"We love to sail our older Hunter 34 and want to upgrade the navigation setup at the helm. We’d like to add a wind indicator and combine our existing speed and depth displays in a single unit, using the existing sensors if we can. We cruise on Lake Michigan and rarely leave the Wisconsin coast. Is there an economical solution for us, and can the new instruments talk to our laptop?"
-- Peter and Karen Spurling, Bayfield, Wisconsin
Ben Ellison replies : I recently wrote an article dealing with instrument upgrades (“Dealing with the Dials,” March). Since I don’t know what speed and depth instruments you have, my answer will have to be a general one. The manufacturer of your current instruments may make a combination speed/depth display that accepts data from your current sensors, but a display from a different manufacturer will probably call for new sensors. Smart sensors, which have recently appeared on the market, can process data for instruments and chartplotters made by multiple manufacturers.
Most electronics technicians will recommend that you upgrade both your sensors and your instruments because sensors tend to wear out faster. Starting fresh also means that you can shop for a homogeneous set of depth, speed, and wind instruments, which gives you many interesting choices. I’m a big fan of instruments using the NMEA 2000 data communications protocol, because of its rugged specifications and power-carrying ability, and, most important, because it is the future. However, NMEA 2000 isn’t the most economical choice yet, and since you want your computer to access your instrument data, I would recommend sticking to the older NMEA 0183 data standard. This will allow almost any charting and/or performance-sailing software to understand the incoming information.
Two manufacturers that support 0183 well are Nexus (www.nexusmarine.se) and Tacktick (www.tacktick.com). The Tacktick products, while not inexpensive, are largely wireless, and their use of solar power substantially reduces installation costs. Nexus has also introduced a wireless wind transducer. And even if you plan to install the new gear yourselves, I suggest that you pay for a few hours of advice from an experienced marine-electronics technician regarding your choices. The time you spend with him or her will probably pay off in the long run.