Friday, July 3, 2015

Let the tomfoolery commence

We are again under way in the Chesapeake, headed north to Annapolis, Maryland. With five hours of open water on an unchanging heading, this is an excellent opportunity to get a post up, at least here in the middle where the traffic is light.

Cove Point light, as we passed earlier today.

We had a nice calm night in Solomons, where we anchored in Back Creek, right in the thick of things (map). That's in contrast to our last visit, where we were concerned it might be too crowded or busy there, and so we had anchored around the corner in Mill Creek.

I dropped the hook in a spot where I thought we'd be out of the way and not in the traffic pattern, but subjectively it felt just barely so. That did not stop three other boats from anchoring even closer to the main part of the channel after us. We were on a short leash; I could clearly hear conversations on other nearby boats in the quiet of the evening. Coincidentally, it was on our last visit here that I did my write-up on where and how we anchor.

Vector at anchor in Back Creek, as seen from our dinner table.

We splashed the tender as soon as we were settled and rode the very short distance over to the Back Creek Bistro for dinner. We shared a prime rib, which was quite good, but the service was lackluster. We had remembered the place more fondly from our last visit.

The best shot I could get of last night's moon over the harbor with my cell phone.

Today being the start of the holiday weekend, we awoke to considerable boat traffic in the harbor. Tidal current dictated that we wait until at least 10 to depart, so the first wave was done by the time we weighed anchor, and we had an uneventful exit, but there were plenty of boats out on the Patuxent, mostly fishing. Rounding Drum Point was the usual crab-pot slalom, but those have been behind us since hitting the deeper water of the bay.

Although I expect it to be much worse tomorrow, the chaos of amateur hour out on the water has already begun. Today we heard distress calls about a vessel on fire, and a disabled vessel that was so hard to find they sent a State Police helicopter. And the DSC distress alert has sounded twice, from the same vessel both times but with no position, nature of distress, or other information, likely the result of someone playing with their brand new radio.

We'll be arriving in Annapolis just as the locals are returning from their day on the water, and I have my fingers crossed that we'll have an uneventful arrival. I don't think the real confusion will start until late tomorrow afternoon, as hundreds of boats jockey for position to watch the fireworks. We went through this last year in Norfolk, and having already been well settled-in, for us it was just another part of the evening's entertainment.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Bus report

We are under way, heading for Solomons, Maryland, on the way to Annapolis. As I begin typing this we are crossing the Potomac, heading for Point Lookout at the northern edge of the mouth of the river, where it meets the Chesapeake Bay.

Approaching Point Lookout. The lighthouse is part of the state park.

We've spent the last two days at Olverson's Lodge Creek Marina, just off the Yeocomico River (map), one of the numerous tributaries of the Potomac. We arrived in the Yeocomico fairly late Tuesday, and just dropped the hook for the night one cove short of the marina (map). Long-time readers may remember we took shelter near the mouth of the Yeocomico two years ago, after getting beaten up pretty badly in the square waves of the bay.

What we did not realize then (or maybe we were not yet members) was that this marina, just a couple of miles further up the river, offers a free night to MTOA members. Additional nights are discounted for BoatUS members, making our two-night stay quite the bargain.

We stayed here because it offers fairly easy access to where we have the bus stored. When we visited the bus in October, after a full year of storage, we determined that a year between visits was too long, and we needed to get the interval down closer to six months. With convenient access from the Chesapeake, there's really no reason not to stop each time we pass.

With the shorter interval, things were much easier this time -- I did not have to jump anything from a rental car. Also, more fully disconnecting the batteries last time helped a great deal. I'm sorry to say that, even so, the house bank is beyond end-of-life and was completely flat on arrival, but at least I was able to quickly get the charger on-line, and they do take enough of a charge to keep everything running for a short while. Perhaps it is just one or two bad batteries in the bank that are dragging the rest down.

The start batteries were fine, and had enough charge to bring the inverter/charger up far enough to get the charger started. With the charger running and some juice in the batteries, the big Detroit fired off on just the second crank attempt; the computer reported all normal and I ran it until the coolant came up to 176, as high as I could get it without a real load on the engine.

The generator similarly fired off on the second crank after bridging its battery. This at least I could load up, running all three air conditioners and the charger at once. On two of the air conditioners I needed to pull the shrouds and free up the fan motors, which had lightly seized their bearings from non-use. The compressors were fine and things got nice and cold once I got the fans turning.

Overall, the bus was in pretty good shape. I have a few things I'll need to fix if we need to use it -- the driver A/C is not coming on (probably a pressure switch or refrigerant issue) and the hydronic fluid pump for the diesel-fired heating system has an issue of some sort, but otherwise everything is working.

All of that said, it becomes increasingly hard to watch it sit there unused, or, worse, slowly deteriorating from non-use and exposure. So as hard as it is for us, we made the decision on this visit to put together some marketing materials and get it sold. We had put it in storage in part as a hedge against the boat not working out in some way, or if we wanted to try to alternate. But we are quite happy with and on the boat, and laying the boat up for months to go gallivanting about in the RV has its own issues.

