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Choosing the right electronics for your voyage, and a look at what's new

See related story: Electronics guide, by Rich Armstrong

My dad tried to teach me the virtues of moderation, especially as I went off to a college known for its “spirited” parties. Naturally, I had to learn the hard way, but eventually I understood what he had been trying to tell me.

Moderation is a good thing — in politics, religion, partying and, yes, even in marine electronics. I practiced it while outfitting my boat for our one-year 8,000-mile family adventure, and it was the key to having a reliable, information-rich electronics package.


Our “Great Loop–Plus” route, which extended down to Georgetown in the Exumas, offered a variety of navigational and communications challenges. But from the beginning we took a moderate approach, starting with the design of Sawdust, our custom Thomas Point 43.

Her single engine and Down East style celebrates simplicity. There’s no flying bridge, no luxurious aft cabin or spacious sun deck. But her lightweight, sleek design can cruise at 16 to 18 knots while burning less than 1 gallon per nautical mile. And compared to most of our sailboat friends, we were living in luxury.

Before deciding on an electronics package, a reliable electrical system was designed to ensure the electronics and other systems could be powered under way, at anchor and when plugged into shore power. It’s surprising how little attention some boatbuilders and owners give to this fundamental requirement.

I remember being awakened years ago to the cranky sound of a generator and a blast of cold air while anchored in the Abacos on a new, “fully equipped” trawler I was helping deliver. The owner wanted to check his position on his boat’s computer, which required 110 volts AC. Since there were no other electrical loads on the generator, he started the air conditioning system, even though it was a cool 60 degrees outside. What a wasteful approach to power management.

Because of my desire to keep things simple, Sawdust doesn’t have a generator. Instead, we rely on a house bank of Trojan “golf cart” batteries totaling 915 amp hours, a Heart 2,800-watt inverter, and a secondary engine-driven alternator that delivers 220 amps at 1,500 rpm. Our separate 8D starting battery is charged by the engine’s 105-amp alternator. A “smart charging” system is controlled and monitored by a Link 2000R monitor/regulator.

Sawdust has a moderate amount of modern conveniences, and by being careful with our use of electrical power, we’re able to remain at anchor for four days and nights before having to recharge. We just can’t use our air conditioning system when anchored, but that’s rarely a problem as Sawdust has excellent ventilation.

Her electronics package was designed with two fundamental objectives: accurate and simple-to-use navigation, and reliable VHF, telephonic and Internet communications throughout our entire route. I had to fight the temptation of overdoing it, as there seemed to be no end to all the intriguing gear that was available.

Choosing the electronics

I had done enough piloting on other boats to know how important it is to see and reach the controls of key components without taking your hands off the helm or your eyes off what lies ahead. In one instance, I remember running a million-dollar sportfishing boat that had its autopilot control located where reaching it caused you to accidentally hit the throttle controls. That’s a lot of money for a boat with such an ill-conceived helm.

So I spent a lot of time drawing life-size mock-ups of the various units I was considering, then positioning them at my helm. Some manufacturers have since introduced so-called “helm planning kits” that serve not only as terrific aids in designing your helm but are smart marketing tools as well.

The first item to specify and locate was the ship’s compass, because regardless of how advanced and accurate your electronics are, a compass can be your most trusted navigation instrument. Together with paper charts and dead reckoning — You do practice dead reckoning, don’t you? — you can always find your way home, even with a total electronics failure.

I chose a 5-inch Ritchie Globemaster compass flush-mounted as close to my centerline as possible, being careful to keep it away from magnetic objects such as windshield wiper motors and stereo speakers. During commissioning I had a professional swing my compass and provide a deviation chart, and I check its headings once a year against a series of known courses.

My next priority was picking a good radar, as I had learned how vital it is not only in finding targets at night and in fog, but for navigating tricky inlets and harbors, even in good visibility. As wonderful as modern GPS/chart plotters are, I discovered enough errors on electronic charts and wrong position readings not to rely on them entirely. Instead, I often depended on my radar to tell me exactly how far I was from a rocky shore or what the heading was to a narrow, hard-to-see cut in the land I was trying to find.

