BRIGHT SPARKS 412 - The Green Litmus Test

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Sounds obvious but using gear at sea is always the best test, yet it’s something that many sailors don’t get the chance to do

BRIGHT SPARKS 412 - The Green Litmus Test
BRIGHT SPARKS 412 — The Green Litmus Test

Buy it and try it, is the way most of us use the gear. For example, that fantastic backlit GPS unit that glittered so clearly when demonstrated in the boat show becomes but a pale shadow of itself when installed in the cockpit under the glaring midday sun.

Or, as I found out during a long-ago Atlantic crossing when the seals on the latest and greatest watermaker kept blowing, being at the cutting edge of technology can leave you with a dry feeling in the mouth. Talking of the Atlantic, the ARC Rally for Cruisers is one of the biggest gear tests on the briny, and I always enjoy reading the Yachting World report — 2010 was no exception.

The 2010 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) involved 233 yachts from 26 nations, including some Aussies, that departed the Canary Islands to make the 2700nm tradewind route to St Lucia in the Caribbean.

Essential electrical gear used included autopilots, radar, navigation, communications, generators and other power sources. The downwind yawing and surfing of the blustery tradewinds is a great test of autopilots, with heavy loads on the gearing continuously felt for several weeks.

Nearly half the fleet used the evergreen Raymarine ST range, with Simrad and B&G lesser players. All systems had failures, common problems including randomly switching to standby, mechanical failure and some even ceased to work. Having a spare parallel system or emergency replacement is one way of avoiding hand-steering for several weeks, as is having good knowledge of your system in the first place.

RADAR WORKS
Radar was one of the most surprising bits of gear to get the general thumbs up, mostly for its ability to dodge squalls. Cockpit-mounted units are very handy, and for shipping, the Automatic Ship Identification (AIS) overlay was described as "essential" by several of the fleet.

Particularly useful functions included variable range marker (VRM) and electronic bearing line (EBL). The VRM gives a distance out and the EBL a fix from the boat; most convenient when the stars begin to fade as a night squall approaches.

The big brands again were Raymarine with about 50 per cent of the fleet and Furuno used by about 15 per cent. For AIS, popular brands included Digital Yacht, Comar, NASA AIS, and EasyAIS. Problems with the gear included system freezes, false alarms and data loss — sometimes through the VHF antenna connection.

In terms of navigation, there were no surprises with chartplotters used by the majority, but a third used PCs for navigation, while prudent sailors, making up half the fleet, took paper charts as well.

Feedback on preferred communications showed some surprises, the vast majority of the fleet using satellite phones, with Iridium accounting for 70 per cent of handsets. Larger vessels had the Fleet models and the perennial SSB modem continued to have good usage — particularly useful for group conversations. Main problems found were connection drop-out, quality and the cost.

Data downloads are another essential function nowadays, for instance, quick access to weather GRIB files for chart overlays is widespread. These are commonly attached to emails and for this year’s ARC, popular products included Mailasail used by 60 boats followed by Sailmail, the free Skyfile, and Google’s Gmail.

GOOD OL' DIESEL
Powering the ever increasing array of electronics is becoming a bigger challenge every year and the good news is that diesel generators, used by half the fleet, proved one of the most reliable bits of gear onboard, leading brands including Cummins Onan, Mastervolt, Fischer Panda, and Westerbeke were to the fore.

Renewable energy gear continues to rise in popularity as solar-panel output rises (480W units on some boats). Brands mentioned included Solarplex, and Solara. Towed generators continue in popularity with about 15 per cent of the fleet using them and the DuoGen brand dominated. Wind powered, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well on the crossing due to lack of apparent wind, but the Rutland and Air X propellers earned their keep at anchor in the Caribbean.

Stored power is the final variable in the power equation and traditional banks of wet lead acid batteries dominated but the safer (and more expensive) sealed gel types and AGM (absorbed glass matt) weren’t far behind.

The bottom line is that reliability at sea is the crucial factor, especially as we rely more and more on electronics — with wind-powered steering, for instance, now a minor player in modern cruising fleets such as the ARC. The continued rise of renewable energy equipment is a good thing in many ways — not only does it reduce our carbon usage but it should light our boats eventually, making that downwind Atlantic sleigh ride even more fun! Buy it and try it, is the way most of us use the gear. For example, that fantastic backlit GPS unit that glittered so clearly when demonstrated in the boat show becomes but a pale shadow of itself when installed in the cockpit under the glaring midday sun.

