How To Plan For Future Electronics Upgrades

As technology evolves at a breakneck pace, our electronics editor plans for change and demands good equipment.

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How propitious that I'm writing my first Yachting electronics column while deep in the intoxicating process of purchasing a real yacht. She's a 37-foot Downeast-style flybridge beauty that's got me as excited as I was in 1956 with boat number one, an eight-foot pram with a 1940s Evinrude hung on the transom. Only this time around there's a lot more paperwork, um...economic stimulation, and systems investigations involved. Not surprisingly, the systems that demand the most upgrading are the electronic ones, even though the object of my affection was spanking new and well found in 2001.

The modern truth that electronics age faster than everything else is particularly true of marine electronics in the past decade, which has seen a rate of change akin to personal computers in the '80s. And, having spent the last decade researching and writing about boat gadgetry, I'm convinced that there's a lot more that can be done! So why not introduce my electronic enthusiasms, and prejudices, by envisioning how my new boat's systems might evolve? Whereas the Duffy 37 will be dubbed Gizmo in reference to my professional obsession, this, then, is the Gizmo Manifesto:

Front and center at Gizmo's helms will certainly be some form of GPS chart plotting. This is where 21st century marine electronics has most evolved thus far, and few are more appreciative than a guy who dead-reckoned the foggy coast of Maine for decades.(there've been many boats since that first pram, including a 40-foot wooden sloop, home for much of the '70s.) In fact, I'm a complete believer in the multifunction display (MFD) concept, wherein electronic charts are overlaid with radar, AIS, and weather imagery, and windowed alongside fishfinder screens, camera displays, digital engine gauges, and so forth.

I can hear the old salts harrumphing about the necessity of separate navigation devices lest one fail, but in my experience modern electronics are much more reliable than earlier generations. I posit that MFD information integration done right is worth a single-point-of failure weakness or two. One good reason: able backup chart plotters are available in pocket-size form these days-even as cellphone software-and the better MFDs support, and even automate, redundant critical sensors like GPS, heading, and depth. The latter is generally done via the still underappreciated though wonderful NMEA 2000 data-format and cabling standard, which will be an essential element on the updated and future-proofed Gizmo.

But before expounding on Gizmo's N2K backbone, I have some thoughts about the essence of chart plotting. Like many mariners of a certain age, I love paper charts and believe that in some ways they can still impart information more efficiently than their electronic kin. And I've appreciated the PC charting programs and plotters that combine GPS with digitized paper charts (aka rasters), and the vector charts that try so hard to look like paper. But I think we're actually in transition from a familiar cartography that was quite limited by the printing process to a seamless, multidimensional, and incredibly rich cartography that's possible with massive memory and microprocessors. I agree with the navigator of the U.S. Navy who told me that paper charts become a poor backup once they're not used regularly (and who made plans to make the fleets paperless).

Do I hear more harrumphing? No doubt the early attempts at 3-D electronic charting mixed with satellite photos, bathymetric data, and more were messy and sluggish affairs, but that's transitional. Furuno's Navnet 3D is a good current example of how all this data can be integrated into a smooth, easily understood screen (and, wow, you should see what the Navy is using). Meanwhile Garmin's "Where To" routing feature-in which the plotter can first provide all sorts of information to help you select a destination and then can even guesstimate a route based on your minimum depth and bridge-height preferences-is a good example of how traditional pencil-and-parallelrule navigation can morph radically when more truly computerized.

All the charting developers, and even certain government research labs, are working on the electronic cartography of the future, and thus it may be fortunate decision-wise that one of Gizmo's functions will be testing new ones as they come along. That's also why I was pleased to find that the 37's wiring is well documented and accessible, her antenna mast is almost ridiculously oversized, and her helms are roomy and easily modified. Maintaining the documentation and designing for change is an electronics mandate I will pay particular attention to, but it applies to all. This boat, for example, is on its second plotter in eight years under "normal" ownership, and is still a bit behind the curve.

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Part of my enthusiasm for installing a network of NMEA 2000 sensors on the new Gizmo is that they can provide standard nav data to most any manufacturer's MFDs, instrument displays, and even PC programs. But N2K is also the protocol used by many interesting new sensors, like Airmar's Ultrasonic Weather Station and Maretron's various battery, alarm, and tank monitoring boxes, all of which play into two related planks in the Gizmo Manifesto.

One is that all previously discrete vessel data-be it barometric pressure, engine rpm, or "fire in the forepeak!"-can and should flow on common vessel networks. The second is that all the previously discrete, and usually discordant, screens, dials, and buttons associated with those systems should become part of a unified helm. This goal, still dreamy in 2009, is not just about aesthetics. While it's perfectly reasonable to want your electronics to look good, and even be fun-the hair shirt days of navigation are over-the truth is that well-designed integration makes boating safer.

For instance, when an alarm buzzer goes off you should know what it's about at a glance. The goal-counterintuitive as it may seem, given my gizmo nature-is to spend less time looking at screens, or all over the place for the source of an alarm, and more time focused outside the boat, or just enjoying boating. This applies to the advanced charting discussed above-it'll be right when it delivers full navigational confidence at a glance.

Better situational awareness will also come from new sensors too powerful to communicate via N2K. Navico's Solid-State Broadband Radar, for instance, promises a level of near-range detail that could make cruising in Maine fog a lot less nerve-wracking, and i plan to test it alongside the various worthy high-definition radomes from other manufacturers. There have also been great advances in the digitally processed fishfinding pioneered by Raymarine, and Humminbird has recreational level side-scanning sonar that looks fascinating to a wannabe Captain Cook (or Robert Ballard) like myself. In fact, I'm hoping these developments presage a quantum leap in Forward Looking Sonar performance; we gunkholers should be able to see what's underwater ahead.

We should also demand-hey, this is a manifesto-improvements in VHF marine communications. Digital Selective Calling, or DSC, is a fine technology for distress calling and boat-to-boat chatting, but it's hard to use and hence is hardly used. When you consider how AIS-the terrific anti-collision technology now available in class B form for boats like Gizmo (to be installed immediately)-relates to DSC, you too will want to see MFD screens that make directcalling buddies and/or AIS targets easy.

Gizmo will also be a test bed for satellite marine communications as well as WiFi and cellular voice/data. Like many a modern boater, I want to be online, at least at anchor, for work, family, weather, and even entertainment. The Web is also the gateway to what i consider two very promising frontiers: the real-time sharing of information with fellow boaters-see activecaptain.com for an example-and the sort of full-bodied, offboat security and monitoring made possible by the data networking discussed above and a fast internet connection.

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These are just some of my ideas about Gizmo's electronics future, and who knows what undreamed-of gadgets are being developed as I write? I look forward to sharing what I learn about outfitting and updating a helm on these pages. For now, I'll leave you with a shocking lesson acquired on that first yacht: if your pram has an outboard with exposed spark plugs, do not try to play the cool skipper by laying out across the seats and steering it with your bare feet.