Elec­tron­ics

WHEN LINES OF SIGHT SHRINK AROUND THE BOAT IN A THICK HAZE, POW­ER­FUL TECH­NOL­OGY AT THE HELM CAN SHOW THE WAY FOR­WARD.

Power & Motor Yacht - - CONTENTS - BY JA­SON Y. WOOD

Dial in your helm sys­tem for when the fog rolls in.

We’ve all seen it: A dark shape emerg­ing from the all-en­com­pass­ing white­ness, to grow and morph into a trideck mo­to­ry­acht or even a coast­wise freighter un­der a good head of steam, skip­ping by much too closely for com­fort. “He saw us, right?” some­one in­vari­ably says, as the big boat dis­ap­pears as quickly as it emerged, while some­one else stares even more in­tently at the helm, maybe tweak­ing the knobs of some pre-touch­screen unit that’s plac­ing your boat and crew way out of its depth, and, some would say, in harm’s way.

No mat­ter where you do your boat­ing, whether you’re cross­ing off­shore ship­ping lanes when en­coun­ter­ing a fog bank or thread­ing your way through a busy har­bor, you don’t want to de­pend on the other guy to see you and fix the prob­lem. You need to fix it your­self, and it’s pretty easy to do with a few smart elec­tronic up­grades. Your helm may al­ready have the ca­pa­bil­i­ties, and an up­grade may be as sim­ple as the ad­di­tion of some pe­riph­eral hard­ware. The di­rec­tion you choose may de­pend on the kind of boat­ing you do.

“Radar is a big seller around here,” says Ryan Hisey of Radar Marine, an elec­tron­ics dealer and in­staller in Belling­ham, Wash­ing­ton. “There’s a lot of mois­ture in the air, and if it’s re­ally hot and gets cool overnight you wake up in the morn­ing and it’s all foggy. You get some pretty dense, heavy fog, so peo­ple get caught now and again, and it freaks them out a lit­tle bit.” Radar Marine serves some recre­ational boats in its area, but Hisey says they have com­mer­cial clients from Cal­i­for­nia to Alaska.

“Fog is def­i­nitely an im­por­tant thing to be afraid of,” Hisey says. “The recre­ational guys try to go out and, with­out radar, they get caught in the fog. They make it back and say, ‘I need to have radar,’ or, ‘My wife says I must get radar now.’ You just know he had her out on the bow with a horn or some­thing that killed the trip for her. Most of the cruis­ing that we deal with is the week­end war­rior type thing. They don’t need any­thing too crazy, be­cause we’re not talk­ing a big long trip to Alaska or down the coast to South Amer­ica.”

Fea­tures are com­ing on strong from Fu­runo, Garmin, Ray­ma­rine, and Sim­rad. These sys­tems are show­ing the ben­e­fits of en­gi­neer­ing in things like MARPA and Dop­pler tech­nol­ogy, which changes the color of tar­gets as they move to­ward or away from you. Some also show tar­gets with sim­ple track plots that rep­re­sent where they have just been. The up­shot: This tech­nol­ogy lets users know what they’re look­ing at with a quick glance at the screen, which means they can spend more time look­ing out the win­dow with con­fi­dence.

Man­u­fac­tur­ers such as Si-Tex and Fu­runo still have stand­alone radar units that can be added to a helm, in­de­pen­dent of the rest of the elec­tron­ics. But most of the man­u­fac­tur­ers have radar in­te­grated into a mul­ti­func­tion dis­play, which is a good way to ben­e­fit from the rip­ping-fast pro­ces­sors that are at the heart of most of today’s up­per-end sys­tems. MFDs also keep up with all the up­grades that man­u­fac­tur­ers use to tweak the soft­ware con­stantly, fix­ing bugs and even up­grad­ing per­for­mance or fea­tures (some­times for an ad­di­tional fee). These set­ups tie the sys­tem to­gether. That in­te­gra­tion is im­por­tant.

“It used to be that you needed to have a cap­tain’s li­cense to op­er­ate a radar,” says Greg Allen of S3 Mar­itime, an elec­tron­ics in­staller in Seat­tle. “Now, any­body can turn them on and

they’re much more un­der­stand­able; they’re much more self-ad­justable.” Sim­ple is great, of course, but it’s the power that sim­plic­ity de­liv­ers that can make all the dif­fer­ence.

