Keep cockpit gauges off the binnacle

From Ocean Navigator #114
May/June 2001
Cockpit instrumentation technology has improved significantly, and Chuck Husick did a good job describing the latest options in a recent issue (“Out in the open,” Issue No. 110, Nov./Dec. 2000). One aspect that needs further elaboration, however, is instrument location. Kathy and I have learned over the years that we almost never hand-steer from behind the wheel when making passages. Sailing around the harbor, short day-sails, or up and down the waterway we do, of course, hand-steer. And we do enjoy sailing the boat! We almost never hand-steer on passages unless, of course, we have to land a fish or change course to avoid fishing boats, ships, whales, pot buoys, etc. On passages either the autopilot or the windvane is steering the boat depending on the wind and sea conditions.

Since the most offshore passages are undertaken using a windvane or autopilot, instruments should be placed where they can be viewed from under the dodger.
   Image Credit: Dick de Grasse

When passagemaking with two people it is essential to find a comfortable place to “stand” watches, particularly at night. We have found a comfortable seat under the dodger up against the cabin bulkhead, out of the weather, where we can wear our harnesses and hook on. From our cockpit seat we can see our instruments and still look around without unhooking. If we have to move forward or aft we unsnap our harness tether and re-hook to other cockpit padeyes or jacklines on deck.

Our autopilot has a remote power steering feature that allows us to push-button steer when seated either behind the wheel or under the dodger. The cable on the autopilot remote is long enough to steer from the bow when dodging coral heads.

Wheel-mounted instrument pods, which can only be viewed from behind the wheel, are of little value on short-handed offshore passages running under autopilot or windvane. What’s needed are rugged, waterproof, simple instruments that can be read from behind the wheel when hand-steering as well as viewed from the cockpit seat under the dodger out of the weather. Our cockpit seat is made as comfortable as possible and is adjacent to the main hatch. It allows us to look below from time to time to check on our mate or reach for a drink or snack. We can also see the engine instruments when the motor is running. On night passages a flashlight is available to shine on sails and windvane, plus we have a 20,000-candlepower spotlight plugged in near at hand to shine at ships if need be. Flares, VHF radio and man-over-board gear are also near at hand. Watchstanding alone in a seaway at night, we always wear a harness. We always tell our mate when we have to re-hook to the jack lines when going forward.

We don’t operate our notebook computer at sea, except for sending and receiving HF radio e-mail every few days. We do not use digital charts since we have paper charts, and we regularly plot our position on the paper chart at the navigation station. Plotting our position on a paper chart compels us to regularly examine our position. I’m reluctant to move our precious notebook computer to the cockpit to study the charts, and going below to study a digital chart on the computer means leaving the cockpit watch station. We are constantly reminded that our friends lost their boat as a result of a collision with an unlighted tug and barge in a busy shipping lane during the brief time the watchstander went below to study the chart and radar. Our paper charts and cruising guides are kept in waterproof covers and are frequently near the watch stander in the cockpit. We do not interface our GPS with the autopilot. A GPS autopilot interface can be beneficial as long as watchstanding does not become too complacent. Call us old fashioned, but we’re reluctant to leave too much control to interconnected electronics in what can be a hostile environment. We still carry a sextant on board along with necessary tables and sight-reduction forms, even though I do have a sight-reduction computer program. The objective is to be able to run the boat safely with no electronics. On a ship, with a more stable, controlled environment, I believe interconnected electronics are fine.

We believe bulkhead-mounted instruments are the answer, with the radar viewed from both the watchstander’s cockpit position and the navigation station below. The watchstander can look below and see the radar. The radar can also be seen from the nav station. The radar could have been mounted on the outside cabin bulkhead, but we preferred mounting it below, above the nav station where it can be viewed from both the nav station and the cockpit seat. Some boats have installed the radar on a hinged board, which swings out for cockpit viewing. Watchstanders’ view of the radar from the under-the-dodger watch station need only identify possible targets; we normally leave the radar set on the six-mile range unless and until the target closes to within six miles. Targets approaching closer than six miles gets our full attention. I take over watch on deck, and Kathy becomes the “radar officer.” Radar view is important at the nav station since plotting radar targets frequently requires log notes and possibly chart work to determine the target’s closest point of approach (CPA).

Most important, the radar continually displays NEMA information available from the GPS, including latitude and longitude, course, speed over the ground, and distance to the next waypoint, all of which can be viewed from both the nav station and our cockpit seat. Since we plot our position on the chart at the nav station every hour or so, having latitude and longitude information displayed on the radar makes plotting much easier. We make autopilot or windvane course corrections depending on the GPS cross-track error. We carry two identical GPS receivers just in case. Radar does use power, however. Under sail, we run the radar in poor visibility, at night in shipping lanes or when there are fishing boats in the area. Sailing during clear days and clear nights, when we can easily see ships and read their running lights, the radar is either off or left on standby to conserve power. When motoring the radar is either on or on standby. With the radar off we frequently view the GPS.

We have chosen to locate our instruments on the cabin bulkhead where we can view them from behind the wheel or when seated under the dodger. Our bulkhead instruments are out of the weather and simple: digital knotmeter, analog apparent wind indicator, analog wind speed, and digital depthsounder. Since we are leaning against the bulkhead, we only need to look right to see the instruments. When we’re off soundings, the depthsounder is off.

Instrument lights and masthead running lights operate together. We have two sets of running lights, each on a separate switch; masthead running lights for running under sail and hull running lights when running under power. Both the main and belowdecks compass lights are on a switch separate from the running lights. Occasionally we shut off all cockpit instrument lights to “darken ship” to afford better night visibility. We leave the compass lights on when we “darken ship” to continue on our course. The compass light is the most important light on the boat, and we carry several spare bulbs.

The picture shows the GPS mounted next to the wheel. The GPS can be rotated 180° to be viewed from behind the wheel or from the cockpit seat. The GPS has its own light that is left on when the radar is not operating. When the radar is operating, it displays GPS information. We occasionally compare the digital knotmeter reading with the GPS speed over ground to learn about our set and drift. When the radar is not operating we rotate the GPS for the best view from the cockpit seat. The main steering compass can be viewed from the helm and cockpit bulkhead seat. The main compass is located at the wheel and is viewed from behind when seated against the bulkhead. Practice makes checking the compass by looking at its back relatively easy.

Before a voyager commits to an instrument cluster he or she must first decide whether short-handed offshore passages are planned. Even if only the occasional overnight offshore passages are contemplated, comfortable, dry watchstanding position and easily read instruments become important very soon. It took us several attempts to establish our watchstanding seating location. There is nothing more discouraging then standing a two- or four-hour watch in the open, behind the wheel in the pouring rain in a 25-knot headwind, trying to view rain- and sea-streaked instruments. Running under autopilot or windvane may get you under the dodger and out of the weather, but you must be able to see the instruments. It’s worth the effort.

By Ocean Navigator