6 Tips To Stop Marine Electronics From Ruining Your Cruise

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If you really want to get out there voyaging, and enjoy the journey when you do, you need to think carefully about how you use your precious maintenance time. But there is a trap lurking that can waste huge amounts of your time and money:

The reliability of modern marine electronics is simply abysmal.

But this is not a rant to make me feel better about this situation. Rather, in this chapter, I'm going to give you some solid tips, based on 30 years of marine electronic use, that will help you avoid letting these machines ruin your cruise.

Defining The Problem

The first step to dealing with any problem is recognizing it. So recognize that marine electronics are way less reliable than just about any other machine that you will be exposed to in your daily life. Probably an order of magnitude less reliable than:

  • Your car.
  • Your smartphone.
  • Your household electronics.
  • Your diesel engine.
  • Yes, even more unreliable than your Windows computer. Ouch, who said that?

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How can I say that? Well, over the years, the vast majority of the marine electronics we have bought and installed have not worked:

  • Northstar GPS (best money could buy at the time): back to the factory, twice.
  • Simrad Autopilot: full rebuild required in first year (poor dealer installation).
  • Lopo Light: four new lights over 5 years. (I classed this as electronic, not electrical, because of the sophisticated circuitry these lights contain.)
  • ICS Navtex: Poor receiver, eventually replaced with Furuno.
  • EchoPilot Forward Scan Sonar: first sensor was weak. Two more sensors have failed in 15 years.
  • Icom SSB radio: weeks of frustration trouble shooting stray RF.
  • Nexus Sailing instruments: Software bugs that rendered half the displays inoperable.
  • Vesper Marine AIS transponder: back to the factory twice, finally fixed (we hope) with a new unit after three years of intermittent problems.
  • Furuno Radar: Funky software problem that threw up strange error messages. Learned to live with that one since it does not effect operation.
  • Syrens WiFi hub system: software so buggy that it was initially unusable. Still doesn't work that well.
  • Siren boat monitoring system: First two units defective. (Looks like a very cool piece of kit; report coming as soon as we get one that works.)

That's all that comes to mind right now, but I'm sure there were more.

And it's not just us. When Ben Ellison of Panbo and Gizmo fame has a cruise from hell like this...well, what can you say? If he can't get this stuff to work right the first time...

And then there is our own Colin Speedie, AAC European Correspondent, who is one of the nicest and most tolerant people on the planet...until you ask him about his Simrad autopilot.

All in all, it's an abysmal situation. But given that marine electronic manufacturers are selling to a limited volume market that demands continuous innovation—not exactly a recipe for reliability—things are probably not going to get any better, so let's look at what we voyagers can do to live with the problem.

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Nick Kats

Electronics, in my case:
Never owned or used a chart plotter, always use paper charts.
Fish finder is backed by lead & line, eyeballing the water & coastal navigation.
Running lights are backed up by kero running lights, and by powerful flashlights (AA battery LED, or another flashlight which is hooked up to the 24V battery) – shine on sail for max visibility. In empty seas, or in high latitudes with no darkness, or with a night watch, running lights are a non issue.
Have a VHF – am indifferent to whether it works.
Have a CARD – a radar detector – more often than not it doesn’t work, doesn’t bother me.
For bad weather I have no weather forecasting electronics. I depend on the barometer, eyeballing the sky & a strong boat.
The only essential electronic kit on my boat is the handheld GPS – it runs on AAA batteries & I have two. If the GPS system crashes when I’m offshore, I can run down latitude to the estimated longitude, then turn 90 degrees, be fun to do. If on the coast, coastal navigation is sufficient.
In short, I don’t stressed over electronics.
Actually I enjoy sailing much more when electronics (and battery banks and/or the engine) fails.

Simon Fraser

Isn’t having 2 AAA batteries is a bit extravagant…..?
Cheers

Nick Kats

Hi Simon
I mean 2 handheld GPS. I carry a litre or so of AA & AAA batteries.

Frank M

An eminently sensible view of marine electronics and very sage advice, especially on the updates and new equipment front.
However, as a (non-marine) electronics engineer with years of fault-finding experience on various boats, I find that 99% of all “electronic” faults are really mechanical, poor installation or set-up, in nature. The actual electronics are “usually” highly reliable.
The mechanical issues are most often just poor connections, especially RF connectors (where connector blocks are used in-place of proper Coaxial/BNC connectors). Badly made crimps, damp joints or poor soldering are common problems.
Installers often don’t understand the importance of a proper RF ground or earth, which leads to poor performance of radios, GPS, radar, Navtex & WiFi. Modern Switched Mode Power supplies & Battery chargers can cause horrible RF interference which will degrade the performance of other equipment dramatically, unless installed correctly.
Dealer and User set-up issues are also commonplace and can often appear as a hardware fault.
Sadly with the ever increasing complexity of on-board systems and the use of non-marine connectors (USB, Ethernet etc) these faults are becoming more common. However, don’t despair: learn to use a multi-meter, buy a can of switch cleaner and sort out the mechanics before you send a unit back for repair and most important of all, get a decent marine technician with a good reputation to do any installation work.

