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Pre-Installed Helm Electronics

Pick and Choose

Some boatbuilders are choosing electronics for their boats before buyers even step aboard, while others leave the helm choices wide open. Here’s why.

As boat-show season continues so does the opportunity to see the latest designs and developments from forward-thinking builders. What show-goer doesn’t step up to the wheel in every fresh pilothouse and look over the bow, imagining where each gleaming new vessel would take him? A glance down at the multifunction displays in the helm array to dial in the scale of the chart and set the course on the autopilot, and off he would go.

Ferretti 750 helm

But is the helm setup up to snuff? It won’t matter if the reverie is mere fantasy. But serious boaters on a search for their next cruiser are analyzing every boat they see, and for them the electronics selection on that boat could become a factor in the buying decision. Boatbuilders know this, and they choose their helm electronics, mostly from Garmin, Simrad, Raymarine, or Furuno, to meet certain needs. But it’s when those boaters make the transition from boat-show visitor to potential buyer that the rubber really meets the road when it comes to electronics selection. Understanding builders’ different philosophies may help boaters navigate the process of selecting electronics for their new boat.

“One of the things I decided right off the bat is we’re going to make everything a factory install, and obviously to calibrate things we had to have all the instruments installed and we also had to have an integrated system,” says Bob Johnstone, founder of MJM Yachts ( “And when we started out using Northstar this and Raymarine that, it was a little bit discombobulated. We finally settled on Raymarine in terms of the autopilots, radars, and displays—they seemed to be good stuff. I’d had good experience with them on the sailboats and we just settled in on them as our standard package. And we’ve stuck with it for ten years.” One thing the buyer gets with a factory-installed electronics system is that the helm array is part of the boat, and can be serviced by the builder, who can coordinate with the electronics-brand specialist as needed.

“We don’t offer a variety of choices,” Johnstone says. “I went through that in the sailboat world [with J-Boat], where we would ship out a boat without any electronics on it. Of course we were dealing at that time with racing sailboats, and everybody had their own ideas to what they liked with regard to the instrumentation on the boat and how they liked it set up. It was a big project.” Having a standard helm setup makes the build process more efficient.

Many other builders would agree. “All of our vessels come with an electronics package,” says Brian Kelley, after-sales and service manager for Ferretti Group America ( “Ferretti Yachts and Ferretti Custom Line yachts use Furuno, which I think is the best in the industry as far as after-sales, service, warranty, and reliability. However, when purchasing a CRN, everything is customizable to the owners’ needs, including the electronics package. Our KVH satellite systems, stereos, and TVs are actually bought here in the U.S. and shipped over and installed in Italy during the build because everything is so seamlessly integrated into the yacht that it just comes out much nicer when they install it in the factory.” To get a system installed prior to the boat’s completion makes a difference to the builder. 

“What we do when we build the boat is we make up a wiring harness that includes all the instrumentation that somebody may want to put in anyway,” Johnstone says. “So when we build our harnesses for each boat, which all goes in before the deck goes down, the wiring of the whole thing is there.” That consistency can simplify the delivery process.

“At Boston Boatworks here in Boston [where MJM Yachts are built], we launch every boat and run it around for a week, calibrating everything,” Johnstone says. “So we can turn a boat over to a customer as a finished product with zero defects.”

The stateside commissioning of an imported yacht is also where the electronics get quite a bit of attention. “Actually the electronics are completely functional after installation, but they’re not completely fine-tuned until the boat is brought to the U.S.,” Kelley says. “For all the charts that they may need, they have to be uploaded here in the U.S. All the autopilot settings need to be done and adjusted correctly during our sea-trial process.”

Builders who offer a consistent brand, and a consistent setup within that brand, have good things to say. “During orientations with the clients and captains, we have our internal technicians and corporate captains simplify the tutorial of the electronics package with them on their vessel,” Kelley says. “It’s important that we stay current with the best electronics in the industry and maintain a strong level of electronics education to assure a positive experience for our clients and their captains.”

That’s not to say MJM, Ferretti, and other builders won’t install a system from a different electronics brand if a buyer asks to add it to the specification. “We’re perfectly capable of putting in Garmin or other setups,” Johnstone says. “And we have. We’ve done four or five boats with other instrument packages other than Raymarine.”

If a builder is installing a different system, obviously they custom-wire the boat, so it costs a little bit more. But some builders leave the electronics choices wide open, and have to do this custom wiring every time. For example, Kadey-Krogen makes long-range trawler yachts for bluewater cruisers with specific electronics needs. 

“It is essentially whatever the customer wants, however we do provide guidance based on whatever other owners have done in the past,” says Larry Polster, vice president of Kadey-Krogen Yachts ( “It runs the gamut from owners installing electronics themselves, once the boat gets here, to electronics being installed here by a local firm, to us installing electronics at the yard, when the boat’s built. That is the least disruptive to the boat and probably the most cost-effective way to do it professionally.”

Kadey-Krogen helm

Polster says Kadey-Krogen began offering installation at the yard a couple of years ago. “One of the reasons was the simple fact that when the boat gets here and the customer can see it and touch it and they want to get on it and go, and they are faced with another four- to eight-weeks commissioning time just for the electronics,” he says. “It has cut down the stateside commissioning time tremendously. It used to be ten or 12 weeks to turn a boat over and now it’s four to six weeks by doing electronics at the yard.” Kadey-Krogen never had specific packages like some of the higher-volume builders, according to Polster. Instead their buyers tended to pick out exactly what they want.

And to him, it’s a better way. “The yard installs the cables that were made up here in the states, installs all the components, does a basic power-up test, and when the vessel lands here, the installer then gets on the boat and does a final checkout of the systems,” Polster says. “The components are the components cost-wise, whether it’s done here or over there. Because all the components are procured here and sent over. The savings to a customer is installation costs. We can do it much more cost-effectively at the yard, when the boat is already all opened up, as opposed to bringing the boat here and having to take all the panels down.”

Since Simrad, Garmin, Raymarine, and Furuno all offer complete helm setups, the brand choice is one the boat buyer must make based on the the user-interface and experience. “Raymarine has got a lot of the items under the same umbrella,” Johnstone says. “They’ve got the FLIR program. And you know they’ve had the autopilot and all the other stuff. They’ve had pretty much everything for some time, so it works out well. They’ve got AIS, too.”

But what about that hands-on owner who wants to know his system intimately? “We’ve had a couple of folks that literally have pulled all the wires and done just about everything themselves, short of putting the hole in the bottom of the boat for the transducer,” Polster says. “That way they knew every wire where every connection was. It’s not like we’ve had a lot of folks do that—we’ve had a couple. Lately it’s been the people doing the installs at the yard, more than anything else.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.