Useful Electronics for Cruising the Inside Passage

When we bought the David B, it did not have any electronics, or an electrical system for that matter. So we needed to plan for our electronics package. Jeffrey’s experience as a professional mariner helped him make educated choices about which electronics were mandatory, which were simply nice to have, and what was just icing on the cake. While you could spend (tens of) thousands of dollars on a complete electronics package, you don’t necessarily have to.

When choosing electronics we follow three basic guidelines:

  • How much does the equipment contribute to safety of the boat and crew?

  • How easy is it to operate?

  • Is it in my budget?

With those three guidelines in mind came up with our electronics package starting with:

Mandatory Equipment –

VHF Radio, Depth Sounder, GPS, and Chart Plotter

VHF Radio $:
The number one mandatory piece of equipment that all boats should have is a VHF radio. It’s an inexpensive piece of equipment that could save your life. Even if you have several cell phones on board, the VHF is a much better tool to use to call for help or to ask for information.

In choosing a VHF the first rule for us was that it had to be intuitive enough that I could easily operate it. Eight years ago when we first started running the boat, I was still fairly new at using the VHF, and I have to admit, I was fairly shy about picking it up and calling another boat. Look for one that it is easy and obvious how to change channels, and set to scan multiple channels. A old-school-style volume knob works way better than up and down buttons.

Tip: Check that your radio is in US Mode: In the US and Canada the US mode is used. To make sure your radio is set correctly, do a radio check on 80A.

You also want to make sure that you and your crew are familiar with how to use the radio in an emergency and what type of communication is allowed on each channel because there is nothing more embarrassing than being scolded on the air by the Coast Guard. Here is their list of what is allowed on VHF radio frequencies.

Depth Sounder $:
The depth sounder is an important tool, and in choosing one, you could easily get bogged down with options. Our decision on a depth sounder was based on one that was simple to use, easy read, and not cluttered with too much extra information. Fish finders are great, but somewhere right near the helm you want a big, obvious display of the depth in numerals. The one we chose has a five-inch black-and-white screen with big writing so no one needs to break out their reading glasses to determine how much water is under the keel.

Tip: Set the Offset so you understand the depth reading. Most depth sounders give you the choice to display the depth from the surface down, or from the location of the transceiver down or from the keel down. It will help crew relations and your safety if everyone knows what your depth sounder is telling you.

GPS/Chart Plotter $$$:

GPS is one of the wonders of the modern world and one that has opened up so many more possibilities for safely getting into tight places (think NOT George Vancouver) and really helping you to easily know where you are on the chart. The GPS / chart plotter should be simple and easy to read and understand. We have a chart plotter program on a laptop that gets its signal from a GPS receiver which uses a USB to connect to the computer. It’s even simple enough for our guests to follow along.

Tip: Laptop based plotters can be used off the boat. Any plotter will work to help you navigate, but a laptop or tablet (iPad) will let you add waypoints and preview tomorrow’s route at the galley table, or you can take it to your friend’s boat. You can even plan everything in the winter from home.

What I like in a chart plotter is the ability to build waypoint routes and call them up easily. The basic information that you need to know is, where you are, what your heading is and, how fast you are going. It’s also handy if your chart plotter has a notation so you can easily remind yourself if your chart is in fathoms or meters.

The features I use most on our chart plotter are the distance measuring tool which gives us the time and distance we are from some spot on the chart and the chart boundary tool, which allows us to click on a more detailed chart or zoom to a chart that covers a larger area. It’s also good to check that you can annotate your charts. For instance, last year we discovered at low tide a large deadhead lodged in the mud not too far from where we anchored. It’s one of our favorite anchorages, so we marked the location of the deadhead on the chart.

Necessary Equipment for Specific Conditions –

Electronics for the Inside Passage

The David B’s radar screen from in front of a tidewater glacier in Alaska.

The next three items, radar, auto-pilot and AIS are good to have while traveling in the Inside Passage. I’ll admit, however, we only have two of these — radar. The reason we don’t have an auto-pilot is that the David B tracks unusually straight, and under calm conditions without too much current, you can step away from the wheel and check on the cookies in the oven, several steps away. This does not mean that the captain does not want an auto-pilot, it just means that he has to sell more cruises before the auto-pilot moves up the list. The radar, on the other hand, was necessary for us. We knew that we’d regularly be running in the fog and at night.

