Hands-on helm upgrade
Posted on 31 January 2012
Written by Peter Swanson
With some DIY skills, you can set up a new electronics system for less than $12,000
The deals on used cruising boats have never been better. Look for a sound hull and a good-running engine and transmission. Sailors should inspect the rigging and sails, too. Having to replace any of these can turn an otherwise good deal upside down.
As for electronics, it would almost be better if the boat you are shopping for didn’t have any — particularly if you, the buyer, possess basic knowledge of 12-volt systems, a knack for wiring, attention to detail, a willingness to learn networking rules and a lot of time to do the job right. In fact, time is the amateur’s great equalizer, the one true advantage over the professional, who must work quickly to earn a living.
This story is not geared toward readers who can afford a million-dollar boat, but those of you with big dreams on a budget. It suggests how boat owners with basic skills can perform an electronics makeover for less than $12,000, installing new products from a mix of manufacturers. By the time the last connection has been crimped, the boat will be equipped with the navigation and communications gear to cruise North American waters, including Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.
Let’s look at this from the perspective of a cruising couple, a husband and wife who need to be able to safely navigate day or night. They need to be able to receive timely weather broadcasts in remote anchorages. They need to be able to communicate with friends and family no matter where they are and they need to attend to their financial affairs from afar. They like to keep up with the news back home and enjoy listening to music while they are holed up waiting for weather or having a cocktail at the end of the day. They also will need redundancy in two key areas: navigation and weather forecasting.
Our couple is cruising on a budget; every dollar spent on equipment is a dollar out of their cruising kitty, so they are highly cost-conscious. Their boat — an older 35- to 44-footer — was purchased with a suite of obsolete or non-functioning electronic equipment. One of the most time-consuming tasks for amateur and professional alike is running the wires from the business end of the systems to the readouts at the helm.
A caveat: Just because a product is mentioned here doesn’t suggest that it performs better than a competing device. Indeed, today’s marine electronics manufacturers aren’t selling junk; it all works pretty well. The devices were chosen based on three criteria: They are appropriate to the mission, whenever possible they have an advantage that makes them easier to install and, all else being roughly equal, they cost less.
The hardware and software for our installation comes in at less than $10,500, not including additional cables, connectors and terminal strips, etc. Annual subscriptions cost another thousand, not including satellite airtime minutes. That’s pretty good, considering the capabilities these devices will bring to the helm. A decade ago that sum would have bought a radar, a chart plotter and not much more.
The best professional technicians achieve excellent results working very quickly, thanks to their training and experience. A handy and intelligent boat owner with enough spare time can achieve the same results methodically, pondering every cable chase and antenna location, calculating the wire gauge for the length of a run, all the while ensuring that the work meets industry standards and looks professional.
Yes, neatness counts. Compared with today, many boats in the 1970s were sturdier, with thicker fiberglass hulls, but their electrical wiring was often of indifferent quality. Before undertaking any electronics installation it would behoove the owner of the vessel to spend a day at a boat show. Ask the salespeople to open consoles and panels for a look. They will do so proudly because the wires will be lined up like a Marine Corps regiment on parade — every cable parallel, clamps and wire ties at uniform intervals and few cables crossing over another. Note the way service loops are incorporated, the drip loops, the labeling.
Neatness obviously makes diagnosing problems easier, but the cynical truth is that neat wires are a visible way to convey a boatbuilder’s presumptive high standards in all aspects of the product, visible or not. Making a good impression instills in buyers a sense of value, including resale value. Therefore, neat wiring should be mandatory, especially if you are doing it yourself.
Consider your older boat. Open the panels and what do you see? Is it a rat’s nest of butt-splices and multicolored 12- and 14-gauge wire? Some of that may have been because builders 30 years ago were working to a lower standard, but much of the tangle is likely attributable to a succession of owners adding electronics without regard to appearance. Because you’ll be doing so much wiring, anyway, maybe this is the time to try to clean up or rewire the boat to a higher standard throughout.
Check the industry standards. The National Marine Electronics Association sets standards for electronics installations in the United States and other areas of the world; it developed the communications protocols that allow products from different manufacturers to be integrated. The electronics suggested in this article will use both the NMEA 0183 and NMEA 2000 protocols. Call the association and order the loose-leaf book NMEA 0400, “Installation Standards for Marine Electronic Equipment Used on Moderate-Sized Vessels” (www.nmea.org).
This manual has a chapter on how to install each of the major components for your electronics makeover. It has charts specifying the proper gauge wire for the distance of the run and how much space is needed between antenna types on your arch or mast. You’ll be less likely to make an error that affects device performance, and advertising your electronics suite as having been installed to NMEA standards should have a positive effect on resale. I bought a copy of the standards in preparation for this article, and I believe even an experienced tinkerer will find a great deal of valuable info therein.