We found someone locally to hold a set of keys, in case we find a buyer who would like to go have a look at it. They'd have to settle for a static look, because it is really not practical to leave it with electrical and water systems fully connected. But if we have a buyer that is interested enough to put down a deposit, I will fly or drive in from wherever we happen to be in order to fire it up for a demo and/or test drive. Since I can't find a dealer to take it on consignment (too unusual), that's probably the best we can do.

Vector is the biggest thing in the marina right now.

Olverson's is not really close to anything, but we drove to nearby Callao both nights for dinner, sampling Nino's Pizza and Italian, and El Indio Azteca Mexican Restaurant, both quite tasty. We also ran into nearby Lottsburg for a few items at the well-stocked Ace Hardware store there.

We were prepared to buckle in right there at Olverson's for the holiday weekend, in the event that I needed to work on any bus issues longer than a day or two. But we really only needed the first day; I used the extra time to cycle the batteries a couple of times and give them an equalization charge. The marina, which appears to have a vibrant community of regulars, is having a big pig roast and fireworks on the 4th, but we opted to move along.

Among the friendly staff at Olverson's is this cat, to whom everyone refers simply as "the Office Manager."

With a good day and a half before the holiday weekend boating crowd comes out in force, we figured we could make Annapolis in time to get well settled before their holiday show, scheduled for 9pm Saturday. It's a comfortable two-day run for us.

Tonight we'll be in Solomons, a familiar stop, and tomorrow afternoon we should be in Annapolis someplace. I copied the boundaries of the safety zone from the Local Notices to Mariners and plotted it on the chart; we'll find a spot to drop the hook outside of the zone.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Comfort in the familiar

We are anchored in Indian Creek, across from the Indian Creek Yacht and Country Club, near Kilmarnock, Virginia (map), a familiar stop. It's been an interesting and emotional week, and somehow it got away from me before I could sit down at the keyboard and post.

Vector at anchor, as seen from the Indian Creek Yacht and Country Club.

We had a very nice dinner Tuesday evening at the Amber Lantern at the Top Rack Marina, just squeaking past the $75 required to make our dockage and power free (we had to order desert to put us over, a delicious coconut cake). As promised, a front moved through Tuesday night, cooling things down considerably, but still, we stayed as long as we could Wednesday to take advantage of the 50-amp power outlet. I also used the opportunity to get the last of the recycling off the boat.

I like Ike.

We shoved off after lunch for the short cruise up the southern branch of the Elizabeth River to Portsmouth and one of our favorite stops, the free dock at the north ferry landing (map). Once north of the Noroflk & Western railroad lift bridge, the river becomes quite interesting, passing the Portsmouth Navy Yards to port. On this cruise, the USS Eisenhower nuclear aircraft carrier, CVN-69, was prominent in the yard, along with another Nimitz-class carrier whose number I could not make out, and a nuclear submarine of some sort, too distant to discern. Heavy nets and speedboats with mounted 50-caliber guns deter closer inspection.

Vector at the ferry landing. That's Take a Breath in front of us, and you can see LHD-5, USS Bataan, behind us in drydock.

After just an hour and a half we were docked at our usual spot in the protected basin of the north ferry landing, across from where the Hampton Roads Transit ferry stops on its loop to Towne Point in Norfolk and High Street in downtown Portsmouth. We took the end spot, in front of a 48 Offshore called Take a Breath; later we met cruisers Kevin and Katie who are about where we were in the learning curve the first time we stopped here. Regular readers may know we've stopped here several times now, including riding out Hurricane Arthur on this very dock a year ago.

We took the aforementioned ferry across to Norfolk for a lovely dinner at the Towne Pointe Club there, something we try to do each time we are in town.  As we walked to the club from the ferry landing, we noticed that preparations were under way for the annual Pride festival Saturday; our table overlooked one of the main stages at the park. We had already made plans for Saturday, and I was a little sad we could not stay for what looked to be a nice event. Of course at this point I was not even thinking about the upcoming Supreme Court decision.

The lights of downtown Norfolk, with Towne Pointe front and center, as seen from our deck.

Thursday morning we checked the weather over a bagel at the Town Cafe right at the end of the dock, and decided to stay another night, with near-perfect conditions forecast on the bay for Friday. We got a few things done around the house, and walked to the Dollar General for a few necessities, including milk -- the best we could do on foot. We ended up at Homegrown Pizza for dinner, a place we remembered from two years ago under a different name.

Friday we got a fairly early start, hoping to have a fair tide for at least part of the trip. We did indeed have a favorable current on the Elizabeth River and all the way to Thimble Shoal out in the bay, but we fought it most of the rest of the day. The northern part of the river takes you past more Navy yards, and here we saw a group of nuclear subs on top of the usual assortment of guided missile cruisers, frigates, and support vessels.

Submarines in the pen. Two boomers and an attack boat, I think.

As we were headed out past the tunnel, we crossed paths with another amphibious assault "aircraft carrier," LHD-1, the USS Wasp. We had crossed paths with sister ships LHD-3, the Kearsarge, out in the ocean, and LHD-5, USS Bataan, being refit in drydock across from us at the ferry landing. That makes three (out of eight) ships in the class that we've seen in just a couple of weeks.

"Warship 1," as they call themselves on the radio.

