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If you thought outboards were the only things getting bigger on boats, take a look at the dash or console of almost any new model. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pontoon, a bass boat, a center console or a convertible: Dash panels and consoles are being dominated by more complex, larger electronics screens.

“They all have their unique challenges. On a small boat, real estate can become an issue,” says Charlie Foss, vice president of design at Brunswick Boat Group in Edgewater, Fla. “They’re all pushing the boundaries of what you would say is feasible from a size standpoint.”

It’s not just the high-volume builders whose customers want more tech at the helm. J.C. Manufacturing, is a lower-volume pontoon builder that has been installing up to a 9-inch Simrad display on its boats.

“You can’t make the cap too tall to disrupt your line of sight,” says Joe Sparks, vice president of manufacturing and general manager at J.C. “Anything beyond that, we need additional height and width, and it becomes difficult to use.”

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With screens currently maxing out at around 24 inches (measured diagonally) and priced in the $15,000 range for premium units, there doesn’t appear to be a ceiling looming anytime soon. “There are lots of manufacturers putting two and sometimes three of those on a helm, and there’s more to go,” says David Dunn, director of sales and marketing for Garmin’s marine division. He says marine-electronics manufacturers are limited by what’s available for makers of consumer electronics. The MFD companies use many of the same components as those in televisions and computer monitors.

Limited Real Estate

At J.C. Manufacturing, the biggest screen the company offers on its pontoon boats is a 9-inch unit from Simrad. Designers tiptoe the line between meeting demand for electronics and not having too big of a helm station. “You don’t want the helm to dominate the boat,” Sparks says.

While some consumers like having simulated gauges on a screen, Sparks says J.C.’s customers still want select analog instruments. “The challenge becomes creating the flat spots and still having the radii and contours that give you an attractive part,” he says.

J.C. Manufacturing recently partnered with Simrad because the company has the ability to work with Yamaha, Suzuki, Honda and Mercury outboards. Additionally, J.C. uses high-end lighting with options such as LEDs that coordinate with the beat of the music on the stereo system. If the accessory is NMEA 2000 compatible, it can be integrated. To support screens, J.C. laminates plywood into the console. Screens are inset, and an eyebrow shades the screen and protects it from moisture. The console has a hinged top that opens to access the components, so a technician doesn’t have to crawl in from the side.

Demand Across the Range

Foss comes to the discussion from a wider perspective, with a range of models from Bayliner, Boston Whaler, Crestliner, Cypress Cay, Harris, Heyday, Lowe, Lund, Princecraft and Sea Ray. While it’s easy to assume that the owner of a Boston Whaler 420 Outrage might want some serious electronics, for Foss and his team, it’s often the buyers of smaller boats who present more of a challenge. “Some pro anglers run two or three 16s at the dash plus two more at the bow,” Foss says. That means a return to bracket-mounting units.

As the screens have grown over the years, Foss says, Brunswick companies have gotten smarter about how they design support into the helms. “We take into account the minimum bend radius on the wiring, constraints for ambient temperature behind the dash and external temperature, and how much direct sunlight will be on them,” he says. Additionally, there are now black boxes and modules that need to be accounted for when designing the space behind the dash or console that the user never sees. Virtually any NMEA 2000 compliant accessory can be accommodated on the new screens.

As for the displays themselves, one important consideration is the length-to-height, or aspect, ratio. A 12-inch display isn’t nearly as tall as a 24-inch model, so it’s not as easy as putting two 12-inch units where a single 24 might go, or vice versa.

J.C. pontoons cater to customers who want both larger MFDs and analog gauges.

J.C. pontoons cater to customers who want both larger MFDs and analog gauges.

A Game of Inches

Dunne says that the push for larger screens started around 2010, when Garmin came out with a 7-inch touch screen. “That was the time we saw that customers were willing to buy a bigger screen,” he says. The next milestone came in 2014. “We offered up to a 19-inch, and that wasn’t enough,” he says.

Today, the 8600 series is Garmin’s premium lineup. It ranges from 10 to 24 inches. The most popular models are 10- and 12-inch displays, the latter of which is about $5,000.

Dunne says that modern MFDs are lighter because most of the housing is plastic. Boatbuilders have improved support for the units with bracing in the corners, and most units are mounted from the front with a clear panel over the screen.

Garmin lets builders know when a new unit is in development about a year in advance, so they can plan accordingly. The company is fully integrated with Mercury and Yamaha to display all information on an MFD, and more functions continue to be integrated, including light, speakers and climate control. “They’re willing to go to a larger screen to take all the smaller controllers off the dash,” Dunne says.

Keeping in Touch

At Viking Yacht Co., which also builds Valhalla Boatworks center consoles, design manager David Wilson says one of the biggest advancements in electronics has been touch screen technology, though not everyone took to early versions. “They were susceptible to scratching, and it could be challenging to use them with wet hands. But touch screens have improved, with more-durable surfaces and technology advancing to the point where wet hands have virtually become a nonissue.”

Valhalla Boatworks launched in 2019, and the center consoles have all-glass helm designs that use large, flush-mounted touch screens. Valhallas have two or three MFDs, depending on the model. The largest Vikings can have as many as five screens at the main helm.

The touch screen MFDs on the Sea Ray SLX-R 400 control a wealth of systems. 

The touch screen MFDs on the Sea Ray SLX-R 400 control a wealth of systems. 

“The design characteristics of the Valhalla center console helms are suitable for our open-bridge convertibles, and we’re integrating those features into our Vikings, bringing increased visibility and ease of operation,” Wilson says.

Viking has its own electronics subsidiary, Atlantic Marine Electronics, and its own tower supplier, Palm Beach Towers. All three work together to integrate electronics into every Viking and Valhalla model. For both brands, networked MFDs are also being installed in areas outside the helm. On Viking convertibles, an MFD is sometimes mounted on the deckhouse haunch so the crew can see it from the cockpit. On a recent Valhalla 46, there’s a custom installation of a cockpit-facing MFD into the after portion of the hardtop.

To keep electronics cool, the elevated consoles on Valhallas and Viking convertibles include ventilation slots at their bases around the toekick space. Fans are also installed inside the consoles to improve airflow.

What’s Next

Brunswick’s Foss doesn’t wonder so much about increasingly larger screens; he’s thinking about smarter utilization of them. “I could see a future where screens shrink again because, over time, we will get smarter about how we communicate information to people on a boat,” he says.

For instance, when an owner is running a boat from the helm, he wants certain information, but when he’s at rest or anchored, control screens can eventually be placed where they’re needed most. “If I’m cruising offshore, the depth chart might not be important to me, but radar is. So how do we get smarter about giving you the information you need at that moment?” he asks. “When you’re docking, you don’t need radar. It’s a smarter system that works with the scenario you’re in.” 

This article was originally published in the February 2022 issue.

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