Marine radar has helped me immensely in navigating to destination while providing both another layer of safety and a certain level of peace of mind on several tough trips this past year.
Even though I operate in sunny South Florida, weather and darkness can and do occasionally join forces to make operations a bit dicey without radar. In northern climes where fog is a constant possibility radar is a valuable asset to your marine electronics package.
Radar Saved the Day
On one particular occasion a perfectly beautiful summer day with unlimited visibility and calm seas turned sour after spending several hours towing a friend to sheltered waters. My run home ended up being a 40-mile ride in pitch darkness with thunderstorms in all quadrants.
Having marine radar aboard allowed me to choose a good route to avoid most of the weather. The downside of the route was that is required navigating a zig-zag course marked with day beacons set on steel pilings. Trying to navigate this route on a moonless night would have been foolhardy without the aid of radar and could have been dangerous.
If you frequently venture out in your boat at night, in rain, or fog, or any other low-visibility weather conditions, a marine radar is worth its price tag. And that price tag has decreased substantially over the past five to ten years.
Small boat owners should not rule out marine radar, I have it on my 25-foot center console. Another factor that makes it easier for owners of small boats to justify radar is that this technology can be integrated with other types of marine electronics, such as GPS and sonar.
There is no need for separate screens for radar, GPS and sonar. It can all be delivered in one combination multifunction unit, which saves money and helm real estate.
How Does Marine Radar Work?
What does a radar actually do? Basically it identifies the existence, distance, direction, and speed of boats, yachts, ships, islands and other solid objects including rain. All this is accomplished by transmitting pulses of high-frequency electromagnetic waves, listening for the energy to reflect off an object and return some of the original signals back to the source. This information is then run through some electronics and displayed onscreen for your use. Radar stands for RAdio Detection And Ranging.
Experienced mariners say radar is more user-interactive than any other type of marine electronics device. But you must understand how to operate your radar unit for it to realize its maximum potential.
Let’s start on top—literally—and discuss the radar system antenna options. There are two types of radar antennas, a closed radome or open array. Closed radome units are generally lower power, shorter range, and less expensive. All the moving parts are contained inside the radome while an open array style antenna rotates when activated.
Generally a radar antenna will be mounted high on a boat, on the hardtop or upper bridge of a powerboat.
Marine radar for recreational vessels is typically available with power output from 2 kW to 25 kW and ranges from 16- to 72-miles. More powerful longer range units will use a large open array antenna that would typically be up to six feet across.
A larger antenna can emit a stronger signal and receive weaker signals. A stronger signal also allows the unit to pierce through rain and heavy fog to see objects. Closed radome units are typically restricted to 4kW and 36-mile range.
Like most marine electronics devices, radar has gone digital and high-definition. This translates into better radar performance in nasty weather, fog, rain and storms. Digital enhancements have increased image quality and definition significantly. Major marine electronics manufacturers offer digital antennas in the power outputs we already mentioned. Coupled with a high resolution display, digital radar seems to be the future of this segment of marine electronics.
Back in the days of standalone radar the CRT (cathode ray tube) screen dominated the market and a few are still available, but LCD (liquid crystal display) displays dominate now. They save space and deliver a crisp, clear picture while using less power.
Most mariners today add radar to a multifunction display rather than installing a standalone radar unit. You can add an 18-inch to 24-inch radome to an MFD starting at around $1,500. As you increase power output and antenna size prices rise rapidly. You can combine technologies and get a better bang for the buck from manufacturers offering “value packs” that include radar, sonar and GPS cartography.