Crossing Thimble Shoal we opted to keep to the "float free" channel that is designated across horseshoe shoal. This is a bit closer to shore than we normally travel, and the water is shallower here -- our sounder registered just 9.6 feet at one point. I wanted to try it once, both because it cuts a mile off our usual route, and because it can come in handy when we come through here in the thick of crab season, where slaloming around pot floats can be an Olympic sport.

As we were coming north up the "channel" (really nothing more than a designated lane on otherwise level terrain), a southbound boat hailed us on the radio; some of our blog readers, aboard Rosalia, recognized Vector from a distance and wanted to say hello. I'm sorry I did not catch your names, but welcome.

Even though we were on a rising tide, the current change lags enough behind in the bay that our speed dropped continually the further north we got after passing Thimble Shoal. As we passed Wolf Trap Light our speed had dropped to just over four knots, and our ETA, which had started out as 6pm, was, at one point, showing to be past 10pm.

Wolf Trap light under gray skies.

Fortunately the tidal current began to change shortly thereafter, and the ETA steadily improved for the remainder of the cruise. We arrived in Indian Creek well before sundown, and had the anchor set just after 6:30. I warmed up the grill in the last mile of the trip and threw a couple of burgers on as soon as we were settled in.

Yesterday was something of a lost day. Winds were forecast to increase throughout the day, so we splashed the tender right after our morning coffee. I got wrapped up in the Internet most of the day, and it was all I could do to get myself together for our dinner engagement with our good friends Steve and Sandy, who live nearby. The weather was a bit dicey, and it looked for a while like we might have to wave off, but things let up just in time and we took a short tender ride to the nearby marina to meet them.

We had an excellent dinner in wonderful company at the Rappahannock Grill right in downtown Kilmarnock. Visits with them always end too soon, and they dropped us back at the dock at the end of the evening with the conversation still going strong. Good friends were just what I needed at that moment.

Today was beautiful and calm here at our pleasant anchorage, belying the maelstrom that is the Chesapeake today. You could not tell by looking from here, but the forecast was miserable and there was a small craft advisory issued. We opted to sit it out right here. That did not stop some of the weekend warriors from going out, though, and some hardy cruisers as well, but about midday we heard a clearly tired and bedraggled sailor trying to raise the marina just up the creek from us.

View towards the bay from our anchorage.

That marina closes early on Sunday, and this guy was getting beat up so badly out there that he needed to just be done. Several other boaters responded to him with various options, but it seemed to us like he was so tired he was not firing on all cylinders. We ended up guiding him in on the radio; he was adamant about not anchoring and I suggested he could probably just tie up at the marina in any open slip and deal with the office in the morning. He seemed grateful for the help.

Somewhere in all of this, we discovered that we actually have reciprocal privileges at the yacht club across the creek from us (we were looking into it to see if it was an option for him -- unfortunately not). We ended up tendering over there for an early dinner at their clubhouse; it turns out to be mostly a golf and country club with a small set of docks attached, and most of the dinner patrons had just finished a golf tournament. We'll have to remember it for the next time as a possible docking option.

Today's project was checking the generator air filter, after some investigation into a lube oil sample revealed possible fuel contamination. A long story, but essentially we were advised that inattention to the air filter can cause part of it to be sucked into one of the cylinder intakes, obstructing combustion. I found the filter intact, but bits of the felt gasket have started to disintegrate, and were being ingested by the engine. Not good, but we have no other symptoms so we are just monitoring it. I did need to fashion a temporary gasket until I can get a proper replacement.

Why is this gasket made of felt?

Tomorrow is supposed to me a much nicer day, and we'll weigh anchor in the morning headed for the Potomac. There is a marina upriver that offers a free night to MTOA members, and we plan to take advantage of it. Among other things, we need a place to get our mail.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Air Conditioning

As I type this our outdoor thermometer reads something north of 100° and my phone tells me it is 103° here in Chesapeake, Virginia. Consequently, we are on our third straight day of shore power so we can run the air conditioning. I'm eyeing the dozens of jellyfish in the water here and crossing my fingers they stay out of the intakes; just one of these could knock our A/C out completely for hours.

After my last post here, yet another storm moved in, and while we did not get the benefit of any rain or substantial cooling at our anchorage in the North River, we got plenty of wind and some fairly heavy chop. Our anchor was well set in thick mud, though, so we did not even pay out more rode. The NWS alert on the weather radio said we could see 50 knots, but the bulk of the storm passed north of us and we got perhaps 25 at most.

Sunday we weighed anchor fairly early and got under way in the "cool" of the morning, by which I mean it was not yet into the 90s. We had to play weave-and-dodge around Pungo Ferry with the weekend crowd cooling off in the river on a panoply of inner tubes, jet skis, runabouts, and bow-riders. We mostly exercised the Rule of Gross Tonnage, and did not even need to sound the horns.

We arrived in Great Bridge around 2:30 in the afternoon, by which time the mercury was already pushing 100. We opted to stop at Atlantic Yacht Basin on the east side of the bridge (map), where dockage is just a buck a foot plus power. We cranked up the air conditioning and hunkered down in the salon until dinner time.

