One of the most fascinating items at the Detroit Boat Show might be just slightly ahead of its time.
The Storm Hawk weather tracking system allows boaters, hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts to get real-time weather radar, maps, charts and other data on a handheld device that doubles as a global positioning system and cell phone.
The system combines a Compaq iPAQ 3950 personal digital assistant, a GPS module, a cell phone wireless modem and Storm Hawk's software to display weather radar overlays on GPS land maps or marine charts for the entire United States.
The system also offers 30-minute weather predictions that Storm Hawk says are 94 percent accurate, a feature that would be of great interest to racing sailors. Weather warnings, such as thunderstorms or tornadoes, pop onto the screen as soon as they are issued by the National Weather Service. The thing even doubles as a cell phone, although it requires an earplug to listen.
Like every marine gadget from radios to GPS, the Storm Hawk at first will sell mostly to people with bigger boats, not because of the size of the unit but because of its cost. This $2,000 weather system represents a tiny fraction of the costs for a boat that sells for $200,000 but a significant chunk for a boat that sells for $20,000.
If the demand proves to be there, competing companies likely will jump into the market, and the price will drop. Remember, only 20 years ago a basic loran electronic navigation unit for recreational boats sold for about $3,000. Today, a GPS electronic navigation unit that's far superior to loran can be bought for less than $100.
"The maps and charts move as you move," said company spokeswoman Jennifer Leon of Wichita. "It also gives you information like wind direction, wind speed, tidal data, surf conditions, sea and air temperature and data from weather buoys in the oceans and Great Lakes.
"You can do weather bureau radar overlays on a GPS chart and see storms coming. We sell it with the Compaq iPAQ 3950, but if you already have a PDA that works with Windows PC 2002, you can use that."
The unit should have at least 128 megabytes of memory to ensure enough storage for maps and charts.
For people who cruise far enough offshore that a cell phone isn't always reliable, Storm Hawk can be used with a satellite telephone.
In addition to the base price, Storm Hawk users pay $40 a month for the cell phone service and $10 a month for unlimited access to weather data after the first year of free service.