Radar $$$$:

You will spend money on radar. New systems cost thousands of dollars and can be integrated with your chart plotter and your depth sounder. The only caveat with the radar is that you and your crew need to be comfortable reading and interpreting the information on the screen. Our radar is separate from our chart plotter.

Tip: Run your radar a lot on clear calm days as practice. When I was first getting used to using the radar, I would often run it on clear days when I was at the wheel. This has helped me to learn how to read the picture. I’d have a close look at the chart and then a glance at the radar. I also play with the range. I’d zoom in to a quarter of a mile and then zoom to six nautical miles to see how the image changed.

If you are on a tight budget, you’ll be able to find a decent radar for $1300 to $2000, if you’re budget is unlimited, $10,000 might be your starting line. If you have the time, spending your money on an instructional radar class would be worth more than spending more on a radar unit. With radar, the most important thing is that you and your crew know what they are looking at and that you practice using the instrument so that you’re comfortable with what it is telling you.

Auto-Pilot $$$$:

As I said earlier, we don’t have an auto-pilot as this time, but that’s more a function of the boat and where we want and need to spend money. Some boats are very difficult to steer without an auto-pilot. A couple of years ago we chartered a catamaran for a two week cruise in the Greek Islands. That boat needed an auto-pilot if you needed to leave the helm for even a few seconds. Without it, there was no running to the galley to check on the cookies in the oven.

Tip: Train everyone who is going to be at the helm how to disable the autopilot. They might really need to know that in an emergency, or even to avoid a log.

There is a lot of current in places in the Inside Passage, and depending on your boat, you might want to invest in an auto-pilot, if you don’t already have one. They can be pricy, but again, think about your needs and you may discover that the $6000 auto-pilot, might be nice, but the $2600 one might suit your basic needs just as well.

AIS $$:

I touched on AIS (Automated Information System) in last week’s post. It’s a useful add-on for your chart plotter or radar. You can buy a receiver that will show you information on where other boats with AIS are located for under a couple hundred dollars. A complete unit can be had for under $500. It also gives you information on their size, speed, location and type of boat. It shows graphically and displays how close another boat will get to you and when that might occur.

Tip: Remember it doesn’t show everybody. It’s easy to get sucked into thinking that everybody will be showing on your AIS. It only shows other boats with AIS.

You can see what AIS will show you, and the kind of information you’ll get using AIS, at MarineTraffic.com.

Good to Have Electronic Equipment:

There are a million things you could bring with you when cruising in the Inside Passage. Over the years, our list of useful electronics has grown. These items can make your cruising experience more comfortable, and I recommend all of them, but you can probably do without if it’s not in your budget.

Stand Alone GPS: $

Your GPS / chart plotter combo is great, but it’s also a good idea to keep a hand-held GPS on board as well. You never know when your GPS receiver will stop working in the middle of nowhere. When that happened to us, we were able to use a GPS that we used for hikes for our latitude and longitude and then manually and at regular intervals mark on the chart our exact location. It was a bit clumsy, but it worked.

Satellite Phone $$$ / Satellite Internet $$$$$:

The Sat Phone is not a replacement for the VHF. It acts as another method for us to use to communicate in the case of an emergency.

Sometimes we think it would be nice to have internet access via a satellite connection, but then we realize the reason for cruising in the Inside passage is to get-away-from-it-all. We haven’t succumbed to satellite internet, but you might consider it. Just be prepared for the price.

Cell Phone Booster $$: Boosters have made it so that you can get cell service all the way from Puget Sound to Juneau. Without one you’ll have gaps of a 50 – 100 miles. It’s well worth the expense if you need to be reachable, but then again, why do we go boating in remote areas…

Hand Held VHF $:

We always take our hand held in the skiff or in the kayaks. It’s a good way to stay in communication with not just our boat, but also with other boats.