RobertB

Frank,
I agree with your points and Johns. Electronic components are highly reliable. I very rarely see them fail if operated within their specs. However, I do see them routinely fry because of poor circuit design and lack of power protection. And firmware updates rarely get the testing they should before getting shipped so problems are not uncommon. This isn’t restricted to marine electronics and the advice of installing/updating a long time before you need them is prudent for any critical system.

Marc Dacey

Good points, all, although with a teenager aboard who must use SailMail to file and receive homework, a case is made for us to continue with SSB. I dislike integration on the basis of unnecessary complexity (the “trap of convenience” as some say) and because making the AP go to a GPS waypoint is, anecdotally speaking, just asking for trouble in my view. Set the AP to steer to a heading, on the other hand, and if you are a mile east of your expected waypoint, you’ve learned something about current or leeway or even that your fluxgate compass needs adjustment.

I also concur with the issue of installation being sub-par. I’m a big fan of robust connectors, conformal spray and all the “post-consumer” techniques of keeping the salt air out.

Regarding radars: I was told a couple of years back that the most sensible thing I could do was to have a new “digital” radar for close-in work under six to 10 NM range, as the resolution (and comparatively modest power draw) was superior, but if I wanted to see a 22-knot freighter 20 NM away in the ocean, or to get useful warning of squall lines, keeping a pulse radar of the Furuno or Koden type would be a better choice! It seems each type has its strengths, but the weaknesses are rarely discussed in the rush to “upgrade”. Of course, if you are coastal only, the choice for a low-draw, short- to mid-range radar is easy. Offshore, less so.

Lastly, I have the somewhat cynical viewpoint that it might be better to purchase at the low end of the “pro” market, such as commercial boats, fishing boats, etc. than in the consumer side (Raymarine, etc.). The fact is that if the fishermen diss your autopilot, you are going to alienate your best customers, whereas if some retiree in a Beneteau ends up in Nassau for three weeks troubleshooting a Raymarine AP…well, that complaint has fewer real-world consequences. That’s why for APs, I’m looking at W-H or ComNav, semi-pro gear that does fewer things arguably better than less robust and more feature-ridden Garmin/Raymarine and so on.

Marc Dacey

John, that Furuno 1832 unit shows we are in concord on the idea of the passagemaker’s “sweet spot” for electronics is the lower end of the commercial range, rather than the boat show special. I salvaged a Furuno 1720 unit literally out of a bin, and I expect to get it working this winter as “a good start”. It’s why I follow the fishermen: as you correctly pointed out: “Commercial fishermen just don’t put up with crap that does not work.” The question is, why do recreational sailors put up with anything less?

As for the SSB, I have a steel boat and I can expect better than usual performance for obtaining GRIB files/wxfax and doing e-mail and accessing cruiser nets. There are certain safety advantages, too, in my mind to using SSB for a few years yet. That said, I wouldn’t NOT have a satphone for the ditch bag or for medical emergency situations where the cost is irrelevant, but data over satphone versus SailMail is still in my calculations prohibitive. Like AIS and RADAR, I think SSB and satphone are more complimentary than antagonistic. Given our five-year plan, it could very well be that I use the SSB a lot at the beginning, and less so at the end, much as how I saw a lot of sextants when I started sailing, and now hardly any!

Marc Dacey

The mast is in the rack at the moment, but I should get on this next season. If I hit any wobblies, I’ll seek outside guidance from a radio expert I know. A couple of guys have seen the boat and proclaimed it an excellent base…if I keep my cabling short.

John Pedersen

I agree with the KISS aspect. I have no plotter – just a Thinkpad with the standard HD replaced with a solid state HD. And a spare, with the same setup. I keep it indoors, and have a window in the saloon so that I can see it from the cockpit in bad weather. I’ve probably got half a dozen GPS’s on board, including a couple of phones – but I wouldn’t like to go to sea without my sextant. I vaguely remember how to use it. I hope to revise that way of navigating before lightning strikes and possibly renders all electrickery useless.

If I was in the market for another boat, I’d prefer not to pay for a whole pile of inter-linked hardware that is going out of date and that I couldn’t rely on. When I see an ad saying a boat has just been fitted out with all the latest navigational toys, I pretty much rule it out.

