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 Alan Lucas


By Alan Lucas, SY Soleares

To paraphrase writer Bill Bryson; I phoned my depth sounder help-line the other day because I felt like being humiliated by someone younger than myself. Like Bill, I needed to discuss a technical problem about which I knew very little despite it involving my main tool of trade, a depth sounder. Only eight years old, its head was dying for the third time. I first called the retailer.

Apparently I failed to convince the young counterjumper of my simple needs for repair because he brushed them aside in favour of expounding the virtues of buying the latest replacement model whose features include speed, temperature, fish reveal, shallow and deep alarms, wash, rinse, dry, anchor-watch, falling space debris alarm and terrorist alert. No, no, I said, I just want my old head repaired because it shows the depth in big, bold digital numbers and has no whistles and bells.

His scepticism about getting my 'old' model repaired tempted me to mention a mate whose prehistoric 'Seafarer' had never given any trouble in 27 years and a graph Furuno I used 35 years ago that couldn't be killed with an axe, but instead I kept the peace and asked if the new model's head was compatible with my existing transducer and cable. He pressed on by assuring me that, 'Fitting a new thru-hull transducer is no problem, all you do is - - - '. Perhaps rudely, I interjected here to point out that I had just off-slipped my boat and had no intention whatsoever of re-slipping her for at least a year. Meanwhile, I needed a functioning sounder.

He promised to check compatibility with the agent and get back to me.

As any transient customer in Australia knows, the dreaded 'I will get back to you' is a watertight guarantee that you will never hear from that company again, not even if you are anxious to spend a million dollars in cash, plus bonus. It therefore came as a shock when the fellow did, indeed, call me back to say that the new head is compatible with the old transducer. So, influenced more by his un-Australian response than any real desire to up-grade, I ordered the new model despite having to buy its transducer.

On receiving the new depth sounder in a port far away, it was impossible to ignore the conspicuous dissimilarity between the old and new heads. The new one was thinner, narrow and greyer with a sculptured shape, thereby not complimenting the old white, blocky neighbouring sum log head in any way. The instrument panel aesthetics took a dive.

But at least the substructure of the new head fitted the old panel hole perfectly, as promised, although a new fangled under-dash bracket got in the way of the ferrites and had to be modified. Never mind, the old power feed and transducer plugs fitted like gloves and soon everything was ready to test, in preparation for which I did the unthinkable - I sat down and read the manual first.

As any Luddite knows, modern technology is primarily aimed at preventing the recruitment of new members. Its absence of basic on and off switches and simple analogue knobs is confusing enough, but learning a new language of acronyms and meaningless jargon without a glossary of terms before you even get started is insufferable. So I was rather pleased to find easy-to-follow flow charts in the manual until it became obvious that nothing I did according to their cartoons would produce more than a 'malfunctioning' graphic.

This time I rang the importing agent direct, only to find that it's two advertised technical inquiry numbers failed to excite any response whatsoever despite my numerous chats with its answering machines. Nothing surprising there, I didn't seriously expect a response, so I tried a third number provided by the retailer on a 'don't-tell-where-you-got-it-from' basis and at last touched base with a very friendly fellow who initially confirmed that the old and new heads were, indeed, compatible with the old transducer. Furthermore, he pledged to double-check and call me back ASAP (this is one acronym I do understand!).

I had scarcely finished composing a mental letter of outrage to his superiors when, true to his word, he really did call back. Stunned by his sincerity, I was beginning to enjoy being humiliated by persons younger than myself until he announced that the old transducers were not compatible after all. There is a third wire (he said and I had already suspected) in the new head that was not needed in the old, meaning that although the plugs fitted perfectly, they could not pass all the information needed for those invaluable extras that we all apparently need now days.

So there it is: a typical story of old-meets-new in a technological world that is mindlessly accelerating redundancy for no real gains. All I want is a sounder that sounds, nothing more. Furthermore, when an acknowledged troublesome unit like mine is replaced with (hopefully) an improved model, there should be an over-run of service for the old model, not a complete cessation of spare part-availability. And surely, if a mono-function unit must be superseded with a multi-function unit, what is so wrong with making their transducers compatible?

My need for a depth sounder is more commercial than private, so I stayed in port during this episode where I sensed strong empathy amongst my fellow cruising sailors with similar stories to relate. Manufacturers don't seem to realise that there is a huge market in the real world of cruising for uncomplicated, long-lasting instruments. And as if to reinforce this truth, one of the yachties swapped me his ancient, battered Lowrance thru-hull sounder for my book, Cruising the Coral Coast, warning me that it may have died from disuse since he upgraded to a newer model.

The Lowrance looked like it had been salvaged from a World War Two submarine, but it was a promise of getting me back to work and, best of all, it's transducer fired through the hull, not via a thru-hull fitting, making it unnecessary to slip the boat. Better still, it worked! Okay, so my instrument panel looks like badly planned junkyard, but the fact is it was very old technology still functioning in a simple and dedicated way.

How can any bushy-tailed, much-younger-than-me technophile mount an intelligent argument against that?