Automatic identification system, known more commonly as AIS, is quickly becoming commonplace on moderately sized recreational vessels. Prices have dropped substantially in recent years, and many VHF radios are now equipped with AIS receivers. Transmitting an AIS signal, however, is less common, even though it adds another dimension to safety at sea.

For those unfamiliar, AIS is a VHF-based system. Vessels equipped with a transceiver, including all vessels over 300 gross tons, transmit their name, heading, speed, and other information at least once per minute when underway. Nearby vessels with a receiver (or transceiver) “see” this signal, providing their skippers with information that can be used to avoid collisions.

Used in conjunction with radar and electronic charts, AIS improves situational awareness.

My new-to-me Nordic Tug 37 came with dated electronics. The radar is old but perfectly functional. It includes a chartplotter, but the chartplotter is monochrome, slow, and can’t be used at the same time as the radar. When I bought the boat, I knew I’d at least need better electronic charts.

Modern chartplotters have slick user interfaces, rugged construction, and significant computing power, but they tend to be quite pricey. In the climate-controlled pilothouse of my Nordic Tug, I didn’t think I needed a marinized piece of technology. A laptop computer, with electronic charts and a GPS connection, would offer all the chartplotting functions I’d need, at a fraction of the cost of a dedicated chartplotter. With an iPad, iPhone, and second laptop aboard, I’d also have sufficient redundancy for cruising in remote areas.

I did, however, want AIS. And I needed a way to get GPS data to all my other gadgets. Enter the Vesper Marine XB-8000.

Vesper Marine is a New Zealand based marine electronics company focused solely on AIS solutions. Their products include the esteemed WatchMate series of AIS receivers and transceivers, noted for their superb target filtering capabilities.

The two Vesper Marine products that seemed particularly compelling to me were the WatchMate Vision and XB-8000. Both include a GPS antenna, a dual channel AIS class B transceiver, a WiFi NMEA multiplexer, and support for both NMEA 0183 and NMEA 2000, which are critical for interfacing with other marine electronics. The key difference between the WatchMate Vision and XB-8000 is the display and user interface: the Vision includes an 5.7 inch color display, while the XB-8000 is a “black box” solution.


Vesper Marine XB-8000

WatchMate Vision

Vesper Marine WatchMate Vision

I opted for the XB-8000 to avoid cutting new holes in the instrument panel.

After using the XB-8000 for a month, I’m impressed. Installation was straightforward, only taking a few hours (quite a feat for this electrical novice). Even with my sub-optimal antenna setup (to be rectified later this winter when I pull the headliner down to install a new antenna), I pull in targets more than 40 nautical miles away. Other boats can see me 10 nm away.

Vesper Marine’s WatchMate iOS app makes setting up the XB-8000 easy. I can quickly switch the transmit function on and off or scan for nearby targets.

What’s really cool, though, is how it integrates with all the gadgets aboard. After connecting my iPad, iPhone, and MacBook Pro to the VesperXB WiFi network, GPS and AIS data stream to each device. I use iNavX on iOS devices and MacENC on my Mac, and both applications clearly illustrate where AIS targets are, their closest point of approach, and so forth. If I had other NMEA sensors attached, such as an anemometer, engine data, or depth, that data would also be shared with devices over WiFi.


iNavX overlays AIS targets on the chart.

If you’re looking to add AIS to your boat, consider the offerings from Vesper Marine. They’re cutting edge, highly regarded, easy to use, and effective.

The Vesper Marine WatchMate Vision retails for $1,249 and the XB-8000 retails for $799, although local distributor Milltech Marine typically sells them for less.

Click here to visit Vesper Marine’s website and learn more about their products.

Sam Landsman

Share this: