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On the helm of a New England fishing boat

Ever wonder what it’s like inside the pilothouse of that commercial fishing boat that just cleared the lighthouse and is heading offshore with a bone in its teeth? You can picture the luxurious, tricked-out interiors and helms on many yachts thanks to boating magazines and maybe tours at boat shows. But scallopers, draggers and lobster boats that work the New England coast come from a different world. If you didn’t grow up in a fishing family or live in a coastal fishing community like New Bedford or Gloucester, Massachusetts, or Rockland or Stonington, Maine—it’s unlikely you’ve ever stepped aboard a working fishboat.

I had the privilege over nearly two decades of going aboard all types of commercial fishing boats as editor of National Fisherman magazine, which plays to working fishermen from coast to coast. Just about all of these boats had one thing in common—all of the electronics in the pilothouse had earned their position by living up to very demanding standards. If they didn’t help the boat make money the boxes were ripped out and replaced by electronics that did.

We asked veteran writer/editor Mike Crowley, who fished aboard a halibut longliner in Alaska many years ago, to describe the electronics on a few typical fishing vessels off the New England coast. Here’s part 1.

Function trumps ‘pretty’

By Michael Crowley

What’s the basic difference between marine electronics aboard a recreational boat and those on a New England commercial fishing vessel, be it a dragger, scalloper, midwater trawler, lobster boat or herring boat?

It comes down to space and looks, says Charlie Wood of Seatronics, a longtime dealership in Gloucester, MA. The commercial fishing boat’s wheelhouse has "plenty of space whereas pleasure boats are limited and [the owner] wants everything to look pretty. The fisherman cares more about how his equipment works than what it looks like; it’s not necessarily flush mounted and all pretty.  It’s exactly where he wants it, so he can see it and reach it.” Another difference is quality. "The commercial guys are going to spend more money for their equipment.”

Radar is a wheelhouse standard for commercial boats. "Everybody has the best radar they can put on a boat and always two,” says Dave Frank of Chris Electronics in New Bedford, MA. If only one of the radars is working, "guys won’t go offshore, especially in the summer with the fog we have.”

Offshore boats with three or even four radars are not uncommon. They aren’t all new units. It’s a case of practical redundancy: a 10- or 15-year-old radar is "a very good radar,” says Frank, and there’s no reason to get rid of it. It just doesn’t have the features found on a new radar, such as the ability to overlay AIS targets on the screen. While a new radar may be added, the older radar is left in its place as a backup unit. 
In some New England ports that situation probably won’t be changing anytime soon. "Our fleet is pretty dwindled,” says Wood. "I can’t remember the last time we got a new boat from the boatyard to put new equipment on.” 

In addition to display units relied on for steering and maneuvering a boat, offshore house-forward commercial fishing boats have a hauling station looking over the aft working deck (photo at right). It generally doesn’t have a good 360-degree view. In that case, an additional radar is required for monitoring vessels from the hauling station.

Plotters are key

There’s also a chartplotter at the hauling station recording and displaying all the sets and tows the vessel has made. Throw in an intercom to talk to the guys working the deck and a stereo control, because, says Frank, "everyone has to have music.”

As radar keeps track of nearby vessels, a chartplotter records the boat’s course. Interface that software with a NMEA 0183-compatible fishfinder and the bottom can be redrawn using a bathymetric chart and a PBG—or personal bathymetric generator. 

Make multiple passes over an area and the bottom will be redrawn "as to what’s really there, as opposed to what the chart shows them is there,” says Frank. "The systems can go from "$3,000 up to $20,000, depending on the sophistication and the ability to show bottom hardness.”

An AIS unit is also in the wheelhouse of most New England boats with targets displayed on radars and chartplotters, though many fishermen have a love-hate relationship with AIS: it identifies nearby targets while showing your location. On boats 65 feet and over AIS is required. Smaller inshore boats might use the receive-only function, because they don’t want their position known. Or, as Wood says, "you can shut it off.”
That hides their location but removes a safety function from the fishermen’s wheelhouse. That’s why Frank says he tries "to impress upon them the safety feature of being able to transmit your data to the steamers. Your boat is not going to show up on a big ship’s radar. You’re a small boat, low in the water. But with AIS you show up like another steamer or tug boat would.”

MFDs a tough sell

It’s very convenient to put various forms of electronic information on a multifunctional display: split screens with the radar image next to the chartplotter, for instance, or a fishfinder next to a chartplotter. New England fisherman, however, have been slow to accept that notion of convenience with many sticking with stand-alone units. Wood says commercial fishermen typically don’t use MFDs, and Frank feels MFDs "are definitely more for the recreational market.”

However, Chris Electronics has put MFDs on some commercial boats. One reason might be that "MFDs becoming available now are a lot more robust than in the old days,” says Frank. 
Pleasure boats might have two MFDs, says Frank, for redundancy. The commercial fisherman with a MFD isn’t that trusting. He’ll have a standalone radar and a standalone video sounder for backup. "That’s redundancy,” notes Frank.

Whether it’s the screen on a stand-alone machine or a MFD display, don’t expect to find touchscreens in the wheelhouse of a commercial fishing boat. "They don’t work very well with commercial guys,” says Wood, "because they are grimy, got fish guts, scales and water on their fingers.”
When an MFD display is in the wheelhouse of a fishing boat, adjustments to its display are done with knobs and buttons on the machine or a keypad. Even if the keypad gets "gunky,” says Frank, "it doesn’t make any difference to the display.” A keypad only costs about $300, so a spare can be kept in the wheelhouse, allowing the fisherman to plug the new one in and keep on working.
Operators of some smaller recreational boats also use keypads, having experienced the difficulty of trying to use a touchscreen mounted on a small center console when the boat is pounding and bouncing through choppy seas.
In some cases, trawler owners install desktop-type computer displays connected to black box radars, sounders and navigation software instead of using stand-alone marine displays. They can get away with off-the-shelf LCD displays because trawler wheelhouses are often fairly dark and dry.

VHFs and satphones are king

When it comes to forms of communication, inshore fishermen will likely have a couple of VHF radios. A few offshore scallopers, draggers or herring boats might have a single sideband radio, "but they are kinda going away,” says Wood. A satellite phone is the communication instrument of choice. "Single sideband has never been overly reliable and if they want to be able to talk to home, unless the home has a single satellite band they can’t talk to the home.”

Years ago offshore fishermen could patch into a marine operator for a land-based connection, but that’s long gone. That pretty much leaves the satphone for reliable offshore communications, whether its a family call or, when heading in from the grounds, to check out the price of fish: maybe there’s a better price in Gloucester, maybe better in Boston. 

That satellite phone system most likely doesn’t have Internet capability. "Big yachts might have a sat phone built in with Internet capabilities,” says Wood. "But I don’t think any of our guys have Internet capability offshore. It’s too expensive.” However a couple of fishing boats out of Gloucester do use satellite weather services that can be displayed on an electronic chart.
Next week: Lobster boats and more on communications

About the author
Michael Crowley was the longtime boats and gear editor for National Fisherman and a regular contributor to WorkBoat magazine. In his early days, Mike worked aboard the famous wooden Alaska halibut schooner Attu.

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