Standing up to the weather

In days of yore it was all too common to step aboard a seasoned vessel and find whatever meager cockpit instrumentation existed to be dead or dying. You were apt to find a few small displays behind whose sun-crinkled, moisture-obscured faceplates hid free-floating pointers or half-working LCDs. If an instrument was readable at all, its buttons and knobs were probably broken or missing. A vessel with most electronics fully functional was a “gold-plater.”

Well, old salts, welcome to the 21st century. We’re seeing even small voyaging boats with color map plotters mounted right on the helm pedestal, perhaps side-by-side with a digital radar and complemented by large-display wind, speed, and depth read-outs and a 25-W VHF. The displays are visible from full sunlight to black of night, controls are clearly marked, and you don’t have to fret much about a pooping wave or a cockpit wash-down. And the stuff is holding up. Delivery skippers and boatyard repair personnel are fairly amazed at the low failure rate of good-quality cockpit instruments. How did we get here, and what do you need to know to choose cockpit gear that will work well for you and keep on working?

The “how we got here” part is pretty obvious. Boaters are spending some serious dollars on electronics developed by a slew of vigorous companies. These manufacturers are doing lots of R&D themselves, plus they piggyback technically on even more vigorous industries like wireless communications and even more demanding product niches like combat laptops. Product lines seem to change or expand at every boat show, and they’re getting better.

A decade ago the norm for cockpit instruments was “splash proof,” a vague standard at best. Then manufacturers started competing over “waterproofness,” citing various government and testing-lab standards and backing their claims with bullet-proof warranties. The public responded with enthusiasm. Engineers found themselves blasting their designs with fire hoses. Specifically, the commonly used U.S. Coast Guard standard known as CFR 46 Subpart 110.20 defines a “waterproof machine” as one which will withstand a 65-gallon-per-minute stream of water from a one-inch nozzle at 10 feet for five minutes, from all directions, without leaking.Keys to success

In years past one can imagine that numerous designs failed. But steady development work revealed the keys to success in making more weatherproof devices. Advances in semiconductors lowered voltages and heat dissipation, decreasing volatility and venting requirements. Better plastics and more precise part cutting led to tight and durable gasketing. Digital progress led to fewer moving parts (in fact, most moving parts in modern instruments today are there only to simulate the feel of a control). Better protective coatings were developed, and schemes like nitrogen injection were invented. Eventually most instruments could survive the fire hose on a regular basis.

Meanwhile monochrome LCD displays were evolving at a similar pace, and they are now in approximately their fourth generation. Imagine for a moment the zillions of LCD screens pouring out of factories around the globe these days, and the potential rewards for those engineers who make them better. The latest FSTN (Film Supertwist Nematic) screens can boast a contrast ratio of 8:1 – about 25% better than their predecessors – as well as a much wider range of viewing angles and a high pixel count per square inch.

So waterproof, legible LCD displays are now the norm for “in the weather” wind, speed, and depth instrumentation; and the success of these technologies has led to more and more complex electronics being designed for the cockpit. Many boats now have the contents of a fancy nav station on deck.

The latest competitive feature among manufacturers and a nice leap in usefulness of outdoor instruments are color LCDs, which overcome the very poor readability of regular color displays in bright conditions. Color – if it’s visible – can give the navigator more information with better organization. The technology is here but is still in its formative stages – manufacturers are achieving readability with a variety of techniques measured to a variety of standards.

A nit (see sidebar with accompanying story) is the unit of brightness used to measure and compare color displays. Standard laptops produce about 200 nits and are hard to see in muted daylight, impossible in direct sunlight. A so called daylight-viewable monitor should pump out around 800 nits, and a sunlight-viewable one about 1,600. Nits, as much as we like to talk about them, are not the whole story. Image contrast, clarity, and maximum viewing angles are also important to a readable display, and power consumption is a variable to watch out for.

There are currently three techniques used to goose up a color LCD – reflective color, which can be somewhat fuzzy; increased back lighting, which increases current draw and heat; and onscreen filtration, which is new and mysterious.Realistic lighting conditions

The competition is on, and the wise buyer will get out and look carefully at actual color display units -in realistic lighting conditions – as well as consulting with users and trusted sales people. Of course that’s good advice for shopping any piece of gear. Modern boat electronics are earning a good reputation for utility and durability, but the stress of competition does sometimes lead to, shall we say, marketing excesses. West Marine’s on-line Advisor series notes how, when waterproofing warranties became a sales tool, one handheld VHF radio vendor altered its warranty on a particular model from not including water damage to including water damage, without changing the product a bit. Sales went up but so did the return rate from about 1% of sales to nearly 4%, leaving a lot of boaters without their radios for a while. Another thing to consider is how putting your navigation station on deck can create crowding problems. Not everyone wants their pedestal or dodger area looking like video arcade. One solution is all-in-one instruments like the Furuno GP1850DF, which manages to fit a DGPS, chart plotter, and fish finder all in one small case. Another strategy is networking; for instance, Raytheon’s high-speed bus allows an on-deck radar to display and control a plotter down below.

The crowding problem can be mental as well. Being able to steer, trim sails, and monitor all sorts of screens may be too much for some people. These days electronic repair calls often turn out to be situations in which the instrument is not broken but has been switched into some mode the user can’t find his way out of. Regardless of fault, the machine isn’t working for him.

Norm Lichter, Electronics Supervisor at Wayfarer Marine in Camden, Maine, says with a smile, “We can put together an electronics system so complicated that the average owner will never be able to make it work properly!”

He favors gear with straightforward interfaces, and he gives each owner some training time after a new installation. Raytheon’s Keith Wansley, marine products director, reports that his company is using focus groups to test interface designs, and they are determined not to jolt their current clientele with major changes to their consistent control and menu systems.

Everyone in the industry reports seeing more and more computer charting systems appearing on deck, usually remote displays from PC’s mounted below. The only sticky point to these are the control mechanisms that drive the belowdecks unit. Reliable touch screens are coming to market, but RF (radio frequency) mice seem to be the most popular current solution.

Of course, in some ways, a wireless mouse may not be the best approach. We’ve heard that more than one modern sailor has lost his wireless mouse overboard because he leaned over the side when it was in his shirt pocket. There’s something new for old salts to watch out for in the 21st century.

Ben Ellison, a freelance writer and editor and a delivery captain, writes regularly on electronics topics.

By Ocean Navigator