It was the best of days to be skirting the coast from Sydney to Port Stephens on an ocean passage. There were light winds and a lazy one-metre southerly swell. North of Newcastle I hit the afterburners and flew rest of the way to Nelson Bay, the hub of our port of call, with an inviting marina that’s just a stroll from the town and its attractions.
Given my 18-tonne Mariner 43 is 28 years-old, with two enormous naturally aspirated 12.5lt Detroit diesels, 16 knots is our version of flying. But even at this speed unknown danger can lurk behind each and every swell. In some ways, ocean cruising is a lucky dip.
You see, on most ocean passages around the country you have to run a gauntlet of the fish-trap and/or lobster pot buoys. They seem to be laid on the layline by some enemy ship, are often linked in a chain, and when the current is running, the floats can be semi-submerged and difficult to pinpoint.
However, nothing will save the weary or inattentive skipper. And when the weather isn’t kind and visibility is reduced, even the most eagle-eyed shellback will have trouble spotting a fish-trap float not much bigger than a grapefruit.
Thankfully, new digital radar technology is making buoys easier to detect. It’s not foolproof, but it will reduce the risk of colliding with these all-too-common navigational hazards, not to mention other boats, ships and large floating objects or debris, which is abundant after the kind of coastal flooding we have seen this year.
The good news is that there is a new generation of highly intelligent navigational and safety gear to make passagemaking much safer these days. Think of the following cool kit as your valued crew, as guardian angels, and additional eyes in the skies. Invest in your safety and you can enjoy passagemaking with new levels of confidence.
First off the block with its new digital broadband radar are Navico’s Lowrance, Northstar and Simrad brands. This technology has nothing to do with broadband internet, but was thought the best name to describe the new revolutionary radar. Broadband radar as seen in the three brand’s HDS systems offers the normal combo elements of chartplotter, fishfinder and split screens, but also a new broadband radar function and networked engine instrumentation via the new NMEA 2000 protocol.
Take it from me, the new radar technology works a treat, making it possible to detect a cone-type fishing buoy at 50 metres! I would love one of these with a close-proximity alarm set on my cruising boat. The new $3999 (recommended retail price) broadband radome is plug-and-play gear compatible with existing Northstar 8000 and M series, and certain Simrad and Lowrance HDS plotters.
For owners of older boats with analogue gauges and senders, such as my Mariner 43, it means that all analogue sender information such as gearbox temp, gearbox pressure, engine temp, oil pressure and rpm can now be converted to NMEA2000 signals and theoretically displayed on the HDS screen, which can be configured for single or twin installations. Cool. (Visit www.navico.com.au and read my Lowrance HDS report elsewhere in this edition for greater detail.)
AIS SHIP IDENTIFIER
AIS stands for Automatic Identification System. Now each ship and progressively more coastal pleasure cruisers are installing AIS as a means to identify a nearby ship or boat. A transponder sends boat information, including call sign, size, cargo details, position and registration details over a 161mHz radio network and this information is then displayed on your screen. This way, you always know who is around you. Although relatively new, AIS will become more common over the next few years as marine electronics manufacturers include the brains in their boxes. Raymarine produces the AIS250 with a recommended retail price of $1362.
I first saw Mini Automatic Plotting Aid, MARPA for short, working on a trip from Sydney to Southport a few years back on a friend’s brand-new Grand Banks 65. You select a contact or other vessel on the radar screen and after a short period the system will display the speed and direction of that boat. It can also be programmed to alert you when a collision is possible. The advent of broadband radar will greatly enhance the quality of the information. Great collision-avoidance gear for serious cruising types.
Looking out for other boats also means they should have the opportunity to see you. Problem is many low-profile powerboats and slim sloops present almost no reflection when hit by a radar pulse.
A radar reflector is made to reflect the radiation back to its source via a series of oblique metal angles cast into its design. This way, other boats equipped with radar and MARPA will have the best chance of seeing and tracking you. Install the reflector as high up as possible. Prices range from $200 to $900. (See www.buoys.com.au).