Richard Dykiel

I learned celestial nav with starpath.com, Even if you don’t sign up for the online course, I find their textbook a great learning tool. No, I don’t own shares in starpath,com.

richard s. (s/v lakota)

i tend to agree with marc’s post above in that correct installation is likely a major culprit with these problems; however, my feeling is that the equipment should not be so sensitive to this…the engineers and designers for this equipment appear to be content with good reliability so long as the installation is beyond reproach, and this is not acceptable in my view because it is so unlikely…as far as i am concerned these supposed gurus remain on the hook for all this poor reliability until the equipment is robust enough to tolerate some installation lapses

also i endorse the kiss principle in john’s book, but i did splurge with lakota (dufour 425) and installed a watermaker (spectra)…bad move…the darn thing is obstinate, unpredictable, and is not functional much more than it is functional…mfr continuously claims minor adjustments will correct the problems, but they are essentially not interested as if they really don’t know the origin of the problems, which, i believe, is probably the case…my guess is this is a common dilemma regardless of brand

Marc Dacey

Recent time spent in Antigua talking to active cruisers has persuaded me that tropics passagemaking means a watermaker is very desirable. The key to happy watermakers seems to involve regular, predictable use, which is the diesel paradigm.

That said, I would always have a tank devoted to collected rainwater for washing up, showers and laundry. Something I could boil if the watermaker went down!

Colin Speedie

Hi Marc
I think there are three key points to a happy relationship with your water maker.
1. Buy a simple one – as Dick Stevenson remarks elsewhere here most of the ‘labour saving’ extras are more trouble than they’re worth.
2. Install it properly, and that means close to the batteries (if 12V) and with adequate cabling – voltage sensitivity is an issue with many models.
3. Follow the manufacturers instructions religiously in terms of regular use, filters, storage and servicing.

Being able to inspect the unit when you make water (demanded by a simple installation) will nip many problems in the bud before they become serious.
I installed our basic Spectra Ventura 150 myself and it has been a model of reliability, and still (after 7 years) makes water within 10% 0f the test spec sheet it came with.
As is so often the case, complexity is not your friend here…
Best wishes
Colin

Dick Stevenson

Hi John, Having done some major upgrades in the areas discussed over the last three years, I am chuffed to have company in the “getting off the ground” aspects of new equipment/installation. Little has made me feel more stupid/infuriated.That said, once accomplished all equipment has worked like a charm. But someone has to do something about the getting up to speed curve.
I am reminded of what my autopilot people (Alpha) said when I was leaving US waters for an extended time and I asked what was most,likely to go bad so I could consider carrying a spare. He replied asking “Do you have more than 20 hours on the unit?” I replied “Way over.” And he went on to say that it would all work great until it didn’t and there was no predicting what would fail. It is now 7 years and a lot of miles later with no problem. I believe most of the higher end stuff does just that: once you got it going, it works and works well until it doesn’t.
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Wilson Fitt

Hi John

What was your conclusion about the Vesper Marine AIS transponder that you installed? I am looking at buying one. It looks pretty simple but I have a very low frustration threshold with such things and hope that and I am not about to step off into some kind of hellish electronic abyss. If it took you three days to install then I am looking at weeks!

I endorse the comments about Furuno gear. My GPS30 has been flawless over 14 years and the 1623 radar, although a bit of a toy, has worked fine for ten years or so.

Every once in awhile I am aboard someone else’s boat and start to feel the seduction of an integrated multifunction screen with chartplotter, radar overlay, AIS, etc, etc, but so far have come out of the trance, given myself a shake (or been shaken by the price) and decided to stick with the basic, fragmented system that we have.

Last year I got an iPAd, loaded it up with charts from all over, and even used it for navigation sometimes. But it is fragile, prone to bugs with the charts (long email correspondence with X-Traverse about iNavX issues) and I have trouble viewing it as a “real” tool.

AIS is a great thing though, almost necessary, and I would like to broadcast as well as receive hence the interest in the Vesper transponder.

Marc Dacey

Great information for me, John, as I am looking at the 850 Vesper unit but was also considering either the Vision or their ‘black box” unit. Even with your particular problems, the Vesper line seems to hit the exact mix of attributes and functionality we want in an AIS transponder.

Richard Dykiel

What problems did you have with iPad/iNavx? Been using iPad mini for 2 years w/o issues. Coastal cruising only. IPad has a liveproof case and is mounted under dodger with RAM mount. The only weak point in that setup is the connection to the 12v outlet.

Wilson Fitt

Hi Richard

I know from experience that dropping an iPad without a case will result in a lot of broken glass. I have a “rugged” case that seems to be robust and waterproof but the gadget is not always in the fancy case and accidents will happen at the most inconvenient moment …

iPads are extraordinarily sophisticated and complex devices compared to single purpose hardware like dedicated chartplotters. I am no expert, but complexity always seems to bring problems.

