Marine Electronics System Recommendations

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Up to this point in this Online Book we have been writing about good navigation practices. Now let's turn our eyes to the cool electronic toys we all love.

And since I'm an electronics technician by trade and have spent most of my working life in high tech fields this is going to be leading edge stuff and way cool!

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Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Some excellent thoughts there. I can still remember the first time that I realized I was choosing not to utilize a piece of equipment’s full potential. It was a VCR television recorder. And in some ways it was a sobering moment and merely an inkling of what was to come. Now I suspect I am just accessing a very small percentage of my phone’s or computer’s capabilities.
And I very much agree that the three mentioned technologies have made by far the greatest contribution to off-shore and coastal cruising.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Jo

Recently I had to rethink the equipment of the boat. It came equipped with some old stuff, some reliable, some less, but it needed a DCS VHF Radio and navigation was still based on paper charts. Also I wanted an active AIS transponder.

So I went with a combinaion of a solid core and a collection of toys.

For the core I chose the Standard Horizon GX2000 VHF and the Wheatherdock easyTRX2S-IS-WiFi AIS Transponder with integrated antenna-splitter and wifi. These two boxes provide VHF, AIS transponder and GPS-source via NMEA-0183 for all others. The AIS-box also recodrs the GPS track to an SD-Card for later. It has also an external contact for a buzzer to do collision warning or anchor watch, but I’m still figuring out if I want to rig it up or rely on the VHF for this.

The GX2000 VHF is an interesting beast as it can display AIS data and do collision warning like its expensive brother GX2200, but has no AIS receiver and uses external data via NMEA 0183. It therefore costs only a little more than a regular VHF and a lot less than the VHF with AIS. It’s my simple AIS-Gui that’s always on.

The instrument in the cockpit also picks up GPS, COG and SOG via NMEA-0183 fom the AIS-box and the rest from depth sounder, log an the wind-wane directly.

With these two boxes, the cockpit instrument and some paper chart I can navigate safely in case of need.

For the toys, I use OpenCPN and my iPad as Chart-Plotter. They get the position and AIS via USB or Wifi from the AIS-box. That works great for me under normal circumstances, but being consumer products I don’t expect them to survive in an Oh-Shit-situation.

Radar and electric autopilot are the old systems, working independent of everything else and I wont change them until they break.

Patrick Genovese

One comment regarding OpenCPN, it is now a very mature application and you can now purchase commercial grade charts (UKHO) for it via Chartworld (with updates). I think it is a viable solution for people who want to do PC based navigation.

There are some very useful and nice plugins for it which extend its functionality and if run on a rugged or at least well protected device should be a good solution. Even if OpenCPN is the main “plotter” a backup device would be quite easy and cheap to setup. 2 OpenCPN setups would easily cost less than a decent MFD.

Personally I have had the opportunity to use some commercially available software solutions such as MaxSea and I think that functionally OpenCPN stacks up well against these. It is also quite reasonably “light” in the sense that it does not need a behemoth of a machine to run on. Perhaps the only real down side is the lack of commercial grade support (i.e. get on the phone with someone for help) although having said that the community support is very good.

Naturally it would be wise to make sure that your OpenCPN setup/release is running reliably well before you head offshore but that applies to any piece of gear anyway.

Jo

Patrick, that was roughly my reasoning. For my usage and having some experience with weird software, I couldn’t justify the investment in a complete multi-function-display with chart plotter. The added benefit wasn’t worth the cost.

Concerning the support and warranty, I’ve been burned so many times by bad product quality and support, I’ve even spent part of my life inflicting the same on others, that I don’t accord it much value. The best products don’t need support or can be fixed by the user or by a welder in a shack at the end of a dirt road on a remote island.

And in case my requirement evolve down the road, I’ll be glad not to be saddled by a state-of-the-art-system dating back to 2015. As long as vendors treat their 2010 gear already as totally outdated, only a fool would trust them to still support their actual future-proof wondergear in 2020.

