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Planning a Sailboat Electronics Upgrade

Experts offer advice on how to determine when the benefits of new electronics outweigh the gear you already have aboard.

May 19, 2021
A technician working on sailboat electronics wiring.
A technician runs cables for an electronics upgrade aboard the adaptive ­sailing catamaran Impossible Dream. Courtesy NMEA/Gemeco Marine Accessories

Contemporary electronics can add a lot to a cruising sailboat. For starters, the gains often include easier-to-understand information, and therefore better situational awareness and increased safety. The catch, however, is that new plotters, radars and other instruments can be expensive, both to purchase and have installed. And then there’s the issue of getting new equipment to interface with older-but-still-functional gear. Because of this, plenty of cruisers manage just fine with older electronics that—while dated—still work and help get them from here to there.

But, as with all things marine, even once-high-end equipment eventually reaches its endgame. Trouble is, determining when checkmate is inevitable isn’t always obvious, so I reached out to two experts—Nigel Barron, sales and marketing manager at Seattle’s CSR Marine (csrmarine.com), and Rufus Van Gruisen, owner of Cay Electronics in Portsmouth, Rhode Island (cayelectronics.com)—to learn more about when it’s time to (literally) pull the plug on old kit. In doing so, they also helped shed light on the performance and safety gains that can take the sting out of new-equipment purchases.

“Electronics typically work or don’t,” Van Gruisen says, adding that shy of a catastrophic event such as a lightning strike, obsolescence is the biggest gravedigger for most marine instruments. For example, Van Gruisen points to chart plotters: “New charts often don’t work on older plotters because they take up too much memory. A lot of products become obsolete because they can’t load modern software. A cruiser would need to find old, out-of-date charts to make it work.”

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This might suffice in places such as Maine, where the seafloor is generally stable and where up-to-date cartography sometimes relies on old bathymetric surveys, but this certainly doesn’t hold true for places such as Chesapeake Bay or the Bahamas, where seafloors morph with storm events and time.

Another vintage-equipment killer, Van Gruisen says, is that manufacturers eventually stop supporting updates for older electronics. For example, older chart plotters can eventually stop working with current GPS configurations.

Barron agrees that obsolescence can be a problem; seven years, he says, is a reasonable life span for most electronics. He points to issues such as inconsistent data from sensors or transducers, speed information failing to display, or screen pixels going dark as signs that it could be time to upgrade. Plus, he believes, seven years is enough time for the market to offer significantly better products. “A cathode-ray tube television might still work, and an older radar might still work, but there are way-better products available that offer better reliability, lower power consumption and new features.”

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Prime examples of this are digital, solid-state Doppler-enabled radars that depict dangerous targets in one color (typically red) on a chart-plotter display, and stationary or benign targets in another color (typically green or blue). This functionality not only makes it easier and more intuitive to read a radar display, but these radars are also designed to overlay this imagery atop cartography on a chart-plotter screen, thus improving the user’s situational awareness.

“In 2010, radar was analog,” Barron says. “In 2021, it’s digital.”

While these technological gains are to be celebrated, especially by cruisers who have plied waters shrouded in Down East pea-soup fog or Pacific Northwest rain, adding a modern Doppler-enabled radar to an older marine-electronics ecosystem isn’t usually a plug-and-play possibility.

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“If an owner wants a new peripheral sensor attached to the chart plotter, they might need to replace the plotter,” Van Gruisen says. “It’s sometimes hard to replace one piece of electronics because it might not integrate with other equipment on the boat.”

Because of this, both Barron and Van Gruisen point to a new chart plotter as the place to start for refits both mighty and modest. “If you’re on a budget, you can buy a plotter and add sensors later,” Barron says. “It all starts with the plotter.”

Another common roadblock to easy upgrades involves data networks. While the older NMEA 0183 network protocol allowed discrete instruments to share some data, newer NMEA 2000 (commonly referred to as N2K) data backbones make it easy for owners to add new equipment to their network with considerably less fuss. Moreover, most new equipment is designed and built to work with N2K networks. While manufacturers still commonly support NMEA 0183 by making equipment “backward compatible” or by making an NMEA 0183 version of a new piece of equipment, this could change as N2K becomes increasingly dominant.

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The problem, Barron says, is that converting to N2K “isn’t something that’s done in a vacuum. It’s part of a larger installation. There are upfront costs, but it will save you money down the road because it makes it easier to add new equipment.”

Another game-changer that both Barron and Van Gruisen agree on is the advent of the automatic identification system, or AIS. While recreational-level AIS has existed since 2006, recent years have seen a massive embrace of this technology by mariners of all stripes.

“The rate of uptake took us all by surprise,” Van Gruisen says. “AIS is now more useful than radar. It won’t protect you from all targets in pea-soup fog, but it’s easier to read than radar.” This is especially true if AIS targets can be overlaid atop cartography on a chart-plotter screen. (Or better still, overlaid atop radar and cartography.)

“AIS is a fraction of the cost of radar,” Barron says, adding that AIS costs roughly $1,000, while a new radar can fetch $3,000. Moreover, he says, falling prices have also encouraged mariners to embrace newer technologies. “The price difference between an AIS receiver and an AIS transceiver has become so narrow, why not transmit your position?”

While AIS and Doppler-enabled radar are two great examples of modern technologies either usurping older gear (such as analog magnetron radars) or revolutionizing marine safety (in the case of AIS), there are other gains to be had by upgrading, especially as prices on no-longer-bleeding-edge technologies fall. Some examples of this include forward-looking sonar, side-scanning sonar, thermal-imaging cameras, and bigger, easier-to-use screens and user interfaces.

“For Alaska cruising, it’s nice to have something more than a numerical representation of depth,” Barron says, noting that more adventure-minded cruisers are investigating forward-looking sonar. Van Gruisen agrees, adding that some Bahamas-bound clients who want to navigate through skinny waters have been gravitating toward forward-looking and side-scanning sonar.

Other new technologies worth a look include Raymarine’s ClearCruise AR (the “AR” stands for augmented reality), which uses cameras to place AIS-like tags above aids to navigation and other targets on a video feed that’s displayed on the chart plotter. And then there is B&G’s SailSteer, which takes numerical instrument data—apparent wind angles, true wind direction and course over ground—from the boat’s nav system and creates an easy-to-read onscreen graphical representation of the wind, which can make sailing easier and safer.

“I don’t see people coming in saying, ‘I want ClearCruise AR,’” Van Gruisen says. “But when it’s time for an upgrade, that’s the kind of technology they’re looking at.”

Ultimately, Barron says, sailors typically upgrade their electronics for two reasons: “Things break, or they go out on their friend’s boat and realize that it’s time to get out of the Stone Age.”

Should either of these descriptors apply to your sailboat, the good news is that today’s electronics offer far-better user interfaces, situational awareness and safety features than old-school gear. And while there’s no escaping the associated upgrade costs, this investment should deliver a significantly better time on the water.

David Schmidt is CW’s electronics editor.

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