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The Building Blocks Of Electronics Installations

Sometimes an electronics upgrade is in the cards before you even buy the boat. Maybe it’s not as obvious on your boat, until ... you pay a visit to the pilothouse of your buddy’s boat, and come away with a condition that could be categorized as “screen envy.” Don’t go it alone: use the expertise and know-how of a trusted installer to refit your electronics the right way.

Sometimes an electronics upgrade is in the cards before you even buy the boat. Take one good example, the second owner of 44-foot Alden motoryacht.

“The equipment on the boat was 12 years old,” he says with a deep breath. “It was very high quality. It was so old—well, old enough that the plotter would boot up like an old computer with DOS on it, because I think that’s what it had. So it was a computer. It was very expensive at the time but I just didn’t trust it. So there was no question that I was going to do a refit, and I did. But I used it for a few weeks or maybe even a month before I could get the refit done and it would ... I’m not certain it would crash, but it would stop. And so it was very unreliable. You know I use the boat to commute every weekend in the Northeast, and sadly in June and early July, it can be extremely foggy because I leave at six in the morning on Monday, and there’s no question the stuff has to work. Period. And I’m not in any mood to take any chance.”

A good installer can take you through the necessary steps to envision a helm you can love. The gleaming brightwork is just the icing on the cake.

A good installer can take you through the necessary steps to envision a helm you can love.The gleaming brightwork is just the icing on the cake.

So maybe it’s not as obvious on your boat, until ... you pay a visit to the pilothouse of your buddy’s boat, and come away with a condition that could be categorized as “screen envy.” Maybe it’s not even the size of the displays, but rather the way his fingertips glide over the pristine new surfaces of his helm electronics, tweaking a route here, flipping to split-screen setup there, and showing you photo-realistic scanning-sonar images over there. And somewhere along the line, as he’s blithely toggling between engine-room, aft-view, and thermal-imaging cameras seemingly everywhere, something snaps and you decide you may be ready to get something new added to your dash.

But where to begin? Sure you keep up on the latest news and information that will allow you to make an informed decision. Every time you visit the boat show you swing by the electronics tents and see what’s shiny and new—maybe you even grab some literature on the latest systems and talk a little turkey with the guys in each booth, to get a sense of pricing and the scale of the project. We try to do the same things, and we can honestly tell you, it’s a lot to absorb.

Never in the history of the sport have marine electronics developed as fast across the board in terms of new and exciting features, enhanced performance and speed, and improved ways to get the data where you need it. What you need is a guide to help you sort out what’s really helpful, what’s fluff, and what will make you happiest at your helm. Fortunately, there are good marine electronics installers out there dedicated to seeing you find a system that’s right for you. Here are four steps to getting the helm you want, for next season and down the road, and making the most of it.

1. Find the Right Electronics Installer

An installer fabricated new dashboards for the two helm stations.

An installer fabricated new dashboards for the two helm stations.

Let’s get it out of the way right now: We’re not that gullible. We know electronics installers are also dealers who are trying to sell you electronics. It’s not all great, free advice. After all, they need to keep the lights on, too. And some guys go about it in different ways and they fall into two categories. Just like any business, the good guys are out there, trying to show you the best options for your needs. And then there are the other guys, who make you feel like you need a shower after you hang up the phone with them. Trust your gut, and keep looking for the guy who gives you a good feeling.

How do you know who’s who? Ask around. We all have a broker, service professional, or knowledgeable boater friend that we trust to give us advice and counsel. Consult the National Marine Electronics Association ( for details on what good installers bring to the table. Another route is to ask each installer for references. Think about the good service you’ve gotten in the past: You’d gladly share that information freely (at least until Memorial Day creeps up and you want to limit access to him until he’s done that project on your boat).

2. Figure Out the Brand That’s Right for You

Electronics brands have always had their strong suits—back in the day, one company was known for fishfinders, another made their bones with autopilots—you always bought this make of VHF because that’s what your dad had and he chose it because… well you don’t recall but he could tell you if he were here. That’s why older boats had those mish-mash helms with all different screens and boxes and components.

The flying bridge station on the Alden 44 shows the results of the refit.

The flying bridge station on the Alden 44 shows the results of the refit.

“Back 15 years ago we would cherry-pick everybody’s line,” says Robert Kinney of Alcom Marine Electronics in Costa Mesa, California. “Everybody buys a Furuno radar, because that was the best. Everybody had a Robertson autopilot because that was the best, and so on. And now the systems are designed so you can’t do that. I was on a boat today, the guy bought the new Furuno deal but kept all his existing equipment. He had a standalone radar, had a Northstar GPS, had a Simrad autopilot, had a standalone Furuno fishfinder, right down out of the hymnal.”

The electronics brands today, Furuno, Garmin, Navico (comprising Simrad, Lowrance, and B&G brands), and Raymarine—known as the Big Four in industry parlance—still have their strong suits. The challenge is now everything is integrated. Because so much of a system’s capability is derived from its software and processing power (these are just specialized computers inside), the components from one manufacturer may not work as well with the multifunction display of another, if at all. It’s one way that manufacturers make systems more desirable. For example, if you want Navico’s low-emission 4G Broadband Radar system, you’re going to have to go with a Navico-based system. Likewise for Garmin’s DownVü and SideVü scanning sonar, though other brands offer similar functionality.

This question of brand can grind you to a standstill. Unless you don’t mind throwing away relatively new components in a couple of years, when you want to upgrade some other part of your helm, you need to decide what brand you want. Again, the best advice we have: Talk to everyone you can. And find an installer who asks the right questions.

