Marine Electronics: Understanding the Basics

Marine electronics is a navigational and communication device that can be installed on a ship or boat. Marine electronics has evolved with the rapid development of technology. They now include cartography and collision avoidance as well as onboard connectivity, wind tracking, and propulsion integration.

What electronic equipment do I need for my boat?
What boat devices you require depends on the type of boat, where and how you use it. For a towboat used for watersports, a speedometer is all that’s needed. A sailboat that is used to make passages needs all the equipment, such as a depth sounder, chartplotter and radar.

What is the price of boat electronics?
Costs of electronics vary depending on what you want and how you intend to use it. Basic chartplotters (9-inch screens) start at under $500. VHF radios are around $100. A large fully integrated MFD (16-inch-screen or larger) with transducers, antennas, and other features can cost well over $10,000.

We’ll dive deeper into the 10 most essential electronic devices for boats:

Multifunction Displays
Chartplotter
Radar & ASI
Autopilot
Wind Instruments
Depth sounder
Fishfinder (sonar).
Engine monitors
Digital switching
VHFs and SSB Radios

1. Multifunction Displays

MFDs are multifunction displays (also known as LCDs) with buttons or touchscreens that allow the user to access various functions of a boat.

MFDs are now the main control for marine electronics. Initially, they were conceived as displays for chartplotters (cartography).

All systems can be integrated, including navigation and communications. You can also use audio and video features to check your location, choose tunes or watch a movie.

All components listed below can be displayed in a MFD integrated.

2. Chartplotters
The navigation system of your car is similar to a chartplotter.

This electronic chart (map), which combines GPS and marine cartography, will help you determine your location and the best route to get you to where you’re going.

3. Radar & ASI

Radio waves are used by radar (radio detection & ranging) to detect your surroundings. This is especially useful when visibility is limited, like at night or in fog.

Radar measures the distance, angle and velocity of an object (boats, land-based sites, etc.) in relation to your location. Radar is sensitive enough to detect rain squalls. It includes an antenna, either closed or open array.

The AIS (automatic Identification System) is a radar-based short-range tracking device that tracks targets (other vessels). Its main purpose is to avoid collisions by tracking the speed, bearing and even names, of other vessels around you.

4. Autopilot
The autopilot is a self-steering system that can maintain a preset course. Some autopilots steer according to the wind direction or a compass.

The device can steer you to a waypoint but it’s not a gadget that you can set and forget. Other boats can’t detect what’s in between you and your waypoint. Even when using autopilot, you should still be vigilant.

5. Wind Instruments
Small MFDs, wind instruments provide information about the speed and direction of the wind. It is important for sailors to know how wind affects their boat, but it can be useful for any boater. This is especially useful when docking and anchoring.

5. Depth Sounder
The depth sounder measures the depth in the water. Transducers mounted on the hull or in the hull send radio signals. The depth of water is determined by the rate at which the radio signal returns.

Offsets can be used to increase your margin of safety. Be sure to know if the measurement is taken from the surface of the water or the bottom. Otherwise, you may be short. The information will be displayed on the screen of your MFD.

6. Fish Finder Sonar
A fish finder can be used to locate fish or create a picture of structures underwater. A fish finder works the same way as a depth sounder by using sound waves through a transducer.

Information can also be displayed on an additional screen. Most often, the information is displayed on your MFD screen.

Fish finders that are advanced can show more than just fish. They also include rocks, corals and other underwater objects.

Learn how to read the fish finder.
7. Engine Monitors
On boats with multiple motors, the engine information can be displayed on a dedicated display or MFD.

These digital gauges provide information about temperature, tachometers, alarms and fluid levels. They also show rudder angles as well as diagnostics.

8. Digital Switching
Mechanical switching is replaced by digital switching. Breakers are controlled by softkeys that connect to a network.

Even the simplest boats are now equipped with digital switching technology.

9. VHF Radio
The VHF radios work at line of sight, meaning they can be heard from up to 2-3 miles. It may depend on the height of your antenna or whether there is something (like an island).

VHF radios are available in two types: fixed mount (attached to the ship’s station), or portable (handheld). VHF radios can communicate with other vessels, marinas and bridges as well as the US Coast Guard.

After a handheld is brought to land, it can no longer be used for personal communications. Anyone with a VHF radio can listen to anyone transmitting. Be careful with the information that you share.

10. SSB Radio
The Single Sideband (SSB) radio is a two-way, point-to-point communication system for long distances. Offshore vessels use HF (high-frequency) radio waves to communicate.

Understanding what your boat is capable of and
what you require will help you make the right choice when shopping for marine electronic equipment. Our list of 10 things you need to know about marine electronics & accessories in Perth is a great resource.

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