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Radar for the Rest of Us

Whether navigating near shore or crossing the Pacific, we boaters need to be peripherally aware of what is occurring on the water. Incredibly, some small vessels still cross oceans without the aid of radar to ensure an extra level of safety from nearby vessels and uncharted obstructions. Many mariners still think all we need are a VHF radio and a chart plotter to navigate across oceans. Also, Automatic Identification System (AIS) comes standard with most permanent-mount VHF radios these days. AIS certainly adds a significant layer to our safety.

Nonetheless, system cost, lack of awareness and an aversion to technology in general still conspire to keep some sailors from enjoying the feeling of safety that comes with knowing specifically what’s out there on the water. Let’s remember, AIS works only if other vessels in your vicinity are equipped with the same capability. AIS cannot warn you of small fishing vessels plying the coasts of developing countries or of derelict ships or outcroppings of rocks. Most of those small vessels consist of little more than an open skiff with an outboard motor. Radios, high-tech AIS and radar are generally beyond the means of these humble individuals navigating coastal waters with only a flashlight or kerosene lantern to announce their presence. This is why so many coastal and cruising sailors depend on radar, which helps identify vessels and obstructions not detected by AIS.

For skippers on Southern California coastal vessels, under, say, 35 feet in overall length, the two main barriers to radar are price and amperage draw. A full installation of a radar system costs significantly more than an AIS system. And operating a radar, even at a miserly 1.3 amps (150mA standby) for the smallest units, not including the monitor, may still be more than some small boats can afford to expend from their minimal battery storage.

Other concerns are finding a place to install the dome: it needs to be high enough to see past the tops of waves yet low enough to prevent excessive weight and windage aloft. Also, installing the unit should be a fairly straightforward procedure, the monitor must be easy to use and understand and the various components should be capable of being connected through such interfaces as NMEA 0183 or NMEA 2000.

So where does this leave the small-boat sailor who wants to enjoy the advantages of radar? Assuming the vessel has at least an 8D deep-cycle house battery with a minimum of 400 reserve minutes, along with dependable, alternative energy charging sources, a handful of small radars now on the market will serve well.

A prime example is the Simrad HALO20 4G Radar, which is packed with user-friendly features for the best level of safety to be had in any small-boat radar in its size range. Parent company Navico offers the 4G as the world’s first dome radar to feature “beam sharpening,” which allows you to control the level of target separation to sharpen each image on the monitor as needed. The dome measures 20 inches wide by 8.8 inches high, which fits well on boats measuring roughly 35 feet and up.

When the visual target is close to you, especially if approaching at high speed, you can use the Simrad HALO20 high-speed (60 rpm) mode for instant updating at distances of less than one nautical mile. The unit’s Mini-Automatic Radar Plotting Aid (MARPA) target tracking capability allows you to track up to 20 targets in dual-range mode, although this requires the addition of a heading sensor to indicate compass direction. The 4G has a maximum range of 36 nautical miles and consumes 20 to 29 watts of power, depending on operating mode.

Since there is no need to open the HALO20 dome, and the installation of power and network cables is fairly straightforward, there is no need to hire a technician to install the system, saving you a small fortune in labor.

In roughly the same class is the Garmin 18 HD+ Radome, which offers MARPA target tracking when combined with an optional heading sensor. With the unit’s 5.2-degree horizontal, 25-degree vertical beam pattern, the 18 HD+ offers a range of up to 36 nautical miles.

Once the 18 HD+ is connected to the Garmin Marine Network, you may couple the radome with any network-compatible Garmin chart plotter to serve as the radar monitor. To enhance your situational awareness, you can overlay the 18 HD+’s radar image onto a Garmin chart plotter screen, giving you the best possible integrated navigation view that technology can offer.

Although Furuno is usually associated with large radar domes and elaborate systems for cargo and passenger ships, this industry leader also produces its affordable 1815 Radar for smaller craft. The radome measures only 15 inches wide and is accompanied by a six-inch monochrome 2.2kW LCD display, small enough for an 18-foot recreational or fishing boat.

The 1815 has a 16-mile range but can be zoomed down to 1/8 mile, perfect for close approaches on moonless nights or in a thick fog, which we know all too well along the SoCal coast. The Furuno 1815’s small size, low power consumption and reasonable price of only $1,500 make this a good choice for virtually any small boat.

Although radar won’t be the cheapest electronic device on our boats, at prices varying from $1,500 to $2,500, it is still in a range that the average coastal or offshore cruiser can afford, not only in terms of price but in terms of space allocation and amperage draw as well. AIS is great, but nothing beats the security that comes with a dependable, high-quality radar system.

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One thought on “Radar for the Rest of Us

  • Mike Newman

    Great information for when I buy my catamaran. I will definitely add a radar system. Looks like the Furuno is the way to go. Don’t need more than 16 miles range and the zoom down is good feature.

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