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The Ultimate Pontoon Boat Cruise

We set a sunset pontoon boat dinner cruise on autopilot -- literally.

April 1, 2004
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It’s no secret that pontoon buyers are investing more in performance features on their “cruising living rooms.” Added creature comforts like overhead sunning decks, bodacious stereos, foldaway heads and sleeping lounges tip the price tag on many popular pontoons to well over $40,000. We wondered why, if so much is invested in comfort, one basic convenience seems to be omitted: the electronic chauffeur called an autopilot.

We called the folks at Navman Electronics, makers of some of the simplest-to-operate GPS and fish finder units, about rumors of their brand-new GP3100 Autopilot. We wanted to know how easy we could make an evening pontoon cruise — not that there’s anything difficult about it to begin with.

Our questions: Could we give the captain an electronic helper that would let him or her hold a leg of chicken in one hand and a soft drink in the other, and pilot the boat without missing a bite or getting a stain on the new boat shorts? More important, would it help the driver stay hooked up with the onboard party while staying tuned in to oncoming traffic and obstacles, and then pilot everyone safely to harbor? And the final question: Would it be practical for a recreational boat operating on inland waterways? They hooked us up with a unit so we could find out for ourselves.

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We also reeled in the folks at Waco Manufacturing to rig one of their extra-luxurious Paradise Series pontoons with a powerful and clean direct-fuel-injection Evinrude two-stroke engine. Then we gathered up a water-loving pontoon-size crew and headed for the lake.

The Setup
Though the folks at Waco had done the heavy installation on the navigation system and engine rigging, we still had a few things to dial in. This had to be done right for the cruise to come off without a hitch.

We left the crew ashore to slather on sunscreen and adjust their lifejackets while we calibrated the autopilot compass and adjusted the helm response for optimum steering precision. Too much precision overworks the system, which will constantly correct for unimportant deviations from course and subsequently wear out the steering gear. Too little precision and the boat will drift far off course before turning back.

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In 20 minutes, our GPS and autopilot units were ready for the cruise. We pushed a couple of buttons to capture some waypoints — the latitude and longitude of spots to which we wanted to drive the boat. Then we pushed a couple more buttons to link them together in a three-point route for the GPS to follow. The final point was marked “harbor” on our electronic chart.

Challenge Met
Lifejackets, food and a deflated tube were stowed under the seats and sun pad to keep the deck clear and pleasant. The air was warm to the skin while the sun was still high. Two of our guinea-pig couples snuggled on the forward lounges while our Mom double-checked her son’s lifejacket. The ship’s dog, Eddie, scrambled fore and aft and popped his head through the gates to get a snoot full of interesting scents as we moved through the still air.

The captain got to know the feel of the craft while operating it in manual mode, but soon the team’s youngest members were straining at the leash for a more exciting ride. In minutes a handy 12-volt pump had our Sportsstuff Island of Pleasure tube ready for riding.

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After a bouncy but dry ride on the tube, hunger took over. Snacks that materialized from the cooler and beneath the forward lounges were served up generously on the built-in cocktail table. Soft drinks, pulled from the cooler stowed in the lounge storage compartment, nested securely in cup holders on the table or in the lounge seat arms and helm.

At cruising speeds the buoyant triple-tube, double-tunnel pontoon boat held its deck steady for easy walking about. That stability was also welcome at rest, when everyone seemed to want a different vantage point on the water or a bottle of water from the cooler.

But most impressive was the captain’s easy ability to convince his autopilot to steer the route of his choosing without missing a bite or a sip while everyone enjoyed the setting sun reflected in the rippling water.

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Navman GP3100 Autopilot
Some boaters chuckled in amazement when we suggested the marriage of autopilot to pontoon boat, and then asked, “Why?”

Our best answer at the time was, “Why not?”

Our goal was to see if we could program a cruise course on our GPS, taking us by a handful of sights and landmarks without our help. Thanks to NMEA (National Marine Electronics Association) standards of communication, this is possible with any NMEA-compliant system (and most GPS and autopilots are up to the standard).

The captain of our boat sat sidesaddle at the helm, filling out the conversation area and eyeballing the course at the same time. It was a strange sensation the first time the boat corrected itself to maintain our course, which was programmed to run the circumference of the lake. Then it became like a limo ride, fun and effortless.

The test worked. At no point did the driver have to grab the wheel or throttle to avoid a dangerous situation, though he was ready in case another boat or some debris ran into our course. Yet he was able to use both hands to work over a plate of food and still make progress.

This was done for kicks on our part. But autopilots are practical, as long as precautions are not ignored. For boaters on big rivers, the Intracoastal Waterway or lakes more than 2 or 3 miles wide, we think an autopilot is a natural to enhance boating fun.

The Navman GP 3100 autopilot can be useful without the GPS attached since it comes with its own compass and gyro. Taking cues from these, the autopilot can steer a compass course and hold it until you give it further instruction with a quick push of the steer-to buttons or the “escape” button you’ll push when you want to take over.

With or without the GPS, you can nudge the heading to port or starboard by pushing a button. Release it and it returns to course. But it really shined for us when hitched up to a GPS. NMEA standards ensure that your autopilot will “talk to” any GPS unit, so if you’ve already got one — even a handheld — it has never been more economical to get an extra hand onboard.

