repeat all the NMEMA 2k data to other clients? I would like to go down to only one wifi point on the boat if possible.

    • Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

      Hi Ray,

      Vesper says that Cortex will eventually have a hailer function, and there are even wires for it, though unlabeled. But I think it’s fairly far along the development roadmap as they recently previewed some amazing scanning, recording, and squelch features that they’re working on now.

      However, the Cortex hub includes an antenna splitter so that maybe you could keep the B&G radio for VHF backup and hailing. I have my test Cortex set up that way, so one antenna is handling Cortex VHF and AIS while a Standard Horizon is still able to do VHF and AIS receive (and hailing if I had one attached).

      But the Cortex is not an Ethernet switch like your GoGree WiFi module (if I understand what that does correctly), and there’s a lot of confusion about what happens when NMEA 2000 data is bridged to Ethernet and/or WiFi anyway. An unofficial default standard has evolved in which core N2K data messages (PGNs) are translated to NMEA 0183 and then send out over WiFi so that various nav apps can get GPS, Heading, Wind, AIS etc. from the boat. Vesper has been doing that for a while, as a nice extra feature of its AIS transponders. And Cortex follows suit.

      But there are many N2K PGNs that Cortex does not translate plus many for which there is no 0183 equivalent. By contrast, Signal K is designed to handle the raw N2K data stream, and even GoFree was designed with modes beyond the “translate basics to 0183” technique.

      At any rate, I think that Vesper will expand the N2K data it can read because now it can bridge that info to its remote monitoring system where much more than basic nav info is useful. In fact, I suspect that some of the offboard monitoring will eventually work with the Cortex handsets so that we could be told in a nice but insistent voice that, say, a bilge alarm had been triggered.

      But I think that you should stick with your current Signal K setup or explore other ways to get an SK server on your boat. There seems to be activity on that front recently, as seen on the Digital Yacht blog and the CPN site.

      Hopefully others will chime in if I made mistakes or they have more add. How’s life in the lee of Long Island, Bahamas? I have fond memories of that area from back in the 70’s.

      • Ray says:

        Thank you for the info! I was going off a Vesper press release regarding the hailer

        Regardless, we really don’t use the hailer much except for last hurricane season when we decided to sail in New England.

        The Signal K stuff is really amazing, I just need to be careful to not go overboard on sensors.

        We’re enjoying Long Island. We spend a a couple weeks in the Raggeds and had a great time! We’re slowly making our way back to the US where we plan to spend the summer before, hopefully, heading to the Pacific.

  19. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Cortex Release 1.5 is official and also nicely documented:

    As mentioned above, I’ve already experienced many of the improvements and new features as part of the Beta program (though limited to a boat still in storage). I like all of them.

    • Ray says:

      Bummer, I don’t see hailer listed.

      • Carl Nelson says:

        Since Vesper likely reads these – I also am looking forward to the hailer – especially as an automated fog horn – with user selected timing and hertz. That was the most frequent use of my previous boat’s hailer.

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