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