David Fritts plodded through a cove on Alabama’s Coosa River, keeping one eye on the water and another on his bass boat’s helm electronics. To port, a glowing, 12-inch Lowrance multifunction display painted a virtual portrait of the river bottom; to starboard, a 40-year-old Eagle flasher sonar revealed even more detail.
“In the late ’70s and early ’80s, if you weren’t using a flasher, you didn’t have marine electronics,” Fritts says. “When I got this thing, I thought I was just like the Navy. I haven’t fished without one since.”
Times have changed, of course, with most boaters ditching older helm electronics for newer technology, but the 63-year-old Fritts — a professional angler and the 1993 Bassmaster Classic champion — still keeps around 20 flashers at his fingertips, lest one dies during a competition. He’s an example of a longtime boater who has a specific need for his electronics but also likes the gaggle of features that newer multifunction devices offer.
And in that sense, Fritts is similar to most boaters today. The desire for specific, useful helm-electronics features remains, but now those features are more numerous than ever, and they are wrapped inside what have become increasingly complex and visually stunning packages.
“Around 1980, everything looked like an Etch A Sketch,” says David Laska of L&L Electronics, a National Marine Electronics Association Master Dealer with service in New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island. “The graphics were very crude. They literally looked like black and silver scribbles, and we thought they were the cat’s meow because you could see a buoy in a harbor with a name on it.”
Laska, who grew up sailing the New England coast, says early liquid crystal displays were a far cry from what consumers would come to expect even in the 1990s, let alone today. The LCDs were not flat-panel displays — or anywhere near flat. They were typically 8 to 10 inches deep, similar to the green, phosphorous chart plotters that predated them by several years.
“They were quite big and mostly limited to pilothouses,” he says. “You couldn’t see them in the sunlight. The charts back then were cartridges. They looked like Atari cartridges, and you’d need several of them because they only held a few kilobytes of data.”
Even with those bulk challenges and limited accuracy, Laska says, boaters wanted the units because they provided peace of mind. “We were happy to know that we were somewhere 30 miles away from New York City, instead of 30 miles in the other direction,” he says.
By the late 1990s, plotter technology had improved drastically, more closely resembling modern MFDs in form if not function. Unit depths were slimmer at around 4 inches, and processors were relegated to a separate black box, usually located under the helm. Graphics became sharper, and color charts became more prominent. Instead of silver and black buoys, red and green buoys appeared on the screen.
Color-coded charts joined the mix as well, displaying water as various shades of blue and land as brown. Features such as waypoints, current data and tide charts also became available, and GPS signals shifted from uncorrected signals to more accurate technologies that could compensate for satellite differentials and atmospheric conditions.
“Since then, we’ve been on a slow progression to where we are now,” Laska says. “We have better viewing angles to see displays with polarized glasses on, processors are integrated into the units, and everything is sunlight viewable.”
“One of the biggest changes for today’s boater reflects something that has taken place on land,” says Jill Connors, who has been an industry analyst for KVH since 2012. “In 1979, your boat was its own enjoyment. You didn’t have to worry about being connected, or streaming a show, or posting something on social media. In the big picture, that’s the largest transformation that’s occurred in the past 40 years.”
Connors says consumer desires to stay connected while boating began in the 1990s. “We jumped into marine satellite TV with TracVision in the mid-’90s after seeing a market for people on their boats who wanted additional forms of entertainment,” she says. “We were a leader in that technology, but even then it was a receive-only type of connection. That was similar to what you would see on DirecTV or Dish Network at the time, but eventually people began to seek out more interactivity from their satellite connections.”
That desire for interactivity, Connors says, led to a change in the perception about equipment such as satellite phones. As recently as the early 2000s, boaters used satellite communications only in emergencies, even aboard commercial vessels. “It was really only there for extreme situations, but that slowly began to evolve, and it soon took hold in the leisure world, as well,” she says. “When email became more popular, that started to change everything. Suddenly people wanted to be able to send emails at sea, and then they wanted to attach a picture to their email.”
Today, KVH’s satellite network is an order of magnitude faster than when it launched in 2007. As satellite technologies have improved, KVH has created more advanced antennas that leverage high-speed data and bring streaming video and audio to vessels. “It’s the difference between iPhone data speeds when they launched and today,” Connors says. “Now you can work from your boat if you want to.”
Dave Dunn, Garmin director of marine sales and marketing, grew up in coastal North Carolina in the 1980s. He’d head offshore with his father in search of sailfish, marlin, wahoo, mahi-mahi and tuna. At the time, GPS was in its infancy. For navigation, the duo relied on the same system many boaters had used since the mid-’70s: Loran.
