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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

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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