Saturday, December 21, 2013

Satellite Weather/OCENS/Globalstar

Happy after a successful install!

 This post may turn out to be boring and technical, but it does start with a real episode from 2010 in Long Island, Bahamas. White Pepper had spent 3 lovely days at Thompson's Bay, Long Island and was headed north. Thompson's Bay is not too far away, but it is over the edge of the datasphere. It was a lovely day with blue skies and gentle breezes. However, without a weather forecast I was miserable with anxiety. I was sure that any minute now a black cloud would appear on the horizon to blast us down. I spent most of the afternoon in the cabin trying to coax an inadequate radio into giving us a forecast over an unreliable and horribly static filled frequency. I began to consider what would make me happy.

Up until then we had been limping along with Internet where it was available and VHF updates from local “nets” or fellow cruisers. Clearly an upgrade was needed if we were to become more independent. The time honored solution for cruisers is SSB, single side band. SSB is expensive, difficult to install and maintain, and craps out in bad weather—just when you need it.

My thought was to use a satellite phone to obtain the weather. Compared to SSB satellite telephony is cheap(er), easier to install, and available anytime—especially the military grade Iridium phones. When the time came to pull the trigger I was talked into the Globalstar system. These satellites fly lower than the Iridium's and require a ground based antenna so they are not truly world wide. But they do work well in the Bahamas, Gulf of Mexico, and US East Coast which is White Pepper's cruising grounds. If I ever do go to Europe an upgrade will be needed. Globalstar is also about half price compared to Iridium at the present time.

I ordered a sat phone, antenna, docking station, wi-fi hot spot, and 1000 minutes all for under $2000. Jan called it a Christmas present. My plan was to use OCENS weather. I had used them previously with the Internet. I had found their system of gathering data and presenting it to be quite satisfactory. All of the weather data is actually free provided to the public by NOAA in grib files. However, getting this data into the boat and onto the computer in a coherent form is quite difficult. I was happy to pay OCENS literally pennies per page to do that task for me.

All of the stuff arrived at Vero Beach City Marina. The first sentence in the skimpy instruction manual was that “This installation should be done by a professional.” They were right. After three days of hand to hand combat in the nav station and several calls to OCENS, it was all done. The Globalstar sat phone had 4 bars and the Optimizer hot spot had three lights across. I made a few clicks on the computer, pushed the GO button, and about one second later a 7 day forecast appeared on the screen. I can't tell you how delighted and amazed I was. Indeed, I took the whole rest of the day off and went to lunch and the beach with Jan.

My hope is now that the weather will be instantly available to White Pepper no matter how remote the location, how late the hour, or how bad the atmospheric conditions. Also satellite phones provide emergency communications and e-mail. Satellite phone can not provide the camaraderie of the SSB nets, say the Cruiseheimer's net, but I will fore go that for now.

Saw this remarkable face drawn in the sand just before high tide (click on it to see the full face)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Radio Magic

In the science fiction world there is a saying that “sufficiently advanced technology will appear as magic to primitive peoples.” As an example I give you AIS.

AIS, automatic identification system, is a mandated system whereby large ships are required to broadcast their location, velocity, and other information periodically over a VHF frequency. VHF is the widely used band for marine communications. AIS information, when acquired by other boats, has undoubtedly saved a few collisions and relived untold anxiety on the part of watch keepers of boats large and small.

Jan and I on yacht White Pepper have wanted to acquire this technology. A dedicated AIS system is complicated and expensive. Some stand alone units are north of $3000.00 and require another antenna or a splitter at least. AIS would only be really needed by the White Pepper on the two nights of the year when we cross and recross the Gulf Stream on the way to and from Florida to the Bahamas. Since 2010 Standard Horizon, also proudly known as Yeasu of Yokohama, Japan, has offered a unit that combines VHF voice communications and AIS. It is the Matrix AIS+ 2150. However, White Pepper, had a perfectly good VHF unit, an older Standard Horizon, the Eclipse model.