Marc Dacey

This sort of thinking reflects my own. I’m suspicious of integration, and don’t look for reasons to peer at screens unless necessary. I think slaving the autopilot to a GPS waypoint is asking for it; if I steer via pilot to a course and miss an arbitrary waypoint as per GPS, this reveals of course how much leeway I’ve made and even the presence of currents, data points to add to my situational awareness. By the way, I get a laugh from the guys at the boat show when I say that I want simple, rugged, barely interface-able (?) autopilots like the W-H or the ComNav models, as seen on fishing boats.

It’s the same with radar: I don’t want it overlaying the plotter’s chart display; although that’s “nice to have”, it distracts a bit from radar’s primary function, to show us where the hard parts are, the non-AIS-equipped fishing boats, and the squall lines approaching from the rear. The point about “good old sets” being made obsolete, however, is a good one, and we may be forced to get a new “digital” whiz-bang radar for this reason alone.

TomT

I recently learned about combining GPS positioning capability with cached Google Earth or satellite images. This would be a nice resource, especially for a cockpit display rather than a laptop. More information here:

http://www.yachtingworld.com/cruising/google-earth-navigation-61449

Jo

Hi John,

That was also the reason why I put OpenCPN under toys and have also as the other option the iPad. That’s for when I feel like a technical wuss and just want to get there.

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Agree. Life is too short to pursue things merely because they are interesting (though, at times, I assuredly do just that). And it may be a modern age skill to “decide” what, among the huge array of technology, will really enhance your life and let the rest go.
Dick

Ray

John- I noticed the collection of instruments above your companionway (Raymarine displays) and where you were going with this article. About two years ago I decided to outfit our boat with all Raymarine to keep things all on one level and use their proprietary Seatalk-ng backbone bus to (what I hoped) limit any equipment squawks offshore. At the time I was hoping to do Bermuda 1-2 this past year, but we moved from Charleston to Tampa and that put a temporary end to those plans. Anyway- this boat had been raced mostly inshore with just a few excursions down the coast in local races- bare bones instruments, so I thought I’d be extra careful and took the time to research, both cost and reliability of everything. I bought a multi-function display (e7D), one instrument display (i70), two new transducers (depth and water speed/temp), the ITC-5 transducer hub, evo-100 autopilot with p70 instrument head, Raystar-130 external gps antenna and the AIS-650. The e7D display didn’t work quite as well as it should’ve right out of the box, but the company replaced it- no questions asked with a new unit under a product recall. That happened long before the move to Tampa. The AIS unit would send info, but couldn’t receive data at some point during a race shortly before our move, so I waited. As soon as I was able to get the boat in it’s new home down here in Tampa, connected everything and did a quick diagnostic, discovered that the ITC-5, Raystar gps antenna and AIS unit all disappeared from the network (all done with Raymarine tech support on the phone or via the forum) and the recommendation came to just send it all in and it’ll all be replaced under warranty. Everything is working (for now), but I’ve not fully tested all of the bells and whistles yet. I’m doing a race to Cuba from Key West in 2 weeks, so we’ll see.. So- my experience so far pretty much parallels a lot of others with regard to the reliability of marine electronics, but man- if you think any normal person can count on this to be plug-n-play, they’ve got another thing coming. The users manuals for these things are mostly written by electronics engineers and do not follow the logic of the typical layman. I have a scientific vocabulary, but browsing through the users manual of just the e7D (some 275 pages long) becomes a hobby all it’s own– I have enough already… The next boat, whether the Adventure 40 or an Ovni, will likely require some refitting of the electronics suite, but after my experiences with RM, I’m thinking of going with B&G. I would definitely be interested in your ideas!

TomT

Hello Ray,
Three years ago I did essentially the same thing that you did, with almost exactly the same Raymarine components. Self-install for everything. So far, so good. Although, the more that I think about it, sometimes I wanted to cry…
Tom

Petter ;-)

Hello John,

As the AAC reader who has been seriously BSed, I may offer a quick update. Today I sent a screencut of your reply to Ray above, to the upper echelons of Navico. Think of it as an indication of what starts to float around when the customers ask questions on the internet, when they do not find the answers with the equipement manufacturers. Guess what, within a short time, B&G were reverting with a helping hand. No answers yet, but B&G are engaging in the problem solving – which I appreciate.