This conga line of Navy speedboats passed us after locking through together. The three in front are fairly standard Zodiacs, but the two in back are new to me.

Dinner was at one of our favorite stops here, El Toro Loco, just south of the bridge. We stop in Great Bridge on every pass, usually at one of the free docks on either side of the bridge. In fact it felt a bit weird being here and not at one of those two docks. But it was well worth the money for unlimited A/C for the duration.

These have sharply angled surfaces for radar deflection -- even the radome is angled. SEALs, I think.

We paid for one night, but after consulting the weather forecast decided to add a second day to our stay there. We put a scooter on the ground to run some errands yesterday, but it was so hot by the time it was ready to go that Louise opted to wait until the relative cool of this morning to go out. We walked over to Vino Italian Bistro for dinner last night, but we were quite disappointed. This place is new since our last stop, replacing an uninspiring diner.

We knew the lock would be closed intermittently for maintenance this week, and were a bit disappointed to hear on the radio last night that it might be closed all day today. We resigned ourselves to spending another night there. But at 9:30 this morning they announced a 10am lock-through, while Louise was out running errands. When she returned we took a shot at asking about the possibility for another lock-through any time during the day, and they informed us that we could get through on the 11am opening, likely the last one until work was finished this evening.

By this time is was nearly 10:30 and the scooter was still on the ground. Nevertheless we scrambled to deck the scooter, unplug, single up, and cast off all before the 11am bridge opening. The lock was open and waiting for us once we cleared the bridge, and we locked through with two other boats, the last northbound lockage of the day.

That brought us here, to Top Rack Marina (map), just a half hour later. This, too, is a familiar stop for us, with the consistently lowest diesel prices on the entire ICW. Even though it was already in the high 90s when we arrived, we opted to fuel on arrival rather than on our way out tomorrow, so we tied up at the fuel dock for 1,000 gallons at $2.439 per. We also filled the water tank and pumped out the waste tank while we were fueling.

After spending an hour or so on the fuel dock we moved to the lone slip with 50-amp power, which we had called ahead to book yesterday. Our dockage tonight, power included, will be complimentary since we will have dinner in the very nice Amber Lantern Restaurant on site. We are once again hunkered down inside with all the A/Cs running full blast.

Vector, lonely at Top Rack, as seen from the balcony of The Amber Lantern. The new Veterans Bridge is in the background, with the remnants of the Dominion "Steel" Bridge.

This is our fifth pass through this section of the ICW, and it is becoming very familiar. On our last four passes we had to wait for the "Steel Bridge" immediately south of here to open for us, giving us the opportunity to marvel at the enormous construction project there. This time, the Steel Bridge is gone; the span having been removed completely after the opening of the high-rise Veterans Bridge that replaces it. The construction barges are still here, putting the finishing touches on the new bridge and removing the old.

The forecast says we'll see some cooling here overnight as a front moves through, so our plan tomorrow is to head upriver a few miles to the free dock in Portsmouth for a night or two. From there we will head north through the Chesapeake, bound for the Potomac River and a friendly marina there not far from where we are storing Odyssey, which is overdue for her semi-annual check-in. It's a two or three day cruise from Portsmouth, and we hope to catch up with some friends along the way.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Seek safe harbor

As I predicted in my last post, we had no Internet coverage last night, although I did have enough signal for text messages and maybe even a voice call. We spent the night anchored just north of Pingleton Shoal, at the mouth of the Long Shoal River south of Long Shoal (map).

Yesterday's cruise from our nice digs on Adams Creek was 61 nautical miles, a long day. With over nine hours from anchor up to anchor down, on a mostly autopilot course, we had a lot of time to catch up on our reading. With the Internet unavailable for much of the day, I went through a half dozen magazines that had piled up.

This trawler passed us on our way out of Adams Creek, giving us some perspective on Vector's rust.

We also took in the scenery and enjoyed the calm conditions; if anything, we wished for a bit more wind. With Friday being the start of so many summer weekends, we got our entertainment from listening in on the various shenanigans on the radio, with lots of calls for assistance. The radio traffic also illuminated an encounter I had during my final night watch at sea.

I did not mention it here because, without a photo or really knowing what it was, I had no way to properly describe it. But during that watch I had an enormous radar target dead ahead. I thought it might be a container ship, but it was not moving fast enough. Perhaps it was a large barge, being towed.

I strained and strained to make out navigational lights as we got closer, to no avail.  I thought I could make out a green light at one end, which would be a starboard-side navigation light, but at that aspect it would have been on the port side. Our radar set does not automatically track targets (more on this in a moment), so getting course and speed was nearly impossible. At one point I convinced myself it was anchored.

Even though it was dead ahead early on, and apparently unchanging, it seemed mysteriously to move out of my way, and we passed it perhaps three miles abeam. Maybe an hour later it was dead astern. As we came to our closest point of approach, I tried again to ascertain its nature and course. I spent many minutes on the flybridge staring through the glasses. I could see a few dim white lights on top, but none looked like a proper anchor or steaming light. The aforementioned green light, now properly on the starboard side, flickered in and out. And there was a dimly lit area below decks. Against the starlight on the horizon it looked like an aircraft carrier.

