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A truly seaworthy invention: Groton man dreams up new safety device

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Groton Long Point inventor and avid fisherman Anthony Viggiano had been thinking for some time about the dangers of recreational boating, but it took a friend's nearly disastrous experience six years ago to spur him into action.

"I can't believe I'm alive," the friend, Dr. Charles Primiano, a local summer resident, told Viggiano at a party, recounting how he had tumbled overboard during a solo midsummer fishing trip from Groton Long Point to Race Rock in Long Island Sound.

Viggiano said his friend was saved from possible drowning two miles out only because the throttle had been pulled back and the boat's steering mechanism sent it into a circular pattern that allowed Primiano to re-board the vessel.

"My hat blew off," Primiano remembered in a phone interview, "so I pulled back on the throttle and turned the boat to pick up the hat .... But I was going about 30 mph, and when the wake caught up with me it was like I was sitting on one end of a see-saw and three 300-pound people jumped on the other end. I just went right out."

Viggiano, a chemical engineer who already had several patents under his belt, said his friend's scary fall jump-started ruminations that led him to invent the Autotether, a wireless device that uses radio signals to shut down a boat's motor when a person goes overboard.

Viggiano already knew that falling into the water and becoming separated from a speeding vessel was the No. 1 cause of fatal boating accidents nationwide. In Connecticut alone, 34 deaths on recreational boats were reported over the latest five-year period; nationally, 736 boating deaths were recorded in 2009, the latest period for which there are Coast Guard statistics.

Time to Survive

"When you're in the water and it's 50 degrees, there's not much time to survive," Viggiano said. "Probably about 20 minutes."

And the dangers aren't just to the boaters who fall overboard. The new hydraulic steering devices in today's boats mean they can travel straight for miles without a driver, potentially endangering people and property over a wide area - a scenario that played out four years ago in the Connecticut River between Old Lyme and Old Saybrook when a 53-year-old woman died after her sailboat was struck by an unmanned motorboat.

The typical device boaters have used over the past half century to prevent man-overboard deaths is called a lanyard, a rope-like device that, when stretched too far, activates a kill-switch that cuts a vessel's motor. But lanyards are confining, something like a short leash, and therefore often are left unused - and can be attached to only one person at a time, meaning they offer no protection to other people aboard.

"They're kind of inconvenient," said Primiano, who wasn't tethered to a lanyard when he went overboard. "You have only about a foot and a half to move around, so you keep hooking and unhooking it."

So Viggiano set about to develop a device that would allow more freedom of movement about a boat. His "wireless lanyard" Autotether employs software that can tell the difference between a boat passenger getting soaked and someone plunging into the water, as Viggiano demonstrated last month aboard a friend's boat, using a fish net to simulate falling overboard.

The Autotether, which took two years to develop, can track up to four people - or even pets - who clip a small device to their waist, have it velcroed to their wrist (paw for cats and dogs) or throw it in a pocket. The device, which communicates with the boat's motor via the software and radio signals, sells for $259.

Ensuring safety

"It's the least expensive life insurance you're ever going to buy," as Viggiano likes to say.

Several boat-insurance companies offer price reductions for people who have Autotethers onboard, he added.

Viggiano said someone approached him just a few months ago at a boat show in Florida and recounted how the Autotether may have saved his two children's lives. The man had pulled his boat into a dock to gas up when his 4-year-old daughter accidentally hit the throttle, sending her and the vessel hurtling out to sea along with his 7-year-old son - until the boater hit his Autotether panic button to shut the engine down, Viggiano said.

In all, Viggiano said he has heard reports that a dozen people may already have been saved by the Autotether, out of the 3,000 or so devices already sold.

Viggiano started selling the Autotether three years ago but only this month will start a major marketing push, rolling out his product with flashy displays in 70 West Marine boating stores across the United States, including one in Mystic. The Autotether also has been sold by Waterford-based Defender Industries for the past three years.

"It is an incredibly popular item," said Ken Morse, marketing manager for Defender. "Since the first of the year, we've sold nearly 50 units."

Morse said other, more sophisticated man-overboard systems exist, but they are higher priced and often require professional installation. The Autotether, he said, is geared more toward the typical boater and can be quickly installed by clipping the device to a vessel's ignition switch.

Viggiano's Chester-based Autotether Inc. also is largely keeping business in state, farming out the manufacturing of nearly all of the wireless lanyard's components to companies around Connecticut, from Putnam to Waterbury.

Despite having only five full-time employees, Viggiano said his company supports 29 jobs in the state and qualifies for Connecticut's so-called angel-investment incentive that offers a 25 percent first-year tax credit and exempts 30 percent of capital gains for those who invest in the company.

The company, which Viggiano said currently assembles the Autotether components in Chester, outsources all of its manufacturing similar to the way Newman's Own manages its business. Viggiano is currently working with private investors in Connecticut to generate more funding for expanded marketing of the device, which was developed in conjunction with Martin LoSchiavo of Rocky Hill.

Viggiano said the biggest stumbling block to reaching an expanded market is getting out the word about the potential dangers of tumbling overboard with no help in sight. Once the nation's more than 11 million registered recreational boaters understand that accidents at sea are no laughing matter - that, as Charles Primiano found out, you could face disaster after only one small mistake - Viggiano expects clear sailing ahead for the Autotether.

"This will be on every boat someday," he said. "People don't realize the depth of the danger."

l.howard@theday.com

Business snapshot

Name: Autotether Inc.

Address: 3 Inspiration Lane, Unit 3B, Chester

Chief executive: Anthony Viggiano

Telephone: (888) 593-4181

Website: www.autotether.com

Employees: Five

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