If one has lots of money, buying electronic and electrical equipment for a boat is easy. But for those on a limited budget below is the list of items that I would recommend for a small boat cruise to Alaska:
1. Navigational Software: There are numerous software/hardware packages available to choose from these days with price ranges from modest to huge. A couple of issues that I would recommend you think about when considering a purchase include a. Cost that fits your budget; b. Size of the viewing screen; c. Bells and Whistles of the package.
Nothing further needs to be said about budget however it is readily apparent that the larger the viewing screen the greater the cost of the hardware. That being said, understand that it is very difficult to view and tiny screen while underway. When purchasing a nav program that includes the hardware and software make a decision beforehand whether you desire the charts to be raster or vector. Raster charts are in essence copies of the charts as published, similar to what you find on a printed chart. A vector chart is a reproduction of a printed chart, put together in layers so that the user can control a number of display functions. For instance, one can choose which water depths to view on the screen, as well as whether the depths shown are in feet, meters or fathoms. Numerous other manipulation choices are available with vector charts vs raster charts that can't be manipulated at all, other than the viewing area shown on the screen. Another important criteria is the fact that on a raster chart as one zooms in for a closer look at details, the chart can become over-pixilated, meaning that close up views are not possible. Spend some time deciding which type of chart you desire to view. Some nav software allows you to toggle between raster or vector charts.
On our vessel we have two navigational programs that we use. Our primary program is an older Nobeltec product that is downloaded to our laptop computer. We chose a laptop with a viewing area of 9" by 14.5." Huge compared to many common nav products on the market. With our computer software, we load the nav software into the computer then load the geographic charts covering our cruising grounds by regions AND have chosen to purchase and download both raster and vector charts for the three regions covering the cruise from Washington State, through British Columbia, and into S.E. Alaska. The discs for all the charts and the Nobeltec program are on board and can be downloaded again should the computer have a problem. Make sure and check when purchasing a software program that the product can be downloaded a second or third time should your computer lock up. Later versions of Nobeltec, its successor and other navigational programs can NOT be downloaded even a second time due to piracy concerns by the manufacturer. I also carry on board our vessel the discs so that I can format the hardrive on my computer should the computer crash.
Our secondary navigational software is the Navionics product which cost under $30 when purchased in 2019. We downloaded this program to our large computer tablet. Note the very inexpensive price tag for the software and note that it is only in vector format. Make sure when using this product to download and save to your hard drive all the charts for the cruising area you will visit as you need an internet connection to do so.
Our primary computer requires use of an external GPS while the Navionics product has the GPS function built in similar to many stand alone navigational products. I would further comment that we run our primary computer program from our enclosed pilothouse using a robust inverter for AC power. Also available is a DC cigarette lighter that can be switched to in moments should the AC connection or inverter fail. Note also that the Navionics product and tablet is easily transported in our skiff for use when fishing in the fog, heading to underwater pinnacles (for halibut) and for return to the anchored mother ship should it be necessary. In years past we used a hard-wired GPS for navigational purposes with a handheld GPS as back-up. Both are now back-up to our current primary and secondary navigational programs.
2. VHF radio(s) should be on board, even in local waters! Some people rely when cruising locally on their cellphones for emergencies or communication purposes-a big mistake! Why? Cellphones only work when dialing specific known numbers. Yes-you could contact the Coast Guard, but you can't reach a nearby vessel that you can visually see a mile away. Yet, a hail on Channel 16 will reach out to all boaters in your immediate vicinity and the Coast Guard. Modern VHF radios have lots of functions that enhance their capability. For instance, the MMSI function, when the VHF radio is connected to a GPS (typically an internal function of the VHF radio these days) will broadcast an emergency request inclusive of your exact position. With, or without the MMSI capability, I'd recommend a minimum of two VHF radios on your vessel. If you have two helm stations, it is valuable to have radios at both stations, both with decent antennas. If you only have one helm station (or even if you have two) I'd recommend that you have a handheld VHF radio available as well. When away from the mother ship fishing, exploring, or whatever, it is likely that the handheld radio will come in handy. Being able to talk back and forth from crew on the ship to crew in the skiff is important as is the emergency function which may be helpful should the skiff need to reach out to other vessels for assistance. You could add a hailer function to your VHF radio also to enhance speaking and listening capability while cruising. Some also broadcast a foghorn sound automatically. At minimum, two or more basic VHF radios should be on board.