When we were as close as we would come, I happened to be looking right at it when it took a slight roll, and the single green light that I thought might be a nav light turned out to be just one of a whole row of green lights along the length of the deck. Aircraft carrier for sure, I thought, but it was not really big enough nor did it have the right superstructures. They clearly knew I was passing by, but there were no calls on the radio.

Well, all night Thursday and Friday there were calls on channel 16 from "Aircraft Carrier 3" stating that they were conducting operations at a certain set of coordinates, their nav lights were extinguished, and they did not conform to the "rules of the road." They requested all vessels to remain five nautical miles from the stated coordinates.

A bit of sleuthing yesterday revealed that the USS Kearsarge, LHD-3, was conducting operations in the area as part of an exercise. An LHD is not an aircraft carrier as most think of them, but it does have a flat flight deck from which are sortied Osprey and Harrier vertical-takeoff aircraft, and it also has a well deck that carries LCAC hovercraft. The mission is to carry Marine Expeditionary Units, who use the aforementioned aircraft, and who train at Campe LeJeune, which was nearby. Regular readers may remember we anchored at Camp LeJeune right where the hovercraft operate, and we've had to call range control there more than once to transit the firing range.

The night we went by, they were not conducting flight ops, so were free to move out of our way, which apparently they preferred to do rather than break their radio silence or give away their identity. As a skipper it's always a bit unnerving to encounter something that large that is not bound by the same rules (no AIS, no navigation lights, no radio calls). I never did have to alter course or speed, but it occupied my attention for well over an hour.

Things were so calm on Pamlico Sound yesterday that when we dropped the hook, we opted just to round the Pingleton Shoal for a slight attenuation of the mild southerly swell. If things had been choppier or windier, we might have gone another mile or so into the greater protection of the river, which is only deep enough for Vector a short ways in.

All well and good, but after dinner a thunderstorm came through and all hell broke loose. Early into it the lightning was getting close enough that we put both cell phones and a handheld radio into the microwave for protection. Shortly afterward, as we were pondering whether to move upriver in the dark or at least add scope, the Coast Guard made a Sécurité announcement with dire warnings from the NWS for our location -- 40 knot winds and lightning -- and stating all vessels should "seek safe harbor."

We decided navigating up an unfamiliar, shallow river in the pitch dark to gain only a small amount of additional protection was riskier than staying put, so we fired up the engine, pulled the snubber in, and paid out more anchor rode until we had a ten-to-one scope. We did have a bit of hobby-horsing, but we never budged, and we were treated to a fantastic lightning show.

Somewhere in all of this, my cell phone beeped with a pair of text messages from our friends on Adventure, who are a day ahead of us. We were both mystified -- the phones were in the microwave oven (with the oven turned off at the breaker), which ought to be a Faraday cage. From the standpoint of lightning protection, our whole boat is also a Faraday cage and really should protect such devices, provided they are not plugged in, but we put them in the oven as an extra measure of protection.

Microwave ovens operate at about 2.45gHz, and cell phones are in the 1.9gHz range, so you'd think that the shielding on an oven would keep the cell signals out entirely. Clearly not the case, which makes me wonder how much microwave leakage there is.

Shortly after we anchored, I started transferring fuel to the day tank. We're almost out of fuel in the main tank (we have about 200 gallons in a reserve tank), and I'm trying to run the day tank out before our fuel stop so we can verify the capacity. About halfway through transferring 45 gallons, the transfer pump, which is part of the fuel polisher, quit working.

The polisher has a vacuum sensor which cuts it off when the filter gets plugged. We've done the "debris removal" process twice since buying the boat, but we've never changed the filter. Considering it's processed over 4,000 gallons just since we bought it, I'd say we got our money's worth from this cartridge, and I put a new one in. I also cleaned out the separator bowl and "turbine," which had accumulated quite a bit of dirt.

With seawater temperature in the high 80's and a heat index outside of over 100, the last place I wanted to be working was a hot engine room, but we needed to get it done. It's all back together now and ready for the next four or five thousand gallons. We ran the generator after anchoring to get some A/C going, so I was able to shower and cool off afterwards, some four pair of nitrile gloves later.

Today I was fiddling with radar settings under way, while poring over the manual -- I ran out of magazines yesterday. Somewhere in the middle of fiddling around trying to dial in some better settings for certain conditions, I realized that the upstairs display had an item on it that I had never seen on the main pilothouse display.

After running up and down the steps a few times and consulting the arcane manual, I discovered that the upstairs display might, in fact, be equipped with an ARPA board. ARPA is a standard feature on commercial radars and some newer recreational models that lets you track targets and compute course, speed, and closest point of approach. It's an option on our radar unit, one which I have lamented ours lacked since first learning how to use the set.

Long-time readers may recall that I bought a pair of displays identical to ours a couple of years ago, in order to have a remote display on the flybridge. I updated the software in both, converted them to C-Map charts (they were Navionics compatible units originally), picked the cleaner-looking of the two for the flybridge, and sold the other one on eBay. Total cost to me of the new display was around a hundred bucks, plus $75 in cables and parts.