The iNavX app and charts (Navionics and Canadian Hydrographic) worked fine on the initial install. Then I made the mistake of saying “yes” to an IOS software upgrade. The iNavX app was reinstalled from the iCloud backup without obvious difficulty but the charts needed to be downloaded from X-Traverse from scratch. The X Traverse help desk (very responsive but by email only, not by phone) told me that “no reliable backup of chart files can be stored on a hard drive or iCloud or other places and then get successfully restored”.

Some of the bought-and-paid-for charts would not reload but they were of limited use to me and my patience is limited so I ignored it for the time being.

Round two occurred when I dropped and broke the original unit. The iNavX app was reloaded onto the replacement, and following directions I tried to reload the charts from X-Traverse as originals. But this time some of the ones that I really wanted would not load. The X-Traverse help desk told me that the “backup/restore process, probably involving iCloud, has restored a bunch of things in a mangled way … that will prevent all downloads of charts from X-Traverse”. They say I need to delete everything, app and charts, and start from scratch.

So that’s where I am at the moment. All good fun I suppose, but not anything I want to be struggling with from anywhere other than my desk with a reliable high speed internet connection. As I said, it all seems very complex and therefore too fragile to be considered a primary navigation device.

Richard Dykiel

Wow I feel for you. But I’m glad I didn’t that much problems. First of all, I’m using an ipad mini. I spent 1/2 hours in the Apple store choosing between the iPad and the iPad mini, and I’m glad I chose the mini. Enough for chart plotter and so much handier lugging around doing other things: it’s my nav station (iNavx) my e-reader (kindle) and my news/internet reader. Second, I started using a Griffin case and then switched to lifeproof. Never had the ipad mini without its case even when home, so no risk of dropping it unprotected anytime. Thirdly, went through at least 3 IOS upgrades without any issues with my charts. Guess I’m lucky. True, going through X-Traverse is a bit of a hassle but they’re helpful. So for me it works well. Like I said, my biggest worry would be the 12V connector in the setup. On the other hand, Karen Sullivan and Jim Heumann crossed the Pacific on a Dana 24 (my boat) just using a Garmin GpsMap 76csx (my backup system). The iPad/iNavx is just a step above this IMO. I’m just using it for situational awareness. Still doing my routing using paper charts. I like the fact that these solutions don’t depend on hard wiring to the electrical system.

Matt

A tablet computer and a stand-alone chartplotter are a lot more similar than you might think. They could very well be running the same OS kernel on nearly the same silicon under the hood.

The tablet has the advantage of huge production volumes, leading to a much more favourable reliability/cost ratio. It would be very easy to ruggedize and waterproof one (at the cost of a few millimetres of thickness and a hundred or two grams) but, so far, no OEM has shown much interest in doing so. Cool breakable stuff gets replaced more often than cool unbreakable stuff.

The dedicated device is, at least in theory, more mechanically robust (waterproof, etc.) and more thoroughly tested with the one set of application software that ships pre-installed on it.

Where people seem to keep running into problems with tablets / smartphones is when an app vendor hasn’t properly tested their code before pushing a new release, or when owners neglect to disable automatic updates & mobile data while using the device for a critical purpose. The problems you describe with iNavX are, without a doubt, design / programming flaws in that app, not the device or OS it runs on – and I would bet that they’re closely linked to the idiotic decision by certain chart providers to use defective-by-design S-63 DRM wrappers around perfectly fine S-57 charts.

Dick Stevenson

Marc,
Watermakers have come up a couple of times, in part because of problems. I agree that there are certain areas of the world that watermakers make cruising life a good deal easier and safer. Like the Alpha autopilot that I have had good luck with, I would want to put in a general comment that in the marine market, which is actually very small in the scheme of things, smaller less well known companies should always be considered, especially if they are making simple robust products that have stood the test of time. I would put Katadyne PUR watermakers in that grouping. Ours has lasted 10 years although the last 3 years we have just been pickling it as we are in good water areas. For 7 years it produced the bulk of our water with no major problem (a few small leaks easily lived with or fixed). We had the 160 which is their biggest. Doing it again, I would get two of their smaller units for redundancy. We lived without the bells and whistles the other units have without any problem. In fact most bells & whistles wasted water just made or were unnecessary. The only drawback was that Katadyne used more amps per gallon of made water, which, in practice, was not an issue.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
Ps. I am way out of the research/information grapevine loop, so please check where these companies are nowadays. D

Marc Dacey

Thanks for your experience with Katadyne, Dick. I’m on the hunt for one of their PUR handheld models for the ditch bag. For the tanks, I am considering very much the “robust, simple” types. I anticipate having enough power to have one earning its keep.