Train drivers press a button every minute to ensure they are alert. If they fail to do so, the train stops. Similar switches, commonly referred to as Dead Man’s Buttons are available for boats, too. If you are doing long night stretches and have limited crew, ensure the person on watch is alert while you sleep by getting them to press a Deadman Button at preset intervals. Expect to pay about $350. (Click on
Chartplotters have come a long way in the past 10 years and most combo systems now include the plotter, engine, fishfinder and radar info all in one unit. Chartplotters depend on reliable chart information.
Two companies, C-Map and Navionics, have the lion’s share of the market and supply brands such as Northstar, Simrad, Lowrance and Raymarine between them. It’s rumoured that some plotters will soon be able to take either brand of chart.
Generally, the chart information provided is an electronic representation (also known as a vector chart) of a paper map. In Australia, the charts are copied from the Australian Hydrographers AUS series of nautical charts.
The advance of plotters and memory has allowed chart manufacturers to put all the charts for Australia, NZ, the Pacific, and Asia on one mini card. Value-added information can include photos of bar entrances, marinas, fuel facilities and even 3D graphics of the ocean floor. (Visit www.c-map.com.au; www.navionics.com.au).
Even the best electronics can break down and, even if you do carry a backup GPS, a set of paper charts should be considered essential. They are expensive at $35 each plus $20 for laminating, but worth their weight in gold. So, too, are the skills needed to accurately navigate from a chart. Do a course this winter if you’re not up to speed. (Go to www.boatbooks-aust.com.au; www.whitworths.com.au for charts).
Digital Selective Calling (DSC) is new technology that uses the VHF radio to receive and send data and information such as: vessel position; man overboard functions (eg Mobilerts new system); to output NMEA data such as barometric pressure and the best fishing times to your suitably equipped chartplotter. You will pay approximately $400 for a DSC VHF. (Visit www.amsa.gov.au/Publications/Fact_sheets/VHFDSC_fact.pdf).
Don’t skimp on navigation lights and remember to put them on at dusk or in murky conditions. The advent of bright LEDs means you can still use smaller sized lenses, but can have greater visibility with lower current drain.
Desert Storm brought the world consumer GPS. The second Iraq war resulted in night vision goggles for the masses and now a few years later, thermal imaging is available for boats.
Still hideously expensive, you can mount a camera on the roof and scan the water ahead for changes in temperature: for example, there will be a difference in temperature between the water and a plastic buoy. In theory this will help you see fishing pots! The video output is displayed on Raymarine E series display or similar. (See www.flir.com). Plus see the breakout box from our editor hereabouts.
CONTAINERS, WHALES & SUNFISH
Oh, what a lovely thing to hit an unidentified submerged object (USO) at 18 knots! Shipping containers do fall off the decks and sealed refrigerated containers can float on the surface for months, while parts of the ocean are a sea of debris. Ships, yachts and motorboats run into USOs regularly.
The danger and damage they cause cannot be overestimated.
One way of solving this is to use forward-looking sonar, such as the Interphase system. If it detects a big blob in front of you, it will sound an alarm. Great for detecting the odd humpback or two! (More at www.coursemaster.com.au).
Coastal cruising often involves overnighting at ocean anchorages and there are several ways you can improve your anchoring safety at such places.
First, have a good anchor suited to the size of your boat and the type of seabed. Recent advances in anchor design have seen new entrants into the market including Sarca and Ultra, in addition to the ubiquitous CQR, Plough and Sand types.
You need the correct amount of chain or rope/chain combination paid out, so for over-nighting in mild conditions use a ratio of five metres of rode for every one metre of depth measured at high tide. A heavy lead weight placed about two metres off the bottom and attached to the chain will help keep the anchor in position. Known as a kellet, this device has been used for hundreds of years and is claimed to increase the holding power of an anchor by up to 50 per cent. (More at www.anchorright.com.au; www.nautechmarine.com.au; www.ultraanchors.com).
A Swiss company manufactures an interesting device called the Anchor Alert. It is actually a pyrometer (movement detector) attached to the anchor that sends a radio signal to a base station on the boat. If the anchor moves an alarm is sounded.
Yes, you might get an alert when the wind changes and the anchor relocates, but it will also alert you when the anchor starts dragging when you are asleep. (See www.deepbluemarine.ch). If you match an anchor alert with the Anchor Alarm function of your chartplotter, you will have two systems helping you get a good night’s sleep. Recommended retail prince is around $1500.