The thought never even crossed my mind that either of these displays would include the very expensive ARPA upgrade. The seller said nothing about it, and the asking price reflected the much more common non-ARPA model. Also I was much earlier on the learning curve and did not really know to ask. It's very likely that only one of the two had the ARPA board; if so I am lucky that I chose this one to keep.

In order for ARPA to work, the radar antenna needs to be directly connected to the display with the ARPA board in it. So I was not able to test under way today. I will need to move the flybridge display down to the pilothouse and connect it to the radar antenna to see if this all still works. If it does it will be a score -- I've been thinking about spending some money to get ARPA capability, either by buying a board for our existing display, or replacing the radar system altogether. It will be really nice if it's just a display swap.

I started typing this as we crossed Albemarle Sound this afternoon. We are now safely anchored in the North River (map), a familiar stop for us. We are again running the genny for some air conditioning. Tomorrow night we should be in the Norfolk suburbs, either Great Bridge or Chesapeake depending on the status of the lock, which is closing intermittently right now for repairs.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Dolphins, and an overdose of quaint

As I promised at the end of Tuesday's post (after we dropped the hook off Fort Macon), I have uploaded the video I took of the dolphins frolicking in our bow wave, taking advantage of some marina WiFi. It's nearly a minute and a half, and as is always the case, a cell phone video just can't do it justice. The dolphins are easier to see if you choose high-def.

Final sunset at sea, taken just after the dolphin photo above.

In the middle of the dolphin play, I also snapped a photo of our last sunset at sea. So the light was already fading when these guys showed up. Still, the water is so clear in the Gulf Stream that we could see the dolphins a long way down. I'm sorry I did not catch a breach, but if you stick with it you can see them doing barrel rolls and other play behavior.

We had a pleasant night there off Fort Macon, and the nearby dredge and its fleet of tugs did not make enough noise to bother us. It was so hot in the afternoon, though, that we did have to run the generator for several hours to air condition the boat, even though we had arrived with fully charged batteries.

One of the very few ships we passed in the ocean. This is from about three miles away.

When we awoke yesterday morning, we noticed our friends Brad and Lorraine on Adventure were anchored just a few hundred feet from us. My email alerts from Marine Traffic said they had arrived at 2:30am. They hailed us just as we were getting ready to weigh anchor, and while we were not able to get together here, perhaps we'll run into them further north.

Adventure, a Nordhavn 55, anchored off Fort Macon park.

We weighed anchor at slack tide to move over to the Beaufort Town Docks (map). We've been through here now several times, yet we've never made it to downtown Beaufort, despite recommendations from many other skippers that it is a "must-do" stop. We might just as easily have continued on our way north, but we needed a grocery store, auto parts, and a place to offload the recycling and trash. We also wanted a full day of air conditioning -- I'm getting daily "Heat Advisory" alerts on my phone, as it is 10°-15° over seasonal norms here right now.

We were tied up at the docks by 10:30, before the worst heat of the day. We got two tokens for free draft beers at the nearby Dockhouse Restaurant, the code for the WiFi, and use of one of the small fleet of courtesy cars to go get to the grocery and auto parts stores. At $2.75 per foot, plus power, this is one of the most expensive docks we've ever used, but we'd otherwise have run the generator for most of that time, to the tune of $80-$100 for the day, which somewhat softens the blow.

Sunset over Vector at the Beaufort docks. Louise is standing in front of a piling, making her hard to spot. The Burger megayacht "Ingot" at left came in after us and left ahead of us. The crew seemed green.

I'm glad we did it -- once. The town is quaint, in that artificial way that so many tourist traps are quaint, and we did enjoy an excellent dinner at Plaza Mexico across the street and a passable breakfast at the Boardwalk Cafe right at the end of our pier. And there are plenty of good restaurants here, which speaks to a possible return visit in cooler weather when we can anchor out and dinghy in for dinner. But otherwise the whole experience is a bit over-rated, as we expected.

I should note here that, as with some other "must stop" marinas along the ICW, much of the positive feedback comes from delivery or training skippers and their customers. Which makes sense -- we, as owner-operators, tend to anchor out, or look for marinas that represent the best value, whereas delivery captains are never spending their own money -- they make the same rate whether they dock their customers' boats at Portside across the channel for $1.50 (power included), or at the Beaufort Town Docks for $2.75. So why not stop at the place with the most amenities/convenience/access?

Beaufort at our doorstep.

And it was certainly convenient -- the bulk of the downtown is just steps from the docks. They also had an amenity we sorely needed -- used oil collection. And while the courtesy cars are old clunkers (common for marina cars), they have a small fleet of them so you're not on a waiting list for hours to go run your chores, and they were fine for getting to and from the grocery.

Aside from the grocery run mid-day, we confined ourselves to the boat until dinner time, when things cooled off just a bit. I used some of the day to change the oil on the main engine, somewhat overdue. The half hour run from the anchorage in the morning was enough to get the oil warm without making the whole engine room intolerable, and I left the door open with a fan blowing cool air in from the stateroom. A hand-crank oil change pump makes this chore a snap on the main.

