Electronics Update…. do we go down the rabit hole?

Raymarine Axiom 9 Pro, an amazing piece of kit, but do we really need it and how many extra widgets will we have to install to get our analog boat into the digital age?

Now, I’m a fan of the old school and live in awe and wonderment of celestial navigation. Not to mention the days of the square rigger, when fleets of ships would set off for the far horizon armed with not much more than a sextant, some mathematical tables, a watch and an experienced Sailing Master, well versed in the mystic arts.

I am a child of the 80s, so feel I’m in a unique position. I remember a time before computers were everyday devices and mobile phones were housed in suitcases, rather than in your pocket. I am, therefore, not a digital native by the common vernacular. I did not while away my formative years watching garishly coloured nonsense on an iPad. Instead, I was given Lego and Airfix models and other such medieval devices to stop me making a nuisance of myself. By my teenage years, computers were becoming more common, and I would certainly call myself an early adopter. Now I have a whole host of devices to make my life ‘easier’ and my day job is in an industry where if you are not using the latest technology, well, you might as well stay in bed.

Cutty Sark

Where am I going with this seemingly pointless backstory you might ask? I, like thousands of other sailors out there, am conflicted over the use of technology on boats. I’m not talking about life-saving technology such as EPIRBs, MOB beacons and AIS. Such devises offer a real chance that some hapless cove, whose luck has run out, might just be in with a fighting chance of another innings. I’m talking about the hundred and one things you can connect into the modern NMEA2000 network to monitor everything on your boat from the engine temperature to the time your crew takes in the heads. At the last boat show, I saw a demonstration where you can even control a drone from your chart plotter. This drone can fly ahead of you to give you an aerial view of your marina berth before you dare venture down between the pontoons, with a cross tide, to find that the berth the well-meaning soul in the marina office has allocated you for the evening, has someone’s tender tied up in it – leaving you no option other than to give her a blast astern while you cross every digit that today, she is feeling submissive, and you don’t end up sideways on the most expensive boat in the marina. Is it Technology for Technologies sake and so we really need it? At a fundamental level, if the Cutty Sark could sail from Shanghai via a gale which knocked her rudder off, only for the crew to build and fit a new one at sea, then making it safely to London without anything but celestial navigation and dead reckoning – then obviously, the answer is no we don’t. However, it is there, and as with all technology, it certainly can make your life easier. If Captain Moodie had had GPS and weather routing, then in all likelihood he would have avoided the gale which so endangered his ship. She might even have held off the Thermopylaei to receive the coveted prize of the first ship home with the new seasons’ tea.

When studying for my YM theory I got a real thrill from paper navigation, determining your position by multiple bearings when in sight of something permanent, or, by dead reckoning when offshore, praying to the almighty that your tidal flow calculations are worth the paper they were written on. On Elyse, I have every paper chart, almanac and pilot book for my chosen cruising grounds and I would never dream of venturing to somewhere new without having the proper paper chart on board. However, in reality, I find myself almost entirely navigating via chart plotter. Elyse has two on board, an early Garmin set, by the wheel, which has a screen so small it is only really useful when, in a moment of doubt, you want to check you are still within the channel and have not floated outside of some hitherto unseen marker. The second unit is a Classic Raymarine C80, which is at the chart table and has exciting bolt-ons such as radar and an AIS receiver. Being older units, neither of these two can really hold a candle for usability to my iPad running the Navionics App. So spoilt for chart plotting choice am I, I struggle to know which one to turn on! In truth, none of them really offer the complete package and if I had all of them on I might as well sit at home and play video games.

The Garmin set is entirely stand alone. It only cares about itself and where it stands in the world. The Raymarine unit uses the old Sea Talk 1 system to talk to other electronic devices around the boat, such as the log and autopilot. On one slow crossing back from France I even managed to get the autopilot to follow a course set on the chart plotter. A very handy feature if you are motorboat and need both hands to make cocktails for your guests, but next to no use for us wind driven lot.

The situation came to a head last year when on a short trip from Chichester to Cowes. The visibility on the day in question was a little hazy at first light and held true until about 20 minutes into the trip when the wind dropped and a fog rolled in dropping the visibility down to around 50 meters. It is amazing how disorientating fog can be. Sailing at night comes with its challenges, especially when close to shore when the lights of a town add to the bewildering array of flashing coloured lights in our vista. But, it is nothing like sailing in fog when a moments loss of concentration can leave you lost in your home waters less than 100 meters from your own berth.    