“One of the challenges is that most of this equipment is designed by engineers and quite frankly most of the engineers don’t boat,” says Greg Allen of Yachtmasters NW in Seattle, Washington. “You go into to these places and the guys who design things are listening to the salesmen who are out there telling them what was popular last year and what they need to do. The engineers translate that and make it happen.” For so long, the engineers were so bent on adding features—to keep up with the other three-quarters of the Big Four—that the ways boaters could access them got lost in the shuffle. More recently though, user interface has set the pace of development.

This Ocean Alexander 68 has four 17-inch Garmin 8500 touchscreen with a helm-seat-mounted keypad.

This Ocean Alexander 68 has four 17-inch Garmin 8500 touchscreen with a helm-seat-mounted keypad.

“I have gray hair so they kind of think that I know what I’m talking about a little bit,” Kinney says. “I’m pretty confident in what I’m talking about so they’ll listen to me, but you know, it’s like the old customers, you can tell ’em but you can’t tell ’em much. There are certain systems that I don’t care for. And I’ll tell a guy I don’t think that’s a good way to go: I’ll say, ‘I think you’re wasting your money.’ Some of the systems are easier to use than others, but I would say that some of them are more robust than others. And I happen to have a lot of long-range cruisers as a customer base and I tend to build things bulletproof. Their idea of a quick little hop is 1,000 miles.” Who would know better what systems are fragile or have hiccups? Straight talk from the guy who installs and services systems is invaluable in the decision process.

“What are you expecting to get out of it?” asks Tim Killam of Dockside Electronics in Mystic, Connecticut. “That helps them make the decision I think on what manufacturer and route they’re going to go. I try to talk them out of coming in headstrong on a brand and just say, ‘Let’s talk about what you want out of it and then we can show you what can do what you want.’”

3. Know How Deep You Want to Go

The way you use your electronics will determine what systems are right for you, and also what you should do right now. It’s often a failure in the old system—a part that can’t be replaced—that sends a boater on the hunt for upgrades in the first place.

Tidy wiring can simplify service and upkeep in today’s complex systems.

Tidy wiring can simplify service and upkeep in today’s complex systems.

“Our long-range cruising guys, they need duplication,” Kinney says. “Most of these are mom-and-pop operations where they’re traveling with two or three people and you ask them what the most important piece of equipment is, and they say Oh I don’t know, the GPS?Are you kidding? The autopilot, man. It’s like a crew member. It doesn’t eat. Doesn’t get drunk. It’s all good. But for a guy who’s going to go out and go fishing for the day and come back in and sleep in his own bed it’s a different deal: He can be more whizbang-y and not get in trouble.”

“A lot of the time a guy on a smaller boat will come to me and say, ‘I need an autopilot,’” Favre says. “And I say, ‘How far out are you going out that you need an autopilot?’ He might not need that system with an autopilot on it and you can save that money and use it for bait and fuel all season long.” Favre says customers go to the boat show and see the latest and greatest new stuff and get these big eyes. “Trying to be budget-minded first is the key,” he says. “You have to introduce them and say, ‘You don’t need an autopilot, you won’t benefit from that. Or the autopilot that you have works fine, yeah it’s five years old, but we don’t need to replace that. We can replace the chartplotter, radar, and sounder, and that will talk to your existing autopilot.”

Thinking ahead to the ways you’re boating will change and grow—and how you want it to improve—is a good mindset to use when approaching a refit. The system you need is the one that will serve you well now, yet grow with you in capability. Many peripheral upgrades now involve plugging into the multifunction display or black box at a helm system’s core, and then downloading a software upgrade. The good installers know the systems and what directions in which they expand, and can help you envision the future you want to inhabit.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice

You may be getting tired of hearing how easy electronics are to use today. And they are more intuitive than they used to be (but that’s not a very high bar, since you may recall the old systems were as opaque as hieroglyphics).“The new stuff, putting in waypoints, routes, it’s almost like point and click,” Favre says. “It’s so easy to do this stuff where the old stuff was a lot harder and many more steps. I do a lot of the sea trials educating the customers, and it is so much more of a simple process than on the older generation of equipment. Instead of going into different submenus now, it’s really point and click where you want to go, tap the screen and you’re going right to it.” The user interfaces on all these systems have seen a heavy influence from the smartphone and tablet market—and after all, that’s made a big difference in getting everyone hooked on constant connectivity.

“The older generation, guys who still have a flip phone, don’t understand it quite as well,” Favre continues. “I have a trick, I always ask, ‘Can you have your son or your grandson come along?’ I teach them at the same time because they pick it up ten times faster, then they can teach their father or grandfather. The younger generation is pretty much born with a cell phone in their hand now, so they pick it up a lot faster. It’s a lot easier to teach them.” And often the generations spend time on the boat together, so it’s like a built-in help desk.

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“We’re seeing guys spend less and less time using their boats, so they’re trying to make the most of it when they are on the boat,” says Favre. “So any device that will get them on the fish, be safer, or make their time on the water more enjoyable definitely is a bonus.”

The most important thing for boaters to keep in mind as they set out to refit their electronics is this: Only you know how your boat is really used. When you’re at the helm alone, making a long passage in low visibility, or even just wrapping up a delightful day on the water with family, it’s just you and that helm. And if the data you want isn’t there in any situation you may encounter, that can be a problem. After all, you’re in charge. It’s your boat.

This story originally appeared in out affiliate publication, Power & Motoryacht, and can be seen here.