The U.S. military developed Loran during World War II. It was the first widespread technology to whisk boaters away from a watch and compass. When it was released for civilian use in 1974, it began to usher in the modern GPS era.
“Loran wasn’t really GPS like we have today, though,” Dunn says. “It was basically a system of towers and radio signals that would try to triangulate your position. It was not very precise. Depending on where you were, there were different grids to log into, and there were different chains within those grids. There were paper charts that went along with it, so a lot of planning was involved.”
In 1989, the U.S. Department of Defense opened GPS satellites to civilian use, allowing Garmin to introduce some of the first commercially available GPS units. Those systems narrowed accuracy from hundreds of feet with Loran to around 65 feet with GPS, though they relied on large processing units and monochrome LCDs to feed boaters information.
By the early 2000s, the widespread introduction of differential GPS allowed for even greater accuracy — 20 feet instead of 65 — but the technology was expensive for many users. And implementing it meant mounting a brick-sized receiver along with a screw-in whip antenna.
Then, in 2006-07, came the expansion of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Wide Area Augmentation System, or WAAS. Leveraging a combination of satellites, ground-based towers and a hockey puck-size antenna, WAAS helped modern GPS units narrow accuracy to 5 feet.
And, Dunn says, the limits of WAAS are just now being pushed. “With WAAS, we can get within feet of a waypoint,” he says. “However, there are commercial systems that can get you within a foot, but those are most costly and not readily available for the consumer market yet. In the future, those costs will come down, components will become cheaper, and accuracy like that will be the standard.”
Fred Endres remembers ducking his head under the hood of early radar units to read the display. Inside, a rotating mechanical yoke slowly printed dots on a CRT screen. “It was an old, TV-style tube,” says Endres, who is now Furuno’s manager of light marine products and service. “That was live video information, not processed like it is today.”
Despite their quaint appearance to modern eyes, Endres says, radar units of the 1980s were sophisticated machines capable of rendering beautiful images on 12- and 15-inch CRT displays. Chief obstacles were their lack of daylight viewability and bulky size, which relegated them to the pilothouse.
“You can imagine your grandpa catching a glare on the afternoon football game and getting ticked off,” says Matt Wood, Furuno’s national sales manager. “That’s what it was like.”
For many boaters, having radar on board remained a pipe dream until the early 1990s, when monochrome LCDs with greater daylight viewability made systems usable on smaller boats. “Suddenly, we had 6-inch displays that you could see in the daylight and mount on a flybridge,” Wood says.
According to Furuno, that accessibility prompted large-volume retailers to begin carrying the products by the late ’90s, expanding radar’s use across the marine landscape. By the mid-2000s, the underlying technology of radar was advancing, along with displays that combined plotters, GPS and fishfinders into some of the first multifunction units. The shift to DRS-class radar reduced the bulk of cables, too, making them the size of an Ethernet cord.
Today’s radar is a flush-mounted smart device with the power to track 100 targets simultaneously. Looking ahead, Furuno anticipates more boaters using solid-state radar instead of the traditional, magnetron-driven version (which uses more power, among other things). “I’d say 40 to 50 percent of our sales are now solid-state radar units,” Wood says. “That’s where the future is going.”
Back in Alabama, professional angler Fritts spots a discrepancy on his flasher — proving, at least in his mind, that legacy helm electronics still have value in the modern age. “These will show you the true bottom instantly,” he says. “I can see things on here that other people can’t see on their new units.”
Prior to flashers and today’s sonar and fishfinders, anglers measured depth using an ancient method of knots on a length of line. After flashers were introduced, boaters gained access to paper graphs. “Those came out in the mid-’80s, and they had a stylus that would draw, almost like a heart monitor,” he says. “It read the bottom, and the stylus moved up and down, drawing you a picture of what was on the bottom.”
Fritts says that for his early paper graphs from Lowrance, he’d go through a roll of paper per day of fishing. And he didn’t mind. “Nobody had ever seen a picture of the bottom of a lake before,” he says. “It was so far ahead of its time that people used them up to the early ’90s.”
In the 1980s, the first LCD-based fishfinders appeared. Though relatively small and portable, Fritts says, those units were largely a disaster. They would often show fish that weren’t there, mistaking debris for marine life. “The worst part was that they would actually draw a little fish on the screen,” he says with a laugh.
By 2007, when side-scan sonar and multifunction displays made their debuts, the fishfinder had evolved into one of the most advanced pieces of helm electronics. Modern fishfinders can integrate plotters, GPS sensors, streaming audio and video, and thermal imaging cameras, as well as real-time sonar and aerial drone manipulation.
For Fritts, fishfinders represent the most dramatic shift in technology in the past four decades. He respects how far helm electronics have come, but don’t expect him to give up his flasher anytime soon.
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.