When you go through your boat this spring, show your marine electronics some love, too.
Let me acknowledge right up front that I got help with this column from the Web. While I already had a lot of notions about commissioning marine electronics, asking the readers of my blog, Panbo, yielded a lot more.
I bring up the subject because the Web is also a good place to begin a systematic spring electronics tune-up routine. I suggest you visit the sites of all the companies that made your equipment plus, if you use a computer onboard, the relevant software developers. And heck, while you're at it, make a "favorites" folder of these sites so it will be easier to visit them next year or more often. You see, as updating soft- and firmware has gotten easier, gear is getting updated at increasing rates. (Firmware is the software embedded in a hardware device, and yes, easy updating tempts manufacturers to release electronics before every little firmware bug is squashed.)
So head to the support section of each brand's site looking for updates, and you might find some spiffy new features, or at least improved performance. What you get and how it's actually installed are naturally going to vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, even machine to machine, but the Raymarine E upgrade is a fair example of what to expect. To reach that screen I simply downloaded the v3.31 update and ran it on my PC (Macs are also supported), where it created files on a blank CF card that I then popped into the E120. This update, called 3.31, only lets SeaTalk GPSs understand the recently changed WAAS correction satellites, but that's valuable, and, mind you, last season's update gave Es and Cs a splendid new data-windowing ability.
Some newer gear, like the Garmin series, are getting updates nearly every month, while updating older equipment may require a special-order card or sometimes even a trip back to the factory. But a visit to the company site should at least inform you about what's possible, even if installing is left to your electronics pro. In most cases you'll also have the opportunity to download manuals in PDF form. Many boaters these days find digital manuals easier to search, and an inexpensive memory stick full of them can surely free up some onboard stowage. Incidentally, cracking that old machine's manual, on paper or screen, may be another quick route to some new-to-you features.
Now if you do update your multifunction display, the instructions will advise you to back up your waypoint, route, and track data, but of course that's a good idea regardless. If you repeat cruises or mark hot fishing spots, you'll miss those efforts if your machine fails without a backup. Moreover, if you can work with the data at home—and there are many ways to do this, depending on the source, and ranging from dedicated products like C-Map Planner to freebies like GPSBabel—then you've got another way to prep for this summer's electronics enjoyment. For instance, while you're at it, you could give those hot spots useful names and notes, like fish caught, lure used, etc. Or maybe you could turn the track of some tricky harbor entrance into an easily reused route.
And don't forget nonpersonal navigation data, like updates to your charts and reference materials. Card manufacturers all have mail- or walk-in replacement programs, while built-in charts are usually updated like firmware. If you use a computer charting program, you can download the latest U.S. chart editions from NOAA or, much easier, purchase a DVD set like those available from Maptech or Managing the Waterway, both of which are also good for just trying laptop navigation. Those Managing the Waterway DVDs and similar collections are also excellent for the latest government reference publications, and note that many publishers like Waterway Guide put relevant Notice to Mariners information as well as guide corrections on their Web sites.
Eventually there'll be that warm spring day when you head to the boat. Before you do those updates, get a little physical with your electronics, even if they weren't removed for the winter (a practice of debatable value). For starters, disconnect each power and data cable in search of corrosion that might cause grief underway. There are some excellent electrical contact cleaning and protective sprays, like the DeoxIT line from Caig Laboratories, and also formulations by LPS, Boeshield, and Techspray. Just understand that conductive cleaning sprays are appropriate for focused use on open connections, whereas nonconductive sprays can protect whole made-up harnesses and the like. Look around, too, for the particularly vulnerable connections made in damp bilge areas or, say, inside a radar arch. Once cleaned and sprayed, exposed splices or connectors might appreciate a snug wrap with a self-fusing silicone tape product like Tommy Tape.
A can of pressurized air (available from some of the brands mentioned or at a camera store) is great for blowing dust and gunk out of deep connector sockets. And seeing as the same crud is also the enemy of waterproof button seals and coated screens, you can also use it to clean the rest of your electronics. As for the coated screens themselves, don't touch them with anything but air, water, or a specifically designed liquid like Purosol and a clean, soft cloth. How about creating an electronics cleaning kit you can maybe stow where those bulky manuals used to be?
There are many more maintenance ideas, depending on gear and your level of obsessiveness. For instance, you might check if your older plotter has a long-term internal memory battery that's keeping your user data alive; hey, you could search for "battery" in your PDF manual! Here are a few more: Insert dessicant bags behind any screens that fogged up last season; check the tightness of all screw terminals in your power-distribution panels; test that your backup GPS plan really works, and document how it's done; buy or borrow a tester like Shakespeare's ART-3 to see how your VHF antenna system(s) is holding up; hunt eBay and/or marina storerooms for backups to your critical hardware, like autopilot pumps and processors; and finally, use a wire labeler like the Brady ID PAL, and maybe a tone and probe cable tracer like Extech's, to make your system self-documenting.
There are many ways to approach marine-electronics maintenance. For instance, one of my blog correspondents says many of these chores are best done "in a cozy cabin with Scotch and cigar smoke swirling around." Unfortunately, I can't offer these accoutrements at the blog, but if you come visit this Web site and search the "how to" section, you'll find more good ideas on ways to show your electronics a little love—which they return, I think—and a place to share your own tips.
When will I be able to buy one the Class B AIS transponders you've been writing about?—G.K., via e-mail
My embarrassment on this subject is rapidly turning to rage! It's not that I was lied to by the industry, U.S. Coast Guard, or FCC folks who assured me over the last 18 months that Class B AIS would be available in the United States "very soon." I figure they all believed their own estimates, and why not? Many other nations have been enjoying the safety benefits of Class B for more than a year, without significant problems, and the Coast Guard began approving specific transponders a year ago and even asked the FCC to expedite final approval.
So what happened? Last October Class B reached its last FCC hurdle, a standard procedure called Items on Circulation, whereby the five commissioners each give an action a final once-over and a signature. Supposedly none has even asked for more information about AIS, but they have some huge issues before them—like media ownership rules—and their chairman, Kevin Martin, has advocated a general "wait-and-see" attitude toward any new regulations. Ironically his avowed "free market" philosophy may be holding up Class B, possible as this is the odd case where a regulation will actually free a market. Boaters are ready to write checks, and warehouses are stacked with Class B units ready to ship! The word incompetence comes to mind, and citizen action is called for. Please visit my blog Panbo, where you'll find FCC e-mail addresses along with messages some of us have already sent. By then, too, there may be a campaign to lobby Congress about this issue. It's ridiculous that U.S. boaters, let alone the Coast Guard, is being denied this terrific safety (and security) tool.
This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.