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If you walk the electronics tent of a boat show, you might conclude you will need a six-figure budget for your electronics alone. The reality is there are a handful of essential items needed for safe navigation of your vessel and a lot of products out there that are designed to make cruising easier. Finding the right balance between the two is important to setting yourself up for safe and successful boating.

When selecting electronics, it’s important to pick what works for you. Your comfort with using the electronics is a critical factor that is often overlooked. Navigational electronics are designed as navigation aids, and for them to be effective, you must be comfortable using them.

The Bare Minimum

A VHF is a must have.

A VHF is a must have.

My list of equipment required to get underway is not long, but if any of these are missing, I’m not comfortable that I can safely and prudently operate the vessel. At minimum, the navigational electronics needed are a multi-function device (MFD), also called a chartplotter, with cartography for my cruising area; a fixed-mount VHF radio; and a depth sounder or sonar. If the MFD fails it can be temporarily replaced with a mobile device running a navigation app, but make sure a charging source is available for the mobile device. If the VHF fails, it too can be replaced with a handheld unit, but it’s important to understand that a 5W or 6W handheld with a short antenna used on deck will have a shorter range than a 25W fixed unit with a 4- or 8-foot antenna mounted up high on the boat.

If you’re outfitting a boat with a new suite of navigational electronics, pay particular attention to the MFD you select. You will interact with the MFD very frequently, and it’s the key to using many of the other navigational tools you may install on the boat. Make sure you select an MFD with a user interface you find clear and intuitive. Again, your comfort with using the electronic device is key. A visit to a store or boat show where you can compare the interfaces of all four major MFD manufacturers and select the one you find easiest to use is time well spent.

Cruising Comfortably in All Conditions

On a bright sunny day with unrestricted visibility and minimal vessel traffic, an MFD, a VHF, and a depth sounder may be all you need. But the reality is we don’t always get to enjoy those conditions, and a lot of tools are available to help you cruise safely in less-than-ideal elements. Even if you only plan to cruise during daylight with good visibility, the reality of unforeseen delays may cause you to occasionally run at night, and unforecast weather will find you.

In limited visibility, radar is likely your single most important tool. Nothing is more useful for filling in the picture of what’s around you when the view from the pilothouse windows is limited by nightfall, rain, or fog. Radar is also an invaluable tool when severe weather is moving through. Tracking storms on radar gives the captain good information to try to avoid the worst of the weather. Newer solid-state radar units, Doppler target tracking, and high-speed rotation have improved all manufacturers’ radars. While there are variations to each manufacturers’ radar, they all perform very well.

An AIS transceiver allows you to see other vessels and those vessels to see you.
Below right: A reflected infrared camera can be a useful tool for extensive nighttime cruising. 

An AIS transceiver allows you to see other vessels and those vessels to see you. Below right: A reflected infrared camera can be a useful tool for extensive nighttime cruising. 

Automatic Identification System (AIS) helps you see other AIS-equipped vessels around you, and if your boat is equipped with a transceiver, it also helps those boats see you. All commercial vessels over 65 feet must have a transceiver, and in recent years AIS transceivers have become more common on recreational vessels as well. If you go through the expense of installing AIS, it’s a pretty small additional investment for a transceiver–which receives information from other vessels and also transmits your information. The first time you encounter a fast ferry or a tow who knows where you are because of AIS, you’ll be glad you spent the extra money.

Additional Electronics to Consider

 A reflected infrared camera can be a useful tool for extensive nighttime cruising. 

 A reflected infrared camera can be a useful tool for extensive nighttime cruising. 

Depending on your cruising plans, you may want to consider other electronics, such as an autopilot, a device to enhance your night vision, and/or a satellite weather system. If you’re cruising any distance, an autopilot not only reduces hand-steering fatigue but also allows you to focus on more important tasks, such as safely running your boat. If you plan to cruise at night extensively, you’ll be well served by some form of night vision, whether it’s a thermal camera, a light-enhancing camera, or a reflected infrared. If you plan to be offshore, out of range of cellular towers, satellite weather is a useful tool to have on board.


New boat owners often wonder if they should stick to one brand of electronics. The answer depends on the types of electronics. For example, your choice of MFD will drive your choice of radar and sonar because one manufacturer’s products won’t work with others. If you’re selecting autopilot and MFD at the same time, I recommend sticking with one brand in the interest of ensuring the greatest possible interoperability. If you already have an autopilot installed and want to go with a different brand of MFD, there are usually options to get the two communicating. However, always check with your marine electronics installer about the impact of cross-brand choices on their ability to support the product and any warranty benefits you may gain from sticking to one brand. VHF radios and AIS units typically integrate seamlessly regardless of brand, so you may want to consider specialty manufacturers for these products as their units often have additional features or better performance.

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

Final Thoughts

If your boat is equipped with multiple helms, consider how often you are likely to use each. If you use both helms on a somewhat regular basis, I recommend ensuring you have a viable set of navigational electronics at each helm. Lastly, remember that all of these items are intended to help you safely and easily pilot your vessel. Don’t forget to look out the window, enjoy yourself, and take in the beautiful scenery around you.