When the Eclipse began to act up—cutting out and changing channels—I quickly got on the internet and ordered the Matrix AIS+ for the grand holiday special price of $280 from Defender Marine. Two days later the unit showed up in the mail. I have always used Standard Horizon radios so the switch out was easy. When removing the old Eclipse, I noticed that the VHF antenna cable was loose! Oh, well; at least I had fully functioning back up for the new radio.

Now comes the advanced technology/magic part. The Matrix radio wants learn the GPS data from you and in return will give back the AIS. I have an older Garmin chart plotter, a 545S. It uses the outdated NEMA 0183 format. Fortunately, so does the Matrix. But how to get the two units to talk to one another? Sometimes they want to talk at 4800 baud and sometimes at 38400 baud. An internet search said the solution was easy, but no one bothered to elaborate. The Standard Horizon website had a file on the issue, but it would not load—something about duplicate headers?? A call to Garmin International in Olathe, Kansas yielded some advice that I eventually had to discard. I must have read the three relevant pages in the Standard Horizons Users Manuel 25 times.

For readers that are actually interested in making this connection, here is the magic incantation. The colors are those of the respective wiring harnesses.

Matrix AIS+        Garmin 545              baud
Blue                     Blue                         4800            Port 1 on the Garmin
Green                  Brown                     4800            the common ground
Yellow                Violet                    38400            Port 2 on the Garmin
White                   Grey                      38400            not sure what this does

After about 10 hours of work image my delight and surprise at seeing ships (rather their AIS symbols) on the small but familiar screen of my trusty Garmin—magic!

I do not believe that I have mastered AIS technology, only that I have tricked and charmed it for awhile. Regardless, White Pepper, will be a tad safer when crossing the Gulf Stream this year on the way to the Bahamas.

NB 1-6-13.  White Pepper used the AIS for the first time in combat today.  We were off of Freeport, Bahamas and a cruise ship the Carnival "Sensation" had us  head on 4 miles astearn.  CPA, closest point of approach, was a quarter of a mile.  Every cruiser knows that cruise ships never answer a hail on channel 16, but I called them on DSC directly.  They answered "station calling Sensation."  I asked if they saw me and they seemed puzzled.  They said that I was on the radar.  I asked their intentions.  They said that they were soon to alter course to port and  that I should carry on.  All of this  relieved a great deal of anxiety in the pre-dawn hours. God Bless AIS. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas Parades at Vero Beach, Florida

This Vero Beach is great for parades.  Jan and I were treated to back to back Christmas parades.  On December 6th there was a dynamite illuminated boat parade that passed withing 100 feet of our mooring ball in Vero Beach Marina.   The next day there was a quintessential home town Christmas parade down Ocean Drive.  It lasted for over an hour with dozens and dozens of home town businesses and interests represented with floats.  All of the police department marched and got a big round of applause.  The local high school band turned out in force.All in all a good time was had by all.

 Here is a pic of one of the floats.

The  day before we watched a boat parade as they came by our mooring ball less than  100 feet away.

Then as a special treat the kayak club came by one night caroling through the mooring field.

Vero Beach really knows how to celebrate Christmas on the water.

Second Set of Bow Cleats, This One with an Air Chock

I have never seen a boat with two sets of bow cleats (four total).  After years of cruising I do not understand why this is not standard.  At a rough anchorage with two anchors down the chain or rode needs a cleat on each side as does each  snubber.  At dock a bow line and a spring line each need a cleat.  When not in use each anchor has a safety line that needs to be secured.  When hurricanes threaten each point of the boat needs to be secured with a loose line and a very loose line.  There is an old sailing maxim that only one line should be on a cleat. There are then numerous precautionary tales about disaster that occurs when too many lines were attached to a single cleat.  So why do sailing yachts only have two cleats on the bow?

White Pepper chose to add a second set of cleats recently.  I called South Shore Yachts in Canada which supplies parts for old C&Cs. They said the original cleats were generics from a Taiwan source now out of business.  I found a very close match with Schaefer Marine in the 8 inch open style bolted down with four 5/16 bolts. sent the stainless steel  5/16-18 x 3 and 1/2 inch bolts and nuts. West Marine supplied the washers. Flour Bluff Plastics made the Starboard pieces back in Texas.  Cesany  Plastics, Inc helped with some last minute additional parts online. By the way these guys at Cesany are great, and I can highly recommend them for any plastics work. Finally everything was assembled.
New second bow cleat on starboard and on top of 1.5 in of Starboard

Original cleat on port on right and new one to left.

