Top 10 Products for 1999

Each year, PS editors choose the top 10 pieces of gear evaluated and tested during the preceding 12 months. This years list is headlined by the Spade anchor, Nexus integrated instruments and the Isotemp O221R water heater


Choosing the best gear for sailboats isn’t easy. But at Practical Sailor were used to doing just that. The job is easiest when empirical tests result in irrefutable data, such as, say, a bilge pump that pumps 40% more than its nearest competitor, and costs the same. Evaluations of other gear, to which it is difficult to ascribe numerical performance values, are more challenging. With such gear, we develop a list of criteria against which each unit is measured.

As in years past, those products that are selected for Gear of the Year must demonstrate clear superiority, innovation and value. We begin with the Spade anchor.

The Spade Anchor
Youd be surprised how many anchors there are out there. It seems that the design of anchors attracts more inventors than practically any other piece of sailing equipment. Theres always a better mousetrap, or so their inventors hope. Weve seen a lot of weird looking anchors come through our doors. Many perform so poorly we wonder whether their designers have even tested them.

Not so with Alain Poiraud and his Spade. This Frenchman living in Tunisia has painstakingly studied all the extant literature on anchoring, design and construction. What he did, in simplified terms, was to take a conventional plow, like the CQR, and invert the shape of the penetrating blade so that it presents a convex shape to the direction of the load, while retaining the ability of the plow to dig in. The tip is weighted to aid in setting.

In short, it works. In our sand tests (January 1), the Spade was the only anchor to hold 1,000 lbs. In mud (coming in December 1999), the Spade ranked fourth among 17.

The Spade is available in galvanized steel and aluminum. Both, particularly the aluminum model, are finished smoothly to minimize clinging mud. The stock is a separate piece, fastened with a non-load bearing bolt.

Spade anchors are still not available in the US, and are somewhat expensive (a 16.5-lb. model costs $355). Negotiations are underway to appoint a US distributor. PS readers, however, have successfully ordered the anchor from Tunisia and report good performance.

ABI Quick Release Lever
In the past year, readers have expressed much interest in quick release or Highfield levers for inner forestays. The ability to set a staysail is important for offshore sailing.

In the January 15 issue we examined all types of levers that could conceivably be used for fastening inner forestays to a deck fitting. Included were threaded stay adjusters from Wichard and Harken, and the sliphaken from Belgium. Only Johnson Marine and ABI offer true Highfield levers. The Johnson levers are well-made and of good value, but if you want a really robust lever, the ABI range of manganese bronze Highfield levers are excellent. Prices range from $313 to $553.

Isotemp 0221R Water Heater
Hot pressure water aboard has become standard on most boats above 30′. If you live at a dock where shore power is available, and rarely anchor overnight, just about any water heater will do. The 110 VAC heating element will keep the tank water hot and replenished.

Away from the dock, however, water heaters rely on heat exchangers plumbed to the engines cooling system. Differences in heat exchanger design, as well as tank insulation and fitting sizes, account for the differences in performance we recorded in our February 1 tests of 6-gal. models.

Made in Sweden, the Isotemp 0221R is a horizontal cylinder wrapped in a peach-colored polyurethane foam. It doesn’t look as nice as a polished stainless steel heater, but it outperformed the rest in the all-important heat-loss test. Twenty-two hours after the engine was shut down, tank water measured an astounding 102F, 16 warmer than the next best. In the heat rise test, it was a respectable third, closely following the Super Stor and Raritan. Part of its performance is due to a unique mixing valve that circulates water inside the tank from top to bottom.

We concluded our report by saying that the Super Stor at $299.95 was a Best Buy, but the top perfomer was the Isotemp. At $405 it isn’t cheap, but its the only heater that retains sufficient heat overnight to let you shower the next day without firing up the engine.

Nexus Instruments
The day of the stand-alone depthsounder, knotmeter and wind speed/direction indicator is almost gone. When 10 or 15 years ago integrated instruments, such as B&G and Ockam, were priced only for grand prix racers, today all of the major marine electronic companies offer affordable integrated instrument systems.