I never doubted that a subscription to AAC is useful – now it is also turn out to be valuable.

Thanks!

Jeff Clark

We did a refit of our J-46 electronics five years ago with Raymarine. It never worked correctly or reliably. Now, thanks to going up on the rocks in October 2014 (another story!) and just finishing really major repairs I am doing it again, but this time with entirely Garmin. The primary reason? I have an airplane with Garmin avionics, AP, etc., which like most avionics, works flawlessly. In aviation there is essentially zero tolerance for unreliable equipment and it is my hope, perhaps misplaced, that this standard will carry over into Garmin’s marine equipment as well. Fingers crossed!

Dick Stevenson

Hi Jeff and others,
My take from the live-aboard cruising world is that many have regretted their decision to go with Raymarine packages or their individual pieces and have gone elsewhere when enough frustrated, usually before getting a reasonable life-span out of their equipment. It seemed to be a QC issue as when things worked, they worked fine, but you could not count on that or on longevity.
That said, I do not know of any marine electronics that is bulletproof (at any price) nor is there a product line of “simple & robust” to turn to.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Gerben SYD

Who wants to be the first to try out the new Raymarine radar, the ‘Raymarine Quantum Wireless Chirp’ radar, announced yesterday? They even suggest not using a cable, but just using WiFi. What could possibly go wrong?
http://www.yachtingworld.com/uncategorized/raymarine-quantum-unveiled-a-lightweight-solid-state-marine-radar-with-class-leading-range-and-efficiency-70012

Matt

Eghad. WiFi can’t even bridge from my office to the conference room reliably. My first vision is of approaching an iceberg-strewn fog bank, with a freighter on a crossing course, and looking down at the screen to see “Searching for connection….”

I have nothing against clever new technology, and the capabilities that can be packed into modern FMCW-type and chirped radar are seriously impressive.

I’m just a little worried that, after subtracting profit, marketing, distribution, overhead and R&D, there’s not enough headroom in the bill of materials to use parts and assembly techniques of sufficient quality.

I can’t believe how much “marine” gear I’ve seen where they didn’t bother to flow-coat the circuit boards because (a) it costs an extra $20, and (b) the plastic case is water-resistant anyway, right, so why bother waterproofing the internals? If you try to cut corners when manufacturing this stuff, it *will* come back to bite your customers. Hard. At a very inconvenient time.

Jo

Short product cycles are evil for things like boats. When talking about sneakers or other consumer products which are replaced after two years, short cycles won’t matter much, perhaps even be beneficial. But on a boat where things easily makes it to ten years or more if it doesn’t die, short product cycle will pretty much guarantee that nothing matches and every installation is different.

Marc Dacey

Matt, a very good point. I have opened up a couple of gadgets in my time to apply conformal sprays or to beef up the connectors or to do a little light soldering. I am in no way a hobbyist nor particularly gifted in this realm, but I have some painful experience in the real world with what “water-resistant” really means. When warned by the well-meaning that to open up and further waterproof marine electronics would invalidate the warranties, I’ve replied that yes, it will, but at 0300h 1,000 NM offshore in a gale, it’s hard to call a service department anyway to bitch about a gadget blanking out.

Jeff Clark

Good point. It would be very helpful if someone could create a post on DIY waterproofing of circuit boards, etc., with appropriate references.

