A Complete Refit of Electronics
In 2014 we undertook an extensive refit of SAVARONA, a CNB-95 aluminum-hulled sailboat. Part of that refit included a complete scrap and replace of ALL electronics including radios. In this blog I will try to give you the investigation we did and the choices we made and the reasons we made them.
To start, here are the choices we made:
- Sailing instruments - B&G H5000 Series
- 16” Zeus Glass Helm Chartplotter at navigation station
- 12” Zeus Glass Helm Chartplotter at Helm station
- H5000 Autopilot
- H5000 Multi-function displays – 6 x (20/20 HV) and 3 x (30/30 HV)
- H5000 Magnified Apparent Wind
- H5000 3-D Motion Sensor
- Radar -B&G 4G Broadband Color Radar
- H5000 Performance CPU
- Built in VHF radio - ICOM at the navigation station and helm.
- Hand held VHF – ICOM
- Satellite Global Phone – Fleet Broadband FB250
- Inmarsat C – Sailor 6110 Mini-C GMDSS LRIT
- SSB Radio – ICOM M802 Single Sideband
- Iridium – 9505A Emergency Phone
Before we made our final choice we compared B&G H5000, B&G Triton, Raymarine A-Series and E-Series, and Garmin GNX and GMI systems. All three are excellent multifunction network systems with plug-and-play NMEA-2000 network connection protocols. At the end, it came down to Raymarine and B&G which on the whole are very equivalent systems with Raymarine being about $8,000 less than the B&G system. So why did we choose B&G? It came down to two factors: 1.) B&G has the 3-D Motion Sensor that can integrate with the H5000 Performance CPU to allow the autopilot to steer to the WIND, but take into account wave action and wind shifts; 2.) The racing software that comes with the H5000 Performance CPU is superior to Raymarine in many ways. Frankly, for $8,000 in price we were fairly set on Raymarine. But I know a person who makes his living as an electronics and sailing instrument consultant for the America’s Cup teams, so I called him and spoke for an hour discussing the various merits of both systems. He agreed that Raymarine is excellent, but he said all the racing software that I thought I would never use, is in fact very useful in a cruising situation. Example, lay lines and time to mark are very useful. Example, when having to beat around an island, the 3-D Motion Sensor integrated with the set and drift calculations in the performance software gives you a lay line when you can safely tack to pass the island with your preset cross-track error. That alone saves a ton of time when making a transit, and the time to mark factors in set, drift, SOG, to give you and accurate ETA. All of us onboard are good navigators and we have yet to beat it. We are also good helmsmen and when on COURSE or WIND mode none of us can beat the autopilot integrating set, drift, COG, SOG, wind shifts and sea state with the 3-D motion sensor. The 3-D motion sensor “senses” when you enter/exit a wave trough and it doesn’t adjust the rudder, it “let’s” the boat come back onto course. This save a tremendous amount of wear and tear on the autopilot rams. On boats without the 3-D motion sensor, when the boat enters a wave trough, the autopilot attempts to adjust course, the recovers as the boat exists the wave trough. None of that happens when using the 3-D motion sensor. Likewise in WIND mode if you get a subtle header the processor will head up as it begins and fall off as it ends. Bottom line, the sensors are more sensitive than a human and they don’t get distracted. It was with some trepidation that I chose to spend the extra $8,000 for the B&G system, but I can tell you now - - I’m glad I did. The America’s Cup expert was right, we do use the racing features in cruising mode and it does make a big difference. Would I be unhappy with Raymarine? Probably not, my expert agrees it’s a great system. He feels, and I agree there is just more available to you with the B&G system if money isn’t an object. If it is, Raymarine is a great system that will serve you well.
For the built-in radios we looked at Standard Horizon, ICOM, Garmin, and B&G. Our old built-in units (one at the navigation station + one at the helm) were ICOM and so we favored ICOM from the beginning. However, we ended up selecting the B&G units - - BIG MISTAKE! Within two months time we replaced the B&G units with ICOM. The B&G VHF is terrible - - the handset at the helm broke, the flimsy clip snapped so the handset wouldn’t stay in the cradle, then finally the handset at the helm that was supposed to operate like a hand-held just wouldn’t work farther than 10-feet from the helm. To be fair, our boat is aluminum and so it's a virtual Faraday cage and that may have been part of it, but we were so frustrated with the B&G system, we reverted to our favorite choice ICOM M-324. As far as VHF’s go high end units from Horizon, Garmin and ICOM are all comparable in both performance and price, so it comes down to what you’re used to. For us that was ICOM.
For the hand held radios, again all the manufacturers are equivalent. Again, our old radios were ICOM and they were trouble free, so we went again with ICOM M88 because it is small, less weight on your belt, and its fully submersible.