After staring at enough radar displays at boat shows to give me a sickly, greenish complexion, I finally decided on the dual-range Simrad RA42C with a 10-inch landscape display. The fact that I could simultaneously view a long- and short-range display was an attractive feature, eliminating the need to toggle back and forth. I opted for the 24-mile range radome instead of a larger open array, primarily for aesthetic reasons. The type of cruising we were planning didn’t require a longer range, and while an open array delivers higher resolution images because of its narrower beam, I am often amazed at just how detailed this radar’s images are.

Like many of today’s marine electronics, the Simrad radar has attractive features that aren’t always used or appreciated by the average boater. My RA42C, for example, boasts a sophisticated automatic target acquisition tracking system, which can be useful in situations where there is a lot of commercial ship traffic. During our one-year voyage, however, I never had an occasion to try it out. While it’s nice to have this ATA capability, it illustrates the need to realistically consider the type of boating you’ll be doing when choosing electronics. It’s easy to get carried away with buying features you’ll never use.

Next on my list was a GPS/plotter. In finalizing the design of the helm area I realized my space limitations, even though this was a custom boat. I eventually settled on a Simrad CA33 chart plotter/fishfinder that features a “Sunview” 6.5-inch screen — an excellent performer in bright sunlight. It uses C-MAP NT+ chart cartridges, which I found to be loaded with valuable harbor and services data.

A Simrad AP22 autopilot was a natural choice based on this company’s reputation in the autopilot category, and I liked the aesthetics of having my key components match.

Though my plotter/fishfinder provided depth and speed readings, I installed a Simrad IS15 instrument display that also gave me these readings from a separate transducer. Interference with the CA33 transducer, however, made using the IS15 possible only if the chart plotter was turned off. This became my backup depth and speed display.

Using the NMEA 0183 protocol, the plotter talked to my radar display, autopilot and laptop computer. By far the most important benefit of this interconnectivity was the ability of the autopilot to follow a course based on the data it was getting from the GPS. I could quickly execute a “point-and-go-to” function on the CA33, and the autopilot would do the rest, compensating for the effects of wind and current.

When I had Sawdust built in 2000, NMEA 0183 was the standard protocol for interconnectivity, and in some ways this made my choice of components easier than if I were deciding today. I’ll discuss the newer protocols — including NMEA 2000 as well as the proprietary NavNet (Furuno), SimNet (Simrad), and hsb (Raymarine) systems — later in this article, as they apply to “what I would do differently.” But even today, NMEA 0183 remains the backbone of many solid, highly reliable systems.

PC navigation: help or hindrance?

Let me say from the outset that I love technology — or more accurately what technology can do to make difficult tasks easier. So I have always been fond of PC navigation and have been using it in one form or another for many years.

For this trip I brought my 14-inch Panasonic Toughbook laptop aboard. While I had been happy with an older version of Nobeltec software running Maptech raster charts, I was given the opportunity to try a powerful software program by C-MAP that uses the same type of vector charts my Simrad GPS/chart plotter was using. The GPS provided data to the laptop, and when under way I’d move the laptop to the galley counter across from my helm.

I used this system primarily to monitor my position on the electronic charts. The 14-inch screen was easier to see than my 6.5-inch plotter screen, and being able to quickly zoom in and out and use the cursor to determine headings and distance to marks was helpful.

While the C-MAP software was designed for commercial use, I quickly found my way around it, intuitively learning how to create and store routes and use it as a planning tool. Unfortunately, I was unable to upload the routes to my chart plotter — even after repeated attempts — diminishing the laptop’s value for planning.

Eventually, the laptop proved to be more redundant than helpful. At times I found myself being distracted by what was happening on its screen and not paying enough attention to what was happening in front of me.

I recall crewing on a boat run by an owner who had been severely bitten by the gadget bug. Entering a tricky passage between two reefs in the Bahamas, he had his eyes glued to his computer screen and his hands on the wheel, as if playing a video game. If I hadn’t grabbed the helm at the last moment, he would have driven us right up onto the reef. He simply forgot to look out at the breaking seas on each side and the smooth water in front of us.

