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Upgrading Electronics to Suit Your Needs

Smooth Operator

As big screens dominate helm design, it’s smart to remember what will be really important when conditions become more challenging.

Raymarine gS-Series display

One can easily imagine the expression “all the bells and whistles” was coined in a boatyard. And with good reason: We boaters are, generally speaking, early adopters of the first order, incorporating technologies into our boats that promise to improve our experience on the water. It makes sense, after all, since placing trust in radar and bottom machines, electronic charts and more, has very often shown excellent results, provided the user is comfortable with the system when conditions get dicey.

We get to see the latest technology on the helms of new boats at boat shows and in the pages of, ahem, boating magazines, in custom refits, and on the dock. Looking at the newest gear tends to get our wheels turning and finally we voice our desires: “Why can’t I have a setup like that?” After all it won’t cost us as much as a new boat, it will add value to our current boat, it will get us up to speed with the latest and greatest (another phrase no doubt first uttered in a boatyard or by someone on the way to one), and clean up the “mess” created at the helm as we’ve added peripherals and components to gain functionality over the years.

GPSMap 7612 from Garmin

And if you’re doing a helm refit, you’re most likely going to go big—well, as big as possible—in the display size, that is. This makes sense when you think of the screens that are now a part of your daily life. The tiny phone craze at the end of the last century (remember flip-phones?) has given way to bigger and bigger screens in our hands (just don’t call them “phablets”) and in our televisions (when’s the last time you saw a TV with the old 4:3 aspect ratio?). A lot of that comfort with consumer technology has pushed marine electronics farther, faster.

“Whereas maybe a few years ago a 10-inch display was a big display, I think now a 15-inch screen is more standard and the 19-inch size is more the high end of the scale,” says Tim Greer, president of Navtronics in York, Maine ( “I think the best way to maximize the dash space on these boats is to fit the biggest displays possible and then beyond that, as far as autopilot control, spotlights, FLIR control, and other things, you want to make sure everything is readily accessible.” The temptation, of course, lies in the integration of those outside control functions into the big-screen displays. All the electronics manufacturers seem to make it so easy.

“It’s because there’s so much data that can be viewed and accessed on these multifunction displays nowadays—it’s your go-to command point for everything,” Greer says. “Not just chartplotters and sounders and radars. We’re introducing systems information and other vessel data that historically was not available on the displays. So what’s happened is the more data that’s available on these displays, the larger the displays end up being because of viewability. If you have a small display with a million things going on, it becomes pretty difficult to focus on the core functions of navigation.” So beyond plotter, radar, and sounder, now we’ve got “pages” on the main helm system for engine and boat-systems data, and stereo and entertainment functions.

You may have noticed how some of the electronics companies are offering a variety of display sizes all working on the same operating system. So for example, you could conceivably have a networked pair of 16-inch Simrad NSS evo2 multifunction displays with a compatible, networked Simrad Go7 (with a 7-inch screen) right next to it, all connected to the same NMEA 2000 backbone. You could set it up to run your chartplotter on the full screen to the left, the radar on the full screen to the right, and then a digital version of your engine gauges showing tachometers, temperature, oil pressure, and other engine data could be called up on the small screen.

Furuno displays

As a result, a boat owner may think the option exists to do away with dedicated engine-data and autopilot control heads and displays and rely on the systems that use the NMEA 2000 network to convey that information. But for all the flexibility of the system—its greatest asset—the temptation to load up displays could also be a bit of a trap. “The success stories usually deal with working with a single manufacturer and all of its products,” says Rich Gauer, president of Maretron. “Because that manufacturer is highly dedicated to making sure that all of its stuff works. The horror stories are usually a combination of an installer who thinks he knows what he’s doing and puts a hodgepodge of cables, connectors, and products together that don’t interoperate. The public has been a little bit oversold on the whole plug-and-play part of it. A lot of people think that if you have an NMEA 2000 chartplotter that means that you can plug anybody’s sensor into the network and it’ll display on the chart plotter. The consumer doesn’t necessarily realize that chartplotter manufacturers don’t have to display any NMEA 2000 sensor information like smoke detectors or bilge levels in order to get certification.” So there are going to be some critical functions you may want to consider leaving out of the big-screen integration. Yes, your new helm will still have a bit of clutter instead of expanses of uninterrupted glass, but you’ll be thankful later.

Engine displays are the first thing to consider. “All the engine manufacturers for the most part with their Tier 3 engines are providing pretty nice graphical displays,” says Chris Labozza of Precision Marine Center in New Rochelle, New York. “They’re not gauges per se but they are quote-unquote multifunction displays for the engine where you may have to switch a page or two but everything is there in graphs, and your alarms are there. That’s really the big thing, having those alarms to alert you.”

The next independent control to keep is the autopilot: “We really try to stick to having a dedicated autopilot control head for multiple reasons,” Labozza says. “It is a muscle-memory thing. If there’s an issue, you just have to touch the standby key quickly and disengage. Also, having a legible display for your heading and your rudder angle is another benefit of having a pilot controller.” Let it be said, an integrated autopilot control has a standby key on the touchscreen displays. It’s just a question of how much one trusts that function when collision-avoidance is on the line.

The independent autopilot control head may be a function of the market right now. “We may be a bit old school,” Gauer says. “All of us older guys want something tactile, which is what we grew up with but I think we’re going to lose that one day. The new kids don’t need physical, tactile buttons. They grew up with iPads and Androids and are perfectly fine with a touchscreen.”

Another important function to keep independent of the big screen is the stereo controls. Wait, what? The stereo?

“When I look at the stereo side of things, take a tip from Raymarine—they’ve done a great job of integrating the Fusion products directly into their MFDs,” Greer says. “You don’t even need your stereo control head at your helm. You can put it in your cabin or in the saloon. On your MFD, you can swipe over to a page and completely control your stereo, so you can see your album artwork, you can see your Pandora list, you can see your iTunes library, and you can scroll right through as if it was your iPhone. I think that’s really cool when you’re at the dock.”

But underway it’s another story. “You’ve got to have your priorities in boating,” Greer says. “When you’re navigating and something happens and you need to concentrate, the last thing you want to do is page away from your plotter and your radar so you can get to your stereo control to mute the music.” After turning the music off, you will need to reorient yourself to your nav information, wasting valuable time.


Still, other important reasons could make you switch the screen away from nav data. “When you have a FLIR thermal-imaging camera integrated you usually run that full-screen because it’s taking the place of a spotlight,” Greer says. “In many cases you want to have the biggest screen possible: Instead of looking out the window [in poor visibility conditions] you’re looking at that image and you’ve got your head stuffed in the screen. You want to make sure you maximize that screen, but that takes away from whatever function you normally would be viewing there.” FLIR and other video functions use a separate input so they’re not impacted by a loaded NMEA 2000 backbone.

“The other element we haven’t even talked about is video input,” Greer says. “Engine-room cameras, docking cameras, and so on. Bottom line is that if you have enough screen size to properly view all of this, it also comes down to how educated the customer is in operating the system. When we set up and design a system that’s probably the most important part of the whole install—to make sure they know how to use it.” To that end, manufacturers such as Garmin and Simrad have created mode presets that will allow users to switch their screens all at once from fishing mode, to docking mode, to night-running mode and so on.

The possibilities for simple operation are astounding and promise a bright future. After all, what’s the fun of all those bells and whistles if you don’t know how to turn them on in the submenus.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.