3. Radar: Having radar on board for a trip to southeast Alaska, in my opinion is a required piece of equipment. You will probably encounter fog on your cruise. In fact, on virtually all of our cruises beyond Desolation Sound we have encountered fog-especially when cruising in August, also known as fogust. We have spent entire days cruising in the fog across Queen Charlotte Sound and cruise in the fog on purpose. The best time to cruise virtually anywhere in the Inside Passage is in the early morning hours before the typical wind comes up. As the land mass warms in the summer months wind flows from the open water to the land mass with the largest wind speeds occurring in late morning until late afternoon. Some boaters wait for the fog to die before pulling up their anchor, which is a huge mistake. Learn to use your radar and pull anchor early in the morning-especially when crossing large bodies of water! Also, occasionally you will encounter fog while traveling which can't be avoided unless you turn around and can outrun the fog bank. Another bad decision. Learn to travel in deep fog and trust your judgement. Know how to adjust your radar unit to get a good return regardless of the intensity of the fog, rain, or sea conditions. Learn how to recognize land masses on your radar screen-even those with gradually shelving shorelines. Recommendation: Keep your radar turned on and in use all the time which will dramatically improve your ability to use the instrument effectively. Another thought worth considering is to toggle back and forth between an 8 or 12 mile distance scale to a 1 mile scale on a regular basis. The longer distance will pick up land masses and large vessels. The shorter scale will pick up smaller boats, vessels without radar reflectors or boats with poor radar returns. Good radars today can also pick up debris in the water at short range.
4. Depth finder capability is important when anchoring, of course. Knowing how much scope to put out is a function of depth and when anchoring should not only be used where the anchor is set, but throughout the area where the vessel could move to while at anchor due to wind, current and/or tide. Running aground on an isolated reef at low tide, or a dead head resting at an angle on the bottom could be avoided by running a circle pattern around your chosen anchorage site prior to setting the hook.
The above four electronic items are recommended on all vessels at a minimum. Other equipment, not necessarily electronic that could make ones life safer or easier include the following items:
1. AIS: This electronic device is helpful when cruising in fog conditions, within shipping lanes and/or in crowded areas. Being an expert at using a radar could preclude the need for this handy instrument. We don't carry AIS on board.
2. Water-Maker: Again, handy to have, but even along the long distance of the Inside Passage, isn't a huge necessity UNLESS you have a. A very limited supply of potable water on board and or b. have an insatiable need for fresh water. Some vessels have the room (somewhere) to add additional water tankage on board. Those cruise vessels with a nominal water supply with crew that absolutely have to shower every day, run water robustly, etc. could perhaps budget water usage. Once beyond Cape Caution there are several places that water is available including Bella Bella, Klemtu and Hartley Bay. Shearwater has a limited supply and frequently prohibits access. At Prince Rupert and in S.E. Alaska water is readily available.
3. Having an independent heater on board is very important, especially when anchored. Vessels with generators can run their electrical heaters while at anchor. Our son currently has a 40' plus vessel that requires the generator to run even for a cup of hot coffee! Do you really want to drop hook in a small cove along the Inside Passage and turn on the generator disturbing not only the solitude of the cove, but the enjoyment of any fellow boaters anchored nearby? A much better solution to me is to have a robust set of house batteries on board and install a diesel heater (assuming you have diesel propulsion). Hot air heat or hydronic heat utilizing a fan in conjunction with hot water are two outstanding choices. Hydronic heat has an extra plus associated with it, namely, it provides hot water when the engine is turned off whenever the heater is running. Due to the cold temperatures and high humidity found along the Inside Passage, some form of auxiliary heat is necessary.
4. Speaking of generators: Some of the latest vessels on the market today have only AC service on board for running all the vessel's heating, cooking, lighting, and other electrical needs. An alternative, for consideration and where possible is to have a large house battery bank on board and except for short usage of an inverter, rely on DC current from the batteries for your needs. This would also necessitate the need to have propane cook top and oven on board. Propane is not inherently dangerous as some would have you believe. The smell alone provides warning that a problem is in need of attention, normally a loose connection after installing a recently filled tank. I absolutely hate vessels that have generators on board when turned on for hours at a time when in close proximity to my anchored boat. Frequently generator users tell me that theirs doesn't make any noise-WRONG! They all make noise even for people inside the generator running boat, but perhaps they can't hear the exhaust noise of the generator itself or the burble of the exhaust water, or simply can't hear the generator running over the sound of their blaring radio, tv or movie being watched.