EPIRB $$:

Emergency position-indicating radio beacons or EPIRBs, as they are known, as a good safety device that help rescuers locate your boat should it capsize or sink. I’ll cover this more in a couple weeks when I talk about safety equipment.

Hand Held Depth Sounder $:

This a a fun toy that can be a useful tool if your skiff doesn’t have a built in depth sounder. It’s great for scouting.

Hand Held Two-Way Radios $:

We first bought ourselves a set of these for navigating in the icy fjords in Southeast Alaska. Since then, I take them kayaking and hiking. Another bonus is that they are legal to use ashore, whereas the marine VHF is only legal on a boat.

Stabilizer Binoculars $$$:

These are amazing and will make reading dock numbers in unfamiliar marinas less stressful. They’re also great for watching wildlife. We use ours a lot.

Night Vision Goggles $$:

We’d love some of these. (Santa???) They’re helpful in searching for logs at night.

Single Side Band $$$:

These used to be the mainstay of marine communication over long distances. They are not used much in the Inside Passage, but many of our ocean cruising friends still use the single side band.

Weather Instruments $:

These are mostly fun, but they can be useful too.

Navigating has come a long way since the time of Vancouver. There are so many methods to electronically keep track of your own vessel in time and space as well as other vessels. Next week I’ll be writing about the charts you’ll need for cruising the Inside Passage. If you have anything to add to this article, please feel free to do so below.

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  1. Christine, Elsie & I bought a pair of Kanad AIS/MOB transmitters. Since the Furuno Navnet 2 chart plotter does not yet support the message format for the MOB, we also got a Digital Yacht alarm system. We also have the Standard Horizon VHF with AIS receiver. The data is there on the chart plotter, but it does not differentiate the type of signal.

    Unfortunately, the signal from the Kanad is so weak that it is overridden by the plethora of AIS transmitters. Most chart plotters differentiate by signal strength, so anywhere near a mob of boats with AIS transmitters, the signal will not show on most chart plotters. BUT, the Standard Horizon VHF/AIS shows the 10 closest targets, so it does register there, along with range, bearing, SOG, COG, CPA, and TCPA. Just follow the info on the screen. We have a remote by the wheel to help the helms(wo)man.

    We did get a display on the chart plotter when we were away from other boats. It shows as typical boat symbol on our set. Future software changes should change that to a flag of some sort.

    The Digital Yacht alarm takes a feed from the VHF/AIS signal (tap off the leads to the chart plotter) and looks for the unique MMSI (all starting with 972xxxxxx ) of the AIS/MOB. If it sees the proper MMSI, it sounds and alarm and shows a red light.

    The real advantage here is that any vessel with AIS (receive only or transceiver) will see the alarm and be able to respond. This will only improve as more chart plotters get updated software to show the alarm as a flag on the screen. Other systems on the market are pretty much tied to the one vessel.

    The Kanad can be attached to a life vest to go off automatically. I’ve got a call into Mustang to see how to do it.

    Total cost is about $1k for two transmitters and the alarm. Installation is simple, even for a bigger hammer type of guy.

    Hope to catch David B up north this summer.

    Steve

    1. Thanks guys! You guys on Wild Goose are definitely world saoirls yourself now! Have been following your exploits in the Med and sounds like you’re having a lot of fun.

  2. I am trying to figure out the pest way for internet connectivity while cruising the inland passage. I want to purchase and I Pad and maintain a MV Blog. What’s the best way to obtain internet while cruising the inland passage?

  3. Hi Kris – We always struggle with Internet connectivity while in the Inside Passage. We are Americans with Verizon cell and data service. I have a US and Canada plan that has very limited data. Roaming cost over $2.00 per minute. I use it to check and send email. The rest of the time I leave it on Airplane mode.

    There are several places that have wireless access. For instance Shearwater resort has wireless that you can buy for $10 per day, and the Prince Rupert Rowing and Yacht Club has free wireless for their customers. I try to do as much offline as possible and in the places that I can find with wireless.

    Since there are still big areas without cell service, I try to do as much offline as possible and when I do find a place to hop online, I spend about an hour or more doing my online work. I have both a MacBook Pro and a Google Nexus tablet that I use in the Inside Passage.

    Hope that helps!
    -Christine

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