Global Satellite Phone:
We sail in the Mediterranean in the summer and every other year travel to the Caribbean for the winter season. Consequently we are often more than 60 miles from shore and many times 1,000+ miles offshore. Consequently we need a satellite phone for communication and Internet access to download weather GRIB files. For global coverage Inmarsat operates 11 geostationary satellites and there are basically two competitors KVH and Intellian. KVH dominates the U.S. market and Intellian dominates the European market. Since we sail predominately in the Mediterranean, we chose Intellian. Their data packages cover all of the European coastline and the United Kingdom. There are also plans for the Nordic countries, North Africa and the western coast of Africa. When in the Caribbean, which is dominated by KVH, we simply exchange a data card and we have access through KVH in the Caribbean. Obviously both KVH and Intellian cover the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well. Both vendors offer similar sized systems, the only difference being data speed. We chose the Intellian Fleet Broadband 250 (FB250) which is equivalent to the KVH TrackPhone 250. We chose it because it has a relatively small dome (18”) and gives us download speeds of 250 MB/sec. It’s great for voice, but relatively slow for data, but GRIB files are compressed and small in size so download in about 6-10 seconds. The Global Satellite Phone works anywhere in the world from 70o North latitude to 70o South latitude, so its an essential piece of safety gear when sailing far offshore.
Inmarsat C is now a commercial requirement on yachts over 80-feet. SAVARONA is 95-feet, so we added the Inmarsat C system. At the time we were upset having to add what we considered was a redundant radio, especially at a cost of roughly $6,800. However, we discovered that this radio offers FREE download of GRIB weather files and FREE bi-directional text messaging, along with GMDSS single button distress calling. There’s always a silver lining and for Inmarsat C it is the free messaging and free download of GRIB files. This significantly reduces the data usage on the Global Satellite Phone. In fact we don’t use the satphone for data anymore. The main purpose of requiring the Mini C is that it provides weather notices to mariners 5 times a day anywhere in world and it is GMDSS compliant. There are very few “Wheel-Marked” Mini-C GMDSS systems. Cobham manufactures the Sailor Series and we selected the Sailor 6110 LRIT because it complies with IMO Regulation MSC 263(84) and LRIT stands for Long Range Identification and Tracking which means I can track the yacht anywhere in the world and send and receive text messages for free. There is a touchscreen that makes it easy to operate and of course the NMEA 2000 interface makes it part of the network so the single button GMDSS transmits everything known about the yacht to the Global Marine Distress stations around the world. It’s better than an EPIRB and the rescue agencies can bi-directionally communicate with the yacht to understand the emergency. Now that we’ve gotten to know it, we’re very happy with it and it does help you sleep more comfortably when you’re 1,000 miles from the nearest land.
SSB Single Sideband Radio:
With all the recent innovation including Global Satellite Phones and Inmarsat-C the need for SSB is fading. But, SSB isn’t likely to leave the scene anytime soon because of one KEY feature - - unlike satphones SSB allows many people to listen to a transmission at the same time. This means for events like the Caribbean 1500, Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC), Baja-Ha-Ha, TransPac and other regional cruising nets, when someone reports their weather conditions, anyone interested can listen in and call them. Still SSB radios are harder to operate, but the standardization that came from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has transformed newer SSB units into push-button simplicity for the 25+ standard channels. We debated whether to keep the SSB onboard, but in the end we decided the new ICOM M-805 is so simple to operate (simply punch in the 3 or 4-digit standard code and you’re on station) that we would stay with SSB. It is a bit of belt and suspenders, but the ability to listen in on other boats ahead broadcasting their weather conditions gives a margin of safety knowing what you’re sailing into. We seldom use it for communication, but we do use it to listen to boats many hundreds of miles ahead of us.
We don’t use the Iridium phone for normal communication. We keep it in the “ditch” bag for emergency communications along with a hand held GPS. If we ever have to abandon ship, we can simply call the rescue services and give them our exact location. The batteries for both units are stored out of the units in sealed plastic bags. Before we leave on an extended trip, we charge the batteries and put them back into the sealed bags. In addition, we have a very nice compact hand crank that will charge the batteries and allow instant calling with the Iridium phone. The various rescue agency phone numbers are already programed into the Iridium phone for 1-button speed dial. It’s onboard strictly as a safety feature.
In summary, we found that the standard brands are competitive across platforms in both performance and price. There are subtle advantages of one system over another, but on the whole the performance of all of the major systems is pretty close. So the choice comes down to personal preference and your budget. If budget is a concern, you certainly won't go wrong with the B&G H5000 series. If budget matters, the Raymarine system is a very close second. In radios its really a matter of personal preference. Our research found that we could buy a radio with the same features for price difference of $10.00 +/-. So that really does mean it's personal preference. There really isn't a lot of competition in the Global Satellite Phone market and the two competitors have their individual markets staked out. The system costs are within a few hundred dollars and the data plans are comparable for the areas served. So again, the decision comes down to cruising territory.
My final recommendation is that the backbone of your network be consistent along one brand line and support NMEA 2000 protocols. As much as vendors like to say plug-and-play, that's not been our experience. We have a wonderful electronics engineer that makes devices for different vendors talk to one another, but I've wantch him and it's not straight forward. So the fewer different vendors you have in you network, the fewer headaches you will have.
Hope this has been helpful.