Aboard a Boat Electronics Guru's Test Lab
The True Test
Cruising more than 1,000 miles with an absurd amount of electronics on a great boat—the author’s Gizmo—Power & Motoryacht’s returning electronics guy takes product testing to a new level.
You’ll have to imagine the “Arnold” accent, but hear me now: I’m back! And I’m delighted about returning to Power & Motoryacht, where I wrote monthly electronics columns for nearly eight years. My passion—some say obsession—for the subject has not waned a bit in the interim. In fact, while I used to test plotters and even radars on a 14-foot outboard skiff, and eventually graduated to a 25-foot I/O that sported satellite TV at one point, the “laboratory” is now a Down East-style Duffy 37 dubbed Gizmo. What a boat!
This Duffy was custom finished in 2000 with spacious helms, accessible cable runs, and an overbuilt antenna mast that all seemed designed for electronics testing when I enthusiastically became her fourth owner in 2009. Thus it was relatively easy to equip Gizmo with four borrowed radar scanners—one each from Garmin, Simrad, Raymarine, and Furuno—with at least one attached multifunction display (MFD) from the same “Big Four” brands and often other networked accessories like sonar and integrated autopilots. Gizmo also sports two PC navigation systems, two extensive NMEA 2000 sensor networks, a slew of instrument displays, and an ever-changing cast of communications equipment and mobile devices running marine apps. Plus there’s still room for some entertainment gear and comfortable accommodations.
The scheme has been working well. When interesting new electronics come out I can usually install them in a realistic network of related gear and also see them in action right alongside the competition. That sort of testing has often supplied good material for Panbo.com—the all-electronics Web site that I edit, and whose frequent entries have now returned to pmymag.com—but last fall I took it to a new level. Instead of keeping to the Maine waters I’ve been boating on for some 40 years, and where I’m comfortable with minimal assistance, I headed south. A thousand-plus miles running down the coast was a terrific test of what modern electronics can do and can’t do well yet, and the return voyage promises to be even more fruitful.
Gizmo was already a good cruising boat; while her single 450-horsepower Volvo Penta turbo diesel can happily put away long fuel-efficient legs at displacement speeds, she also has the giddy-up to get around a thunderstorm, and the oversize lobsterboat-style prop and rudder setup make her fairly easy to handle in tight quarters, especially with the bow thruster in reserve. But I swear that the serious electronics made the trip substantially easier, safer, and more fun. For instance, during the first section, when I had an able mate and was making long hops to stay ahead of weather, we twice entered unfamiliar harbors in the middle of the night, though that’s a move I’ve learned to be very cautious about over the years. I’m not going to say it was a piece of cake, because readers should be cautious too, but, wow, conning Gizmo from the flying bridge where I could both see well out into the dark and also reference abundant, dimmed-down screens of charts, radar, sonar, etc. made things pretty darn relaxed.
Actually confidence in electronic aids was a big factor in attempting the second half of the trip solo, and it was proven again in the wee hours. I was anchored outside the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis when a demonic combination of swell and current got Gizmo rolling violently. Dare I get underway alone right out of a tormented sleep and find a new anchorage in a complicated and very dark place? I know it doesn’t sound wise, but it went just fine. In fact, I sometimes checked with a spotlight and never saw anything that hadn’t already shown up on the Simrad 4G radar, even a crabpot buoy, while I moseyed up the Severn River and found a peaceful spot far into a crowded Weems Creek. I know that the Raymarine RD418HD or Furuno DRS2D radomes could have done almost as well at those very close ranges and even better at long ranges, but please check Tim Bartlett’s “No More Mixed Signals” on page 58 for more detail on the world of solid-state and digital radar (and the Panbo archives for my ongoing testing).
AIS also played a significant anticollision role. While that was mostly in terms of safely negotiating commercial traffic, I was pleased to see how many Gizmo-sized yachts are now carrying Class B AIS transponders, a situation Peter Swanson discusses in Electronics on page 28. But I’m not much concerned about screens overcrowded with AIS targets, mainly because I’m using a Vesper Marine WatchMate 850 designed by the clever AIS specialist Peter interviewed. The 850’s ability to filter out inconsequential targets, while still tracking them, and to set off visual and/or audible alarms for you on only the targets that count, is considerably better than all the MFDs and charting programs on Gizmo (whose AIS alarms are turned off). At one point in New York Harbor we were tracking over 140 targets, but the 850 was only showing five and we were able to enjoy the magnificent cityscape. I trust that as AIS transponders proliferate, and boaters realize what’s possible, the big brands will follow Vesper’s lead.
Of course charts are a particularly big deal when you haven’t been in the thin waters of the Chesapeake or ICW for decades. So which flavor did I turn to when almost every format was available and I suddenly got jittery about where I was? My current answer is Garmin BlueCharts, which generally do a fabulous job of clearly displaying the most critical information. But I caution every boater to treat all charts with skepticism, paper ones included, and also to explore carefully what does and doesn’t show at different zoom levels, and in different regions, on an MFD. Which is also why I’m enthusiastic about MFDs that can show two chart formats at once, like the Furuno TZT14 that I installed toward the end of the fall trip and which may become the “turn-to” screen.
Really, though, all four major navigation systems currently aboard Gizmo are more than adequate, especially if you spend ample time getting acquainted with all they can do. None, however, are as good at trip planning as some of the PC charting programs I’ve tested. Coastal Explorer (CE) in particular has marvelous abilities to access a wide variety of cruising and weather info, and then to help create a route that’s checked for obstacles and nuanced with details like fuel stops. I hesitate to mention it, and I’m knocking on wood vigorously as I do, but I think that such planning is a major reason I managed a thousand miles, sometimes alone all day on the skinny ICW, without touching bottom.
There are issues, however. CE is also an excellent underway nav system, except that integrating it with radar and sonar is daunting and expensive. Ditto for the sibling nav programs MaxSea and Nobeltec TimeZero, though both are also closely related to the Furuno hardware family. Just getting a route from CE to an MFD is a lot harder than it should be. But this is an area that’s rapidly changing, especially since Raymarine and Navionics pioneered MFD Wi-Fi and associated planning apps, and all the majors followed suit. And recent news suggests that Furuno may pioneer easy, direct connection of radar and sonar to PCs suitable to midsize boats. Gizmo’s work will never be done!
Actually Gizmo is already a test platform for lots of gizmos I haven’t mentioned yet. For instance, Internet connectivity is increasingly important for navigation, safety, work, and fun, and I’m experimenting with cellular boosters, high-power Wi-Fi radios, and just-in-case minimal satellite communications. I’ve also installed a Siren Marine cell-based monitoring system that’s kept me in reassuring touch with the boat since I left her in a South Carolina marina last November. And when I soon return, one project will be installing various Maretron NMEA 2000 temperature sensors around the engine room; the malfunction that almost ended my fall cruise prematurely was a coolant leak and while my Volvo Penta diesel issued its own alarm before major damage was done, I want earlier warning and redundancy.
I think you’re getting the picture. By the time this article is in print, I’ll be back on Gizmo getting ready to make a slow passage back to Maine. The plan is relatively short legs with side-trip explorations as desired and lots of time to test electronics and write about it. I hope you’ll join me at pmymag.com.
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.