Or, as I found out during a long-ago Atlantic crossing when the seals on the latest and greatest watermaker kept blowing, being at the cutting edge of technology can leave you with a dry feeling in the mouth. Talking of the Atlantic, the ARC Rally for Cruisers is one of the biggest gear tests on the briny, and I always enjoy reading the Yachting World report — 2010 was no exception.

The 2010 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) involved 233 yachts from 26 nations, including some Aussies, that departed the Canary Islands to make the 2700nm tradewind route to St Lucia in the Caribbean.

Essential electrical gear used included autopilots, radar, navigation, communications, generators and other power sources. The downwind yawing and surfing of the blustery tradewinds is a great test of autopilots, with heavy loads on the gearing continuously felt for several weeks.

Nearly half the fleet used the evergreen Raymarine ST range, with Simrad and B&G lesser players. All systems had failures, common problems including randomly switching to standby, mechanical failure and some even ceased to work. Having a spare parallel system or emergency replacement is one way of avoiding hand-steering for several weeks, as is having good knowledge of your system in the first place.

RADAR WORKS
Radar was one of the most surprising bits of gear to get the general thumbs up, mostly for its ability to dodge squalls. Cockpit-mounted units are very handy, and for shipping, the Automatic Ship Identification (AIS) overlay was described as "essential" by several of the fleet.

Particularly useful functions included variable range marker (VRM) and electronic bearing line (EBL). The VRM gives a distance out and the EBL a fix from the boat; most convenient when the stars begin to fade as a night squall approaches.

The big brands again were Raymarine with about 50 per cent of the fleet and Furuno used by about 15 per cent. For AIS, popular brands included Digital Yacht, Comar, NASA AIS, and EasyAIS. Problems with the gear included system freezes, false alarms and data loss — sometimes through the VHF antenna connection.

In terms of navigation, there were no surprises with chartplotters used by the majority, but a third used PCs for navigation, while prudent sailors, making up half the fleet, took paper charts as well.

Feedback on preferred communications showed some surprises, the vast majority of the fleet using satellite phones, with Iridium accounting for 70 per cent of handsets. Larger vessels had the Fleet models and the perennial SSB modem continued to have good usage — particularly useful for group conversations. Main problems found were connection drop-out, quality and the cost.

Data downloads are another essential function nowadays, for instance, quick access to weather GRIB files for chart overlays is widespread. These are commonly attached to emails and for this year’s ARC, popular products included Mailasail used by 60 boats followed by Sailmail, the free Skyfile, and Google’s Gmail.

GOOD ’OL DIESEL
Powering the ever increasing array of electronics is becoming a bigger challenge every year and the good news is that diesel generators, used by half the fleet, proved one of the most reliable bits of gear onboard, leading brands including Cummins Onan, Mastervolt, Fischer Panda, and Westerbeke were to the fore.

Renewable energy gear continues to rise in popularity as solar-panel output rises (480W units on some boats). Brands mentioned included Solarplex, and Solara. Towed generators continue in popularity with about 15 per cent of the fleet using them and the DuoGen brand dominated. Wind powered, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well on the crossing due to lack of apparent wind, but the Rutland and Air X propellers earned their keep at anchor in the Caribbean.

Stored power is the final variable in the power equation and traditional banks of wet lead acid batteries dominated but the safer (and more expensive) sealed gel types and AGM (absorbed glass matt) weren’t far behind.

The bottom line is that reliability at sea is the crucial factor, especially as we rely more and more on electronics — with wind-powered steering, for instance, now a minor player in modern cruising fleets such as the ARC. The continued rise of renewable energy equipment is a good thing in many ways — not only does it reduce our carbon usage but it should light our boats eventually, making that downwind Atlantic sleigh ride even more fun! — Kevin Green

Photos: Reliance on electronics for passagemaking means it pays to do your research before taking the equipment to sea; An efficient autopilot is an essential and a cockpit-mounted multifunction display with radar input proved good for squall avoidance on the ARC; Fischer Panda gensets (pictured) and Cummins Onan dominated the ARC, along with the Mastervolt Whisper Range.



 


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