5. Freezer: When we travel north we stock our freezer with steaks, roasts and other frozen foods. When returning home the freezer is packed with salmon filets, halibut, crab, prawns and other choice items. If your travel north will include fishing, you won't do well with an ice chest for frozen foods and usually the freezer compartment of the boat-size refrigerator won't hold much. Our freezer operates on AC or DC current and the model we chose draws very little DC current. We typically can spend three nights at anchor, in spite of our freezer and other DC current fixtures, before needing to start our engine. Friends that we have cruised with find it necessary to run their generator daily for a minimum of two hours, even on travel days. Go figure!
6. Electric Windlass: You will sometimes encounter anchorage sites that require deployment of a large amount of scope. We have anchored in close to 100' of water on numerous occasions, in spite of the fact that our total rode is only 250' in length. I'd recommend a minimum of 3 times the boat length of chain followed by nylon rode or better yet all chain. Pulling chain in by hand is not feasible therefore the common electric windlass (hydraulic for some) is necessary. See more anchor and anchoring information at one of my other blogs.
7. In Reach or other Satellite Phone system: Especially if communication with friends or relatives not on your boat is important, some form of satellite phone will be necessary. Some systems have texting only available while others allow voice communication. Whichever satellite phone system you choose, be aware of the costs of purchase and usage and whether the phone service can be discontinued while not on your boat. A handy function of some satellite phones is that the phone transmits its position that can be monitored by other parties. Coordinating a rendezvous with friends or letting family at home know where you are can be of value. We don't currently carry a sat phone on board but will probably do so this coming summer to coordinate get togethers with a number of fellow boaters.
8. There are numerous other pieces of equipment on board a vessel that haven't been detailed above. These include such items as a compass, complete tool set for repairs, spare parts and equipment manuals, multi-meter, an adequate skiff, safety equipment, life jackets and more. Some of these items will be covered in more detail in future blogs.
I hope that this blog has been of value to you. If purchasing new equipment for your vessel or upgrading to better, more modern devices, be sure to vigorously compare the features and costs of the numerous choices. Where possible keep in mind the desirability of keeping redundant equipment on board so that if your primary equipment fails, you will have back-up equipment when necessary.
The best boat for cruising the Inside Passage to S.E. Alaska may be the one that you currently own. All kinds of vessels safely round trip to Alaska each summer from sailing vessels to power boats including both planing hull and trawler style of vessels. Because most of the trip to S.E. Alaska is in protected waters, having an off-shore capable boat is not necessary to safely and comfortably take this cruise. Having said this, however, there are a couple of issues that may improve ones' trip...
The type of vessel that I would personally recommend is a displacement hull power boat followed by a semi-displacement vessel then either a planing hull power boat or a sailing vessel-especially one with a pilothouse. Why? First of all a round trip to Alaska will entail many, many days of cruising in the rain. Having a vessel that provides a steering helm that is protected from the weather is worthy of consideration. Either an enclosed pilothouse such as those available on most trawlers or an enclosed upper helm station will provide comfort. A second consideration is visibility. A pilothouse having a glass windshield with wipers is ideal with the common strataglass enclosures on many flybridges being a poor second choice. If your current vessel has a bimini cover only, you will quickly learn that the vessel's forward motion will bring rain (and dense fog) as well as cold air under the cover. Fully enclosing the upper helm station is an option but the strataglass windows in heavy rain are very difficult to see through, however the full enclosure will keep some of the cold and wetness out. Some folks plan to steer from their upper helm station in good weather and then go to their lower helm station when it is rainy, cold or in fog conditions. The problem with this option is two-fold. One: The best visibility on any vessel is from on high. Trying to view oncoming waves, debris in the water, much less the scenery, is typically difficult from a lower helm station, compared to a helm station located higher on the vessel. Two: Many boat owners don't have ALL their electronic equipment located in both locations. I recommend that you seriously consider having your navigational equipment, radar, VHF radio and depth finders located at your primary steering station, namely from the upper helm station when possible.
From the San Juan Islands of Washington State north, relying on wind for propulsion is rarely available. Either there is not enough wind or based on the desired heading, the direction of the wind is not reliable. The second factor, as mentioned above, deals with visibility and comfort issues on many sailing vessels. At the least, having a bimini is of value, but it needs to provide cover for the helm station. Otherwise, the helmsman will be spending hours at a time standing or sitting in the cold exposed to a nominal amount of wind, but saturated with rain. Not only will the helmsman be cold and wet, but the forward visibility will be impaired. Also, the viewing of the onboard radar and navigational program may be poor while underway. Finally, how often will the sailboat crew members be likely to maintain watch with the helmsman outside when it is toasty warm and comfortable inside-especially for hours at a time? Sure, you can wear high quality rain slickers, boots, a hat and gloves, but if you are outside in the weather, how does this picture compare with being out of the rain?