The generator oil was also overdue, and I changed that after dinner. It's a more fiddly process, with a poorly positioned hose that is supposed to drain by gravity but is not at quite the right angle. Plus the oil filter is mounted horizontally, ensuring used oil will get everywhere in the process. The auto parts stop was to get a couple of extra gallons of 15W-40, as these two oil changes used up nine of the ten gallons we had aboard, and I wanted a bit of margin.

Vector at the docks this morning. Ingot has already left. That's the closest anchorage in the background, mostly full of moorings.

We lingered this morning as long as we dared, taking advantage of as much air conditioning as we could use. But it can be tricky getting out too long after slack, so we shoved off in time for the noon bridge opening in Gallant Channel. It was a very short cruise to where we are tonight, a familiar anchorage off Adams Creek just south of the Neuse (map). It's really the last option before Pamlico Sound.

Unfortunately, the heat wave continues unabated, and we had a hot afternoon. Even jumping in for a swim was not much help -- the river water is 91° right now. As I type we are again running the generator for air conditioning. Still, at about $4 an hour, we can run the generator 24/7 for less than staying in Beaufort, so moving along was the right call. Other than sampling another restaurant or two, we've already seen the whole town.

Tomorrow we will get an early start for Pamlico Sound via the Neuse River. It's two days to the protected anchorages of the North River via the Sound, so tomorrow night we'll be anchored in moderate protection along the shoreline mid-Sound. Experience says we'll likely not have any cellular coverage there so I expect we will be off line.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Windows hate; point won

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the things we had delivered to Palm Beach was a new computer for the helm, which serves as our main chart plotter and which drives the boat via the autopilot. The rest of this post concerns installing this computer, so if you are uninterested in that topic feel free to skip it. If you just want the step-by-step without the details or ranting about the tribulations, skip down to the bottom. (If you are looking for the update on our offshore passage, it's in the post immediately below this one.)

The diminutive new chart PC, during configuration and setup.

Up to now, we've been using my old Acer Aspire One netbook, which got pressed into service quickly when the Northstar plotter went belly-up in the Indian River over a year ago. Replacing this computer has been on my to-do list since just a few days after we first installed it. After all, I had retired it from service as my everyday laptop because it was old, slow, and unreliable -- it's just what we had at hand when the Northstar failed, and it already had the software and charts on it to serve as the plotter.

The old Acer on the shelf in the network cabinet. Note the string holding it in place for heavy seas.

It was working well enough for so long that replacing it fell down the priority list, and buying the licensed Bahamas charts for it meant we were committed to it until we returned from those waters. But over the last couple of months, it's been failing more and more frequently, halting completely with a BSOD, typically related to something in the serial port code.

I've been noodling on what to use as a replacement for quite a while, and before we headed off to the Bahamas I was leaning towards buying a bare-bones 4"-form-factor machine, such as an Intel NUC or similar, and loading Linux on it. My personal machine runs Ubuntu Linux, and our chart plotter software runs very well on it. Ubuntu is free, well-supported, and has all the drivers we need for our peripherals, plus I am familiar with it and know how to solve problems.

The process of getting usable charts for the Bahamas gave me pause to reconsider. Not because of the Bahamas, per se, for which we had a somewhat workable solution, but because I can foresee this being a problem over and over again in other parts of the world as well.

The chart plotter program we are using now is PolarView NS, from Polar Navy. We've been mostly happy with it -- it does everything we need, albeit with a somewhat clunky user interface, it integrates the Active Captain database onto the charts, it runs on all our computers whether they be Windows or Linux, and it's inexpensive, at just $50 for a 5-station license.

PolarView supports standardized chart formats, known as BSB for raster charts, and S57 or S63 (unencrypted and encrypted, respectively) for vector charts. These standards, promulgated by the International Hydrographic Organization, happen to be the formats used by many of the world's national hydrographic offices. For example, NOAA and the US Army Corps of Engineers produce all of their charts in one or more of these formats. PolarView even has a convenient button to download the latest chart updates directly from NOAA; in US waters it doesn't get much better.

In many locales, however, the best (or sometimes the only) cartography is available only from private sources. The Bahamas is one such place, with the only usable charts coming from one of two cartographers: Lewis ("Explorer Charts") and Wavy Line. These private sources are under no obligation to release charts in one of the aforementioned standard formats, and many do not. Sometimes that's out of concern they will be pirated, but often it's because they can cut lucrative "exclusive" deals with proprietary-format chart repositories.

In the Bahamas, for example the best charts are the Explorer Charts, and those are available in electronic format only through Jeppesen. Jeppesen sells these in their proprietary "C-Map" format, both on cartridges for dedicated plotters and on disk or download for PC-based plotters. While we were in the Bahamas, I often used my cell phone to navigate, using the C-Map charts downloaded to Jeppesen's own app.

In order to have something halfway usable on the main plotter, I bought Navionics charts, available in encrypted S63 format, but these are based on older and/or less reliable source data, and we found the bathymetry to be just plain wrong in many places. Instead of plotting directly, we tediously transcribed waypoints from the printed Explorer charts and entered them into the plotter by hand to do our navigating.

While we were trying to resolve some chart discrepancies in Bimini, which was not even covered by the Navionics package I bought, I got some good advice from our friend Steve. He recommended we look into the Coastal Explorer (CE) chart plotting software. It's expensive, at least compared to what we have now, at $370 for a single license. But in addition to doing everything that PolarView does, including reading the same standard chart formats, it can also read some proprietary chart formats, including Jeppesen C-Map.

