Monday, June 29, 2015

New Toy

Recently when anchored in a familiar bay, we saw a boat anchored in a location that was filled with submerged pilings. Or at least in the past it was... Years before, we had actually surveyed this part of the bay by dinghy at low tide and marked the locations of the pilings we could see using a hand-held GPS.  Did he know something we didn't?  Or was he blithely happy in his ignorance (and lucky)?

I'm sure a similar situation has happened to you - you might be interested in taking the boat between those two small islands as a short cut, but the chart detail in the passage was totally inadequate to take the risk.  Those of you with $15,000 RIBs as tenders probably already have a depth sounder installed and can then use the dinghy to do a quick bathymetry survey.

But we don't have that kind of dinghy.  So what to do?  Not wanting to do a permanent installation on our dinghy, I considered hand-held depth sounders.

There is one that is shaped like a flashlight - to use it, you dip the big end in the water and press the button for a reading.  Great for spot soundings, but awkward for taking more or less continuous readings.

And then there are the ones that have a hand-held read-out, connected to the transducer by a cable.  This is better, since the read-out is in your hand, right side up and easily read on a continuous basis.  But there's that cable.

And then I found the answer:  A wireless depth sounder.  There are several varieties - being a cheap frugal mariner, I bought one direct from China instead of one sold by a name-brand manufacturer (also made in China).

It's a cute little hand-held unit - not waterproof, so don't drop it in the drink.  It communicates with the completely separate transducer via radio.  And the transducer is a tiny little thing:

A friend suggested that it should have been molded with a duck's head on the post
The transducer is powered with a single CR2032 coin battery and there is no on/off switch.  Instead, there are two exposed metal contacts on the underside - when it is placed in water, it turns on.  There are a couple of holes molded into a fin on the bottom (you can just see one at the tip of my finger) that you can use to attach a towing line.  Or a fishing line!  Yes, it is small and light enough that (should you be a fisherman) you could cast it over to that deep hole where the lunkers might be hiding.

I am very much looking forward to using it to survey our favorite anchorages to maybe expand the territory available to us!

Monday, June 22, 2015


Have you ever done fiberglass layup? If you have, then you know how difficult it is to get the wetted cloth to follow a sharp outside corner tightly, with "sharp" being a variable depending on how heavy the cloth is.  It tends to spring back, leaving a gap underneath.

Well, boat manufacturers have the same problem you do.  And on Eolian, there was a place where the cloth pulled away from the gelcoat-sprayed mold corner, leaving a gap between the gelcoat and the cloth.  This revealed itself over the years by the gelcoat cracking up in the bottom of what was now an inside corner, because it was unsupported.

The problem area was on the aft deck, where the coach house meets the deck.  Sadly, I did not take a "before" picture...  but this one shows the extent of the area to be repaired after I ground out all the loose gelcoat flakes with my trusty Dremel tool (the perfect tool for this job!).

Now, gelcoat is formulated for application by spraying.  That means that it is quite fluid, tho the thixotropic agents included mean that when you stop disturbing it, it stays put (unlike epoxy, which continues to run and drip, seemingly forever).  But that fluidity makes it quite difficult to control the application accurately.  I mixed the gelcoat in a small cup with a tongue depressor and then used that same tongue depressor as an applicator - the radius of the end was close to the radius of the inside corner of the repair area, if I tilted the stick at the right angle.

After the gelcoat had gone off I sanded it using 220 grit wet/dry sandpaper (wet), a small piece wrapped around the end of another tongue depressor, to knock down the areas that needed to be flat.  For the radius in the corner Jane donated an old Chap Stick container, which turned out to be a pretty close fit.  Sanding is tricky.  You want to knock down the high spots and get nearly level with the surrounding area, but you don't want to cut flush until you are working on the final coat.  The original gelcoat, tho much thicker than a paint layer would be, is quite thin and easily sanded thru.  So you only want to sand flush once.

Because of the fluidity of the gelcoat, it took several applications to get the surface brought up (oh, how I wish that there was a gelcoat formulation even as stiff as, say, Greek yogurt!).  In the beginning I applied a lot, but at the end just a dab here and there to fill the hollow spots.

For final finishing I went over the area with 400 grit wet/dry (wet), and then used some polishing compound.  It comes out as shiny as a factory finish.

And done.

Again, major kudos to Fiberlay for such an amazingly perfect color match.  If you can see any color difference at all in the picture, it is because in the area where I was working the oxidized gelcoat got cleaned off, brightening the color.