In the May 1 issue we evaluated systems from KVH, Navico, Autohelm, B&G, Standard, Simrad and Nexus. It is a bit of a difficult choice choosing between central or distributed processing systems, but central seems to be the way of the future, that is, with a single central processor connected to any number of transducers. The risk is that if the processor goes down, everything goes down. Well, not quite. The Nexus was unique among those tested in that the speed and depth displays can be unplugged from the server and plugged directly into the Multi display, thus retaining these two important outputs.

The Nexus offered more features for less money than the others, and owner feedback regarding reliability and customer service was excellent. We especially liked its Boost feature that measures the percentage gain or loss of speed between resets. And we found the man-overboard feature clever and easy to use.

Cost of the basic package is $1,200, making it the Best Buy.

Garhauer Rigid Boom Vang
Until the mid-1980s, one never saw such a thing as a rigid boom vang. So why do you need one now? First, their cascading tackle offers tremendous purchase for flattening the mainsail, and second, they support the boom without need of a topping lift.

The May 15 issue contained our third evaluation of rigid vangs this decade. While we again proclaimed the Hall Quik Vang top of the line, we also couldnt help but marvel at the quality and low price of the Garhauer vangs. Made of stainless steel, theyre heavier than aluminum models and so would be of less interest to racers. Cruisers, however, are snapping them up. Guaranteed for 10 years, custom fittings are available at no or little extra cost. Prices begin at about $170 for boats up to 25′ and range up to $600 for a massive 48-pounder with 25:1 purchase. The standard large vang, with 20:1 purchase, sells for $230 to $340. Thats at least several hundred dollars below the competition. How does Bill Felgenhauer do it? Well, he doesn’t advertise much in costly national magazines, and there are no middle men. He sells direct at a lot of boat shows.

Bird Deterrents: Shoo-in-a-Sock
We never know what is going to set our readers off, but having been the victims of bird bombs ourselves, we could have predicted the response from Don Thomas May 15 test of bird deterrents aboard his Pearson 28-2 in Beaufort, South Carolina-overwhelming! Well soon publish a Reader Forum of letters and other ideas.

The trick to keeping birds off your boat depends on where they land, and to an extent, the species. Dons particular enemy was the grackle on deck and in the cockpit. He tried every device he could find, from owls to inflatable snakes to whirl-a-gigs, balloons with scary faces, magnets with wings and traps that spring open and clap. Alas, most were dismal failures.

Most effective was Shoo-in-a-Sock, which is essentially a long bungy cord with hooks at each end and lots of colorful flags in between. It can be strung over lifelines or across the deck, wherever necessary to interrupt a birds flight path or landing zone. Its somewhat expensive at $49.95, and the flags may not last a long time, but hey, if it saves a half-dozen bombings and the awful resultant clean-up, whos squawking?

Simrad CP32 GPS/Chartplotter
Electronic charts are one of the major breakthroughs in marine electronics of the past 20 years. Owners of mid and larger size boats are eager customers. We even saw one at the helm of a ferry/tour boat in Maine last summer. No sign of paper charts, but we assume there were a few tucked in a drawer somewhere. C-Map and Navionics are the leaders, though a few companies, like Garmin, use the same data but in a proprietary format.

Obviously, you need a chartplotter to view digitized maps. Theyve been around for some years. A logical extension of the plotter was to incorporate GPS data, so the boats actual location can be displayed on the chart.

In the June issue we evaluated 10 black & white GPS/chartplotters for accuracy and operation. Prices varied from about $600 discount to $1,200 and the Simrad CP32 was at the top. It was easy to see why: built-in DGPS for even greater accuracy, optional echo sounder, certified to waterproof standards, Windows-like interface, a draw program and more. Despite its amazing array of features not found on most other units, it was very easy to use. Highly recommended.

