When your onboard electronics don't work, Part 1

Almost every marine electronics dealer has at least one story about a boater whose onboard electronics don’t work right, or at all. Typically the boater had the work done somewhere else—could be installation of a new piece of electronics or maybe it’s a new boat and the stuff doesn’t work properly right out of the box. 

We ran this article originally in Marine Electronics Journal because the accounts are the types of nightmares that dealers are called upon to diagnose and fix. But we thought the accounts are also cautionary tales that boat owners should read if their equipment doesn’t work as advertised. Get in touch with us if you’ve suffered through a similar experience. Photo at right compliments of BoatUS.

By Nancy Griffin

Probably the worst kind of horror story is the frivolous but unavoidable lawsuit. Jerry Writer of San Juan Electronics, Inc. in Bellingham, WA, says years ago, when he was with another electronics dealership, a technician for the firm calibrated the autopilot on a fishing vessel that had undergone a major hull conversion and been turned into a trawler.

On the sea trial, the vessel went down in the Columbia River and the skipper’s daughter died, says Writer. The skipper sued everyone who had their fingers on the vessel, especially on the autopilot, because the skipper claimed an autopilot malfunction caused the sinking.

Turned out, he had modified the vessel without a marine architect, says Writer. Experts determined the boat was so unstable it could have sunk at the dock. We were off the hook.

Although they were exonerated, the depositions took a solid year of time and travel for Writer and his partner and cost them $50,000 out-of-pocket to prepare a defense. At the very beginning of the suit, their insurance company offered to settle out of court for $1 million. I said no, because it would set a precedent and imply that we had done something wrong.

After the lawsuit was thrown out, Writer asked the insurance company to reimburse the $50,000. The company refused, saying he could have settled the claim for $1 million before spending the $50,000. We thought we had saved them a bundle. So, we had to sue them.
When nothing works

Ken Englert of Maritime Electronics in Marina Del Rey, CA, tells of a customer who showed up at the dealership door one day to ask why none of the brand-new electronics would work on his 45 foot power boat, fresh from the factory.
Couldn’t have been the installation, he said, because the boatbuilder had installed everything. When the stuff refused to work—some of the equipment worked only intermittently—the boat dealer’s technical people looked it over and found nothing wrong.

My people looked it over and found EVERYTHING wrong, says Englert. I won’t mention the boat dealer, but they like to brag that they’re so successful they have multiple locations.

We went on board to find a nightmare. The radar wouldn’t work and the boat dealer’s people said there was nothing the matter with it, Englert says. The cable had been placed right by the steering apparatus and had chafed through.

The flush-mounted display was literally falling through the panel. We had to remount it.  The depth sounder had a bad transducer. The boat speed had a defect, the head unit had to be replaced. The inverter couldn’t possibly have worked because the cable they used was far too small. Obviously, they never looked at the installation manual. You need a really heavy-duty cable for those to change the battery power to AC and the wiring was simply inadequate. The autopilot wouldn’t behave. The VHF didn’t work because it was a defective radio. That about sums it up. 

Missing link

But it’s not his favorite nightmare story from 39 years in the industry. His favorite is the one about the guy who brought his boat a very long distance down the California coast from Sacramento. While en route, his two brand-new, top-of-the-line, identical VHF radios failed to operate. The boat owner had purchased the radios as an extra safety measure for the trip and was unable to use either of them for the duration of the voyage.

He was such a nice guy, Englert recalls. "When I went aboard to check them out, sure enough, neither radio worked. I reached behind the lower station radio to check the antenna connection and the antenna connector fell off in my hand. Then I found the antenna cable of the flybridge radio neatly coiled up behind the dash, waiting for someone to plug it into the radio.”


Phil Mitchell of Electronic Marine in Annapolis, MD, has no trouble recalling the worst nightmare story he’s encountered in 20 years. It involved a particular boatbuilder who shall be nameless who had performed a factory installation of an autopilot on a 36-foot powerboat.

