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Electronics For How You Use Your Boat


Are you a cruiser, offshore angler, or weekend wakeboarder? Here’s what could go on your boat, from basic to geeked out.

Photo: Volvo Penta

If the electronics on your boat are aging, or you need to equip a new-to-you boat, the array of possibilities can be daunting. To help you sort through the options, here are four types of boaters, with their “styles” divided into three categories: the basics, the well-equipped, and the totally geeked out. See where you, your boat, and your boating needs fit best. Remember, everything on the “basic” list carries forward to the higher levels or is replaced by a more capable device. For example, a chartplotter might be replaced by a multifunction display (MFD) as you move from basic to well-equipped.

Make sure you get your hands on any chartplotter you’re considering buying, and perform a task on it, such as plotting a waypoint. This is a great way to find which user interface is most intuitive to you.


Need to navigate over the long haul, keep a wide safety margin, and equip with entertainment items to make extended stays aboard more pleasant.

The Basics

VHF Radio: Your lifeline to the outside world, including the U.S. Coast Guard, so you’ll need a hard-wired, DSC-equipped unit.

PLB: For a couple of hundred dollars you can be certain a distress signal will reach the Coast Guard if something goes wrong.

Simrad NSE 8 multi-function display

Chartplotter: Nothing is more basic than getting from A to B safely and accurately; today’s plotters offer a wealth of information to accomplish that.

Depth Sounder: Because running aground is no fun.

Entertainment: You may be willing to leave the TV behind, but most cruisers will want an AM/FM radio and/or an iPod or MP3-compatible music player.

The Well-Equipped

Handheld VHF: If you plan on cruising those long distances, having a backup or two is a must to keep your crew in contact or to take in the dinghy.

Emergency Signaling Device: A satellite messenger if you’re staying within VHF range, an EPIRB if you’re not, or both if you prefer.

Autopilot: If you plan to run for more than a few hours at a time, don’t leave home without it.

Radar: Leave it off and fog can shut that cruise down in a heartbeat. Added bonus? It’s a great navigational assistant.

Vesper Marine WatchMate AIS

AIS B: Most water big enough for cruising has commercial traffic. AIS puts nearby ships’ location, course, speed, and more on-screen at your helm.

Instrument System: If you’re on a sailboat, you’ll want the complete set — wind, boat speed, depth, water temperature, and more — all networked to your GPS and autopilot.

Networked MFD: Why have a mere chartplotter? A networked MFD can display all nav info from your different units.

Entertainment Center: Upgrade that radio to Sirius/XM satellite for music anytime, anyplace. A flatscreen will let you watch videos from your computer or stream them with the addition of a wireless router.

The Totally Geeked-Out

Sat Phone: Call, send and receive email, or download weather anywhere, anytime. If you want to surf the Internet from the boat, add broadband satellite services.

SSB Radio: Like a VHF, but with an ocean-sized range. Some come with DSC capability. AIS A: Lets you keep tabs on other boats, and lets them “see” you.

Infrared Camera (Fixed-Mount with Remote Control): Thermal imaging at the helm, piped to your MFD screen or on a dedicated LCD. Upscale models have stabilization, magnification, and multi-sensor imaging.

Gyroscopic Binoculars: These steady the view, no matter how rough it is, and eliminate the shake. Magnification can be increased from standard marine 7x to as much as 18x.

Satellite Weather: Subscribe and get real-time Doppler and more, piped in to your chartplotter screen.

B&G Zeus TouchSailSteer MFD

Multiple-Display Networked MFDs: If one screen at the helm is good, another is even better, and safer.

Entertainment Center: A satellite TV antenna lets you catch your favorite shows, a server to stow favorite movies, and surround sound in the salon. If you have satellite Internet service, add a wireless router so everyone onboard can connect.

Photo: Yamaha

Family Day Boats & Inshore/Freshwater Anglers

Similar navigation & communications as cruisers, plus gear to help find more fish.

The Basics

VHF: A cell phone is great, but a handheld VHF can put you in touch with the authorities even when coverage is bad. GPS: A simple handheld unit should be enough to get you back to the bat ramp.

Fishfinder: A basic unit with transom-mount, 200-kHz transducer can be all you need.

The Well-Equipped

Fixed-Mount VHF: Maybe not a “must have,” but a good idea if you boat in more remote areas.

Chartplotter: Depends upon where you boat. But using waypoints and a track will help you hone in on those hot spots, no matter where you fish.

Fishfinder: In relatively shallow water (200 feet or less), modern 455/800-kHz units are the rage, marketed as “imagers” or “scanners.”

Onboard Battery Charger: Most serious inland anglers use electric trolling motors. An onboard charger means no dragging a charger to the boat, or batteries home, to recharge after every trip.

