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The Smart Buyer - Marine Electronics: Determining what’s essential

When it comes to marine electronics, the sky’s the limit these days, literally, as satellite services cover almost every corner of the globe. With seemingly unlimited choices and technology on a relentless advance, individual budgets play a large role in choosing your electronics setup.

Your choice of electronics in large part should be based on how and where you use your boat.

Twenty-five years ago, at the advent of commercially available GPS technology, my two crewmates and I pooled our money and bought a $1,100 handheld Garmin GPS prototype and a deeply discounted Sony single sideband receiver. A fixed-mount and a handheld VHF, along with a tiller pilot, completed our electronics inventory for the 2 years we sailed the Caribbean and South America. We listened to broadcast weather reports on our SSB the way people check Facebook now — constantly — noting immediately any predicted changes in weather fronts, wind speed and wind direction. We added a 406 MHz EPIRB when we transited the Panama Canal and headed west across the Pacific.

That electronics inventory, by today’s standards, seems meager, even for someone on a tight budget. Perusing the rows of marine electronics at today’s boat shows, it’s hard to determine how much of it we actually need and what we simply want. My friend Steve Cannon sailed a 21-foot Mini Transat sloop across the Pacific in 1992 with a VHF, a sextant and a nautical almanac. “That won’t have to be done again,” he says with a smile.

Twelve years after Cannon made landfall on Easter Island, he chartered a Balboa 26 in the Everglades. “That boat had four GPS units on board and had never been offshore,” he says.

BoatUS technical director Beth Leonard says that although the choices do seem endless, she believes there are three types of electronics that are important to have on board: equipment for communication, which can be as simple as a VHF or as complex as a satellite radio; equipment for navigation (GPS/chart plotter, multifunction displays); and equipment for emergency signaling, such as a 406 MHz EPIRB.

Day sailors and coastal boaters might not need much more than a cellphone and an iPad to check weather and tides, along with the compatible chart-plotting and fish-finding apps. “A lot depends on what you’re going to do with the boat,” says Ed Sherman, vice president of the American Boat and Yacht Council. “With a day sailor, the presumption is they’re in sight of the shore.”

I can’t imagine going sailing or fishing in an unfamiliar area without a paper chart and a depth sounder, but an iPad with chart-plotting software and weather apps is a great tool, no matter the boat size or destination. A VHF is an obvious must-have; a handheld unit with GPS works well for boats close to shore, and a fixed-mounted DSC radio is both a communicator and an emergency-signaling device.

Boaters in areas that are prone to fog are probably going to need radar, even if their plans call for staying close to shore. “I have an 18-foot center console with radar,” says Sherman, who fishes near Newport, Rhode Island, and like many New England fishermen, battles fog year-round.

Offshore cruisers have greater navigational concerns and different safety risks than coastal cruisers and fishermen. “There is a big difference in communication once you get out of VHF range,” says Sherman. “Offshore cruisers are going to want an SSB radio or satellite communication of some kind.”

Although SSB radios can be valuable for gathering information such as weather broadcasts on cruisers’ nets, satellite phones have come down in price and now have greater options. Weather can be checked through sat phone services and downloaded to a cellphone or tablet. Some newer satellite devices have emergency facilities, including the DeLorme inReach communicator and Iridium Extreme phone.

Offshore cruisers should add a 406 MHz EPIRB to their electronics suite. If you’re buying a boat that has an older EPIRB, confirm that it is a Category I or II, as beacons that transmit on the 121.5 MHz frequency (Class A, B and S) are no longer recognized. Be sure to update the EPIRB registration in your name. Go to for NOAA’s beacon registration database.

Serious offshore anglers tend to be seriously decked out in electronics. “These people are going to have everything you can imagine on board,” says Sherman. “Multiple fishfinders, longer-range radar, SSB radios and satellite phones.” Offshore anglers often travel long distances for big tournaments, Sherman says, and electronics provide them with global connectivity. “No matter where they are on the globe, they want to be able to connect with their other lives.”

Anglers will want accurate, up-to-the-minute offshore satellite weather and more sophisticated sonar systems and transducers, says Ben Ellison, editor of marine electronics website and senior electronics editor for the Active Interest Media Marine Group. Large, open-array radars can be used to detect ship traffic, weather and birds. “Finding the birds from a long way off helps them find the fish,” he says.

Regardless of how you outfit your boat, electronics should never be a replacement for good seamanship. Our limited electronics during that cruise years ago added an element of uncertainty, but it made us better navigators and better sailors. Electronics should enhance seamanship, not replace preparation and ability.

After you look at all of the equipment available today, Leonard advises you to remember the obvious. “You really should get a good autopilot. It can be invaluable.”

March 2015 issue