Plug & Pray

Plug & Pray

It can be a long way from a chartplotter to a VHF.

By Richard Thiel — June 2005


Photo: Erik Rank

 More of this Feature

• Part 1: Plug & Pray
• Part 2: Plug & Pray

 Related Resources
• Electronics Index

I’m a product of the early years of home computing, that chaotic time when the bright promise of hours of saved labor was sullied by the realization that the engineers who had designed these things had never actually used them. To be specific, although my first few computers worked passably well, they had the annoying deficiency of not being able to talk to other electronic equipment, especially printers. Notwithstanding the sales guy’s smug assurance that the printer I was buying was fully IBM-compatible, when I actually connected it to my PC with a cable, all I had to show for my effort was some indecipherable error code and a toll-free number for customer service, which while at least located within the United States, was obviously woefully understaffed. After a while, things got better. I entered the age of plug and play, which for most of us should probably be more accurately termed plug and work.

For us boaters, however, the process repeated itself with our marine electronics throughout the next decade, creating a perverse sense of déjà vu. We had all this wonderful gear, but unless two units were from the same manufacturer, they couldn’t communicate. Finally, the engineers worked it out, creating a common language by which an autopilot from Company A could talk to a chartplotter from Company B, and so on. Plug and play had come to boats.

Confident in that fact, a year or so ago I decided to replace my ancient, first-generation GPS and equally long-in-the-tooth VHF with a top-of-the-line chartplotter and a VHF complete with digital selective calling (DSC) from different manufacturers. At the time it actually never occurred to me that I would have any need to connect the two, until someone pointed out that to enjoy the prime benefit of DSC—namely the ability to send a distress call to the Coast Guard that includes the location of your vessel—you need to supply the VHF with position information from a GPS. In my case that would come from my brand-new chartplotter. Doing a little checking, I learned that my two units could indeed talk to one another thanks to something called NMEA 0183 and that all I had to do was simply plug them into one another and I could, well, play.

Since this was going to be a plug-and-play installation, I decided it was silly to hire an electronics expert to do the install—I’d do the plugging-in myself. So with the new units in hand, I headed down to my boat. Onboard, I quickly removed the old GPS and VHF, and lo and behold, their antenna and power connections matched up perfectly with those of the new units. This was going to be a piece of cake.

Next page > Part 2: Finally, one technician suggested a solution: Make my own cable. > Page 1, 2

This article originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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