Split Personalities

Discover the secret powers of electronics.

These days when I want to reach out and touch someone while avoiding jacked-up long-distance expenses, I just hop on my networked computer. Who would have guessed that below the circuitry of my trusty PC lies a telephone in disguise. This got me thinking that most of the gadgets in my shop also possess that Clark Kent/Superman phenomenon. After investigating this theory, I'm ready to reveal the hidden talents of some common onboard electronics. ****

AM/FM RADIOS Main Job: Keeping you tuned in to news, sports, and music. Secret Mission: Navigating in low visibility. Tune in an AM station. Then rotate the radio's antenna until the signal is at its weakest. This is that station's null point and its transmitter tower is located 90 degrees to either side. Do this for a variety of stations and look for the towers on your charts.

CHARTPLOTTERS/CHARTING SOFTWARE Main Job: Delivering an electronic moving map of your surroundings. Secret Mission: Acting as second mate to anglers. Fish are often creatures of habit, preferring particular bottom structure, like upswells, dropoffs, or wrecks. Charting hardware and software that show contour will help you detect these fishing stomping grounds. This equipment can also record the vicinity of your hot spots (or exact coordinates with a GPS model). ****

DEPTHSOUNDERS/FISHFINDERS Main Job: Displaying depth, bottom structure, and today's catch. Secret Mission: Navigating in low visibility. For instance, if you always turn right at a certain landmark situated in 125'-deep water and you've got 120' popping up onscreen, you know it's almost time for that maneuver. Depthsounders/fishfinders will also warn you if you stray off-course. Set the depth alarm at the minimum depth and the anchor watch for the maximum depth; as you cruise along a coast or canyon, you'll be alerted to course deviations. Depthsoundings also confirm your position according to your chart or other electronics. ****

GPS UNITS Main Job: Telling your position and course. Secret Mission: Providing your approximate fuel flow rate with the help of your boat's fuel gauge. Let's say four hours ago, you started out with a full tank of 100 gallons. Now the gauge reads three-quarters. Scroll to the GPS' trip odometer and average speed page - it claims you've traveled 80 miles while averaging 20 mph. So 25 (gallons of fuel consumed) divided by 4 (time) equals a 6.25 gph fuel flow rate at that speed. And 80 (mileage) divided by 25 (fuel consumed) equals 3.2 miles per gallon.

HAILERS Main Job: Announcing your boat's presence. Secret Mission: Operating as an audio amplifier. In this capacity, your hailer makes for a good navigator in low visibility. In listen mode, your hailer hears those unseen boats, waves, buoys, and foghorns. Another option? Use your hailer as an extra speaker. Connect it to a VHF, stereo, intercom, another speaker, a security alarm, or a bilge or heat sensor.

INSTRUMENTS WITH HIGH-END DISPLAYS Main Job: Showing navigational or fishfinding data, depending on the machine. Secret Mission: Relaying info to other spots onboard. Certain top-of-the-line gear work wonders as repeaters. If you wire up your GPS to a fishfinder sporting a digital readout or navigation screen, the latter can repeat position, waypoints, off-course details, and more. When interfaced properly, some radars and chartplotters will also act as data repeaters.

RADARS Main Job: Making sure you're on an anticollision course. Secret Mission: Serving as an anchor watch. If you're drifting toward shore, your radar's proximity alarm can be programmed to go off at a preset distance from land. Your radar can also stand watch against pirates by drawing your attention to unknown approaching craft. Better yet, use your radar as a fishfinder. More powerful units cranked up at a higher gain can spot clusters of birds - where there are wings flapping, there are usually live ones swimming below. ****

VHFs Main Job: Conversing with fellow boaters (including Coasties) and picking up the weather. Secret Mission: VHFs sporting a Public Address marking pass as both loudhailers and foghorns-just plug in a speaker horn. Or hook your VHF to some speakers and - voilà! - instant intercom. If your crew chats on the same channel, you've got an intra-com system, too.