04 July 2014

Shakedown Cruise Review: Wish List For Our Next Boat (Pt 3/4)

Background - When we decided to become full-time cruisers, rather than buy our "forever" boat and set off around the world, we took a different approach and moved aboard our "for now" boat in New Zealand for the 2013/14 season. We used it as an opportunity to do a shakedown cruise to discover what works and what doesn't for us in terms of the cruising lifestyle before we buy our next boat. This is the fifth in a series of posts on how it all went.

In the last two posts on our wish list for our next boat, we shared the things we want that make life easier and what kind of setup we want down below. In this post, we talk about some of the systems that we're hoping to get on our next boat. To be honest, it is kind of boring. At least until you remember that some of this stuff can save your life. {Mom - feel free to tune out and have a cup of hot chocolate instead.}

1. AIS & Radar

One of the the important skills you need if you're going to helm a boat is avoiding hitting other things (like freighters) and trying to avoid being hit yourself. This is where AIS (or automatic identification system) and radar come in handy. AIS is basically a tracking system - ships send out data about their position, course and speed, as well as their name, ID and radio call sign. If you have an AIS receiver, you basically get a heads up about what's coming your way so that you can alter course and avoid a collision if necessary. If you don't have an AIS receiver, then you are reliant on radar or your eyes. And given the fact that big ships travel a lot faster than tiny sailboats, if you can't see what's coming your way in time, then things can get a little hairy.

There are a number of choices for getting AIS on your boat - you can go for both a receiver and a transceiver so that you can send and receive information, or just get a receiver which is a cheaper way to go. If you just get a receiver, some of the choices include:

  • Get AIS connected to your VHF which displays the data on a chartplotter, radar or your computer/tablet. 
  • Get a dedicated AIS receiver which displays data directly on its screen.
  • Get a chartplotter with AIS built-in.
  • Use an app to display data on your computer/tablet (assuming you are in 3G or 4G range, which is a big assumption in some places).

Radar is one of the other systems that helps you with piloting and avoiding collisions. It tells you what is around your boat through reading radio waves or microwaves as they bounce off of objects. (Some sort of magic is clearly involved.) When it is dark or foggy and you can't see, radar really comes in handy. And it is great for showing you objects that aren't transmitting on AIS. However, it doesn't pick up everything - wooden and fibreglass boats can be hard to "read", which is why some folks put on radar reflectors on their boats to make them more visible.

We didn't have either AIS or radar on our last boat. I remember the first time I did night sailing in New Zealand and some freighters came out of nowhere near Marsden Point. I required more than a few cookies to calm my nerves. AIS and radar might have come in handy then. In an ideal world, we would like both AIS and radar. In the real world, we'll see what our new boat comes equipped with and then go from there.

2. Chartplotter

We had a Navman chartplotter on our last boat and loved it. I can't imagine our next boat not having a chartplotter. Seems really unthinkable. We also had paper charts for navigation, but our chartplotter was fantastic and so much easier to use in the cockpit with the wind blowing and the rain pouring down on you. I've been reading with fascination the ongoing debate about whether paper charts are now obsolete given everyone's reliance on chartplotters and e-charts.

3. VHF 

This is a no-brainer - you really can't have a boat without a VHF radio. We'll obviously have a fixed mount VHF radio, but the question is whether we should get a portable VHF radio as well. There are some real advantages to having one: 
  • Because a portable VHF has its own antenna and uses batteries, it gives you redundancy should your electrical system get fried and make your main fixed-mount VHF inoperable.
  • You can use your portable VHF anywhere on the boat, which is handy if you need to move around the boat or use it while out in the cockpit. On our last boat, the VHF was right next to the very noisy engine which made it hard to hear and be heard. Using a portable VHF elsewhere on the boat would have been really helpful.
  • If your boat is sinking or your batteries are under water (which would affect your main VHF), you can still use your portable VHF to call for help. Great feature, but a bit unnerving to think about too much.

If our next boat doesn't have a portable VHF, it is likely to go on the long list of other things we want, but don't necessarily need straight away.

4. Autopilot & Windvane

Yes, please! Give me an autopilot and/or a windvane! Please Santa, please! We didn't have either of these on our last boat and, let me tell you, hand steering for long periods of time can be a real drag. Autopilots have a drive unit that pushes your rudder back and forth in order to keep your boat on its desired heading. I'm sure it could do a much better job at this than me. With a windvane, you set the vane sensor or air vane to the desired point of sail and off you go. Windvanes operate with either an auxiliary rudder or through a servo-pedulum gizmo which controls the boat's main rudder. 

Is an autopilot or a windvane better? It depends on who you ask. An autopilot is a more complicated set-up which depends on electricity, but it keeps you on your desired course even if the wind changes. The downside of that is you might unexpectedly tack or gybe your boat to keep on course. A windvane is a bit more simpler, but if the wind changes, it goes with the wind, not necessarily your heading. I like the idea of windvanes with auxiliary rudders as one of the things that keeps me up at night is the "what if we lost our rudder" scenario. In an ideal world, we would have both an autopilot and a windvane. We'll see what the real world brings us.

5. WiFi Aerial

This is another one of those pretty please Santa things. Except for my dodgy mobile phone, we didn't have wifi access on our boat. Which was fine because we didn't have a way to charge our computers anyway. But things will be different - mark my words. We will be able to communicate with the rest of the world at will. This will involve getting an aerial that will enable us to pick up wi-fi signals so that we can stay connected. No idea what the best kind of set-up is, so you have any tips, please leave a comment or email us.

6. Solar Panels & Wind Generator 

All this stuff we want on our next boat is going to require power to run. We'll obviously have our engine and batteries but whatever we can do to minimise our dependence on fossil fuels is a good thing in my book. So we'll be wanting solar panels and/or a wind generator. We had a solar panel on our last boat. While we used it during our first season of cruising, we never got it out of its box during our second season. Probably three reasons why: (1) we didn't use a lot of power so our batteries didn't need topping up; (2) the sun didn't always shine during this past summer and (3) we're lazy. Most boats have their solar panels mounted so that would solve the lazy problem. Again, one of those things that we'll see what the boat comes with and then make a decision about what we want to invest in.  

So what have we missed? What's on your list? Any advice on other systems related things we should be thinking about?


If you want to know more, here are some handy links I found when I was doing some research.


Sail Far, Live Free has a post on some inexpensive AIS options. West Marine has an article which explains some of the nitty-gritty behind AIS units.  S/V Callipygia has an interesting article on radar for dummies. Boat US has an article on radar.

Portable VHF Radios 

If you want to find out more about portable VHF radios you could check out what West Marine has to say, these tips on Sea Kayak Safety, this buyer's guide on eBay and this Kiwi site dedicated to all things VHF.

 Autopilots & Windvanes

West Marine's guide on selecting an autopilot demystified the subject for me. Scanmar has an article on windvanes vs. autopilots which kind of takes the piss out of the West Marine guys and the fact that they don't sell windvanes. 

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  1. As you get closer to buying this stuff and if you would like some help, let us know. We have recently updated Cream Puff's systems and did a lot of research on electronics.

    Mark and Cindy
    s/v Cream Puff

    1. We will definitely be in touch - we can use all the help we can get!

  2. Solar panels and wind gene. Free juice is sooo cool! And a widvane or autopilot are a must!,

    1. So true - I love the idea of generating electricity for free!


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