Bob Hinden

Excellent article! Several comments.

On my previous boat (Valiant 42) the electronics installer hooked it up so that I had to have everything turned for the NEMA data to work. This was stupid, I redid it all of the NEMA wiring with a NEMA multiplexor.

On my new boat (1997 Custom Schumacher 46, new to me about a year ago) I had the opportunity to update the electronics. Got to make a lot of decisions along the lines of the article. I kept the original SSB radios (ICOM 710 RT and Ham ICOM 706), Furuno CRT radar, B&G instruments, and Leica GPS. I replaced the VHF with an ICOM 604A (real buttons and volume, squelch, and tuning knobs, just noted it is no longer on the ICOM site), replaced the AIS receiver with a Vesper XB-8000 transponder and watch mate display, and replaced the computer set up with a new computer and display that runs off 12 volts (instead of the old all AC system). The computer is an industrial style no fans or rotating media system. Ran Sailmail, Coastal Explorer, Expedition, etc.) on it, good performance and low power.

I completed the Pacific Cup last summer (San Francisco to Oahu, and back). All worked well. I have had no problems with the Vesper unit and found Vesper very good about answering my questions.

Still have some projects like getting the new computer to send waypoints to the GPS and instruments and allow more control over which GPS (Leica or Vesper) sends positions to the new VHF.

Dick Stevenson

Dear Marc,
SSB installation has come up a few times lately so I will include these thoughts:
It is possible to have gremlins plague you in any SSB installation, but it is not a black art (although I have never worked on a metal boat). I would suggest a couple of preparatory activities to do over the winter which will hold you in good stead when it comes time for the installation.
Design your system. Consult with friends who have been out there and used the anticipated equipment in the way you intend. Make sure to ask what they would now do different
Visit each piece of equipment spending considerable time looking at its backside where all the connections are made. Anticipate the loops necessary to get thumb size coax around to the back of the radio or tuner.
Make a schematic which includes every joint, connection, piece of equipment, etc. Decide what size coax goes where and then do the same for antenna cable, information wires, grounding wires, power wires, counterpoise etc. Estimate runs with extra length for service loops and drip loops. Include a description of the counterpoise and the materials needed. Think through the SSB’s power wires so they have ready access to the battery without causing a voltage drop which might affect other equipment. Plan ahead for chokes (toroidal coils), line isolator(s) as they take coax/wire etc to install. Also include in your design equipment mounted close at hand as they may benefit from chokes. Separation is a good thing: try not to have the guts of a transceiver sitting on a computer or next to an inverter.
Design so that trouble-shooting is easy. (I put my tuner near the backstay as instructed and access is a nightmare. A few feet farther away would not have made much difference to my radio work and getting to the tuner would have been much easier.) Make all connections easy to inspect/service.
Then send the schematic etc. to someone with a lot of experience in these areas. A local Ham may not do unless also a cruiser. This may be a time to spend some $$ if you can find a professional you trust (there have been some terrible ones who were excellent only at promoting themselves)
After installation go out of your way to find RFI before it finds you. It is likely there. For ex. One of many times when Herb accompanied us, he kept saying I had some RFI. We had never been bothered before by this slight background buzz but we were quite far afield and conditions were marginal. I searched everywhere to no avail until I saw the DC disconnect switch I had installed (a safety measure) when putting in the inverter/charger. Even though I had the inverter completely off, some capacitors (or something) were kept activated when connected to the battery bank. I turned off the switch and the slight buzz went away.
This is an area where mentoring is far the better method to deal with the learning curve than is reading instructions. Find people to help.
I am sure I left important stuff out. It can be much easier than it sounds.
My best, Dick Stevenson, KC2HKW, s/v Alchemy

RobertB

Good post, Dick. I think it gets called a black art because it does take some experimenting to get it right, especially on a boat. It isn’t as simple as some vendors say and it isn’t as difficult as some installers (and people with bad installations) say. It is, however, something that requires a bit of understanding if you don’t want the SSB talking to the autopilot in an unhelpful way.

Although the local Ham operators, who are not cruisers, may not be much help with reviewing a marine installation, they can be a big help in learning some RF fundamentals before tackling an installation. One doesn’t need to learn Maxwell’s equations for this. One does need to learn some basic principles and the Ham community is a great resource for practical learning. Hams are also very used to tracking down stray RF and providing some very creative solutions!

The SSB really requires following the advice in the article (and Dick’s post), but people shouldn’t be put off by stories of bad installations and descriptions of being a black art. To some, like myself, it’s a lot of fun.