“I think radar over­lay is one of the big­gest steps for­ward in nav­i­ga­tion since GPS,” Allen says. “The first step is get­ting a good chart­plot­ter in there that is large enough and of­fers high enough res­o­lu­tion for you to see other tar­gets com­bined with your radar. It puts the tar­gets on the chart around you, so even if you’re in solid fog, you still have the ori­en­ta­tion to say, ‘There’s a boat over there and there’s a boat over there.’ On top of that you can add AIS, which is go­ing to put other tar­gets of in­ter­est on there. It’s one more piece of in­for­ma­tion that you can use to tell what tar­gets are around.” And in some cases it’s the mov­ing tar­gets that present the great­est threat, es­pe­cially in the ship­ping lanes.

“AIS is prob­a­bly the big­gest thing with the heavy fog we get up here,” says Dave Rein­nika, of McKay Marine, an elec­tron­ics in­staller in Seat­tle. “I’m up here in Puget Sound, so if some­one is say­ing, ‘I’ve got my trip planned and I’m leav­ing from the Ta­coma area and then I stop some­where up in North­ern Puget Sound, get­ting ready to make the hop across to Canada,’ now they have to cross the ship­ping lanes. They get up the next morn­ing and guess what? They’re all fogged in. Well what are they go­ing to do? Stay here all day? Or maybe they get out there and they’re an hour into their voy­age and then, guess what? Here comes all the fog. And then they hear the foghorns go­ing on all around them and they say, ‘What are we go­ing to do now?’ And they’re socked in.” The helm elec­tron­ics can help, if you have a good pro­gram of us­ing them.

“One of the first things I in­struct my cus­tomers to do is use the radar, even when you don’t need it,” Rein­nika says. “Use it when things are clear and vis­i­ble, so you have an idea of what your tar­gets ac­tu­ally look like, so you can say, ‘Oh I have seen this be­fore. This is a big ship here.’ I have my radar over­laid on my chart, so I can see that this tar­get here is prob­a­bly not go­ing to move be­cause it’s a buoy.” Do­ing what Rein­nika sug­gests will help en­sure you know what the tar­gets look like. A radar tar­get may also have an AIS tar­get on top of it, so you can match the name and know which ship is which and how they ap­pear.

“That means you can iden­tify what it is, so when you look at the win­dow and see that ship you know what you’re radar is show­ing you,” Rein­nika says. “Another thing that a lot of the recre­ational boaters aren’t aware of is a fiber­glass ves­sel is not like a ship. It’s al­ways sur­pris­ing how quickly the fiber­glass boats dis­ap­pear from view on the radar. With a 16-foot fiber­glass boat the radar is go­ing right through the fiber­glass. You’re pick­ing up a lit­tle bit off the en­gine. It’s got a metal fuel tank and most of that is be­low the wa­ter­line. You get a lit­tle bit of re­turn off the peo­ple in the boat.”

In low-light con­di­tions, one of the go-to tech­nolo­gies is ther­mal imag­ing, but fog has be­fud­dled those who rely on it, since thick fog has wa­ter droplets that have their own tem­per­a­ture, which the cam­era de­tects. But there may be a new so­lu­tion, if an ex­pen­sive one. FLIR Mar­itime has in­tro­duced the M500 ($190,000), which is built around a cryo­geni­cally cooled medium-wave in­frared ther­mal core (MWIR). “We are look­ing at a dif­fer­ent por­tion of the in­frared spec­trum from the other cam­eras that use long-wave in­frared,” says Jim McGowan, mar­ket­ing man­ager for FLIR Mar­itime. “One of the rea­sons for mov­ing up to MWIR for some ap­pli­ca­tions is that it is much less im­pacted by fog, smoke, haze, and marine layer ef­fects. Un­til now, the cooled MWIR tech­nol­ogy was re­ally only avail­able to mil­i­tary and sci­en­tific cus­tomers.” The cam­era uses a mi­cro­sized, built-in, closed-loop he­lium re­frig­er­a­tion sys­tem to bring the core to 40 de­grees Kelvin (that’s -387 de­grees Fahren­heit), and the re­sult is long-range de­tec­tion and su­per sen­si­tiv­ity, ac­cor­ing to FLIR.

So if you’re se­ri­ous about trav­el­ing the seas in the fog, pay at­ten­tion to col­li­sion threats, and AIS, ther­mal, and radar tar­gets. In ad­di­tion, spring for better chart­plot­ting, more power, big­ger an­ten­nas, and in­creased sen­si­tiv­ity. And, while you’re at it, maybe get some radar re­flec­tors for your boat, too.

When the fog rolls in—and it will—will you be pre­pared?

Hav­ing your helm equipped for foggy con­di­tions will help you at night.

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