From the experts: pocket electronics keep the numbers handy

Pocket-sized electronic devices have been developed to improve sailors’ performance during competitions. Sailors may use the Family Radio Service for communicating with race officials while aloft. The water-resistant Kestrel anemometer is handy for measuring windspeed.

Small, light and powerful – these are just some of the criteria for handheld electronics. What’s available, what can it do to improve your racing performance, how easy is it to use, and does it fit in your pocket? These were questions we asked as we investigated the latest in handheld electronic devices.

Keeping in Touch

One of the best breakthroughs for recreational activities is the FCC’s allocation of 14 new UHF FM frequencies between 462.5625 and 467.7125 MHz. Known as the Family Radio Service, these walkie-talkie-type units are incredibly small, but can deliver communications over a 2- to 5-mile range. Slightly larger than a beeper, the Icom IC-4008A units we tried definitely met our “pocket” criteria.

The FRS radio is perfect for race committees and sailors alike, potentially eliminating the annoying clutter and extraneous radio traffic we encounter on VHF frequencies, especially on weekends. In addition to 14 exclusive channels, users can select from as many as 38 “group” subchannels.

How about this? With the race committee and all the competitors set in the same group, over-early callbacks could be announced without interference. You can even use these radios with an optional earphone/microphone headset that is voice activated. This setup offers hands-free operation – no more fumbling for the radio while you’re trying to sheet in and work your way through a crowded start. The Icom units we tested even have fold-down antennas that reduce the chance of breakage and allow the radio to fit into the smallest pocket. For two-boat testing or communication between a coach boat and a dinghy sailor, the Icom offers a clear-sounding alternative to the bulkier VHF, and, at $300 a pair, is pensive option.

Unfortunately, the market for these bite-size radios is so new that no one offers a waterproof unit. However, all units are small enough to easily fit in a sandwich-size plastic bag, which should offer adequate protection in most cases.

How Hard is it Blowing?

For most small-boat and one-design sailors, exact windspeed is more a point of interest than a critical tidbit of information. There’s no shortage of pocket-sized anemometers in the marketplace, so if actual numbers are important to you, you’re in luck. To find out which one we liked best, we compared three of the most common anemometers: the Davis Turbo Meter and two units imported by Speedtech¬†Instruments, the Skywatch Elite, and the Kestrel 1000.

The Kestrel, which retails for $85.00, is by far the smallest of the three units we tried. It retracts into its own protective case, it’s waterproof and shock resistant, and it even floats! The Kestrel measures current, average, and maximum windspeed in every imaginable unit. It even has an auto-shutdown feature to preserve the battery if you forget to turn it off. The LCD display has large, easy-to-read numbers, even in bright sunlight.

The Davis Turbo Meter, which retails for $165, is the only one of the group with an LED display. Although advertised to provide excellent viewing contrast, even in bright sunlight, I found that the display screen was small and hard to read in direct sunlight. The Turbo Meter isn’t waterproof, and there’s no maximum or averaging speed features.

At $135, the Skywatch Elite has many features – more than either the Kestrel or the Turbo Meter. Using the built-in compass, you can establish wind direction as well as velocity. Like the Kestrel unit, the Elite has windspeed maximum, average, and current velocity, all shown on a large, easy-to-read display. One drawback of the Skywatch Elite is that you have to remove a protective cap to expose the wind cups. There is no lanyard attachment for either the instrument itself or the removable cap – one more thing to lose overboard. The unit is described as weatherproof, but only with the cap in place.

The Electronic Scratch Sheet

Pocket organizers are catching on like wildfire. Since I purchased my Palm Pilot Pro about eight months ago, I’ve loaded it with appointments, notes, time records and expense data, phone numbers and addresses. With the Palm’s Hot Synch feature, and the software the unit comes with, data transfer between your laptop or desktop PC and the Palm is really a snap. But what could my Palm do for me on a boat? It didn’t take much time to come up with a list.