Robert

Marc Dacey

Excellent advice, Dick, and quite similar to how I ‘schem’ out my electrical setup. I propose having the SSB some distance from the engine, fridge and so on by putting it in the aft cabin, the forward bulkhead of which is a little office space. The tuner would be on the inside of the stern itself, only about six feet away, and would feed through a deck gland to a hoistable antenna (I have two backstays to the quarters and plenty of sheaves at mast top). Having a steel boat means I am fairly crazy on the point of drips and dryness, particularly over the aft bunk, and so all this is great advice. I have “cruising hams” interested in my efforts and their advice to date mirrors your own. Thanks for your constructive suggestions. And John, yes…I will also have a phone for the same reason I carry a sextant: it’s Plan B, the heart of prudent seamanship!

richard s. (s/v lakota)

some of us may opt to do both…with loved ones onboard we want the extra layer of coverage…cheers (but boo to spectra watermakers)

richard s. (s/v lakota)

on board

Dick Stevenson

Dear John,
You write with respect to having an SSB on board and all it entails:
Or buy an Iridium phone with an external antena and install UUplus. Will take you about half a day.
I believe I hear some ridicule implied for those who choose to do the work of installing SSB and participating in the learning curve till they start to enjoy the benefits of having a SSB/modem on board.
If that ridicule is in fact the case then I believe it to be unfortunate. Both forms of communication have some overlap and also serve quite discrete functions on a boat. Nowadays, I would contend that, very loosely speaking, the Iridium phone is better for the functional elements of running a boat. It is easier to get weather info* and emails, but it is in the safety realm, especially medical, where Iridium really shines. Where SSB/modem has its place is in the community aspects of living on a boat, especially fostering a feeling of being part of a community. SSB also has good entertainment value, all this while being able to achieve all/most of the functional elements, albeit sometimes with a bit more effort and less assured of immediate success.
I would support thinking about only having the Iridium if your sailing is largely in the expedition mode of cruising where function and ease of use are paramount. If you gravitate to the live-aboard “sustainable” adventure side of things, then SSB/modem becomes more compelling. When either/both systems are well learned & in place, I see the major argument for Iridium being the safety/medical aspects being a phone call away.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
*I have gotten weather faxes, surface analysis, text weather reports, gribs etc from my SSB set-up for years, though undoubtably at times I have had to work some to make connections. I also get virtually unlimited email. This is through Ham, whose ticket is in no way hard to achieve these days.

Marc Dacey

I may have given the wrong, or rather, incomplete impression, John et al. THe SSB is only part of the comms gear. I’ve seen it used expertly well offshore to obtain decent GRIBs, etc. and to send to and fro the smallish text files that comprise a highschooler’s homework and lesson plans. My wife is a teacher (she’ll be delivering the Ontario curriculum aboard) and it is quite possible that, via cruisers’ nets, we will acquire some tutoring work for her. So there’s a multi-focal use for the SSB on our boat not necessarily in play on the average “couple on a cruiser who want to talk to grandkids once a week”: clearly, a satphone makes sense.
On the other hand, in a harbour, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay for or otherwise acquire Wi-Fi, local SIMs for phones or to Skype ashore in order to communicate as needed. In fact, blasting off a bunch of my son’s schoolwork, particularly if there are graphical elements or photos, might be more practical when we touch land, but to my mind that doesn’t obviate the utility of SSB. It’s just part of the puzzle, like having an AP on the hydraulic ram, and a bypass valve so I can have blocks, Spectra line, a tiller and a vane. Maybe in two years, satphones will be cheap enough to review my comms gameplan, but as the SSB is already paid for, it’s just a matter of installing it as best I can.

Dick Stevenson

Hi RobertB,
Good points about using Hams to learn the ropes of SSB use. They would be brilliant at that, especially if you can get ones who know how to talk to beginners. Most love to give help and are very generous with their time and knowledge.
Dick

Bill Attwood

Hi Marc.
A word of warning about Electromaax. I bought their 160A alternator plus accessories and have had endless problems. I am in Germany and bought through the UK, and if it hadn´t been for the tremendous support from the UK guy I would have sent it all back. They at last accepted that the alternator was u/s and sent a new one, which has passed initial testing. I also looked up Electromaax on one of the cruising forums (AFTER I had bought) and was pretty worried by the negative comments about their alternators and watermakers. If you are interested I can look back and try and find the forum.
Yours aye,
Bill

Marc Dacey

Thanks, Bill. I’ve been in contact with one of the principals of the firm here in Toronto (he came to see my boat) and I brought up some of these issues. There’s definitely the potential for drama there, but at the same time, two other cruisers at my club have raved about the products (both the alts and the watermaker). As far as I can tell, the issue is not the products so much as knowledgeable backing of the products, which is the bit people are complaining about. Anyway, I am well on guard, and being just across the lake means I don’t have to worry so much about time and distance. I do appreciate the warning, however: you are not the first to advise caution.

