Weekend DIY Upgrades for Your Boat - Power & Motoryacht

These three DIY-friendly projects will help you effectively live and work from your boat.

For many boaters, the unpredictable events of 2020 have come with a bit of a silver lining: The flexibility afforded by not going into the office and kids not having to go to school has granted us more time to spend on our boats. We’ve gotten to know our boats better, and in some cases identify improvements that will take them to the next level. Here are three projects you can undertake yourself, or hire an installer to perform for you, that will improve your comfort and safety on the water.

Vesper Cortex

Last fall, Vesper unveiled Cortex, a new breed of VHF radio, AIS transceiver and boat monitor. Unlike most options for VHF and AIS, Cortex uses a single VHF antenna for VHF voice, DSC and AIS communications. The single antenna connection makes Cortex an easier DIY install since you won’t have to deal with running a new antenna or installing an active AIS splitter.

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With Cortex, Vesper took the time to understand how boaters use their VHF radios and concentrated on making the experience more intuitive and user-friendly. DSC radios, which have been around for almost 20 years, let you make boat-to-boat calls over VHF, talk to a group of boats, share your location and make distress calls to all boats in range with your boat’s location and information included. However, the user interface on every VHF radio I’ve tested is so cumbersome that very few boaters even try to use the DSC features, let alone succeed.

Cortex focuses on helping the captain safely navigate. It’s primary screen features a collision avoidance view designed to make the helmsperson aware of any dangers around the boat.

Internet Aboard

For many boaters, working from home has turned into taking Zoom calls from the boat. As they are finding out, however, the WiFi at the marina might not be up to the task of supporting this new demand. Slow or poor internet connectivity has a much bigger impact when you’re trying to work than when you’re binge-watching Netflix after a day on the water.

So, how can you improve internet connectivity aboard? It really depends on how you want to use your boat. For most boaters, the best answer is internet delivered via cellular networks. But if you’re going to spend more time on your boat and potentially work from the water, you’re going to need a lot of bandwidth. Sadly, the word “unlimited” doesn’t mean the same thing to cellular carriers as it does to you and me. An unlimited plan from AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile will probably work well for a few days, and then you will find your connection has slowed.

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The best solution is usually a truly unlimited data plan. These plans—frequently sold as a SIM card that you insert into a router—allow you to actually use an unlimited amount of data. These plans aren’t typically available through the cellular carriers themselves, so you may have to buy one through a reseller. The Mobile Internet Resource Center website tracks the options for plans and equipment to install internet aboard your boat or RV. Expect to pay between $75 and $100 a month for unlimited usage. (I’m writing this article from my boat using one such plan.)

The last piece of getting strong internet connectivity aboard your boat is the router or hardware. The simplest piece of hardware you can use is a mobile hotspot (router) provided by your cellular carrier. These can work well on a smaller boat in an area with good cellular coverage, but the WiFi from a mobile hotspot might not cover all spaces on a larger boat. And, if you’re in an area with spotty cell phone coverage, you will probably want external antennas and higher powered radios. Companies like Wave WiFi and Digital Yacht sell systems for boats.

Stereo Upgrades

Perhaps during the extra time spent on your boat this year, you’ve realized the stereo really isn’t up to snuff. Or maybe it’s pretty good, but now that you’re using it more often, you want it to be amazing.

Fear not—Clarion, Fusion, JL, Wet Sounds and plenty more have you covered with the latest in head unit, speaker and amplifier -technology. My boat was built in 2003, and when it rolled out of the factory it featured two 6.5-inch speakers for the entire flybridge, leaving many opportunities to improve the sound quality.

Although manufacturers have paid much more attention to the audio experience on their boats in recent years, most older vessels have a lot of room for improvement. Amplifiers and stereo head units started using digital signal processing (DSP) to optimize sound quality based on the speakers, amplifier and listening environment. I was skeptical of how much could be done with digital processing but experiencing the benefits on my own boat made me a believer.

If you’re not happy with the sound quality on your boat, start by taking a look at your speakers. The combination of sun, weather and salt water can destroy factory speakers in a few years. Higher quality speakers typically last longer in the harsh marine environment and come with better sound quality.

However, even the best speakers will sound bad if they’re not -getting enough good, clean power from an amplifier—either in the head unit or from an external amp. Open cockpits and flybridges can soak up a lot of power. It’s pretty difficult to get vibrant sound from the amps built into stereo head units. If you don’t have an external amp, or several, it’s probably a good addition to your shopping list.

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Lastly, if your boat has an older head unit, it may not work too well for modern sources of music. When I bought my first boat, it came with an AM/FM stereo, a CD changer and a headphone-style auxiliary input. Today, all my music comes either from my phone, a streaming service or SiriusXM satellite radio. My phone doesn’t have a headphone jack anymore, so that auxiliary input is about as useful as a cassette player. If you have an older head unit, it’s probably time for an upgrade.

Nearly every marine stereo offers Bluetooth and WiFi to connect to devices to stream music and supports features such as Apple’s AirPlay and other streaming options. Many stereos also have an app that allows you to control and configure the stereo from your phone. Paired with wired and wireless remotes, you can turn up the volume and change songs or sources from nearly anywhere on the boat.

I’ve been working full time from my boat for three years now, and I firmly believe you can successfully live and work aboard without -sacrificing comfort. I’m hopeful that one good thing that will come from of the challenges of 2020 is the trend of boaters getting more use out of their boats. Each of these upgrades will increase your enjoyment, productivity and safety while you make that transition.

This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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