Boat AccessoriesMarine Electronics

Digital Switching Systems on Boats – Good, or Bad?

Several builders of high-end fishing boats now incorporate digital switching systems as standard fare, but there remains some argument as whether this is a good thing, or not.

Fishermen can be ever so slightly opinionated and even argumentative on extremely rare occasions (no way), which we think is pretty evident if you spend any amount of time in a tackle shop, at a marina, or on the BDOutdoors forums.

Anglers can also be quite traditionalist in their ways of thinking, and resistant to change. So it’s little wonder that new tech incorporated into fishing boats sometimes faces a bit of a headwind – as has been the case with digital switching.

digital switching
The concept of building a digital system on a NMEA2000 backbone in a production boat isn’t new, but incorporating a switching system into the mix has only been seen for about five years and has only more recently becoming widespread.

What is Digital Switching?

Those of you who already know all about digital switching can skip down to the next section, where the real argument begins. But before we get there, we need to make sure everyone’s on the same page with a solid concept of what exactly digital switching is in the first place. In a nutshell: Digital switching systems eliminate mechanical switches, contacts, fuses, and bus-bars, and wiring harnesses with separate wires for each and every switch, and replaces them with an electrical flow of current distributed through a NMEA2000 “backbone” cable (sometimes called a “trunk line”).

Simrad Connected Captain
Simrad’s Connected Captain puts full control at the captain’s fingertips.

A dedicated display or your MFD at the helm (virtually all modern networkable units are capable) is used to interface with the system. The interface can be displayed in a number of ways, including a diagram of the boat and its systems, simple icons or virtual switches, or a combination of these on the touch-screen. To turn on your livewell or spreader lights, instead of flipping a switch at the helm you simply swipe or tap the screen.

digital switching
Many digital switching systems are customizable to specific boat models, right down to the icons on the screen.

Generally speaking, digital system interfaces are a cakewalk to learn. They have menus and functions that are patterned – just like everything else these days – more or less like cell phone interfaces. In fact, stepping onto a boat you’ve never run and looking at the MFD, it won’t take much more time to figure out how to flip a virtual switch than it would take for you to scan the panel of traditional rockers or toggles, and find the switch you want.

Digital Switching Pros

Digital switching systems have a number of advantages over the old switch-and-wire routine. For starters, after working through the initial planning phase (which does commonly require some extra design work), digital switching systems can cut both weight and cost in a boat. A significant amount of tinned-copper wiring can be eliminated and build-time can be reduced.

digital switch for boats
Scout 320 LXF

Introduced in 2013, the Scout 320 LXF was one of the first production center consoles to offer an integrated CZone digital switching system. Scout Rep Alex Lang says that after the up-front costs are accounted for, the systems are simpler for the builder to install and for the user to operate, they’re cleaner, and also more reliable.

A surprise advantage that’s developed the past few years is the ability to control your boat remotely. You may remember from when we ran the article Siren Marine Launches Next Wave of Connected Boat Technology, that there are now remote monitoring systems on the market which allow you to interact with your fishing machine from afar via an app on your cell phone. Sensors can keep an eye on things like bilge pump activity and battery charge level and send you text alerts when necessary. But these systems can also be used to remotely turn things on and off. You wish you could flip on the cockpit lights before you get out of the truck in the pre-dawn hours? To make it happen normally you’d have to install a relay, but if your boat has digital switching (and in this case the switch isn’t seeing more than two amps) the relay isn’t even necessary.

What? Old switches go bad and fail? Nah, no way, never!!!

Perhaps most importantly, however, digital switching systems offer an overall increase in reliability. Those switches sitting at your helm which used to corrode and break are eliminated from the system. Glitchy wire connections and arcing are things of the past. And all those tangled webs of wires? Forgeddaboudit.

Digital Switching Cons

Of course, nothing in this word is perfect. So, in what ways are those old switches and wires superior? If and when one goes down, it’s just one. If the NMEA2000 system gets a gremlin, your entire boat can go down.

Then again, many of us will remember when grizzled old salts argued against MFDs and for individual electronics units by pointing out that if your fishfinder failed, your chartplotter was out of action too. And we all know how that argument turned out – these days, it’s tough to find a stand-alone fishfinder or chartplotter unit that doesn’t multitask. And truth be told, having multiple systems is really just introducing multiple opportunities for failure.


digital switch
Grady-White is in many ways a very traditional builder, but when it came time to design their flagship Canyon 456 utilizing digital switching was a no-brainer – look at how few switches are at the helm.

But here’s the icing on the cake: virtually all the boat-builders currently utilizing digital switching also install wired back-ups for critical systems, like bilge pumps and running lights. Potential problem eliminated.

What else is there to beef about, when it comes to digital switching? Not much. Spend some serious time aboard a boat with digital switching and there’s a good chance you’ll become a true believer – even if you are a grizzled old salt who’s slightly opinionated and resistant to change.

Lenny Rudow
Lenny Rudow …has been a writer and editor in the marine field for over two decades, and has authored seven books. He is currently the Angler in Chie...