Northstar GPS, Problems

The Problem

In 1999 we installed a new Northstar GPS. At the time we could have bought a perfectly functional GPS for one quarter the cost but we went with the Northstar because of its reputation for quality and reliability and its easy to use software.

Also, Nick Nicholson had given the Northstar a ringing endorsement in Practical Sailor, a publication we like and have subscribed to for years.

Two months after installation, the unit abruptly died. We paid to send the unit to Northstar who fixed it and returned it free of charge. They found a fragment of wire left over from manufacturing that had caused a short.

Two years later, the keys became unreliable: We had to press them hard to get anything to happen. We were in Norway at the time so returning the unit to the manufacturer was not a trivial or cheap event.

Manufacturer’s Response

When we called Northstar the second time, they were unhelpful, with the familiar refrain of “No one else has ever had such problems”. Most upsetting was the service manager’s comment “Well, no wonder, it’s no spring chicken”. At that time Northstar was one of the most expensive GPS units made and our unit was just three years old—not acceptable.

The Outcome

After many expensive phone calls, Northstar agreed to fix the unit free of charge—good service—though we had to pay the shipping charges both ways from Norway. It turned out that they happened to have a new design of keyboard that solved the problem. (We suspect that this indicates that other units had had the same problem, despite their denial.) The unit has worked flawlessly since (knock on wood!).

Lessons Learned

  1. Buying the most expensive option does not necessarily equate to reliability.
    We have owned two cheap handheld GPS units over the years and both have worked perfectly. I suspect that in many cases the sales volume of low end units, particularly those that span several market segments, allows the manufacturer to invest more in quality control. Having said that, the Northstar is much easier and quicker to use than any low end unit.
  2. There is an increasingly prevalent attitude among manufacturers that even expensive units need only last two to three years because the user’s lust for the newest thing will result in early replacement.
    We can’t afford that attitude and even if we could, we abhor the waste. We buy good gear and expect it to last at least 10 years.

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Meet the Author


John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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