Discovering NMEA 2000
I just returned to my trusty laptop to start writing articles again. So I said to myself what should I start with. There are thousands of topics that I want to cover. Then I had my ah-ha moment (yes you can still get them at 66). Why not write about your recent experience discovering NMEA 2000 installation.
Simply put, I am a cruiser at heart. I have been away from my sailboat for the past 2 years working to build my cruising / retirement kitty and this past winter made a few trips to my Gulfstar 44 to make sure she was okay and missing me. I also decided that it was time to start installing the new instruments that I have purchased over the past 2 years while traveling for my "just over broke" (JOB).
Two years ago, my wife and I took a week off to sail her up to St. Louis. Augustine from Miami to put her on the hard for the time I was going to travel for work. During that trip I noticed very quickly that there were some systems that would need attention. I really mean replacement but attention made it easier to swallow. All cruisers despise the idea of having to break out some boat units (if you do not know … a boat unit is $ 1,000.00) to install new equipment, even if they do the work themselves.
In addition to the aversion to the term boat units, there is the fear of self-installing electronics. Most cruisers are and out of necessity need to be jacks-of-all-trades. But installing electronics for the majority is the most frightening task. I consider myself pretty good at installing most anything on my boat but installing several instruments together and trying to get them to talk to each other is a pretty frightening thought. When I purchased our Gulfstar, it came with electronics that worked okay. It had a 4 "black and white and greyscale Garmin GPS, Simrad / Robertson Autopilot, Furuno Radar (my head bumper over the dinner table … what was someone thinking here?) And Datamarine Corinthian Depth and Wind instruments minus the anemometer that was blown off during hurricane Wilma.
Shortly after my purchase, I bought a Garmin GPSMap 4208 Chartplotter to replace the small screen that I had. When I read the documentation and installation instructions for the 4208, (along with a couple of phone calls to Garmin Tech Support), I discovered that through the NMEA 0183 cable, I could get it to talk to my Simrad autopilot. Wow, I could build courses to different places and my GPS would tell the autopilot where and when to turn. Okay, I said. I have to do that.
So, with installation instructions in one hand and tools in the other hand I proceeded to start stripping wires from the lead cable from the GPS, dropped them to the Autopilot computer and added a second manual to the mix. "Attach the blue / white from the autopilot cable to the brown wire on the GPS NMEA 0183 cable" and on and on until I had this ball of connections. With the sweat from fear running down my forehead, it did not look very nice until I fired up the GPS and Autopilot and played what if. Holy mackerel … it worked. I cleaned up the ball of connections and was a very happy cruiser. Felt like I needed to have a medal pinned on my chest.
Let's jump forward to today. The Autopilot stopped working properly during our trip to St. Petersburg. Augustine, the wind instrument did not work because the anemometer that I bought on eBay was not compatible with the instrument head, my depth erratic because I installed an in-hull transducer instead of a through-hull to the new Garmin GSD 22 Sonar , plus I had to deal with the head bumper hanging over the dinner table for radar whenever it became necessary, (a difficult task from the cockpit of a center cockpit sailboat). Years before, I installed a Raymarine GPS and Radar that overlayed the chartplotter and knew that this was still possible. So I will upgrade or replace my electronics.
As the owner of a boat electronics and parts on-line store, I had been hearing about this new fangled NMEA 2000 stuff for a few years and decided to check it out. I typed Garmin NMEA 2000 into the search bar of my trusty laptop and found instructions for a basic Garmin NMEA 2000 system. I read these instructions several times and decided that NMEA 2000 was the way to go for me. I also checked my Garmin 4208's compatibility. Surprise, surprise … it was NMEA 2000 compatible.
So I started purchasing the instruments that I was going to replace and started to plan my NMEA 2000 backbone. I sketched my backbone probably 4 times until I was happy with my plan. I picked up a piece of starboard and started screwing these NMEA 2000 Tee's together the way I had planned. I routed the drop cables from each of the instruments that I bought and attached them to the backbone tee's. Added the tee for power and installed the male and female terminators the lightning protection tee just like in the instructions. NO CLUMSY BUNDLE OF CONNECTIONS! Simple plug and play. The toughest thing to do was pull the wires from the new Garmin GMR18HD Radar and masthead wind transducer in the mast down to the backbone. Connected the few wires to the autopilot computer and installed the new masthead wind transducer and through-hull. Other than that and actually replacing the existing instruments, it was a breeze with a little pre-planning. I even decided to add a Garmin GXM 51 antenna so I could add Sirius XM weather while I listened to the 60's on 6 when we start to cruise this coming July.
The only thing that I could think that would be simpler would be to have all instruments wireless! And you can do that with some equipment today. Can not wait for that upgrade. I said all of this to let you know that upgrading electronics on your boat should not give you a rash or hives or make you run the other direction. NMEA 2000 has put installation of new electronics comfortably in the hand of all willing novices. If you can hook up your DVD player to your TV at home, you can install NMEA 2000 electronics. So do not put off those needed upgrades or new systems that you have been thinking about putting into your boat. Start shopping for the equipment that you are thinking about getting, whether in pieces of a full package. Go to your local brick and mortar marine store and look, play and ask questions. After you decide what you want, start to get some pricing and begin the process of looking at all of the online marine electronics stores and have fun installing your new electronics. Happy sailing, fair winds and calm seas.