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How to Manage Your Helm for Top Performance and Long Life

Helm Hacks

Be smart about the way you manage your helm for top performance and long life.

Nothing can draw a sidelong glance, then sidetrack your focus, and finally sideline your entire voyage as fast as an electronics problem. The issue is more complex than at first glance, and here’s why: Effective use of electronics stems from a level of trust. If you can’t place your faith in those instruments, they end up doing more harm than good.

But when something goes wrong with the electronics on your boat, do you know what to do? Consider the root causes of most problems that arise with electronics systems, and you’ll be on your way to getting your system sorted out, right down to figuring out if you need professional help, and to what degree. Here are some tips to get you started, along with some expert advice on how to think about your system.

eS Series unit from Raymarine

Before you get to the home screen on your multifunction display, such as this eS Series unit from Raymarine, you may want to become familiar with the “dance” as your navigation system powers up and checks its sensor connections.

Keep a Log

Logging the details of your boat use is just good sense. Make it a habit to note any blips in the system that crop up, whether it’s a wonky depthsounder reading, a weak radar target, auto-pilot weirdness, or any other factors. If you can pinpoint the day and conditions when something began, and the conditions and circumstances surrounding it, you’ll be better prepared to help your installer fill in the blanks when problems arise.

A Phone Is Your Friend

Today’s smartphone is the best friend you have in dealing with your electronics. “Use the camera to document or even take video of an intermittent problem,” says Dave Laska of L&L Electronics in Branford, Connecticut ( “You can use it to reach behind a unit that’s flush-mounted in and snap a photo of the unit’s serial number, and also check to see if all the connectors are plugged in, without tearing the helm apart.”

Having the camera ready to snap photos can simplify your dealings with your electronics and your installer in other ways: “Take a photo of the wake-up screen,” Laska says. “Usually the software revision number flashes at the bottom or a corner of a unit’s screen, during the wake-up dance.” If not, you’ll have to thumb through the unit’s system setup menu to locate the revision number. “This will be one of the first questions you’ll be asked when you call manufacturer tech support,” Laska says. As anyone who’s dealt with any kind of tech-support knows, it’s crucial to have the relevant information at hand.

Preventive Maintenance

You may be asking yourself, “There’s maintenance for electronics?” Absolutely. And while it’s not always as wear-and-tear simple as an oil change, maintenance can mean other things: It can be a good visual inspection of all connections and wiring to make sure that nothing has shaken loose or chafed excessively. But many people never look at any components for electronics systems until they break. “Moving parts, such as the satellite-TV antenna and satellite Internet communication antennas, radars, and gyros, and they all have moving parts—some moving 24-7—and can require preventive maintenance,” says Brad Ammon, service manager of Johnson Electronics in Ft. Lauderdale ( “We recommend boaters try to have parts on hand, particularly if they’re chartering in a remote location. And if they’re ever going to be on drydock, we try to perform a survey service, making sure all hull sensors, such as the speed, depth, and sonar transducers, and the watermaker intake are checked and operational.” 

eS Series unit from Raymarine - back view

There are lots of connectors of all shapes and sizes on the back of this unit, and, while they’re all well designed, they don’t work if they’re not connected correctly. Keep an eye on what goes where (labels aren’t a bad idea) and you’ll be better suited to tackle problems as they arise.

Be Smart About Software

Software updates are a fact of our electronic lives, and sometimes it’s a happy occasion with bug fixes galore and even added functionality, often at no charge (one of the benefits of a competitive marketplace).

“Updating software can fix a lot of problems and cause even more, if you’re not patient and know what you’re doing,” Laska says. “Never, ever shut off the power to a unit while a software upgrade is in progress. An inadvertent bump of a switch or circuit breaker while a unit is updating its operational software—something as innocent as turning on the freshwater pump so the head can be used, and the fat finger knocks the GPS breaker off—will normally cause a non-recoverable error, and that particular navigational display will have to go back to the factory for an identity and operational software reflash. There’s no work-around when this failure occurs.”

Best to undertake these moments in a very deliberate fashion, when you have confidence in power sources and Internet connections (as needed), and few distractions. 

Managing Power

If your boat has required service on another, completely unrelated system, it’s worth making sure that nothing got unplugged during the work. There’s another factor to consider, too.

“Keep an eye on the system to make sure you don’t see any spikes in either AC or DC voltage sources to equipment—if there is local welding onboard or other service work from shore power converters, or generator work to switchboard panels on the boat,” Ammon says. “Make sure to shut it off at the equipment supply breaker, maybe even put a sign on the breaker panel to make sure that it doesn’t accidentally get switched on. It’s not just for units themselves, but also in the communication interfaces between each system from different manufacturers—that sort of communication is very sensitive. Although these systems today are very robust during their operation and can handle a fair amount of stress, when there’s work on board, we shut the system down as a precaution and  put some signs on there at the breaker panel so it stops all possibility of failure.” So having your boat crawling with technicians can be hard on your electronics if you don’t pay attention.

Consider your electronics array to be the critical safety equipment that they all are, and you’ll be sure to keep your system up and running.

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.