In spite of the above comments and observations, a trip along the Inside Passage, is well worth whatever discomfort you encounter along the way!
In case you are wondering about my personal vessel, let me fill you in... Our vessel for the past 20 plus years is a 32' twin screw Bayliner powerboat that was built in 1985. In that era the vessel was not designed to get up on plane. In fact, we travel at under 7 knots while underway. Our fuel burn compared to a planing hull of a similar length is substantially less and we get to wherever we desire to go. Faster boats will arrive at a destination quicker than we will, but we eventually arrive at our destination, too. Having had a 28' planing hull vessel previously, I would comment that it was a nerve-racking experience formerly when cruising at better than 20 knots across the water, uncomfortable in waves of 3 feet or larger, and didn't afford the amenities of our present vessel.
Immediately after purchasing our present boat we fully enclosed the upper helm station with a high quality strataglass product to make sure that our visibility in any direction was good. The cover of the helm station was canvas. What we discovered was that seagulls were fond of landing on the canvas cover leaving their white stain behind which eventually leached through to the underside of the canvas. Thus every few years we needed to re-cover the helm station. In sunny weather we found that the enclosed flybridge was a greenhouse and without having zippered sections, especially front and rear, we'd have roasted. Even without sunshine, the enclosed flybridge is typically warmer than the outside air. When the upper helm station was enclosed we relocated the vessel's radar above. We also added another depth finder and second VHF radio to the upper helm station, too. Our navigational software is via a computer with a 9"x14.5" screen connected to a GPS puck. When through cruising for the day we disconnect the computer from the dedicated inverter located at the upper helm station and bring it below where we can re-connect to an inverter in the salon to plan the next day's route. At night the computer is put away in its mostly air-tight traveling bag. We do 100% of our cruising from the upper helm station and made a couple of significant changes to it over the years. I built a hard top cover for the helm station, built an eyebrow and extended it in front of the helm station, then built a glass window across the front of the helm station (which matches the angle of the glass windows below). I then added windshield wipers to the glass windows ensuring great forward visibility regardless of inclement weather. What we learned in our numerous trip to S.E. Alaska and/or to northern British Columbia is that we would rather look down on waves and swells from the upper helm station than we would look upwards from the lower station. This brings me to another concern about the 'ideal' cruising vessel-namely its size...
I would suggest that a larger vessel, in and of itself, will be safer and more comfortable than a smaller one. Yet, except for just a couple of places between Washington State and S.E. Alaska, most of the distance is in protected, inside waters. The notable exceptions include the Strait of Georgia, Queen Charlotte Sound and Dixon Entrance. Thus, virtually any well found vessel can safely round trip to Alaska along the Inside Passage. A larger vessel besides being roomier within, typically has more amenities so that the larger size is of itself more comfortable. Our vessel, for instance, at 32' has a 3 burner (propane) stove and oven. Our former 28' vessel had a two burner alcohol stove without an oven. Home made bread fresh from the oven is sure a treat! A roomier stateroom and spacious salon are pluses as well.
Let's consider size of vessel and size of swells for a moment. Assume that a 30' vessel comfortably handles a 3' swell, a 40' vessel handles a 4' swell, 50' vessel-a 5' swell. I am not aware of a universal formula such that for every 10' of vessel you can add 1' of swell comfort, but it makes sense that this is true. A friend of mine in his 60' boat thinks nothing of cruising in small craft advisory winds while I hide for another day in my safe cove. To conclude, a larger vessel can take larger seas in comfort and due to its larger size affords a greater degree of comfort. Yet, there is such a thing as too large a vessel, right? There are numerous anchorages that our 32' boat can navigate in comfort that would preclude anchoring of a 60' vessel. One of the anchorages in my mind has a very tight corner that needs to be made upon entry and others are so small that a larger vessel wouldn't have enough swinging room when anchored.
To conclude, whatever size or type of vessel that you currently own, make it as sound a boat as you can and head north. Don't wait! If you currently don't have a vessel I hope that the comments above will provide you with some ideas about what your 'ideal boat' should be.