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Wireless On The Water?

Wireless On The Water?

We have wireless networks in our homes and offices. Why not on our boats, too?

I can’t remember the last time I used a phone that had a wire attaching its handset to its base, but the fact that I have a hard-wired computer network at home apparently qualifies me as one of the last of the dinosaurs. And given the ubiquity of wireless communications today, it’s odd that afloat, where vibration and corrosion pose more problems than they do ashore, most of us seem to be stuck on copper wire and terminal blocks. But there is an alternative.

Tacktick is a British company probably better known to sailors than powerboaters, thanks to its range of solar-powered, wireless-networked instruments. They aren’t cheap but they fill a niche by bringing a complete suite of instruments to the kind of racing sailboats that are big enough to need speed, depth, wind, and compass data yet small enough not to carry batteries or the engines required to charge them.

After being taken over by Suunto—the Finnish compass people—last year, Tacktick set about trying to broaden its products’ appeal to the great mass of cruising sailors and powerboaters who want to freshen up their instrument panels but balk at running new cable through headliners and bulkheads or down into bilges. Tacktick’s logic is that power supplies aren’t usually a problem for these customers because all of their existing instruments already have a power supply that can be re-used. So they could enjoy significant savings by doing without the miniature solar panels of the original Tacktick instruments while retaining the “wireless” concept for data. And so Tacktick launched its Entry-Level Range.

For a friend of mine, who was thinking of getting rid of his 1980s-vintage ST50s, the timing was perfect. The first step in his installation process—after reading the instructions—involved locating the existing power supplies, cable runs, and transducers, and planning exactly where and how the new components would be located.

My friend knew that he wanted the new instruments to fill the holes left by the old ones and reuse the existing, perfectly serviceable transducers. The only component for which he had to find a new home was the “hull transmitter,” which supplies power to the transducers and converts their analog data to a wireless-friendly digital form. Unlike the displays, the hull transmitter isn’t waterproof, so although it is a good idea to put it reasonably close to the transducers, it has to be above the level of any bilge water. Tacktick recommends that it be at least 18 inches above the waterline, so he settled for a space behind an electrical-distribution board, about eight feet from the transducers. The fact that we could see the transducer cables running through the back of the locker on their way to the old displays made the job we had to do particularly simple.

Back up top we began stripping out the old instruments while preserving the three-core SeaTalk cable. With the SeaTalk plug removed and the yellow data core stripped and taped over, the red and grey cores were ready to provide the power we’d need for the new instruments.

Admittedly there was a bit of drilling and filing involved in order for us to adapt the existing holes to accept the new instruments, but less than an hour after we had started the job, the new displays were all in place and powered up.

Back down below, the next job was to connect the cables from the existing speed and depth transducers to the hull transmitter box. This could have been a problem because established wisdom says you don’t cut transducer cables. But Tacktick reassured us that almost all standard transducers used by mainstream electronics manufacturers have used the same color coding for the past 20 years or so and that its software would automatically compensate for any shortened cable transducers. So we cut. And sure enough, the cores of the transducer cables matched the color coding of the transmitter box terminals.

The final stage of the speed and depth installation was getting power to the hull transmitter box. In our particular location there were plenty of options but the neatest was to use the redundant lengths of transducer cable that led up from where we’d just cut them, through the headliner, to the back of the instrument panel where we had disconnected them from the old display units. Their cores were thin but plenty to cope with the tiny power demands of a system originally intended to be powered by miniature solar panels.

With the transducers and power connected to the hull transmitter box, we were ready to go. A little more than an hour after we’d first started, we switched everything off and back on to make sure that the network—which was configured before it left the factory—worked properly.

The hull transmitter box is the heart of Tacktick’s wireless system.

The original ST50 had included a Navdata display that was now redundant, but which my buddy had decided to replace with a wind instrument. I believe that wind instruments on powerboats are underrated. On a sailboat, their value is obvious: when the wind is your power it’s only natural to want to know all about it. But the only time many powerboaters notice the wind is when it messes things up when we’re trying to back a high-sided boat into a tight slip. A wind instrument can help you avoid such mishaps.

Once we decided to go for a wind instrument, the process of fitting it was, if anything, even simpler than installing the speed and depth. There’s not usually an easy source of power at the top of a sailboat’s mast, so Tacktick’s Entry-Level masthead unit incorporates its own solar panel. It just had to be assembled and screwed into place and it was ready to send data to the display unit we’d installed alongside the others.

An hour and a half after we had started the entire job, we were finished—for the time being, at least. But who’s to say we won’t be adding more—speed and depth at the second helm station and perhaps depth and wind displays beside the captain’s berth? Stay tuned.

tacktick usa (800) 543-9124. www.tacktickusa.com

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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