Navigation Electronics

When R&R was new in 2003, her systems were state-of-the-art. Since then, marine electronics have evolved rapidly. Though the 2003 gear worked, it was not functional by today’s standards or even compared to the gear we had on our prior boat. So a refit of the navigational electronics was at the top of our list after we bought this boat. We added or replaced these systems:

Chartplotter/Multifunction Display (MFD)

Automatic Identifiation System (AIS)



Digital Cameras

Dashboard before
Dashboard after (the center-mounted multi-gauge shows depth)
Instrument panel before
Instrument panel after

As a technology fan, I was excited about this part of outfitting the boat. Having had some experience on previous boats and having done a lot of research, I knew what equipment was available and what I thought would help us navigate. I knew I didn’t have the electronic and technical skills to install the equipment and therefore hired Yacht Basin in Holland to handle this important project.

There are a number of popular brands of marine electronics. Each vendor has its own way of doing things, but from the user’s point of view the brand is mainly a matter of personal preference. It’s sort of like the choice of iPhone or Android. I chose an all-Garmin suite of navigation electronics because our prior boat had a Garmin chartplotter and I thought the interface was intuitive and the unit met our needs.


R&R’s Multifunction Display: Garmin 8612xlv

The largest and most visible component of a marine electronics installation is the MFD (Multifunction Display) at the helm, also called a chart plotter.  The MFD is essentially a dashboard mounted computer that is the center of the entire navigation system. These monitors can display and control everything from charts and navigation data to radar, autopilot, engine information, closed-circuit cameras, and even audio/video systems.   When we bought R&R, an older 10″ Garmin MFD was installed at the helm.  We found that we could install a current-generation 12″ Garmin 8612xlv MFD in the same location. The 8612 has a touchscreen with vivid colors and a fast processor, and integrates with all other Garmin products over industry-standard NMEA2000 marine networking or Garmin proprietary connections.


R&R’s AIS: Garmin AIS 800

We like AIS! AIS is the Automatic Identification System used on boats and ships. AIS uses GPS, VHF radio and digital processing to automatically communicate between vessels and allows users to see other boats and their key data (name, speed, heading, distance) on the user’s multi-function display.

Nav chart showing other AIS-equipped boats

At a glance, we know this critical information about approaching or nearby boats and ships. R&R’s two-way AIS system broadcasts the same information about R&R so other boaters can “see” us on AIS before they see us visibly. AIS makes it much easier to hail other AIS-equipped vessels, even ones we can’t see around the riverbend. While were were traveling on the rivers, AIS made it much easier to make arrangements to overtake or avoid massive tows and barges.


R&R’s Radar: Garmin GMR Fantom 24

R&R was not equipped with radar when we bought her. Radar allows the user to “see” boats, obstructions, and even rain many miles away. Using the Garmin Fantom radar on the Garmin 8612 MFD, I can split the MFD screen to show radar on one side and a navigational chart on the other side.

The Garmin Fantom radar system provides solid state radar, with excellent results out as far as 48 miles. It also has “Motion Scope” technology that shows targets in unique colors on the Garmin MFD (red as radar targets approach or green as they move away).

Even better, you can overlay radar results on top of a navigation chart to see both radar and charted images of boats, obstructions, and even land. Very helpful information, especially when forced to navigate at night or in conditions of limited visibility (like the pea soup fog we have seen offshore on Lake Michigan and on the rivers).


R&R’s Auto Pilot – Garmin Reactor 40

In our research and discussion with active Loopers and those who had completed the Loop, it was almost unanimous that an autopilot was essential. We added the Garmin Reactor 40 system, with electronic compass, control unit, hydraulic/electronic steering components, and all of the wiring and hydraulics to connect them.

We use our Garmin autopilot almost every day we are cruising. Often on longer runs we hit “heading hold” and R&R stays on its course until we hit “standby.”

Other times we use the IPhone Navionics app to create an automatic route from our current location to our destination, upload that route to the Garmin MFD via WiFi, and then instruct the Garmin autopilot to follow that route.

It is like majic – the autopilot turns the boat at each turn shown on the route! Of course, the captain is always at the helm, watching and ready to override the AP at a second’s notice.


R&R’s Cameras – Garmin GC 200

R&R had 2003 vintage engine room and backup cameras, that displayed poor quality images on a small, low resolution screen. We replaced those cameras with new Garmin digital cameras that display on the Garmin MFD.

Much better view!

I heard a wise and experienced captain say that the best way to have situational awareness is to LOOK OUT THE WINDOW, and I agree. Even so, having a well-integrated set of navigational electronics has made our Great Loop voyage safer and more enjoyable.