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My Two Cents

Don’t cheap out on backup electronics for your boat
If your boat’s electrical system fails, a handheld VHF or GPS will instantly become your new best friend.

If your boat’s electrical system fails, a handheld VHF or GPS will instantly become your new best friend.

My older brother and I have a phone-tag problem. It typically takes four calls and three voicemails that usually contain humorous digs at each other before one of us isn’t too busy to answer. Sometimes it takes days to connect. For that reason, I was really surprised last month when I called his number and he answered, because he was definitely too busy to talk.

“Hey, Bro. We’re moving a 54-foot cruiser for a friend, and the GPS just went out,” he said. “I’m trying to get it back. I’ve got no idea where I am. Can I call you back later?”

I told him to check the antenna connection for corrosion and restart the unit; other than that, I said, it’s probably a lost cause. Then I mentioned that a guy who owns a 54-foot boat should have thought to buy a $70 backup GPS.

“I’ll look in the drawer,” he said. “Call you later!” Click.

I never got that “later” call, so I know everything turned out fine. But our short conversation got me thinking about the usefulness of backup equipment onboard, especially for gear that doesn’t cost much. With that in mind, I came up with this list of items that boat owners should have in sets of two.

GPS. No matter how slick your electronic navigation system is, you can’t go wrong with a spare handheld GPS and an up-to-date paper chart of the area you are cruising. You may feel that you know your
waters well and don’t need extra electronics, but given the low cost of GPS units, having a handheld spare makes good sense. They range from around $70 to more than $300, depending on the features, but with a good chart—and the know-how to use it—simple latitude and longitude will do.

Sure, most cellphones have a GPS chip and an app that displays coordinates, but I don’t recommend relying on them as emergency gear. Though they can work as a GPS and a communication backup, the location services sometimes use cell towers to assist the GPS, and maps must reside on the device—not somewhere on the cloud. I recommend devices made for the marine environment. Cellphones are not.

EPIRB. If you’ve been paying attention to this column, you know that I think you should have a personal locator beacon (PLB) in your life jacket. The EPIRB in the cradle aboard your boat only comes out if you take it out or (maybe) if your vessel sinks. The number of things that can go wrong on the water make having a backup for the EPIRB a reasonable idea. You can pick up a PLB for less than $250. Like everything in rescue and survival, they always seem worth it if you need them. Don’t forget to register your PLB the same way you do your boat’s primary EPIRB.

VHF. A lot of boats have two radios, but a boat without a spare handheld VHF relies on the boat’s electrical system to remain functioning. An electrical problem can take out all the DC-powered gear on your boat, so a simple (and inexpensive) handheld radio can save the day. My favorite is the Standard Horizon HX870. It floats, it’s waterproof, it’s rugged, and it includes DSC and an internal GPS, which means you just saved money on the cost of a separate backup GPS.

Of course, any system on the boat can fail, including sophisticated electronics. You salty types might have a point about celestial and other forms of navigation, but for $70 and a few spare batteries my big brother could have solved his problem in two minutes and addressed the electronics back at the dock.

And big brother, if you’re reading this, how about a call back? If I don’t answer, just leave a message. 

This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue.



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