TEXAS BOATING by Lenny Rudow – June 2020

JOIN THE CLUB – June 2020
May 24, 2020
THE BASS UNIVERSITY by Pete Robbins – June 2020
May 24, 2020

Digital Switching on Boats: Want It? Need It?

DIGITAL SWITCHING SYSTEMS have become common on high-end fishing boats over the past few years, but not everyone thinks this is a good thing. Should you consider owning a boat that has digital switching?

Flipping the Switch: First off, let’s make sure everyone understands exactly what a digital switching system does on a boat. Essentially, it replaces the toggle, push-button, or rocker switches at your helm with “virtual” digital switches that you control from an LCD touch-screen.

Usually these systems are fully integrated with your electronics, so that screen will likely be your MFD. (Boats that don’t commonly carry MFDs for fishfinder and chart plotters, may have a dedicated screen installed just for the switching). With a swipe or a tap you can change the MFD from your fishfinder or chart plotter to a virtual switch panel, a listing of icons, or in many cases a basic schematic of the boat.

Everything from bilge pumps to livewells to lights then gets triggered with another tap or swipe on the screen. Essentially, it’s very much like using your phone to turn things on and off. In many cases you can actually connect your phone to your boat via Bluetooth, and then use an app to trigger these same functions.

If you have a cell phone or you’ve become accustomed to using your electronics with a touch screen interface, learning to use a digital switching system on a boat is instantaneous and virtually second nature. In fact, it’s often faster and easier to get used to than it is to hunt and peck for the right switch on a traditional panel. On a panel you might have dozens to choose from, often with poor labeling or otherwise hard to ID icons or markings. So if you’re living in the modern world, score one for digital switching.

Digital Advantages: Aside from ease of use, there are a number of advantages to operating a boat with a digital switching system:

• Both weight and cost can be cut from a boat, because digital switching systems reduce the need for many multiple wires going to and from the helm (most operate via a single NMEA2000 “backbone” line).

Although it does require redesigning and changing build methods, a builder can quickly recoup the up-front costs with lower material expenses and simpler installation. Hopefully, they then pass some of the savings on to the customer.

• Digital switching is, in the long run, more reliable than mechanical switching. It’s scary to think about what will happen when a gremlin gets into the system, so just ask yourself how many times you’ve had a switch or a wired switch connection fail. It happens a lot more in the mechanical world (with its far more numerous physical wire-to-wire connections and switch contacts), than it does in the virtual one.

• Having a digital system allows for easy integration of remote monitor and control systems. These allow you to check on your boat’s location, monitor its functions, activate switches, and trigger alarms from virtually anywhere. An app on your cell phone is the interface. In fact, many builders of high-end boats are now including remote monitor and control as standard features on their boats built with digital systems.

• Virtually all-digital switching boats are built with backups. Critical systems (such as bilge pumps, engine switches, and running lights) commonly can also be controlled with a physical switch panel, hidden away inside a console or a protected stowage compartment.

Digital Downfalls: So far, digital switching systems sound great, right? But we all know there are downsides and trade-offs to everything associated with a boat. What are those of digital switching?

There’s really just one: If the NMEA2000 system gets a gremlin, your entire boat can go down at once. In that case you’ll have to use your back-up switches, which could be a bit inconvenient if they’re hidden behind a hatch or closeted away inside a console compartment.

Also consider that a misbehaving switch is usually fairly easy to fix, at least temporarily, on the spot. As long as you know how to strip a wire and jump a switch you can get things working. But if there’s a problem in a digital system an on-the-water fix isn’t likely to happen.

Yes, this could be a pretty big drawback, especially considering how glitchy tech can get sometimes and how problematic (read: dangerous) having a boat with nonfunctional systems can be when you’re bobbing around out in the middle of nowhere. But again, you have to consider the bigger picture. Although a single issue may potentially bring down the entire system, utilizing the single system also means there’s only the single potential for failure. If you have 20 switches, you have 20 possibilities for failure. Sure, the problem is a bigger one if it arises digitally, but in the long run you’ll have far, far fewer problems. Don’t forget, you always have those back-up manual switches to fall back on.

So back to the original question: do you want or need a boat with digital switching? People who embrace new tech easily will almost certainly be quick to jump on board. Those salt-encrusted old-timers who detest change will likely never accept it.

Most of us will sit somewhere in-between. For now. Chances are that eventually, the vast majority of the new boats being built in this country will incorporate digital switching. Five years ago, there were just a handful of pioneers, but today it’s already becoming commonplace.

Although some of us will have trouble swallowing it, in the long run, digital switching systems will make our fishing boats better boats—in a number of ways.


Email Lenny Rudow at [email protected]



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