Dick Stevenson

Marc & Bill,
Bill, agree with your take on Electromaax including how helpful the UK rep was. In the end he was unable to get some questions answered from the company that I had and they were unable to provide a large frame alternator which I decided to go with.
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

John,
Understood, appreciated and agree.
Any writing that implies that a SSB/modem is in the “do not leave home without it” realm is both inaccurate and contributory to your scenario portraying hapless souls tied to the dock figuring out their systems. SSB/modem installation and use should be regarded as completely optional and the functions it serves to the safe running of the boat are, as you correctly point out, better and more cheaply accomplished by other communications methods.
My points were that much of the functionality of communications could and have been accomplished through a SSB/modem setup, albeit not with not nearly the fingertip ease of a Iridium setup: this while also providing an avenue to a richness in community cruising life for those interested in that aspect of being on the water.
I support your endeavors to get people out there safely first and then “on the way and on the water” they can work out the myriad opportunities that cruising and offshore passagemaking can be made more to their liking.
My best, Dick

Nick Kats

Given the general unreliability of electronics, as evinced above, this brings up Tip #7, and, in the humble opinion of yours truly, the most important one:

Tip #7 – Always have a backup to all electronics. Preferrably non-electronic. Be comfortable offshore without any/all failed electronic equipment.

With a high failure rate as discussed above, sailors on the deep blue need to be comfortable without any/all electronic equipment. At minimum they have to feel confident about finding a port without any/all electronics. Even better is the ability to carry on with the voyage without any/all elecronics in all confidence.

Failure to have this confidence is playing with dice. Once or twice for short trips offshore, maybe OK. Long term it is simply incompetence & it is asking for trouble.

There is a precedent for this level of ability & confidence. All blue water sailors up to the mid 20th century or so. They got around the seas & the globe without electronics. We have the precedent of many centuries of non electronic bluewater sailing.

This ability is continued by people now generally perceived as Luddites, like the Pardeys, and to a lesser extent myself.

#7, in short: It is fine to have the electronics, just make sure you can do without. Or, as in my case, use mainly non electronics & save a lot of money, headaches & anxiety.

Marc Dacey

Certainly, the belt and non-digital suspenders approach gives a realistic Plan B, but only if the skill set is up to it. I recently completed an RYA course using plotter and handheld compass (an IRIS 50, a nice piece of kit) and feel better about tuning up my pilotage, but even as a guy who has two sextants (the Freiberger’s is my wife’s), I realize I have to keep up even static CN work to remember how to do it properly without digging up Blewett. In other words, it’s not just the tools you want, it’s the craft. Of course, I maintain that if you have the “analog” skills of decades past, you tend to get more out of the electronics you do carrry (if you do) and are far more alert to when they are fibbing to you about what’s actually happening.

richard s. (s/v lakota)

i think what nik is saying: at a minimum keep applicable paper charts out and periodically annotate current position…if electronics go down you will have a good ref to begin manual nav…i will have to use deduced reckoning as i have long since given up sextant use…probably should pick it back up again, but my backup handheld garmin gps has never let me down, always have backup aa batts, and it plugs into house current…tough to pick that sextant back up with this esp as sextant proficiency demands regular use…ugh

Keith Jones

I have an older Raymarine system with Chartplotter/Radar at the nav station and a second networked station under the dodger, and am running ST60 instruments. Has worked well for over 10 years. I’ve added an AIS receiver and a Seatalk/NMEA converter. On a recent delivery I was able to play with some of the tablets people had in use with the new Raymarine nav system, and was impressed.

Not having the desire or budget on my own boat to do an instrument upgrade, I purchased a US Converters RS232/Bluetooth converter ($70)and with some degree of effort got it working and now have a tablet running PolarNavy ($50) receiving instrument, GPS, and AIS data wirelessly.

Nice inexpensive way to teach an old dog new tricks, keeping your old instrument setup and adding a whiz bang front end to the existing data stream. It isn’t critical as the underlying single purpose instruments are still in place.