Lowrance Link2 VHF/GPS

The Totally Geeked-Out

Satellite Messenger: Phone-sized units allow you to hit the panic button and alert authorities that you need help, even where there’s no cell service.

Satellite Weather: Cell phones provide this, most of the time, but sat weather shows approaching rain, letting you plan and fish, hour by hour.

Raymarine Dragonfly

MFD: Most inland boats are small, with limited dash space. Make the best of it by installing an MFD with the largest screen possible, for splitting between different fishfinder modes, plus the chartplotter.

Fishfinder Imager Combo: You’ll not only have traditional and imager/scanner abilities, you’ll also add a side-scanning unit and transducer to see what lies off to the sides of your boat.

Inland Cartography: Many lakes are covered by cartography companies these days. If you purchase a chip, you’ll get contour lines and highly detailed charts.

Offshore Anglers

Venture out of sight of land, making safety and navigation a huge concern, as well as finding fish.

The Basics

Charged cell phone & VHF, plus chart of area.

Emergency Signaling Device: You need a way to call for help in an emergency. A satellite messenger or PLB is a good start if you’ll be in VHF range; a GPS-enabled EPIRB is a better option.

DSC-Equipped VHF Radio & Handheld Backup: Beyond cell range, these are must-haves.

Chartplotter & Handheld Backup: Important if you plan on getting back to the inlet at the end of the day.

Fishfinder (Basic): You’ll want a unit that can reach down several hundred feet; a 200-kHz unit with 500 or more watts is minimum.

The Well-Equipped

Satellite Weather: Plenty of advanced warning when thunderstorms head your way.

Radar: Fog? What fog?

Autopilot: To get out to the fishing grounds rested and ready.

Infrared Camera (Handheld Scope): For pre-dawn departures for far-off fishing grounds.

Networked MFD: Minimum 12 inches to gaze at the fishfinder and chartplotter together as you troll.

Bathymetrics: Upgrade your chip or download the latest high-res cartography. Either way, you’ll know what the seabed looks like, and where it’s going to attract those fish.

Fishfinder (Mid-Level): If that puny little pinger isn’t good enough for you, go for 1,000 watts, and get a transducer upgrade.

The Totally Geeked-Out

Cell Amplifier: It won’t work on long hauls, but will extend range out 30-50 miles from the nearest tower.

Sat Phone: For an extra safety margin. SSB Radio: For those times when you’re too far from shore to use the cell or the VHF.

When buying binoculars that aren’t stabilized, look for a rating of 7 x 50. Seven times magnification is considered the highest you can use aboard without stabilization.

Gyroscopic Binoculars: Spot working birds (and aids to navigation!) from miles away.

Infrared Camera (Fixed-Mount with Remote Control): For those overnighters at the canyons.

Radar x 2: A big open-array for seeing long distances, plus a broadband dome for short-range target discrimination.

Multiple-Display Networked MFDs: In this best-case scenario, you won’t toggle between two MFD screens, you’ll have a pair at the lower helm and a second display on the tuna tower.

Fishfinder (High-End): The latest technology is a multi-spectrum (CHIRP) unit with a thru-hull transducer.

Photo: Volvo Penta

Watersports Enthusiasts

Whether for wakeboarding, waterskiing, or just pulling tow toys, sport boats are some of the most specialized on the water.

The Basics

VHF: A cell phone is great, but a handheld VHF can put you in touch with the authorities even when coverage is bad.

Depth Sounder: So you can stay away from bars and shoals, or your riders could be in trouble.

GPS Speedometer: Riders may have specific speeds at which they like to board or ski. This allows you to keep it steady.

Stereo (Basic): An AM/FM radio along with an iPod or MP3-compatible music player.

The Well-Equipped

Electronic Speed/Performance Control: Many of today’s mid-range towboats offer built-in touchscreen panels allowing you to dial in exact speeds and change them in one-mph increments, maintain trim settings, and connect with audio via Bluetooth.

Stereo (Mid-Range): This one also has a subwoofer, and at least four speakers placed throughout the boat. Don’t even think of getting by with fewer than 100 watts of power.

The Totally Geeked-Out

Accent Lighting: To look cool at the dock at dusk, rope LEDs adorn cup holders, seat bases, and stereo speaker mounts.

Electronic Speed/Performance Control (Advanced): With this system at the helm, you control performance, preset rider preferences, and pumping ballast tanks with a swipe of the finger.

Stereo (High-End): The stereo on this boat pumps out through six or eight speakers, including aft-mounted speakers so even the rider gets to rock out.

Lenny Rudow

New Boats, Fishing & Electronics Editor, BoatUS Magazine