The boat owner took a bunch of people out for the day. When they were traveling at about 45 knots, he engaged the autopilot. The boat immediately took a hard turn to port. Several passengers were dislodged and sent flying and the guy’s wife almost went overboard, says Mitchell. They were lucky. That’s the kind of stuff that generates lawsuits.

The manufacturer called and asked us to check out the autopilot. The builder had installed the fluxgate compass for the autopilot between a battery charger and an inverter. That combination tends to make a boat not steer very well, Mitchell says dryly.

The basic problem underlying many of these nightmare stories is identical—installers who are not up to the job.
Photo at right compliments of Boatingmag.com.

In the negotiating stage, I always ask potential customers "Do you want a doctor to do your heart transplant or a talented orderly? I’ll tell people politely that I have no business doing brain surgery, although some other people are qualified to do it,” says Englert. "It takes a specialist to install this stuff. At the builder’s, the guy who installs the head and the fighting chair is often the guy who’s asked to put the electronics on. Many boat owners make the mistake the first time around, trying to save a buck. They often come back, hat in hand, asking for help.”

Part 2: More tales of woe and how to avoid them

About the author
Nancy Griffin is a veteran writer and editor whose articles have appeared in several marine publications including National Fisherman, Seafood Business and MEJ.

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Comments | Leave a Comment
Page 1 of 3 ( 13 comments)

Jp:(8/11/2018 5:28:29 PM) "I have a 2018 Yamaha f40 la and Humminbird helix 7 di , I would like to leverage the nema 2000 capability of the helix 7 to display engine info, what do I need , Humminbird does have a gateway and lowrance makes a Yamaha nema cable, but I'm reading connectors are proprietary . How can I get what is needed?

Since these products are not NMEA 2000 certified there is little assurance that they will share data with each other.

1. Here is the link to see all NMEA 2000 certified products: https://www.nmea.org/content/nmea_standards/certified_produ.asp

2. The NMEA 2000 cables and connectors are from many manufacturers: Here is the link for approved cables and connector manufacturers:

AC/DC grounding distance:(8/2/2018 1:29:35 AM) "What about the grounding points of AC /DC systems? can they be grounded at the same point?
If one system has both AC and DC can they both be grounded to a common buss-bar that has only one conection to the hull?

Here's what Ed Sherman, electric tech guru at the American Boat & Yacht Council, said:

The ultimate goal should always be to tie ac and dc grounds together on board at a single point. In ABYC Standard E-11, it is described as “the engine negative terminal or its buss.” It is most commonly done at a buss."
Hard-Over with Brushed APilot Pump:(12/18/2017 5:37:05 PM) "Jim.
What do you mean by ...."Garmin GHP 20 with SmartPump...Because it is a brushless system, it is fail-safe and won’t execute a hard-over turn the way a brushed pump can."

Thanks for the note. Since the description came from Garmin I contacted the company for an explanation. Here's what one of their engineers told me:

On brushed DC actuators, a single-point failure in the drive circuit (shorted wire or blown component inside the controller) could cause the motor to run full speed in one direction and take the rudder all the way to one rail. A brushless actuator relies on timing-controlled commutation, so a short or component fail would cause the actuator to stop moving rather than moving at full speed.

Hope this helps,

trawlerdeejay:(10/13/2017 3:46:51 PM) "Excellent article. I had no idea what the differences were between o183 and 2000, Thank you so much."
Darryl:(3/27/2017 10:17:15 PM) "Putting the MSRP with each unit reviewed would have been helpful. If each unit was actually tested, the reports on each unit would have been helpful too.

Thanks Darryl---we generally don't mention prices due to confusion over so many variations---MSRP (mfg. suggested retail price), MAP (min. advertised price), MRP (min. resale price) and then there are internet prices on some websites that go their own way. But your point is well taken--buyers need to know if something is in their price range. We'll work on it.
There is independent testing of some of these products on sites like panbo.com but the information we receive from manufacturers rarely cites the results of any shootouts they may conduct against the competition's products. "
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