My new electronics
-- the good and the bad and lessons learned.
I'm now back from a long summer cruise
to South Brittany and the Channel Islands. After a thousand miles or so under the keel
, I'm ready to evaluate my new electronics
1. A big lesson learned -- don't ever put anything on your mast
without testing it. I installed a new VHF antenna
at the masthead and a ham/AIS antenna
on the first spreader. I went to a lot of trouble having custom stainless steel
brackets made, pulling fat RG213 cable, etc., etc., but like an idiot, I didn't test the connections before the mast
went back up. IMagine my disappointment when not one, but both new antennae were nonfunctional. As it turned out, one PL259 (to the ham/AIS antenna) was just not screwed in tight enough, but I botched a Type "N" connector at the masthead. I didn't have the proper crimp tool (solder connections totally unavailable for this cable and Type N) so crimped as best as I could and soldered the shield. It didn't work. I subsequently bought the right tool, but in the event wimped out and hired a pro to go up my 75 foot mast and crimp on a new one. Bleh.
2. Good cable and a good antenna make an incredible difference to VHF
performance. I got a "loud and clear" radio
check report from Falmouth Coastguard from a hundred miles away across the Channel in Brittany. I hear French VHF traffic from England
as if it were next door. I receive DSC
calls from small boats from well over 100 miles away. I have had to start leaving my radio
M604) on the low power
setting, and activate the attenuator (DX/LO switch) in order to hear local calls over the French. The difference is amazing; I had no idea VHF could have such range. I am using a Shakespeare Galaxy silver-plated dipole antenna recommended by Nick of Jedi, and fat RG213 cable. Type N connectors at the antenna and continuous cable, no other connections, all the way to the nav table, where there is a single
PL259 lovingly soldered on.
3. NMEA2000 is the t*ts. The degree to which it simplifies electronics installation
is hard to overstate. It is more or less totally plug
and play, with a single
cable doing both power and data.
4. A big disappointment is the expensive Airmar CS4500 ultrasonic log. I expected high precision and resistance to fouling; got neither. It is easily confused and will read crazy numbers (45 knots) for no apparent reason. It does not seem to be particularly accurate. I was hoping for accurate STW data in order to get accurate True Wind
and tide data. It's not accurate enough for this.
5. The Maretron WSO-100 wind
sensor is fantastic. Seems to be highly accurate, and does not swing around when the boat rolls. The pilot in wind-following mode works excellently.
6. I am generally pleased with the Simrad
(nee Robertson) pilot. It steers better than my previous Raymarine
(although the Ray was also a very good pilot, I thought), although how much of the improved performance is due to improved heading data I don't know. The pilot does not have a normal control head
-- it is controlled by a B&G Triton with a supplemental keypad, and by both chart plotters (both B&G Zeus, one touch, one non-touch). This generally works ok, but there are still some problems. For some reason, I can't put the pilot in nav mode (like Ray's "track mode") from the keypad. And there are some problems in the system concerning which controller is active. So if I use the plotter to set up nav mode, I can't use the keypad to dodge -- I have to switch off the pilot, switch it back on in A mode, then dodge. I have not been able, so far, to find a way to fix this in the configuration. The pilot head
function built in to the plotters, I must say, is excellent. This works well enough that a separate controller is not strictly necessary. You evoke it with a long push on the "stby/auto" button and then do what you like. As a result of this, I did not need to dedicate the Triton at the helm
to pilot duty -- I used it for other extremely valuable things -- large depth
display when negotiating tricky channels, steering compass
mode, wind mode when I needed to pay particular attention to the wind, or most often, the plain GPS
display mode. Whatever you are looking at on the plotter, you get a thin strip at the top showing the set heading and pilot mode, and an extremely useful (for determining the degree of weather
angle display. Only problem with this last is that it is active only when the pilot is active. It should be permanent -- you need it for docking
(I always switched the helm
Triton to pilot display mode for this but it would have been nice to have it automatically on the plotter).
7. I made a big mistake assuming that I would use my new scuttle instruments just like my old ones. I had, from left to right: Log, Close Hauled Wind, Wind, and Depth
, all ST60. I thought I would only need three Tritons there since I wouldn't need a separate CH Wind. The mistake was that the Triton has so many incredibly useful screens, that you really want more of them -- as many as possible. I found that the combined Log/Depth was fine for those functions, then left another Triton permanently on Wind, and the third either on the steering compass
display or the plain GPS
display. I left the ST60 Wind display as a backup (also the transducer), but realize now that this was a mistake. I will pop a fourth Triton into the scuttle at the earliest opportunity.
8. I installed a full suite of Maretron black boxes in my engine
room, but most of the data can't be displayed by anything other than the Maretron DSM-250 at my nav table. It's a shame the Tritons don't have screens for engine
data, temperature data, fuel
flow, etc. I guess I'm going to have to find a place for the scaled-down DSM-250 (DSM-150) at my helm.