(And yes, replacing that fixed port is on the list.)

Monday, June 15, 2015

No More Neon

Yup, AC polarity is correct

In 1978, when Eolian was built, LED's were an expensive novelty.  Therefore the lamps on her control panel that indicate the presence of shore power, generator power, and correct AC polarity were the tried and true neon lamps. 

A neon lamp is a stupid simple device -  a glass envelope filled with low-pressure neon and containing two closely-spaced metal pins.  It will light up when presented with 110V, drawing a vanishingly small current (400 uA).  But they don't last forever.  Eventually they grow dim and begin to flicker.  And then finally they go out. 

I had replaced the shore power neon lamp in the power panel in our first year of stewardship of Eolian.   It's the one that is lit the most, and therefore was the first to fail.  And, coincidentally, it's the only one that is somewhat easy to get at on the inside of the panel.

After 15 years, it had failed again. 

But now LEDs are common and cheap.  I found these, designed for direct connection to 110V, on the Internet for a couple of bucks apiece.  Installing them was not easy.  The back side of the power panel is quite crowded, and it was apparent that the original lamps came with the panel and had been installed before any of the wiring.

I did the deed at anchor, with the generator and inverter off, so there was no 110V present to worry about.  I got them in, but I had to take an Excedrin afterwards to deal with the cramps in my shoulder.

Hopefully they will last longer than the neon ones. 

I'll let you know in 15 years.


Monday, June 8, 2015

Island Life

We recently spent several days at anchor in Reid Harbor on Stuart Island.  Stuart is the westernmost of the San Juan Islands, with the Canadian border in the water just a little ways outside the Turn Point lighthouse.  Although there are several large and expensive-looking houses scattered about, there are only about 15 year-long Stuart Island residents.

Stuart Island

While there, we hiked to the schoolhouse, and more importantly the Treasure Chest!  "The treasure chest," you say? Yes, the Treasure Chest.  In very typical island fashion, this is filled with goodies (shirts, tees, hats, etc - some examples are hanging on the line behind it).  And it is completely on the honor system.  Yes, that's right - in an era when in the city everyone has his hand on his wallet to prevent it from being lifted, the unattended treasure chest is unattended.  Each item is packaged with an IOU and an envelope for you to mail them back a check when you reach civilization again.

The Treasure Chest
This got me to thinking about island life in general.  As it turned out, the lady that runs the treasure chest (and provides the cooler of cold water for those who have managed to trudge up the hill to the treasure chest) happened to be there as we arrived.  We had a conversation that was interesting, to say the least.

The conversation started out about the school - a wonderful open-plan building constructed in 1983 - the third schoolhouse I think (its the building on the left, with the red roof).  It is heated with a wood furnace, and looking in the windows showed a lot of creativity and love in there.  But, sadly, it is closed.  Tho the last time we visited Stuart Island there were 6 school kids, today there is only one school-aged child in residence on the island.  Not enough to justify keeping the school open.  Our conversation then turned to, how to get more young folks with children to settle on the island. 

This is not an easy task, because island life requires a level of self-sufficiency not seen for a long time elsewhere in the USA.  Such as:
  • There are no public utilities on the island.  That means that there is no electricity - each homeowner must make their own - solar, wind, or gas generator.
  • There is no public water system.  Each homeowner must drill a well and pump their water from it (see electricity, above).
  • There is no ferry service to the island.  If you live there, you're going to have a boat.
  • There is no store on the island.  For the necessities of everyday life, you must get in your boat and travel to either Roche Harbor (5 miles of open water) or Friday Harbor (14 miles).  And you must do this, not just on idyllic summer days when it is warm and the sun is hot on your shoulders, but in the winter too.
  • The nearest hospital is in Friday Harbor (see boat, above)
  • There is no telephone service unless your house happens to be in one of the few places where cell service can be obtained.
  • There is no internet (except see above)
  • There is no gas station.  Or propane delivery.  Or fuel oil delivery.  If you want or need these things, see boat, above.
  • There is no cable.
  • There is no TV, except for poor (now digital, with pixelation) sporadic reception.
  • Everything, and I mean EVERYthing must come to the island by boat.  You want that well drilled?  Or lumber for house construction?  Or concrete?  Then you'll have to hire one of those expensive LSTs to haul things to the island.
  • You want a car?  Why would you want a car?
As you can see, island life is not for everyone.  And in fact, apparently not for enough folks to support even a one-room school.  But I know that there are people out there who would absolutely jump at the chance to leave the crowded, noisy, dangerous urban environment for the peace of island life.  The compensations are tremendous. In fact, several of the items I listed above could be considered as advantages.
County Road
Yup, that's one lane, gravel.
So, here's to those young urban couples with children:  Are you self-sufficient enough to live the island life?  (We are not, but we admire it.)