How many times have you lost the scratch sheet for your race overboard or gotten it soaked beyond recognition? The Palm III is compatible with Microsoft Excel and Word, so you can prepare handicap spreadsheets in advance and transfer them to the unit before you go racing. How about recording fleet standings during a regatta or keeping a work list for your boat? Phone numbers for backup crewmembers are at your fingertips when your foredeck doesn’t show at the last minute. Its uses are endless.

Pocket Navigation

The handheld GPS is one of the greatest inventions of the last 15 years. The trouble is, for most units you need a chart to go along with them. Marking a lat/lon position on a folded chart while sitting on the rail just doesn’t cut it. The solution is easy – a handheld chart plotter, and once you use one, you’ll never go back.

Magellan’s NAV 6000 is a 12-channel, splash-proof unit measuring 3.25[inches] x 7.5[inches] x 1.75[inches]. Its convex 4-inch diagonal LCD screen is great for a clear look at the vector charts stored on a C-Map NT cartridge, which is loaded inside the unit. The screen magnifies the display information so it’s easy to see and find yourself on the chart.

With a chart plotter you can use the cursor keys to set the crosshairs on your next mark and get a readout with direct range and bearing to the mark. It updates continually as you move. What’s more important, this capability is visual rather than numerical. In a busy cockpit, just telling the helmsman to simply steer left or right can eliminate the potential confusion in the direction-giving process.

A constant danger in any race is grounding on close-shore tacks. With the C-Map cartography, you can zoom in to close scale (.25 mile), and know where you are relative to rocks or shoals. It becomes a simple task to confirm your position on a paper chart, too. With an average selling price of $600 for the NAV 6000, and about $200 each for the C-Map cartridges, this choice for pocket navigation packs a lot of punch.

A new player in the pocket charting game is Lowrance Electronics’ GlobalMap 100. Their new approach to cartography won them an innovation award at this year’s IMTEC industry show in Chicago.

The GlobalMap comes with a built-in background map of the world. What’s unique about the GlobalMap is that the map can be enhanced with data from Lowrance’s IMS CD ROM, which is included with the unit. From the CD ROM you can download up to two megabytes of additional map detail. The beauty of this is that you can download chart details you need for the area in which you’ll be racing. With a list price of $450, including the software and data transfer cable, Lowrance has definitely brought electronic charting to a new level.

Tracking the Competition

You’ll need a big pocket for the new Tasco Lasersite 600 or 800, which measure in at 7[inches] x 5[inches] x 4[inches]. But with the ability to make precise range measurements of any object to within 3 feet, the Lasersite is an interesting option for keeping track of other boats, whether racing or two-boat tuning. For racers, the 800 model with 800 yards of range is the best choice. The two-button control is easy to use and the Camcorder-style hand strap keeps the unit secure while you take a sight. The Lasersite even has a “reflective” control for using it in the rain. Once the initial setup is complete, using the Lasersite is a simple matter of point and shoot. Within seconds the range is displayed on-screen. The Tasco Lasersite 600 (600-yard range) retails for about $500 and the 800 model around $675.

Even though it’s been around for years, the KVH Datascope must be included on any list of pocket-sized tools for the racing sailor. The Datascope is an extremely accurate fluxgate compass as well as a range finder. You can use the Datascope to track your competition’s speed by checking relative bearing changes, or using the scale built into the scope to find range. Don’t expect the accuracy of the Lasersite, but you can definitely keep track of substantial changes. With the Datascope you will need to know or estimate the height of the object you are taking the range on and use the on-screen scale to get a reading. Not exactly point and shoot, but functional. It’s high quality, and at $445, is a solid piece of gear that definitely fits in just about any large pocket.

Small Compass Wonder

The Outback ES imported by Speedtech is the most feature-packed handheld fluxgate compass I’ve ever seen. It offers both day and night use capability with its display backlighting, and it doubles as either a countup or countdown timer for starts and handicap timing.

Worried about a starboard-tack boat? Use the Outback’s bearing feature to check for relative bearing change of the oncoming boat to help determine if you can cross. The Outback even has an auto shut-down feature that is user-programmable in five-minute increments. With a list price of $99.95, Speedtech’s Outback ES is a serious contender in the electronic handbearing compass market.