Pains-Wessex Pinpoint Flares
Suppose your boat is sinking, or youre already in a life raft. An EPIRB will initiate search and rescue operations, but its still a big ocean. How do they find you? Firing aerial flares that zoom hundreds of feet into the air and stay lit long enough for rescuers to take notice is the first step. Okay. The rescue ship has spotted your flare and turns toward you. But your raft is a small target and you fear the ship may pass by. If you have a VHF handheld radio, you can try hailing the bridge. You also should be prepared to set off a handheld flare to direct the ship to your position.

In the June issue we tested six models of handheld flares designed to last long enough for rescuers to take a bearing on your position. Some were US Coast Guard approved (500 candela for at least 120 seconds) and some were SOLAS approved (15,000 candela for at least 60 seconds). Our tests on Long Island Sound showed dramatic differences. While the Pains-Wessex Mk 7 Handflare had the best performance, its also expensive at about $13 each discount. For value, the Pains-Wessex Pinpoint flares were the clear winner costing $16 for a package of three. We wrote that It did everything its pricier sibling did, and while its minimum rated brightness is lower than that of the Mk 7-10,000 candela vs. 15,000 candela-its still much brighter than the 500 candela typical of the other USCG-approved flares.

Elmers Slide-All
There are few things more annoying on a boat than a mainsail that goes up hard and fails to drop quickly when the halyard is released. Much, of course, depends on the type of track or slot and sail slides used. Commonly used are plastic slugs that ride up and down in an extruded slot.

In the August 15 issue we tested five commercially available products, including Fastrac, Sailkote, Sea Spray and Elmers Slide-All, plus candle wax, to see which ones did the best job lubricating the slot, without accumulating lots of dirt.

The simple test set up was checked at one-month intervals, with the panel exposed to the elements in between. Slow to start, the clear winner at the end of 3 months was Elmers Slide-All. This Teflon spray sells for just $3.49 for a 4-oz. can.

Northstar 941X GPS
The vast majority of GPSs sold are handheld, in part because their price is so low, accuracy is high, and, we suspect, it makes owners feel like Dick Tracy with his secret wristwatch radio. This is somewhat unfortunate, because battery life is limited and reliability doesn’t seem to be as good as for fixed-mount models. Plus, fixed-mount GPSs have many more functions and with larger keyboards, are easier to use.

In the March issue we evaluated five fixed-mount models of GPS and were wowed by the Northstar 941X. It sells for about $1,700 discount, but includes a huge number of features, including tide and current tables, the ability to include Loran TD information, 2D and 3D displays, the ability to view up to 30 waypoints simultaneously, and much more. Its available with DGPS for another $600, and with chartplotting capabilities. Northstar is the Rolls Royce of fixed-mount GPS.

Contacts- ABI, 1160-A Industrial Ave., Petaluma, CA 94952; 800/422-1301. Elmers Slide-All, Borden Inc., Dept. CP, Columbus, OH 43215; 614/225-4000. Garhauer Marine, 1082 W. Ninth St., Upland, CA 91786; 909/985-7513. Isotemp, Great Water Inc., 3684 1/2 West Lake Rd., Erie, PA 16505; 814/838-0786. Nexus Marine, 333 Falkenburg Rd., Bldg. B-221, Tampa, FL 33619; 800/237-4582. Northstar, 30 Sudbury Rd., Acton, MA 01720; 978/897-0770. Pains-Wessex, 7040 W. Palmetto Park Rd., Boca Raton, FL 33433; 561/883-1201. Shoo-in-a-Sock, Progressive Metropolitan Corp., 1224 S. Knight Ave., Park Ridge, IL 60068; 847/692-2161. Simrad Inc., 19210 33rd Ave., W. Lynwood, WA 98036; 800/426-5565. Spade, B.P.l 88-Z.I. Route de Khniss, 5000 Monastir, Tunisia; 011-216-3-447-909, e-mail:

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him by email at