This is not my first time in fog, and with such an array of gadgets at my disposal, I thought not too much of it. I reasoned it was a good exercise and an excuse to help me justify not being a ‘fair weather sailor’. I simply popped below, fired up the Raymarine set, turned on the radar, grabbed the fog horn and we continued under motor at a much-reduced pace with Kate at the helm and me blasting our eardrums out every 2 minutes with the fog horn. It is here that our setup started to show its weakness and how the extra 10 years worth of development since our devices were commissioned really bears fruit. When making way in reduced visibility, it is vital to maintain a good lookout. You want as many sets of eyes and ears peeled as you have at your disposal to give you a fighting chance of not being run down by a passing passenger ferry. We mainly sail just two up, which, on daytime passage making is no great problem. One person on watch while the other either navigates, sleeps or makes the tea. When the visibility closes in our current setup means we are short handed. Our Garmin unit at the helm cares for nobody but itself and our Raymarine unit, with all of the toys attached, is below deck. This left me in a catch between the devil and the deep blue sea. Do I stay below deck, keeping a radar watch and shout up any potential hazards to the helm over the noise of our own engine? Do I abandon the tech in favour of the Mark 1 eyeball, or, do I spend my time like an excited labrador overdue for its dinner, constantly running between the two?

Obviously, I went for the later, and as I climbed the companionway ladder for the 100th time, I found myself cursing old technology and traditional thinking. Since the days of Francis Drake, vessels where navigated from a chart room. On a yacht, we have no space for these luxuries so resign ourselves to a chart table where tradition had it your electrics and navigation aids were installed and so be it. Most of these items were in their infancy and exposing them to saltwater dousing would have signed them off as ‘Lost in Action’ However, over the past ten years technology has moved on. A Chartplotter is no longer called a chartplotter but is now a Multi-Functional Display (MFD). Not only can it show you where on the planet you are, but it can also take feeds from Radar, AIS, Cameras, tank and engine monitors, even drones, and dish them up in a clear no-nonsense display right at the business end of your boat, the helm position. Giving the person tasked with the safe passage of your vessel every piece of information possible to ensure they don’t come unstuck. Does it replace the need to maintain a proper looked out? Certainly not, but it does give that watchkeeper the best possible pair of eyes. Being able to pierce the gloom and look over the horizon when the Mark 1 eyeball reaches its design limitations.

This seems like a first world problem to have. In our old 25 footer we had depth and speed and jolly lucky we felt to have those. The initial solution, I believed, was to move the C80 chart plotter to up to the wheel pedestal and extending the connection from the Radar and AIS units up to the helm. Then I hit on a snag. The C80 is based on early millennium thinking and does not offer the range of connectivity of the more modern MFDs. The Radar, AIS and other connections all need to be extended which would involve some major vascular surgery on our boat. Coupled with the fact that having used an iPad for so long I don’t think I could break the habit given the comparatively antiquated functionality of the C80. I’m a sucker for shiny technology, especially if it has a touch screen and Bluetooth! If I’m going to tear the boat apart to move the C80, why not take the opportunity to improve our lot with an updated MFD. Obviously, this is exactly what the boffins at Raymarine want me to think. Have I been conditioned ……. probably! Enter the new Raymarine Axiom range and you can see where this is predictably going! A MFD which offers all of the usability of an iPad, the ability to connect to the existing Sea Talk 1 transducers around the boat and a host of other features (including controlling a Drone!) all package up behind a shiny touch screen!

Going through the list of information this unit can deliver up to you at the helm is enough to excite even the most traditional of sailors. To name just a few; chartplotter, log, depth, Windspeed (true and apparent), Radar, AIS overlay, engine instrumentation, oil temperature, oil pressure, overheat alarms, fuel level, water tank levels, grey water tank level, black water tank level, masthead camera, IR camera, Sonar, Weather routing, a 3D image of the sea bed the list goes on and on and on. Oh did I mention it can control a drone… from your helm position because driving the boat does not require enough attention!

Here is the realisation which bought me down to earth with a bump. Our boat has a fair measure of electronics on it. Most of which has given admirable service for the past 10 years. However, functional they may be, integrated they are not. Forgetting all of the other nonsense and concentration on simple navigation and the existing yacht systems in order to get the full benefit of my new potential purchase I would need to also brass up for almost another two thousand pounds in a new radar scanner and various converters and adaptors to update our various analog senders able to talk digital.

It is at this point I am in danger of falling down a rabbit hole where instead of a practical sailor on a budget I imagine myself to be the recipient of a lucrative record deal or owner of small software firm which has just developed the latest gizmo taking the market by storm. The eye-watering price tag associated with these pieces of kit reminds you of your place in the pecking order of life. The solution, I hope, is moderation and keeping my sensible cap on. The Garmin unit is history, and the future is Axiom touch screen shaped. In fact, I’ve already ordered it, so there is no going back now. I just need to make sure I don’t get too excited by bolt-on bits, and remember what Captain Moodie achieved with his sextant and a lot of skill.