Having earned our cruising stripes with a sextant and lead line, when we were rarely ever certain of our location underway, we love the accuracy and ease of use of modern electronics. But it’s easy to get lost in the bells and whistles, at the expense of situational awareness.
To begin with, there are so many choices in terms of brands, capabilities, and integration ability. Without on-the-water experience with a given brand it is hard to make the right decision. We are faced with this problem now with the first FPB 78, so we thought we’d bring you into the decision making process. Let’s start by establishing the ground rules for what we are trying to achieve.
- We want the simplest system that gets the job done.
- Our primary concern is to avoid information overload, and ease of use in a stressful environment.
- Reliability, and the owner’s ability to sort out problems, is a key concern.
- A fallback system is desirable in the event of a nearby lighting strike or some form of voltage spike that takes a toll on the electronics.
- We do not want an electronics package that dominates visually. Rather than desiring a star wars-like bridge, we take pleasure in having the minimum necessary to get the job done.
- Isolated components, rather than everything integrated in a single system, is desirable from a reliability standpoint.
- Components that are plug connected rather than using terminal strips are preferred.
- We are not averse to using non-marine monitors, so long as they dim sufficiently and work in bright conditions (this is less of a problem with the FPB 78 because of the large roof overhangs, which reduce glare).
Now to specific systems, starting with the autopilot(s).
- The FPBs steer so easily that sophisticated learning algorithms are not needed, and in fact typically undesirable. Most “learning” systems filter data and average things out. The averaging slows down response as conditions change, which becomes more important as sea state deteriorates. We would rather set the basics ourselves, and then make changes to deadband and rudder gain as required.
- A compass with a rate sensing gyro, that delivers data at a minimum of 10Hz update rate, is mandatory.
- Followup JOG levers are needed at the two fixed and two roving helms.
- The two fixed helms will have a steering pump direct control lever, with no electronic circuitry, so that we can have immediate override of the pump(s) should anything go wrong with the electronics.
- Easy access to sea state (deadband) and rudder gain controls is essential. Ideally there are control knobs but these seem to be going away. If adjustment is to be menu driven, a minimum of required keystrokes is critical.
- There will be dual autopilots. Each with its own compass and rudder angle indicator.
VHF is solved with a fixed unit that can be operated from either helm. When a second VHF is required this is handled with a portable. The ability to call an AIS target using DSC is desirable.
Long range communications as of this writing for the South Pacific means using Iridium, which has the advantage of being relatively inexpensive, with a small antenna footprint. The slow data speed is fine for e-mails and weather data. We do not want a marine SSB. At a later date consideration might be given to a ham rig.
Radar and a chart plotter, as either independent or integrated items, gets us into the more difficult decision matrix. Let’s start with radar. Having been shipmates with the Furuno IMO class 2117 with Wind Horse we are spoiled. This is still the best radar for difficult targets. But it is heavy, expensive, draws lots of power, and is not user friendly. You need practice and training to take advantage of its capabilities. We have done a sea trial with the new Simrad Halo radar (four foot open array antenna) and the latest version of their little 4G radar. The 4G is a very impressive piece of gear, given its size and price point. It also works well as an anchor watch with its low power consumption. The Halo radar trial we had was unimpressive. The Halo was in its beta software phase, and it will probably get a lot better. But based on our May trial we would be hesitant to have it as a shipmate.
The desirable radar characteristics are:
- Maximum ability to pick out targets in sea and rain clutter inside the two mile range.
- Accurate ARPA/MARPA and AIS.
- Target trails and course projection options that allow us to tailor how these work to the conditions in which we find ourselves.
- Multiple ranges displayed at the same time with individual controls would be nice but are not essential.
Dedicated chart plotter or computer based charting program? Having only used chart programs which run on the PC in the past, we can see both the benefits and problems with this approach. What we are after is:
- Ease of use and reliability.
- Capability of using multiple chart formats.
- Remote control is desirable but not critical.
AIS is considered essential.
Sonar and depth are a difficult category. In the depth sounder we need 600’/180m of decent resolution. In the ideal world the sounder has the ability to differentiate between grass, rocks, sand, and mud bottoms. About fish we care not. Sonar is a big help if it works properly. Our previous use of the Furuno CH270 sonar was very rewarding, but this comes with cost, a 150mm/6” hole, and less-than-easy user interface. We’d give up range for simpler operation. We had hopes the Simrad FLS might fill the need, but the trial we had with this was not impressive. We would trade the Furuno CH270 capability for a solid 460’/150m of forward range.
In this same context one of the things we are looking for is the ability to add depth track data to charts on our own, without going through an online service. The dream system would entail surveying in the dinghy, with the position and depth data fed directly to the mothership.
We’d love to hear any and all suggestions from those of you with experience in these areas.