Call the equipment manufacturers. It never ceases to astound me that so many boaters with questions about gear will seek advice from fellow boaters in online forums before picking up a phone and calling the manufacturer. Let’s say you are about to install the VHF radio. First read the instructions that came with the unit, then the chapter on VHF in the NMEA manual. Having gained perspective, call tech support at the manufacturer. Tell the tech your situation and ask whether there are any tips for integrating your radio and chart plotter to enable the VHF’s emergency DSC function.
A note about tools: If you are like me, you might own one of those ubiquitous combination wire stripper/crimper tools. That’s fine for small jobs, but when undertaking a major installation it’s best to go with a professional-quality dedicated stripper and crimper, particularly the latter. You might also want a heat gun for heat-shrinking connections, rather than waving a lighter flame beneath them. And, of course, a multimeter. If you have to chase wires through a mast, metal tubing or inaccessible areas inside the vessel, I certainly would invest in a steel fish tape.
The core of an electronics suite is the multifunction display (MFD) and its components. Manufacturers are consolidating as many functions as possible into what used to be just a chart plotter. All of today’s MFDs will do the job, but for ease of installation I suggest the Lowrance HDS-8 with Navico Broadband Radar (www.lowrance.com). This innovative radar is best known for its ability to display hazards within feet of the vessel, as well as targets as far as 24 or 36 nautical miles away, depending on whether you have a 3G or 4G model.
Broadband Radar may not be the best choice for every boat, but it makes a lot of sense on an island-hopping coastal cruiser, particularly a sailboat. When transmitting, it uses a third less power than pulse radars, and it transmits almost instantly from standby mode — no 60-second warm-up — so an energy-conscious skipper can take a peek every once in a while to save on amps. Unless you need to see far-off mountain peaks or high-rise buildings, the less expensive 3G model probably will suit you. Other companies are reportedly working on their own versions of “frequency sweeping” radar, but as of this writing only the Navico brands Lowrance, Simrad, B&G and Northstar have radars for the recreational market that use this technology.
Broadband Radar also happens to be one of the easiest to install. Unlike conventional pulse radars, no technician is needed to mess about inside the scanner dome; Broadband Radar’s solid-state components require no adjusting. And because the signal processor is also housed in the dome (not a black box behind the dash), the cable to chase through an arch structure or mast is just a little thicker than VHF cable.
Broadband Radar emits 1/20,000th the power of old pulse radars (and 1/10th the energy of an average cellphone), so it is safe to mount the radome anywhere. Having more options can greatly simplify an installation.
And if you powerboaters mount the 8-inch MFD using an articulating Seaview Pod from PYI (www.seaviewglobal.com), you need not hack out a square from your fiberglass console or teak dash. You, or the next owner, will appreciate not having to replace or somehow patch the helm because the shape of the next unit is different. Sailors can also get a pod for their helm pedestal from PYI.
The HDS-8 display has a built-in GPS receiver and built-in processor for a Lowrance sounder/fishfinder, which again minimizes cables and connections. If your boat has a solid fiberglass bottom and if you can find something close to a horizontal run, you can install the transducer without hauling the boat. It’s easy to epoxy the transducer to the inside of the hull.
For cruisers, autopilot is a must-have; no one hand-steers on long passages. Again, all of the major players make a good autopilot, but Garmin’s GHP 10 sells for less (www.garmin.com). Ranger Tugs recently chose Garmin as standard equipment, a relevant endorsement, considering that Ranger builds a line of small power cruisers.
Autopilots are a partial exception to our DIY theme. Most of us should summon a professional to handle the steering hydraulics (or mechanical interface) of the autopilot. And if your system is plumbed with metal tubing this is a good time to have your technician replace that old copper with new flexible hydraulic hose recommended by the American Boat & Yacht Council.
Communications and safety
For a VHF radio, I suggest the innovative Standard Horizon GX2100 with a built-in AIS receiver (www.standardhorizon.com). This two-for-one saves hassle and money because you don’t have to install a separate AIS unit to view AIS vessels on your HDS-8 plotter. Get your unique Maritime Mobile Service Identity number for digital selective calling and integrate the radio with the plotter. Both the GX2100 and HDS-8 comply with the NMEA 0183 standard, so you can wire the two together using a simple busbar. Wiring diagrams to integrate the radio with your Lowrance display or other plotters are posted at the Standard Horizon website.
Activating the radio’s DSC capabilities preps your system to work with BriarTek’s ORCAdsc, a 3.5-inch man-overboard beacon (www.briartek.com). Although the Orca is designed to get people back on board, a 406-MHz EPIRB is the ultimate summoner of the cavalry when the entire boat is threatened or there’s a major emergency on board. McMurdo and ACR are the two major brands (www.mcmurdo.co.uk, www.acrelectronics.com); their EPIRBs cost about the same and both have saved many lives through the decades.
For communications far beyond the reach of cellular networks, Iridium has a new weatherproof handset (www.iridium.com). Although it is not the least expensive, the Iridium Extreme is both reliable and able to handle data and voice transmissions. The latter, as will be discussed, is key to receiving weather forecasts in remote locales. The Extreme is not only “ruggedized” to military specifications, but it also incorporates the features of an emergency beacon. It is the first phone with a programmable, GPS-enabled, one-touch SOS button.