Halfway through our Great Loop trip, I experienced one of those “computer moments” that made me stop using my laptop for navigation. At the very moment I needed it most, it crashed and froze. I had no time to restart and reboot, as I was transiting a lock that was busy with commercial barge traffic along the Ohio River. It was dark, and we were in a torrential downpour. As soon as the green light on the lock wall came on, off we went in search of the “Big E,” a floating fuel barge where we had planned to tie up for the night. This was no time to fool with a cranky, Windows-based computer error. My trustworthy radar, GPS/plotter, dead reckoning and a Hatteras motoryacht traveling with us guided Sawdust to safety on that dark, miserable night.

This incident increased my respect for today’s electronic components designed specifically for the tough marine environment. Besides being more physically robust, their operating systems are better-suited to their specific marine tasks. I came to rely on my GPS/chart plotter, radar and paper charts, and in doing so became more skilled in their use and operation.

Staying in touch

For VHF communications I chose the ever-popular Icom M127, a real workhorse. As a backup, I keep an old, reliable Apelco hand-held VHF charged and ready to use.

As a long-ago ham radio operator I was tempted to add single sideband radio to my communications package, but I decided it was one too many items to buy and sort out. Except for the Bahamas and parts of Canada, most of our cruising was going to be within cell phone range, so just before we left for our trip I purchased a QualComm combination cell and satellite telephone for less than $500. It proved to be one of the best investments in gadgetry I’ve ever made.

Since I needed to stay in contact with my office, and be able to send and receive e-mail during the entire trip, I chose KVH’s TracNet system, which allowed me to access the Internet through its satellite TV antenna and a program known as Direct PC. This is a fairly complex system, as it includes quite a bit of hardware and depends on more than one third-party entity to work. And, of course, it works in the PC environment of Windows — not my favorite operating system.

A server the size of a typical CPU, along with a wireless router, allowed me to connect both my Toughbook and my wife’s laptop to the Internet from anywhere on the boat. The server relays a request to Direct PC using either a land line or wireless return path. Direct PC then retrieves the Web page or file and broadcasts it by the Express VU satellite. The theoretical data rate for the downpath is 400 Kilobits per second, but for the wireless uplink it is in the neighborhood of 14 Kbps.

Installing and configuring this system was no easy task, and the total investment of hardware with installation was in the vicinity of $15,000 — a hefty but necessary price to allow me to do my work while away from the office. The cost of airtime also was costly, as I received a number of monthly bills of $1,500 or more. Staying connected, at least this way, isn’t cheap.

Without TracNet it would have been difficult to obtain dependable Internet access along many parts of our route. But it was not without its problems, and I think it may have been an example of being a bit too close to the “cutting edge” of technology.

My system was purchased and installed in mid-2002, and I used it until the summer of 2003. But it is now being sold only in Europe. A call to KVH didn’t tell me much more than, “We now have better ways of providing mobile Internet access.” Indeed, its Web site indicates they’re approaching this subject differently with a series of products under the Tracphone label. Fortunately, I was also told that they will continue to support the TracNet system here in the United States, so if I want to reconnect, I can.

Out of necessity, I found that my QualComm satellite telephone, using the Globalstar satellite system, provided reliable — albeit slow (9.6 Kbps) —Internet service, even in the southernmost parts of the Exumas. It was a simple matter of plugging its data transfer cord into my laptop and making a call. Because I didn’t elect to install an external antenna — a $1,200 “marine” kit — I had to sit in the cockpit with a clear view of the sky, but certainly this was no problem when hanging out in the islands.

What would I do differently?

While I am still very happy with my present nav system, I sometimes yearn for a larger plotter display. The only way to accommodate a larger screen without a major redo of my helm area would be to replace both my Simrad radar and GPS/plotter with a CA44, which combines a radar, fishfinder and plotter in a 10-inch Sunview screen. It would be a costly upgrade, so I think I’ll continue as is. After all, everything works perfectly.

