It can be a daunting feeling to know the inevitable task of upgrading or refitting is on the horizon, but ultimately, the hardest part is knowing where to start and when to stop.

By Brian Kelly, Bayland Enterprises

It’s always difficult to decide when to break out the wallet for an upgraded chart plotter or when to possibly rewire the electrical panel. Maybe you were a bit on edge when the navigation system had you in the middle of the Black Sea when you were actually traversing a shoal-infested passage in the North Channel? Or, was it when you realized your boat’s wiring system was all one color? It can be a daunting feeling to know the inevitable task of upgrading or refitting is on the horizon, but ultimately, the hardest part is knowing where to start and when to stop.

Other than an aesthetically pleasing outcome, there are many other factors to consider when upgrading your electronics or electrical system and one of them is safety. The American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC) and the National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA) are organizations that promote safety through a set of installation standards. These criteria are put in place to ensure that every installation is done to code.

For some boats, upgrading the electronics can be as simple as replacing the chart-plotter, for others it can be far more complicated. Maybe you are forced to upgrade as your current system has given up the ghost, or maybe there is some fantastic sale on a navigation package you just can’t pass up, either way, you have to know what to replace and what you can keep.

The first thing you need to consider is the interfacing of electronics. Each manufacturer has its own system of communication between its products. Depending on which brand you already have installed, you may want to stick with it, or replace it with equipment from another manufacturer. Integration can be a lot easier if you already have some of the wiring in place. The question is whether it is too dated to bring up to par. Most of the time converters and adapters work, but how many do you need to add and is it worth it?

Here are a few examples of the different brands of networking architecture: Raymarine’s Seatalk, SeatalkNG, RayNet and SeatalkHS, Furuno’s NavNet and Simrad’s SimNet. Then there are NMEA 0183 and NMEA 2000. NMEA 0183 is a universal communication system among all manufacturers. This allows 2 different manufacturers to exchange information such as depth, or position for digital selective calling (DSC). NMEA 2000 is the successor to 0183. It also is a universal means of communication. Look for communication ports/wiring on the equipment for easier integration.

The second factor to weigh is real estate. How much dash space do you have? Do you have the depth for the particular plotter you have your eye on? Is the area where you are going to place it wide enough to accommodate the screen? Measure everything, and then do your homework. Sometimes you may have to go with your second choice because the cost of remodelling is too high with your top option.

Make a list of what is most important to you and do your research.

The core of any navigation system is the chart-plotter, or multifunction display; it tells you where you are going, how fast, how deep the water is and interfaces with the autopilot, radar etc. Usually when upgrading, you should replace the plotter first, then from there you can see what else needs to be replaced. Choosing the right plotter can depend on a few things. Each manufacturer excels in certain areas. For example, some are better at measuring radar, others at depth, etc. Are you an avid fisherman who wants the best possible depth sonar/finder? Do you navigate at night frequently and rely on the accuracy of the radar? Make a list of what is most important to you and do your research. Internet message boards can be a great place to learn, but they can also be misleading. Your best bet is to talk to the people who specialize in the field. Find out who your local marine electronics dealer is and ask them all the hard-to-answer questions.

When a refit project is underway, the second piece that usually has to be updated is the radar. Radars are proprietary to specific manufacturers so connection to other brands is not possible. The technology behind radar systems has come a long way, so unless your plotter is under five years old, you’ll need to update the radar as well.

Autopilot systems haven’t really changed all that much over the years. Their purpose is to take over control of the steering system and drive the boat. A new autopilot may be beneficial if you are looking for fishing patterns, or if you just don’t want the old display sticking out like a sore thumb amongst all the new equipment. Either way, you can almost guarantee that the old autopilot will work with whichever chart-plotter you have chosen. Communication to older pilots is usually achieved through NMEA 0183.

Instruments, transducers and sensors – these all fall into to the NMEA 0183/2000 category. If you have a connection point through NMEA, then it’s possible to incorporate them into your navigation package. But, just like the radar, a fish finder will not mix with other brands and may have to be updated.

Fifty-five percent of all boat fires are directly related to wiring.

Safety is paramount when boating. Fifty-five percent of all boat fires are directly related to wiring. Most of the time it’s as simple as a wire being chafed through, or a loose connection that heats up. Before spending thousands of dollars on a navigation package, make sure the heart of your boat’s electrical/electronic system is sound. Spend a little time checking all of the connections, tightening loose bolts and looking for wires that drop excessively.

A poor electrical system can also mean poor performance from your navigation system. Improper grounding can cause signal degradation for the GPS, intermittent communication between equipment or the loss of your VHF. If all of this seems too complicated, ask a professional to carry out an assessment of your electrical system, then you can decide what to do from there.

In the Summer issue, we’ll look at installation of the new equipment and how to get the most out of your electronics with new technology.

This article is featured in the Spring 2015 issue of Boats&Places.