Like the popular SPOT beacon, the Extreme is a satellite emergency notification device (SEND for short) that lets you specify an SOS contact, send a one-touch distress message and notify a recipient of your precise location. Unlike SPOT, the Extreme is a two-way communicator, which allows message recipients to reply and confirm that a message has been received.
Iridium uses distributors to sell its hardware, and so far 17 have opted to use Iridium’s open software platform to create customized online tracking portals. Features include tracking an Iridium Extreme user’s real-time status and location, zooming to street level via online maps, scheduling check-ins, providing emergency services and sending both unscripted and canned messages and social networking messages.
Satellite airtime is expensive, so whenever possible cruisers away from cellular networks will use Wi-Fi connections, paid or not, to access the Internet. Unless you are docked at a marina you usually will need some kind of signal amplifier for an effective connection. There are several on the market, and one that has proved itself in the marine environment is the Rogue Wave, a wireless bridge and Ethernet converter with an external antenna (www.wavewifi.com).
Paper charts still have their place, but because you probably have a PC on board, you might as well install PC navigation software in case the ship’s plotter goes down. Many cruisers like the affordable and easy-to-use Coastal Explorer from Rose Point Navigation (www.rosepointnav.com), which uses free U.S. government charts as well as commercial cartography, such as NV charts. NV, a German company, has good charts for the Bahamas and Caribbean.
Nobeltec has just released a price-point version of its navigation software (www.nobeltec.com). Nobeltec Odyssey also provides free U.S. charts, but it can display them in 3-D for heightened situational awareness. Smart phone and iPad users also should download the Navionics app and charts for their cruising grounds (www.navionics.com). Combine these with your MFD, and you have quadruple redundancy for navigation.
Party time and news
Lowrance partnered with the marine stereo company Fusion (www.fusionelectronics.com) to add a fun module to the HDS system called SonicHub. SonicHub hardware consists of a waterproof docking station for iPod, iPhone, MP3 and other music storage devices, along with an AM-FM tuner. Music is controlled from your HDS-8, which is wired to SonicHub via the NMEA 2000 network. For ease of installation, the docking station can be mounted without cutting a hole in the dash. The system includes marine-grade 6.5-inch, 200-watt speakers.
The Fusion system is Sirius-XM radio-ready, which is good because this is an excellent feature for entertainment and keeping up with news and sports back home. Sirius is radio delivered by satellite, and in addition to the United States and Canada its coverage footprint extends over much of Mexico, the Bahamas and the northern Caribbean.
Despite your ability to pull in commercial-free broadcasts, there are times when you want to listen to local radio for news and weather. Rather than install a separate AM-FM antenna, let your existing VHF antenna perform double duty. Use a VHF marine band separator, a small box placed in line with your VHF antenna cable with a lead into the antenna jack on the Fusion.
There are several excellent Web-based weather providers that require paid subscriptions, as well as many free sources. If you have Internet connectivity, Rose Point and Nobeltec incorporate a weather feature that superimposes forecast information such as wind, wave height and direction on your electronic charts.
I also would subscribe to e-mail and weather services from a company such as Ocens (www.ocens.com), whose software is designed to work with your Iridium handset connected to a PC. One of the features is data compression, which makes the most of the phone’s glacial (2,400 baud or one megabyte per hour) connection to the satellite. These services also speed up a dodgy connection, such as the overloaded Wi-Fi at many popular harbors.
These systems also have a really neat “crash and recovery” feature. If a call is dropped, your file upload will pick up where it left off at the time of interruption, rather than having to restart from the beginning. A subscriber is notified of any e-mails with attachments and given the option of downloading those later when using a faster or cheaper connection. Bottom line is that a cruiser can exchange 20 to 40 e-mails a day using just a few minutes of airtime from anywhere in the world.
Ocens Weather Net lets the connected boater download from an extensive menu of forecasts and GRIB files, which explain weather trends graphically. You can get as much or as little as you want, paying per file. I recall making passages in the Bahamas and Caribbean based on about $1.20 in daily downloads while under way.
Rounding out your weather-gathering suite is a short-wave radio receiver for single sideband reception. Using a receiver with a BFO tuner — BFO stands for beat frequency oscillator, and not all short-wave radios have one — you can tune in to the down-island cruising networks for weather and security news, as well as listen to daily broadcasts by SSB weather routers such as Chris Parker (www.caribwx.com).
Savings for fuel
There you have it: a complete electronics system to keep you safe, happy and well-informed, including a year’s worth of the subscriptions you’ll need to cruise — all for less than $12,000. The money saved by installing components yourself will buy enough diesel fuel for many months of wandering.
See related stories:
- Raymarine e7
- Q&A with Dave Laska, electronics expert
- Electronics Makeover Shopping List
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.