One of the best and worst parts of the C&C 41 is the toe rail.  It is incredibly versatile.  However, it runs all the way to the bow.  In a windy anchorage I am sure that the toe rail could saw right though any line. My solution was to fashion a platform of Starboard an inch and half high and level with the toe rail.  This will allow the line to go straight from the cleat into the water--an air chock!  No friction, no sawing action, no need for chafe protection! I got the idea from Heinz' book on anchoring, The Complete Book of Anchoring, now out of print, I believe.  As an added benefit I have learned how to lead the standing end (the part that goes to the load, i.e. the anchor) over the top of the cleat allowing for even more clearance.
Karl's version of the cleat knot.  Note the standing end leads over the top. An air chock!

It was all assembled today.  I am sure that the new arrangement will be safer, more secure, and allow for more restful sleep below during a blow at anchor.

Beautiful Hibiscus

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Space X Launch

White Pepper continued her hard march down from Daytona (see previous post) past New Smyrna to Titusvillle.  There we picked up a mooring ball and had a restful night.  After refueling there was more motoring south.  Finally we pulled over to the side of the ICW  in the Indian River near the mouth of the Banana River in very benign conditions.  We were watching for the launch of the Space X rocket which is the first commercial rocket launched from Cape Canaveral 15 miles to the north.

I was prepared to be impressed but not overwhelmed.  The rocket launched on time at 5:41 pm several minutes past sunset.

Two thoughts jumped into my head.  One is that Elon Musk, founder of Pay Pal, Tesla Motors, and Space X, must be so proud.  And that it was no wonder locals were so hooked on the launches.  This beats fireworks all to hell.
Man made sunrise at sunset

Setting Sun catches the contrails

Second stage burn

What could not be shown in these photographs taken on a Galaxy phone is the stately pace with which the rocket slowly ascended into the heavens.  There was a rumbling thunder several minutes after the visual events 20 miles north and up.  In the last picture at the end of the middle contrail is a bright speck.  This is the first stage rocket reflecting the setting sun.  It very gradually fell to earth as the second stage powered away.  Later there was a smaller speck, the second stage, falling to earth.  By this time the third stage was just a faint star burning in the sky.

We can only hope that this private enterprise endeavour re-invigorates the space industry.  Please see my previous post about Titusville in Dec. 2010 titled the "Sadness of Titusville" when the government space efforts were shutting down.  It was so depressing, but maybe today things are looking up for Titusville and Cape Canaveral.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Karl Screws Up--Suffers

It has been my practice to always use an anchor float in American waters; this practice being discouraged in the Bahamas.  An anchor float, attached to the crown of the anchor, allows one to visualized the anchor on the bottom and provide access to a trip line if needed to retrieve the anchor from a snag. It also allows for fouling the prop.  This is what happened this morning during the anchor retrieval drill aboard White Pepper as she lay at anchor in the laguna between Daytona and Daytona Beach, Florida.
Chilly Dec. Dawn Swim

We had anchored at the excellent anchorage near marker R44 on the ICW.  The current had shifted and there was a contrary wind to the current.  The float was positioned precisely under the stern of the boat.  It was out of sight and out of mind when Jan engaged the motor to assist me in raising the the anchor--CLUNK.  The anchor float and line had wrapped around the prop.  The diesel process can not proceed without rotation.  Fortunately, the anchor was still in place.

There was no other course except to go into the water and dive to free the prop.  Please remember that this is dawn in December.  On deck I would wear a fleece and a jacket. Jan sharpened the sharpest kitchen knife and after much fuss I entered the water.  Indeed the prop was well fouled with 5 or 6 tight wraps.  It took several dives to free the whole mess.  As readers can see from the picture a wet suit was not needed to protected core temperatures.  Health was restored after the dive with a hot shower and hot breakfast.  Two hours late we were off the New Symrna.

From now on I will not use an anchor float except in well known problem areas such as the Alligator River and Beaufort Creek, both in NC.