Rob Gill

Hi John,
A candidate addition for your list of new technologies that have made a difference, the tablet ( in our case an iPad with integrated GPS option) in a life-proof case. Let me make the case:
1) cheap and portable as back-up plotter – the new larger 13″ tablets could even act as primary’s I would think
2) world wide chart software from multiple sources, means we can affordably have two electronic references in the Pacific Islands where charts are still dubious
3) option to download and overlay GRIBs on plotter (although we haven’t yet)
4) cheap to service and carry replacement /dual units
5) can act as a portable, full function plotter anywhere on our boat for the Raymarine chart plotter at the Nav station (we don’t have an all weather hard dodger). Coupled with an auto-pilot hand-held remote, we can keep watch and con the vessel from the relative comfort of the dodger.
6) can be taken to your bunk for anchor watches
7) small power requirement, we can run the main plotter in stand bye mode, but still have full chart plotter functionality on the iPad
8) runs a neat app for plotting sun-sights
9) has a good app for our weather forecasts worldwide
10) in fact more apps than you can poke a stick at, some of which are pretty useful too!
11) can be stowed away in a Farrady cage for protection if needed
cheers
Rob

Richard Dykiel

I second that opinion about iPad (in my case iPad mini) in lifeproof case, or equivalent Andriod tablets. We want devices using solid state memory (no spinning hard drives, please), and protected with top-notch weatherproof cases. And for the price of one laptop, 2 (or more) spares.

Richard Dykiel

How about using tablets rather than laptops for navigation? Seems that we have good protective cases for them, harder to get matching protection level for laptops. Waterproof connection to power is an issue though.

TomT

The ipad SkySafari app is great for clear nights while on watch.

Also, gutenberg.org for downloading free old books. Lots of sea stuff there.

Jeff Totman

I agree about the usefulness of iPads as a great supplemental nav system but not as primary. If I’m at the helm, my wife likes to have it so she can familiarize herself where we’re headed before we get there or to take a closer look at harbors or other features we pass by or just to be able to see where we are without having to get up and walk around to look at the plotter. She can even have it down below or on the foredeck which means it gets used almost nonstop every time we are underway. I’ve also used it where a precise course must be navigated to enter a harbor for the first time because it’s so easy to plot a course and pass it around for everyone to study it and have the display expanded before we ever get there and this setup can be done without losing the use of our primary plotter at the helm. Then I can use the 2 sources of nav info set on different scales to actually navigate the harbor entrance and can compare the two to give me added confidence that they are still accurate. So, we love our iPad but understand that it has its limitations.

I will be very interested in this article as it develops because we too will be replacing our nav equipment over the next couple of years and I haven’t even begun to research what our best choices might be so I hope to gain some insight here. We currently have a large SIMRAD plotter and radar display at the helm and a separate AIS receiver only that sends its info to a laptop nav program at the nav station. The SIMRAD plotter/radar works fine but is getting a little long in the tooth. I want to upgrade to an AIS receiver/transmitter that I can see at the helm and I want a new plotter/radar. One thing I like about our current plotter is that it’s big enough so I can split the screen and see nav and radar info side by side. I really dislike the radar overlay option because I think it makes both types of info less clear. We have raymarine depth/wind/log instruments and those still work fine so I don’t feel a need to replace them. Can’t wait to see what you choose for Morgans Cloud and why, and wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we copy you!

Richard Dykiel

I guess we’ll develop the discussion about tablets in another context, but in your reply I don’t see any reason why you think the iPad (or other tablet) would be limited as a primary nav system, besides it being a popular gadget on board. After all, the tablet ergonomics are as good, or even better than the dedicated chart plotters with their awkward keyboards and confusing menu options.

Jeff Totman

Richard, everything you say is true and we do really value our iPad for a lot of the reasons you stated. They’re absolutely great! But for navigation they depend on a tiny built in GPS antenna and since it’s in your hand with you leaning over it, or laying half under a seat cushion ( or just was prior to you picking it up and looking at it) and is under the solar panels in your bimini or hard top dodger, I feel that there is potential for the GPS signal to be degraded or the sightline to one or more satellites to be blocked, but a fixed installation ensures that the antenna is much more substantial and always visible to many satellites so I am more confident in its reliable accuracy. I don’t have any data to support that concern and it may well be unfounded, but I have noticed that sometimes my position on my iPAD wanders a little when I take it below or it is otherwise blocked from “seeing” the whole sky. But it’s never off for long and as long as I have two sources to easily compare with each other (even 2 iPADS) I’m confident that I’m not lost.
Another issue I’ve experienced a couple of times with the iPAD that we keep onboard is that a fat line appears across the screen with a note telling me that it’s overdue for an update because it hasn’t “seen” a WIFI signal for a month or two. Now, I make sure to keep the OS updated but that really took me by surprise and was quite annoying because it happened at a bad time and suddenly it was useless for navigation.

