Alan Watson, a recognised navigational expert, who has clients ranging from the weekend cruiser to the professional sailor, shares his top tips for making sure your on board equipment is ready for a full season out on the water.

The start of a new season is the perfect time to re-familiarize yourself with your on board navigational equipment and make sure you have the settings in place that will keep you safe for the months ahead.

Multifunction displays have transformed navigation for sailors and these intelligent and intuitive screens have opened up more possibilities in the world of boating. They give sailors a range of information at their fingertips, saving time and effort onboard and are becoming an invaluable addition to any boat.

Even the most dedicated paper and chart user is now seeing the added value they can bring to the vessel. The simplicity with which MFDs can now be used means that they can help to save time, effort and improve safety onboard. Using your MFD to its full potential will improve and enhance your time on the water.

The weekends before the first outing on the water offer an ideal time to have a play with your MFD and make sure that the key settings are in place. The first thing I check is that my chart cartridge is up-to-date then power up the system and check that I am getting a good GPS fix. That is the first critical item “where am I?” dealt with; the second is depth, so check that you are getting a credible depth reading on the echosounder or fishfinder, then check to see that shallow water alarms are set as you want them.

After knowing where I am and that I am in safe water my next priority is see and be seen, so check that you are seeing AIS targets on the chart plotter and, if you have Class B transmitting AIS, check that it is working.

If you have an autopilot fitted, the chartplotter will use the heading sensor in this to give heading.  Switch on the heading vector (red) on the chartplotter and make sure it points the right way. If it is out the chances are someone has left their toolbox right beside the sensor. The heading ideally needs to be set up away from the dockside and older autopilots benefit from regular calibration to redo the deviation curve; recent ones do this automatically in the background.

The next thing you need to check is your radar. This is best done away from the dockside. Check you are showing targets on the screen and then with the radar in Head Up (just for this test, I use Course Up normally) point your boat at a small target and make sure it shows on the heading line. Once this is done go to the chart display and put radar overlay on. Make sure that the land echoes are accurately overlaid the land on the chart; if they don’t then it means the heading information from the autopilot is out and needs calibrating.

And finally don’t forget the VHF. A common fault is water in the aerial cable which does not affect reception but reduces transmission range to just about zero. A test call with a distant station (not the marina 100 yards away) will prove the system.

Alan has worked with Raymarine for many years and enjoys running their Navigational and Radar courses – for more information go to

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