I've been told repeatedly that I need to have radar on my boat to go cruising. "Crossing an ocean without radar is just plain dangerous!" Radar is one of those devices that cost a lot, not just money to buy and install a unit, but also a lot of electricity to run. Being how we have a small electric motor, we have no way of actually producing the power needed to run such a unit in a storm, especially since our solar panels would not be operational in the cloud cover.
The choice to go without radar was not chosen lightly, we simply had to look at what radar is, what is it used for, and why do we need it.
Radar is a method of detecting other objects by sending out high frequency electro-magnetic pulses and then reading the returning signal. With weather, denser clouds will reflect more of the pulses and appear as a denser object on the screen.
Radar is typically used for spotting other vessels in the distance, as well as seeing land masses and weather systems. This is really important if you plan to sail by night, especially if you plan to enter a new port in the dark. The radar screen will display any unlit vessels, as well as show you the cliffs and hills of the land masses around you.
If you are not very brave, you can also heave to outside of a new area and wait for dawn to make your entrance. With the sun, you will be able to see everything that was obscured by the darkness.
As far as seeing weather systems, this is an important facet of radar. Light clouds will appear as light signatures on the screen, while dense storm clouds will appear as heavier signatures on the screen. Radar also lets you track the direction of the storm and lets you know if you need to prepare for it or not.
Sailors feel the need to have radar on their yachts because it gives them eyes in the night, and shows them things that they do not know how to look at. We live in a technological age where we would rather stare at a screen than look out at the horizon.
As far as seeing land formations and ships in the dark, if you do not sail in the dark or enter new harbors, this is a mute point. Weather on the other hand is rather handy.
Radar displays of weather systems tells you how bad the storm will be and if it will hit you. You can track how fast it is moving and know when it will strike you and with how much severity.
I do feel that radar is very important when on inland water ways, such as the Chesapeake Bay, where sea room is limited and storms are fierce. Knowing how and when a storm will hit lets you know if you have time to run for shelter or if you need to get away from a lee shore now.
Instead of going through the expense of buying, installing, and maintaining a radar on your yacht, you can just use the one you have in your pocket!
Your smart phone has the capability of tapping into the Doppler radars that surround you! These radars are far more powerful than anything you could carry on board, and let you see the entire system, instead of what is just a few miles around you.
These apps are free, and work as long as you have internet signal to your smart phone!
If you are in coastal waters, you will have signal and can track these storm systems as they move around you, thus negating the need for a fancy and expensive radar system. But what about if you are off shore? How do you deal with storm systems then without the smartphone radar?
Well, all you need to do is look around you. Storm systems will pop up on the horizon and can be seen from over a hundred miles away. You can easily watch the clouds and see how they move, how fast, and in which direction. If they are constantly approaching you, it might be a good idea to get the storm sails out. If they are getting closer yet, it is time to set the storm sails.
Setting storm sails is easy to do during calm weather, not so much during the storm itself! We usually set the storm sails and wait hove to in the calm before the storm for a few hours as we await its arrival. When it hits, we then sit and wait for it to pass. Once it has moved over us, we resume sailing again as if nothing had happened.
Having radar in this situation would not change anything. You can see a storm on the horizon long before it shows up on the radar screen, and if it does hit you, you have plenty of sea way to drift in as it rages over you. There is no "out running a storm to safe harbor" in the ocean, as there is nowhere to hide. Instead, you simply need to be prepared to ride out the storms that come upon you as they do.
Based on these reasons, we have opted to forego the installation of radar on our boat as we cruise the Atlantic Ocean, and instead prefer to watch the horizon for dangers that are around us.