GPS and Racing Applications

GPS receivers have been showing up in race boats for several years. My first opportunity to climb into the cockpit of a race boat brought me face to face with a Trimble GPS in Stuart Hayim's Recovery. Neither Stuart nor Joey knew how to run the gadget, so I became the instant GPS instructor. Trimble Units Mounted in INXS With some assistance from Ted Sabarese (who usually sports about five Trimbles in his boat), the crew of Recovery became educated in the ways of electronic navigation and their love/hate relationship with GPS took off. From there on, I started to notice how many boats were sporting the little antennas somewhere on the hull.

During the 1995 season, many boats showed up at races with GPS installed. Installation is the easy part for the racers - just find someone to rig the boat. The hard part is learning how to use the thing. Compared to a compass, it may seem a bit daunting. After all, you have to push buttons and remember to turn it on. But GPS really isn't as complex as it seems, it just takes some time to get used to the jargon and button-pushing. And that's the same whether you're running a 46' Skater at 140 mph on Lake X or a 20' Bayliner at 20 mph on Lake Travis.

Why put a GPS on a race boat? Well, if you're out in front, there is no one to follow to the first turn buoy. And for a lot of racers, the race is spent mostly cruising along and hunting for some sign of the next turn. So, GPS can guide you to the turns and help shave seconds off lap times with better navigation. It reduces the likelihood that you will wander off course or go the wrong way back to the crane. And it makes a great conversation piece.

GPS doesn't replace a compass, it is a complement to the traditional navigation systems for boating. This applies in racing, too. No one would give up their compass and map and go with a GPS. As many racers have discovered, GPS isn't always reliable. It also is finicky. Some units stare blankly back at the driver or navigator. Others come and go, with no predictability. Why are they so frustrating, you might ask? Well, it has a lot to do with how GPS receivers are designed to work. The signals from the satellites are transmitted at very low wattage, and consequently the receivers are sensitive. Put a very high output electronic ignition system close to a receiver, and you have the potential for problems. The unit may work one day, crap out the next.

In addition, life is hard on race boats. They take a beating every time they go out on the water. High speed runs over rough water provide a jarring ride for the equipment. Ever notice how things seem to loosen up when you bounce around a lot on the lake? Well, same thing, only worse, for a race boat.

Trimble Antenna Mounted on Recovery
The best way to prevent electronic problems is to properly rig the GPS receiver. There are several options, including rigging a separate battery or dedicated circuit for the receiver. Proper antenna placement, away from the ignition system and engines, will lessen the likelihood of interference. Filters are available from a number of outfitters for eliminating the RF signals that interfere with the satellite signals.

Of course, learning the basics of running the GPS is important. Receivers are getting easier to set up and run, but they aren't as intuitive as a five point harness. Programming way points (turn buoys) and setting up the correct number of laps is important if you want to not get lost or quit a lap too soon. So learn to use the receiver and it will probably never let you down. Just in case, though, keep the course map taped to the dash, count the laps, and use the compass as a backup. And getting a lesson in GPS from a pro doesn't hurt either. I always enjoy the chance to walk someone through the setup.

Don't get lost!

-Margaret Hart

If you have any questions about using or installing GPS in a racing application, please forward them to me at

Back to the GPS and the Offshore Powerboat
Back to the Offshore Powerboat Racing Homepage