Nevertheless, I’m a huge fan!

Jo

Jeff,

True, but once you have a proper GPS-receiver broadcasting the data on the boat-wifi, iPads become really attractive for navigation. See my post on top (#2 or so) for such an example.

David

A suggestion regarding electronics system selection:
When contemplating new nav electronics, whether stand-alone or networked, note that you don’t have to buy the latest new equipment from a manufacturer. Most of them continue to offer older equipment lines for years, at lower cost than their most recent products. Most electronics and software has bugs when initially released, even with very quality-focused companies. Just a fact of life. The older product lines have had years for the bugs to be worked out. The new whizbang features in the newer products are less valuable than reliability. This is not suggesting looking for new old stock on ebay and other locations, as that will not have the benefit of the updates and bug fixes, rather looking for NEW new stock of older product lines still offered by the manufacturer of product lines that have been on the market for 2-4 years. That’s recent enough that it will have most new features, but old enough that the kinks will be worked out. It also allows for more experienced customer reviews to help you make your choice. When we bought our boat, we specified an older line of Raymarine components, primarily because the gray-scale LED screens on basic data unit heads like speed/wind/depth burn 1/4 the power of the newer models with fancy color screens. Who needs to see a depth or wind number in color? We saved 3 amps, which is 72 amp-hours/day at sea, plus about 1/3 the cost. And as an unanticipated but even more important benefit, the older line had been thoroughly sorted out. We’ve had years of trouble-free service without the bugs and quality issues we hear about so much. Everything just worked. It probably also helped that by that time the installer technicians would have had years experience installing those units, so we were past their learning curve too.
David
svTigress

Dick Stevenson

Tom,
I went to the app store for a look at SkySafari and found no less than 7 by that name. I am sure they are all variations on a theme, but if you can suggest the best for night watches, it might save a bit of trial & error.
Thanks, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

TomT

Dick,
I have SkySafari 4 Plus ($14.99). It is very nice, and used by amateur astronomers to locate objects. Worth the price (I don’t know about the $2.99 version, and the Pro version is for serious amateur astronomers). With the compass and gyro features of the ipad you just hold it up to the sky toward the region you wish to view.
Reminds me of a story, a night watch on my boat who kept course by lining up Jupiter between the mast and shroud, all watch long. That way he could lie down in one place, because of sea sickness, and not sit up to look at the compass. When I went to bed I could see the lights of Long Island, when I came on watch again 4 hrs later we were 10 miles offshore. I had to politely point out that the position of Jupiter is not fixed.
Tom

Mike hiscock

Dick,

A similar IOS app I use is “skyview free.” It works quite well.

Mh

PaddyB

Hi, interesting article, thanks. I think maybe, though, it’s a bit polarized. I’m most definitely in the electronic hobbyist camp. Edging close to having most data broadcast over wifi in nmea & signalK. But one thing I’ve learnt along the way cruising is being stuck in some dirty harbour into the third week for an overnight delivery of an essential spare part is just not the best fun there can be 🙂 So make your boat as bullet proof as possible. There may be a few arduino’s and raspberry pi’s onboard mine but none will stop the boat if they fail, the most important systems are stand alone and not reliant on each other – radar, ais(x3!) & windvane, gps. (OK ais needs gps to really make sense)
Everything else is nice to have but in no way will it stop the boat. So it’s possible to have a foot in both camps, keep the boat safe and happy plus enjoy some toys as well. So long as you don’t get carried away and start thinking the toys are vital…