Skip to main content


  • Author:
  • Updated:

Testing Electronics on Board a Classic Grand Banks, (continued)

Arawak at Shark River


When Tommy arrived, we got sorted with the boat, and he made sure everything was up to snuff before we ventured off the dock. We opened up Arawak’s full engine room hatch, which includes a thick piece of clear lucite that allows us to showcase the new engines during boat shows. The skipper went through his checklist methodically, making certain every service point he reviewed was within his desired parameters.

Tommy finished looking her over and getting everything shipshape, casting a bemused eye into the aft stateroom (his) where the enormous stack of boxes awaited our undivided attention.

But that’s another factor in on-the-water testing. It’s very similar to on-the-water use of electronics, in that the attention we pay to these devices is rarely “undivided.” Over the last few years, one of the challenges facing the developers of user interfaces for modern helm systems has been related to the short season some boaters have. The boat goes on the hard for a few months, and the user attempts to pick up where he or she left off when the boat gets splashed. The result? All that smartphone time has gotten us accustomed to a different touchscreen system, where any similarities are pretty coincidental. It may seem like a minor annoyance but in fact it’s a big problem, particularly since most manufacturers want to load up on the features, and one that can be a stumbling block for boaters looking to upgrade systems.

There’s another way that complicates using electronics on board: The fact that they’re meant to be peripheral to the actual boating experience. I find the systems that work best are those that allow me to jump easily into a system (mentally that is) and then back out again. Our testing put us right in the midst of that functionality, with all of us taking on the combined roles of boat crew and journalists, video stars and radio operators, navigators and photographers.

Indeed the same thing that happens to a user who leaves a helm idle and then comes back months later is, in a slightly different way, the same experience I had going from system to system. You have to give yourself a “wait-a-minute” moment as you call up the menu and look closely to get where you’re going—the intuitive effect that builds up over the course of time at the helm using one system consistently is lost and instead it’s a constant touch of the reset button, both mentally and, in some cases, on the actual unit.

As Arawak found the entrance to the Yacht Channel to traverse Florida Bay the next morning, we set upon a few different tasks. Harding continued to unpack some of his gear and I could hear him knocking out a video on the aft deck with Turner.

I set up the Garmin EchoMAP CHIRP 74sv, which I had situated in front of the companion seat on the flying bridge. With a couple of bungee cords I had found in a galley drawer, I had added a redundant GPS chartplotter to the helm, and I plugged it in by unscrewing and pulling out the 12-volt receptacle under the helm dash and slipping the spade connectors off (just halfway because we wanted to be able to charge an iPad and cellphone up there as well). It powered up and I set the plotter to a bird’s eye view where the boat appears in the foreground headed for the horizon, and tapped Tommy on the shoulder. “Ever seen a plotter with this look before?” I asked him.

Hmmm,” he said with a contemplative groan that I would come to understand meant he was processing what was before him. “Hmmmmm,” he continued, as the growl grew deeper and more guttural.

“It’s the same view Garmin uses on car navigation systems,” I said, as I looked at the screen and realized the view lacked the impact I was hoping for, thanks to the featureless section of Florida Bay.

I turned to the aft deck where Harding and Turner were unrolling a 10-foot Sea Eagle inflatable dinghy. With a grin on his face, Harding set to pumping. So that was what he had brought along: a whole other boat. “Can you deploy this transducer over the side for us?” I said, handing down the boathook with a bungee-corded transducer fixed to its end. “Get it down into the water if you can.”

“Whose paycheck does this thing come out of when I lose it over the side?” Harding said with his usual gallows humor.

I caught a smile on his face when I told him the unit was tracking bottom, even as Arawak purred along, never missing a beat.

Each of us in turn took some time to get better acquainted with Tommy and the boat as well as the rhythm of life aboard. Like any good cruising boat, Arawak easily fell into her groove in a seaway, and we cruised at anywhere from 6  to 8 knots at 2300 rpm, depending on course and current, and she burned a total of 5 to 6 gallons of fuel per hour at that speed. Tommy’s steady throttle hand and her integrated Simrad autopilot worked in conjunction to put her into a delightfully uneventful routine.

All good things must come to an end of course and it is fairly obvious that if you want to speed up that process simply leave me in charge for a minute or two. Tommy stretched his legs and stepped away for a moment, as we bore down on what looked to be some reasonably spaced crabpot buoys. As I steered through the clutter stretching out ahead, I used the Simrad autopilot control to jog around buoys, always winding up with a heading with an even number of degrees. (That’s one neat way Tommy suggested we simplify course selection underway—it halves the number of choices and seems just to make it easier. Try it, since it works, even if it’s a bit of a Jedi mind trick: This is not the course you’re looking for.)

Looking down from the flying bridge as we passed through a closely grouped area of buoys I couldn’t help but notice the warps were stretching out just beneath the surface almost flat to the east of each buoy. Given the course I was steering, this didn’t look good. I punched the autopilot into standby and cut the rudder to starboard, then quickly popped both engines out of gear. Too late. A pot warp had hung up on the port prop shaft.

After we freed the tangle (See more details here) we got back on the Simrad plotter and autopilot as we made our way past Sprigger Bank and along the edge of the Everglades National Park protected area to starboard. We found our way past Cape Sable and discovered the entry to the Little Shark River on the north end, where we put into the river and found a suitable anchorage a few hundred yards upstream from the mouth. If you can get your cellphone to work in this spot, an astronomy app would probably be a worthwhile investment, as the firmament stretched brilliantly from horizon to horizon.

When the anchor was set, we sprang into action and handed Tommy a cold Bud Light. Harding came up the companionway with the Kenyon grill under his arm and tossed me a fist-sized cube armored in rubber. “You have music on your phone, right?” he said. “Play some on this.”

I synched the weather-friendly EcoPebble Bluetooth speaker from EcoXGear with my iPhone and the rocking opening chords of “Sting Me” from the Black Crowes filled the air conditioned saloon, as loud as you want it.

Harding stepped out to the aft deck and heated up the Kenyon Revolution electric grill. We brought out the steaks and were descended upon by a fleet of no-see-ums and mosquitos that sent us back to the saloon while Harding braved the attack. “You should all really watch ‘Band of Brothers’ some time,” he shouted as Turner closed the door behind us.

An early start the next day got us to Naples City Dock for fuel and a night in civilization before we entered the Okeechobee Waterway, the cross-state canal that we entered via the Caloosahatchee River in Ft. Myers.

The charts on the Simrad NSS 12 evo2 matched our course, going from a wide open expanse of water strewn with soundings and AIS targets to a narrow canal with a channel down the middle. Not much in the way of course choices from here on, but interesting to see the amount of detail on those Insight charts, with data points highlighted at the touch of a fingertip.

Now that the drill was straightforward the redundant chartplotters were a pretty quick setup. The tested unit went back in its box, the new one up and into the traces for a rip. I only tripped the breaker on the outlet once, and everything continued to work. (Did I mention? Don’t try this at home—12-volt current can be ... unpleasant. We recommend professional installation for all electronics, and we definitely do not recommend installing them underway.)

Tommy seemed to like the look of the Raymarine eS128, which had a big screen that I zoomed way in for his perusal of the chart. He began to look at the chart closely, and cross reference it with his chosen route on the Simrad. I moved the zoomed-in chart with a drag of the finger across the screen.

◀ Previous

Next ▶