Keith

Marc Dacey

A very good point about older electronics with life (and the benefits of long familiarity) still left in them. While I will be getting new instruments in the next two years, I have resisted the urge to buy “integrated packages”, slick as many seem. I prefer to have stand-alone instrumentation (particularly radar and depth) that can work alone, OR can “report” to a PC or tablet to exhibit integration when desired and as described. I find the idea of a multi-function display (which, if it “goes down”, leaves one staring at a bunch of mute black boxes) a little absurd: I find it akin to telling an orchestra member they have to wear several headphone sets from each section of the pit in order to figure out where they are in the score. Better (from my point of view) to maintain more discrete displays and to integrate them wirelessly or via multiplexed connectors. But realistically, except for the very useful “radar over plotter” display (charting errors immediately manifest!), how often does a skipper do more than glance at depth, course and RADAR indicators before going back to Eyeball Mk. 1? If I had all the bells and whistles going, I might be tempted to stare overlong at some of the “overly comprehensive” displays available at reasonable costs these days…which I find not very seamanlike. I will take “a watch augmented”, but disdain “a watch once removed”.

Bill Attwood

When I started learning the art there was a distinction made between Navigation and Pilotage. I can see the benefits of electronic gizmos for pilotage, but once offshore the only electronic instrument really useful is the gps, perhaps occasionally AIS and radar for the bulk carrier determined to give you a fright. And on a long ocean passage noon sights or a morning star fix are a much better way of passing the time.
😉
Yours aye
Bill

Niels Otto Wind-Jensen

Excellent and inspiring article !
I have been involved in merchant and naval marine electronics for 24 years and wish to keep my boats installation as simple as possible, now that I am a blue water cruiser.
For many years I have loved my Nexus NX2 installation, however, the temperature sensor in the log transducer failed and Garmin, who now has taken over Nexus, could not help me.
A contact to Airmar got me a new type transducer as the old type made for Silva is no longer in production. However, this has only spelled trouble this season. The new temperature sensor cannot be calibrated reliably. Much worse, the log sensor is feeble and much more prone to catch debris in the water. Its log calibration changes frequently for no apparent reason and dismantling does not seem to help. Hopefully Airmar can help me during the idle period.
However, a solid state log would be preferred, but then comes the interface dilemma of an ‘older’ model server as the Nexus is called by Garmin. Any ideas ?
Yours,
Niels of s/y AUK

Tobias

Hi!

We’re in the planning phase of ARC 2018 (perhaps Arc+). I have experience from diving, employing the DIR principles (Doing It Right).

KISS pretty much resembles what I’ve learned from DIR, so it goes straight to my heart. Would be interesting to know what you think about this electronics configuration on our Norlin 37, that we just bought:
No radar.
No forward sonar.
Autopilot.
Hydrovane wind pilot (will aquire).
Old Raymarine plotter, Echo thunder, wind gauge and autopilot connected to it, external displays for vind and echo. SD sticks for Sweden – Las Palmas.
Old monochrome GPS plotter at nav table.
PC software with charts for entire voyage.
Another plotter as backup, mounted at helm (detachable), charts for Northern Europe.
Paper charts for entire voyage (Sweden to Carribbean and back) (will aquire).
Icom VHF with AIS receiver and DSC (AIS receiver = ARC requirement). (will aquire).
MF/HF receiver. (aquire)
Pre-owned satellite phone (will aquire).
Min two PC laptops for navigation for redundancy. One will not be changed during voyage, no windows updates, no Internet surfing, no more applications installed, will ghost the hard disk to two disks.
One apple mac laptop for school work (kids aboard). (aquire)
Bring all the iPads and Android tablets we own (e g our Sony Xperia Z2 with is waterproof). They are also GPS backup units.
Bring all our iPhones and Android phones, they are backup GPS.
Handheld VHF.
Old icom VHF, analogue, no DSC, stoved aboard as backup.
Old fashioned handheld GPS. (aquire)
At least two GPS receivers, stationary, coupled with plotters.

What I have the learn is how to couple the MF/HF receiver to the laptop to receiver weather. And how to connect the satellite phone to the laptop as well. Knowledge gap on my account…

Feels really good skipping out radar etc.., should we be getting Navtex though? Perhaps a pre-owned unit? Sailing the Swedish coast, we have always listened to the VHF weather which gives a pretty good prognosis for the local area. Not sure how that works southwards along the European coast.

Thanks,

Tobias

Tobias

Sorry forgot a question:
I heard analogue intruuments are more reliable than their electronic counterpart.

As we are fitting more diesel and fresh water tanks, I would like to know how much diesel and water there is left. Should I go for analogue displays or digital, please?

Cheers

Terry Mason

Hi John,

Did your boat come with that nice flat area either side of the companionway or was it a mod?

Terry

Eric

John,

Another good philosophy of keeping each system separate. The sailboat I bought came with Raymarine C90W Chartplotter with radar. Often I wished they were separate screen offerings bigger visual guide at a glance.

Thanks.

Stuart Carduner

“Ask yourself, do you really need: Radar? Yes, it’s certainly nice to have but not indispensable.”

“Radar is, at least to Phyllis and me, the most important piece of marine electronics on our boat. “

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