9. The DSM-250 is a crude device, amazingly expensive for what it is. No one should consider it a substitute for any of the far better developed displays from Simrad
, etc. It's needed for specifically Maretron purposes -- configuring Maretron devices and displaying data from specialized Maretron sensors. HOWEVER, it does have one brilliant screen
, the one I bought it for, actually -- the weather screen
. This is really good giving ground wind, outside temp, barograph, humidity, sunrise/sunset, even moon phase. You can sort of calculate the ground wind from heading and TWA, but there's nothing like seeing it displayed on a compass rose, which I found incredibly useful. It really helps your orientation about what the weather is doing and what the day's sailing is going to look like.
10. The DSM-250 doesn't play flawlessly with the network. Ground wind often drops out if it is unhappy with something (COG data in the network?).
11. The Zeus displays are really good. I prefer the non-touch one, but the touch one (which I have at my helm) works much better than I had hoped in the marine environment
. The 8" version (both of mine are this size) will display a lot of information with its extremely bright 800 x 600 screen (my old giant RL80CRC+ was only 640x480). It has the graphics processing power to zoom in and out in near real time, a real boon. The lay lines display is really great for visualizing sailing limitations and tacking strategy, HOWEVER -- you can't easily switch them off, which you badly want to do when you are motoring in a tight pilotage situation, where laylines are nothing but annoying clutter. The wind speed and direction histograms will be fabulous for racers, and are good for cruisers, too -- it helps a lot to improve your sail trim in changing conditions, and to predict what will happen to your course (if you're in wind-following autopilot
12. There is so much useful information on the Zeuses that you will want to have two of them at your helm if at all possible. The 7" one only costs a grand or so; one of these would be an extremely valuable secondary display next to an 8" one. You could use it to display radar
separately, or wind histograms (or a bunch of other things) while you dedicate the main one to your chart. I couldn't find space for this at my helm, which I regret.
13. The Zeuses, I am sorry to say, are much less stable than my previous Raymarine RL plotters. The Ray plotters were rock-solid and as far as I can remember, I never had a single crash. The Zeuses crash regularly -- not often enough to be a real problem, but they are not as solid as the Rays were. This is not the only instability issue -- I regularly get "no pilot controller" errors and other anomalies. I guess there are some bugs -- hope that firmware updates will eventually eliminate them.
14. I installed a Sitex black box AIS
. It's good. The built-in GPS gets a valid signal buried behind my instrument panel with no external antenna. It has a really good PC based control panel
(you connect the PC by USB) which even has a built in SWR meter to tell you how your antenna is working. It is perfectly compatible with the Zeus plotters over NMEA2000, so no NMEA0183 connection was required. Another result of having installed a good antenna (in this case, a Diamond UHF/VHF ham radio antenna with its own ground plane) with good cable (RG213) and no unnecessary connectors (continuous cable all the way to the nav table) is much better range. I pick up ships reliably at 40-50 miles; sometimes over 100 miles. This despite the fact that the antenna is only on my first spreader, so only 10 meters above the water
(33 feet). VHF is not nearly as purely line of sight as I thought.
15. I installed a USB bridge so that I could get all the network data on my laptop
, but I never used it. I was completely satisfied with the fixed displays. It's really great, by the way, to have wind, depth, speed, etc., etc. at the nav table. A great thing about the new flexible displays is that you only need one at the nav table in order to have access there to nearly all the data you have.
16. Rather than pull N2K cable to my pushpit, I passed on an N2K GPS and just use the one built in to the Zeus Touch at my helm. It works fine.
17. I had to buy a second Navionics
cartography chip since the other one stopped at the Chenal du Four, an annoying expense. My impression of Navionics
versus CMap for my area was that CMap has more detailed bathymetry and in general was less detailed. Scratch that -- it turns out not to be so. I am very pleased with the Navionics charts
now. Maybe they don't display so well on INavX
, where I got my previous experience with them? My only advice is don't waste your money
on the Platinum version -- nothing but gimmicks added to the Gold version, as far as I can tell. If you need a 3D view in order to visualize a chart, I think you have problems, and the photo
display of land areas is not really useful -- much lower quality than Google Earth
. The second chip I bought was a Gold one, and it is fine.
18. I have separately written about the 4G radar
. In general, I am happy with it, although it does not perform in the way I expected. It turns out that it looks quite a lot like an ordinary pulse radar. It has higher resolution at short ranges, but beyond that, it performs just about the same as good pulse radar I have used. It has longer range than I expected and plenty for my purposes -- beyond the maximum 32 mile range ring sometimes. I often get a good lock on ships at 30 miles. MARPA works a lot better with the very accurate heading data I am now getting from my new three-axis stabilized H2183 heading sensor, but it is still far from perfect, and much less accurate and stable than AIS
That's about it. Not much left to do but install another Triton at the scuttle; maybe squeeze a DSM-150 in at the helm somewhere. This winter, I'm going to be concentrating on getting my SSB
radio up and running -- something I didn't manage to do -- just ran out of time -- this year.