Then what's keeping you from it?


Monday, June 1, 2015

Crowd-sourced Charts - Are We There Yet?

NOAA has 17 ships whose assignment includes depth surveying, according to a recent article that BoatUS published.

(Courtesy of Navionics)
But nearly every chartplotter sold now has depth sounding capabilities, tide charts, time/date, and the ability to customize the keel offset for the depth transducer.  So, virtually every boat out there with modern equipment has the ability to do what NOAA is doing.  And we outnumber NOAA millions to one.

Then where are the crowd-sourced charts?  Tho things have moved ahead amazingly since my last post on the subject a couple of years ago, we are not quite there yet.

First, tho the underlying data behind the conventional electronic charts on virtually all chart plotters was collected by NOAA and is available to all, the cartography is regarded as proprietary information by chart plotter manufacturers.  Either built into the units or on data cards, it is typically encrypted - and expensive.  Each manufacturer tries to differentiate itself from the crowd by offering special features in their cartography that are not available from others.

Next, collecting the sonar log data is one thing, but getting it all to one place and processing it to remove anomalies, mistakes, and malicious errors, turning it into charts, and then redistributing it... is completely another.  An entire infrastructure needs to be constructed.  Thanks to Al Gore's Internet and the invention of WiFi and BlueTooth, the underlying transport pieces are in place.

Finally, liability issues have yet to be sorted out.  Who is at fault, for example, if a ship runs up on the rocks while depending on charting based on data collected by hundreds of boaters, processed by Company XXX and displayed on an instrument made by Company YYY?  The lawyers must have their pound of flesh.

Nevertheless, progress is being made, as the article reveals.  Navionics  (whose only business is marine cartography) has a system in place for collecting, vetting, and distributing crowd-sourced data.  Ratheon (RayMarine), Hummingbird, and several others have incorporated Navionics' system into their instrumentation.   And Navionics even makes both a smart phone/tablet app (full disclosure: I have it) and a web-based version available.  It is really pretty slick!

But the 800 lb gorilla in the market, Garmin, has their back up and is working to create their own system.  In fact, Garmin modified their firmware specifically to prevent it from working with Navionics data (micro$oft anyone? "DOS isn't done until Lotus won't run!" was an early micro$oft rallying cry).  There is a very, very good discussion on this issue over at Panbo - I highly recommend it to you. Be sure to read down into the comments, where you will find even the founder of Navionics contributing.

So are we there yet?  I think not quite.

There needs to be an industry-wide standard that all manufacturers use to encode the sonar logs electronically - one that all manufacturers can read and write (like jpeg for pictures, as an example).    Navionics has developed one and it is in use industry-wide... with one exception.

Crunching the data is an issue.  It costs money to process all of the incoming data, to detect and remove errors, mistakes and malicious data.  Navionics is doing this today (200,000 sonar logs/day, and they're just getting started).  And most chart plotter manufacturers are happy to allow Navionics results to be used on their equipment.  Except one.

It would be a far better thing if all manufacturers embraced the concept of shared data - then all manufacturers would have better products.  Today, every manufacturer bases their products on the NOAA data and adds value thru other means.  Embracing crowd-sourced bathymetry and community edits in addition to the NOAA data is rapidly becoming the new standard.  It does nothing to prevent other value-added cartography features, and makes a better product.

When upgrading their electronic charting, every boater must make his/her own decision.  Should you buy into a closed system?  Or buy into one based on data shared across all the marine instrumentation manufacturers (except one).  But the question is deeper than that.  Given that marine charting is only 10% of Garmin's business, and if creating their own infrastructure and trying to compete with the entire rest of the marine industry proves to be too expensive a nut to crack, it is possible that they could simply exit the marine business altogether, meaning that buying into a Garmin-based system could get you a closed and orphaned system.

Finally, there is the liability issue.  But until a case is adjudicated in an Admiralty court, I'm afraid this will be in limbo.  

So no, we're not quite there yet.

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