As far as PC navigation is concerned, I recently discovered a new software program, GPSNavX, designed for the Mac, my computer of choice. Since I use Mac desktops at work and a Mac iBook when traveling, I have longed for a navigation software program designed to work with OS X Panther, Apple’s ultrastable operating system. I’ve just started playing around with this $50 program, which uses Maptech charts among others, and I am already enthusiastic about its possibilities. If this program works well on my Mac, I may design a mounting system for a remote LCD near my helm, which will give me a bigger picture of my charts and vessel’s position while under way.

For wireless e-mail, there are a number of new systems that I plan to look into before reconnecting TracNet. I may consider one of KVH’s new Tracphone systems, which charges for the amount of data used, not airtime. I also plan to look at a more economical package from SkyMate, a system that proved itself during the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally this past summer. Or I may simply connect my portable QualComm to a permanent marine antenna/cradle and re-establish my Globalstar service. It really depends on where I plan to cruise, as more and more areas have wireless “hot-spots” and Internet cafes, where I can easily go online using my iBook with its built-in “Airport” module.

What’s new?

Since I commissioned Sawdust many advances have been made in both navigation and communications gear. For one, it’s now much easier to choose a single brand of components, as the big names like Furuno, Raymarine and Simrad make excellent products in all key categories. They also have continued to develop and fine-tune their own proprietary protocol systems — Furuno’s NavNet, Raymarine’s hsb2 and Simrad’s SimNet — which make connecting their units a true plug ’n play operation. Other major players, like Garmin, Navman, Lowrance and others, also are coming on strong with a host of new, exciting products. Even Maptech is in the hardware business with its very cool, all-in-one i3 Navigator.

But the electronics industry isn’t making it easy on us because there’s as much confusion about integration as there is clarification. Raymarine has just announced its new, innovative H6 system of integrating a ship’s navigation and entertainment devices. At first glance, this looks exciting and promising.

NMEA 0183 has been replaced with NMEA 2000, a much faster, more versatile protocol and a system that has terrific potential for integrating, displaying and controlling other electronic and electrical components such as engine controls and instrumentation, inverters and battery charging systems — even generator startup controls.

There is a big push by the National Marine Electronics Association to have the electronic manufacturers support NMEA 2000 and have their products certified — a relatively lengthy, expensive process. As of November 2004 about two dozen products in total have been NMEA 2000 certified. But instead of NMEA 2000 replacing the different proprietary protocols, it’s going to work with them. All Simrad products, for example, will be connected together by SimNet, and they in turn will be connected to the NMEA 2000 backbone. This undoubtedly will encourage the purchase of a single brand, something the manufacturers are counting on.

Sound confusing? If you add the integration of modern entertainment devices and PCs into the puzzle, you’re getting into some complex installation and compatibility issues. My advice is to seek out a full-service marine electronics dealer that has highly trained technicians, such as NMEA “CMET” (certified marine electronics technician) personnel. They can help sort out all these issues and ensure that you’ll enjoy all the performance capabilities of these exciting new products.

But remember the importance of moderation and why you’re out on the water in the first place. Is it to be staring at a computer screen, or that real-life colorful sunset?n

George Sass Sr. has been a marketing consultant for a number of consumer and marine electronics companies, including Navico, B&G, Yeoman, Raymarine and Simrad. His choices of equipment were based on the specific merits of each product as well as his local dealer’s recommendations.


SkyMate: (703) 636-4220,

Furuno: (360) 834-9300,

KVH Industries: (401) 847-3327,

Ritchie Navigation: (781) 826-5131,

Raymarine: (603) 881-5200,

Simrad: (425) 778-8821,

Icom: (425) 454-8155,

Maptech: (978) 792-1198,

C-MAP: (508) 477-8010,

Nobeltec: (503) 579-1414,

GPSNavX: (650) 996-8154,

NMEA: (410) 975-9425,

QualComm: (858) 587-1121,

See related story: Electronics guide, by Rich Armstrong