Q. My VHF radio and GPS both stopped working on my last trip. What can be done to prevent electronics failure?
A. Perform a check of your electronics before major trips. But even before lesser trips, make an on-air radio check before leaving the marina. VHF radios are relatively inexpensive, so why not install a second radio if room allows and keep a handheld radio on board?
For navigation emergencies, a portable GPS can serve as a backup should your main GPS fail. Consider a combination VHF/GPS handheld for a complete communications and navigation backup in your hand. Also, always charge your portable devices, including your cellphone, before a trip, and replace batteries in all portable equipment, flashlights and safety devices at least once a year.
I also like to keep several fuses for every electrical device on board. Know what equipment is connected to every circuit breaker and that each is correctly marked.
Finally, owner’s manuals have a troubleshooting section that provides tips when failures occur.
Preventative Maintenance and Backups
Preventative maintenance is always your best safeguard against electronics failure. Since most all your electronics are dependent on your boat’s electrical system, this is the first place to start. Weak or overloaded batteries frequently cause electronics failure or intermittent and abnormal operation.
How old are batteries that power your electronics? Are they living on borrowed time? As more electrical-dependent equipment is added to your boat, your present battery bank may not be adequate to handle the added electrical load sufficiently. Consult your dealer or have your electrical system professionally checked.
To help guard against premature battery failure, pick up one of the new high capacity, pocket-size portable jumper battery packs, like the Weego jump starter kit ($130 to $200, myweego.com). A jump-start battery can restart batteries on boats with gas engines up to 9.6 liters and diesel engines up to 4.8 liters. They can put life back into a dead battery and get you home safely without the need to call for a tow. As a bonus, these emergency battery packs have an outlet to charge or operate your cellphone, tablet or other portable devices.
Backup Your Backups
Handheld radios are inexpensive. They can provide extra backup protection and are handy for family members and guests. Also, change out the batteries in all portable and safety devices at least once a year, and always keep a supply of fresh backup batteries on hand.
Consider carrying a second charged battery for your handheld VHF. Many portables come with or offer optional inexpensive battery cases that hold AA-size batteries. Keep one of these in a backup kit along with a supply of alkaline batteries. These emergency battery packs can quickly replace a portable’s dead battery.
If you don’t already have a 12-volt cigarette-lighter-style outlet on your boat, install one. Keep a 12-volt charger adapter on board for every portable device that has a rechargeable battery. This should include your cellphone, which can be useful in a pinch.
Perform a periodic self-test of your EPIRB to ensure it is operational and ready for use. PLBs that can be carried or worn by the individual are an excellent backup to your EPIRB in an emergency. Check the battery replacement date on each.
AIS can be a backup for radar in the sense that it will place moving vessel targets on your chart plotter to let you “see” many commercial and pleasure craft around you.
Loss of your waypoint data can hinder your navigation. Save your waypoints and routes by storing them on a data card. See your manual’s “saving waypoints” instructions on how to backup your waypoints.
Download a local marine navigation chart app (e.g., navionics.com) on your smartphone as an emergency backup GPS/chart plotter for use when within cellphone range.