Broadband Radar, A New Way Of Seeing?

Fog bank, Islas Cies 1 036 Two Moons 6 45

Sailing down the Atlantic coast of Spain and Portugal is generally pretty easy going– reliable northerlies make for steady downwind progress. The only concerns are the swell (which can close some ports), and the fog, which can be a real pain. Along the northern part of this coast, on most days we could see a bank of fog out to sea, and far too often it drifted in and covered the coast with an almost impenetrable blanket (sometimes for days), making onward progress unpleasant, to say the least.

I don’t know of anyone who actually enjoys sailing in fog – it demands constant vigilance, and is fraught with genuine risks such as collision or entanglement in fishing gear – a real concern along this coast, where there are fishing marks everywhere. But with our combination of AIS (brilliant!) and radar it needn’t be more than a nuisance, and as long as we felt the fog was likely to burn off, as soon as it began to lift we’d be on our way. As a result we’ve used our radar far more this year than is usual.

Pèlerin’s Current Radar

When we kitted Pèlerin out with her electronics package we opted for a Simrad NX45 plotter, with radar input, mounted at the wheel. It has worked well, although I still find it clumsy to operate after using stand-alone radar units, and we don’t think it has the best definition we’ve seen. It hasn’t let us down, but we feel it could be much better.

A New Option

But within the last year or so Simrad introduced their Broadband radar, that works on a completely different principle from conventional radar sets, and is available in a scanner that it is compatible with our plotter. And having finally managed to speak to a few people who have used them, we’re very tempted to make the change to this new technology.

The Advantages

Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW) radar (to give it it’s correct name) has been used for military purposes for many years, and has, potentially, many advantages to offer small craft sailors. It has virtually no warm up time, lower power consumption than conventional radar, and has very low wave emissions – attractive to us with our radome mounted on our OVNI arch. And it has what appears to be staggeringly good close range definition. Talking to a powerboat owner in Portugal, he reckoned to be able to spot pot buoys and flags at distances of around 1 M in moderate seas, and claimed remarkable target acquisition and stability at speeds of up to 45 knots. And I’d imagine that given that it doesn’t rely on conventional technology within the scanner, it ought to be the case that performance won’t degrade as the magnetron ages (and eventually fails).

The Trade Offs

Reading through various reports, what it seems to boil down to is that the Broadband radar has vastly improved short range definition, but the range is limited to around 8 -10 M, whereas conventional radar technology is still far better at longer range.

A Change in Radar Usage on Pèlerin

So it struck me that in order to decide whether it is for us, we had to review how we now use our radar. In the past before plotters we often used our radar for landfalls, and to spot shipping at greater distances. I’d very much doubt that we have used our radar at over 6 M range this year, except occasionally for spotting squalls at night. Where it has been used extensively has been in entering or leaving port at night or in thick weather, mostly at short ranges, where we’ve used the overlay facility with the plotter. We now rely largely on our AIS for shipping, and rely on the plotter for distance and landfall, so the way we use radar has fundamentally changed.

Anybody Out There Using Broadband Radar?

This is (in yacht terms) new technology, and I’m reluctant to be a guinea pig, but so far what I’ve learned leads me to think that this new approach has real advantages, especially given that our use and expectations from our radar have changed. But it would still be good to hear from anyone out there who has more experience first-hand before we part with more hard earned cash! Please leave a comment.

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Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

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