Bottom line is the autopilot is great for freeing up a hand for a cold drink, sandwich or dinner plate as long as you continue to scan the water for traffic and obstacles. We found it to be the “extra hand” we frequently want at the helm.

Aloha Paradise 250
We chose a triple-tube Aloha for its combination of comfort and performance, especially rigged with a 225-hp engine. Like most two-strokes, the Evinrude was inherently a bit louder than a four-stroke motor, but the aft lounge and storage compartment insulated the deck from much of the running sound, making conversation at cruising speeds comfortable without shouting. Our top speed in this luxury model was over 40 miles per hour, loaded to the gills.

Waco connects the tubes on this Paradise Series model with inverted aluminum tunnels that channel spray and wakes downward. That stops the annoyance of surging water from slapping the deck’s support beams. The result is a faster, quieter, smoother ride. For more information, go to alohapontoons.com or call 501-753-2866.

Safe Operation
Don’t mistake the term “autopilot” to mean “no human input necessary.” No matter how many electronics you wire to your boat, there are universal safety measures everyone must take:

1. Never leave the helm of a boat under way.

2. Always keep a paper chart on board, even though your GPS may have an extremely detailed chart built in. Paper charts are the final legal authority on navigation, and without them you could bear a greater liability for damages in the case of a grounding or other accident.

3. Always operate at a safe speed for the conditions. Courses with shorter legs — like our dinner cruise — are best done at speeds below planing levels. Save planing speeds for long straightaways on the Intracoastal Waterway or the open water of big bays, the Great Lakes or coastal waters.

4. In heavy traffic, narrow channels or wildly winding rivers, leave the autopilot in idle and take the controls yourself. Autopilots are best when navigating courses with legs longer than a mile.

5. When setting routes (a series of waypoints linked together) on your GPS, avoid 90-degree turns. Setting two or three 30- to 45-degree turns will make for smoother autonavigation.

Six Ways a GPS Helps Any Boater
We never boat without a GPS — even in small lakes where navigation is a matter of point and steer. Why put a GPS on your inland-operated boat?

1. It’s like having an extra set of eyes on board that can see in the dark and below the surface. On our trip, we avoided unexpected underwater obstacles identified on our electronic chart, but not visible from above. That saved us an expensive outboard gear case and stainless-steel prop — paying for our entire navigation system several times over.

2. With a detailed internal chart like the C-Map in our Navman, an amazing amount of information that will make boating safer and more fun scrolls across the screen and constantly updates the boat’s position.

3. Should you find an obstacle or a landmark not on the chart, you can add it with a few button punches.

4. You can save favorite mooring locations and return to them with incredible precision. Share the waypoint with friends for a surefire rendezvous.

5. Mark great fishing spots and return to them easily the next day, month or year. When fish hit our trolled lures, we punch the “man overboard” button to instantly capture the location.

6. You’ll soon develop an itch to test your navigation skills in more challenging waters.

Installation Tips
An autopilot is a great tool to have, but only if it’s installed correctly. Here are six pointers:

1. Your boat will need hydraulic steering — something we recommend anyway with high-horsepower outboards. The autopilot steers with a reversible hydraulic pump that connects to grease fittings at either the helm or the motor mount.

2. Installation is a bit tricky but completely doable in the driveway by anyone comfortable with installing a stereo.

3. The umbilical to the autopilot has color-coded wires for power, input from the GPS and other functions. Study the diagram and the components closely at your kitchen table or workbench and then tape-label each of the wires before you begin installation.

4. Consult with your outboard dealer to determine the exact degree of travel from center to full port or full starboard turn of your outboard — you’ll need that information for the final step of installation.

5. We wired our autopilot to receive power from the GPS. Our next installation will give the pilot its own power supply so it can be used independently of the GPS if we desire.

6. Visit navman.com to download the most current version of the installation and operation manuals in PDF format.

C-Map Club
Many companies provide charts for GPS systems but few serve the needs of aviation, offshore marine and inland boaters as well as all branches of the U.S. military. In fact, the National Marine Electronics Association awarded C-Map the NMEA award for Best Electronic Cartography for 2003. C-Map has had five other NMEA awards in previous years. Our chart came complete with all inland waterway markers as well as underwater obstructions that could have damaged our boat. Ramps and marinas were also clearly marked on the charts. Join Club C-Map (c-map.com) for an annual membership fee of $79 and you receive one free C-card update of your choice plus unlimited access to all Club programs for twelve months.

Installation and Operation Tips
We like the GPS with internal antennae for most boats with open helms since there is no real need for a separate antenna. It shortens the installation process, lessens the cost and makes removing the unit from its pedestal easier for security.

We prefer mounting the unit on its pedestal on top of the helm so the captain can adjust settings while scanning forward for oncoming traffic.

A flush-mounted unit looks great but becomes a permanent part of the boat — unless a thief wants it for his own.

The screen was bright and easily readable even in the direct sunshine.

At sunset, you may want to dim the backlight to save your night vision.

Navman GPS units use handy C-Map cartography, and no matter where you boat, how small or how large your lake, there is a C-Map Cartridge to make your boating more enjoyable.

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