We're not ready to take the $370 CE plunge just yet. For one thing, we are back in the US for the foreseeable future, where we have unlimited access to excellent free charts from the US government. For another, we've already climbed the PolarView learning curve, and don't want to tackle yet another interface just yet. But we wanted the new helm computer to be compatible with CE, for the inevitable day when we need to install it in order to get decent charts of some new destination.

All of that was a rather long-winded way of saying I had to get a Windows machine. CE does not run on Linux, whereas PolarView runs quite well on either. So rather than start with Linux today and have to install not only CE, but also Windows somewhere down the road, I bit the bullet and bought a machine that came bundled with Windows 8.1. I can always switch it over to Linux in the future if it just doesn't work out.

As it turns out, that was very nearly day one of the installation. This, principally, because Microsoft insists on treating its customers like children, who can be trusted neither to keep their hands out of the cookie jar, nor to skin their knees at the playground. We'll get to that in a moment.

The machine I chose was an HP Stream 200-10 "mini desktop," a diminutive box about 5" square and 2" tall with a single control -- the power button -- and a handful of I/O ports. It came bundled with "Windows 8.1 With Bing" as well as a USB keyboard and USB mouse, neither of which I needed but there was no option to delete them. Instead of a hard disk, a 32GB SSD is included in the package, a little over half of which was available for use, the rest being taken up by Windows and pre-installed software.

I chose this model because HP has a solid track record and it was an unbeatable price, at just $179 delivered and complete. I only had to add an HDMI cable to connect it to our existing monitor (the old computer had a VGA connection) for another few bucks. I considered buying a larger replacement SSD or more RAM, but decided to defer either of those until it was up and running and we could see how it would perform.

In case you were wondering, "Windows 8.1 with Bing" is exactly the same as the basic or "core" edition of Windows 8.1, except the default search engine in Internet Explorer has been pre-set to Microsoft's own Bing. Microsoft licenses this version to OEM's free of charge on condition that they don't change this default, precluding them from getting paid by, say, Google, to do just that (and, yes, computer manufacturers get paid big money by Google, Yahoo, and others to pre-install software and set defaults like this). Nothing stops the consumer from changing it, though, assuming anyone even uses Internet Explorer. One of the first things I did was to install a different browser and make it the default.

The lightweight specs of this machine, including the small SSD, speak to its market niche, competing with Chromebooks and similar devices for the "thin client" and "cloud computing" markets. As a dedicated chart plotter, which will never run other apps such as spreadsheets, databases, home theater, or gaming, it has plenty of horsepower and almost enough storage. I popped a 32GB SDHC card that I had lying around into the built-in card slot to store data such as charts and routes, effectively tripling the storage capacity.

So much for the good. As you may have guessed from my post title, we now come to the bad, and the ugly.

There are multiple reasons why I resisted buying another Windows machine. I've been in the computer business nearly my whole life, since long before we could put one on a desk let alone in someone's pocket. (I once posted a comparison between one of my earlier mainframes and a smart phone, and that particular smart phone is now obsolete by today's standards because it is too slow and has too little memory.) In my professional life I could not escape Microsoft and the relentless march of Windows versions, culminating (for me) with Windows XP.

After XP, no matter how many bells and whistles they added, I deemed Windows to be too big, too clumsy, too expensive, and, most of all, too invasive. By this last term I mean that Microsoft monitors too much of what everyone does back at their mother ship, and the license terms are onerous. I would still not consider it for my personal machine on which I keep personal contact information, legal files, or a subversive browsing history. As a dedicated chart plotter that will do none of those things, I can live with it, grudgingly.

The last time I bought a Windows machine for myself it had to be a netbook, because that was the only way, then, to still get one with XP, which Microsoft had trotted out of retirement just for the purpose when it saw a threat from stripped-down Linux netbooks and the impending Chromebook. (I wrote extensively then about what I had to do to get decent performance out of XP on such a wimpy computer.) When I retired that machine I went to Linux myself, vowing to leave the Windows world forever. Of course, Louise promptly bought a Windows 8.1 tablet when her last XP machine died, dragging me, kicking and screaming, back into that domain. I am apparently her "network administrator," considering I end up dealing with it every time the "please contact your network administrator" message pops up.

Given my reservations, it was not really surprising, then, that I nearly defenestrated Windows on the very first day. The setup of the computer itself went flawlessly; I was able to set up the pre-installed Windows with a local account, bypassing the invasive "set up a Microsoft account" process, and I was very careful to keep my name and personal details out of it, using "Vector" instead when needed. In addition to keeping my name out of Microsoft's files, this will also make it a cinch to turn the machine over to the new owner if and when we ever sell the boat.

Setting the machine up to boot into the more traditional Windows "desktop" rather than the tiled "Metro" interface was also a snap, and I quickly deleted all of the Metro tile apps as well as a host of desktop bloatware pre-installed by HP or Microsoft.

The real trouble started when I tried to install the four-port serial-to-USB converter. This is the device that connects the computer to NMEA inputs for GPS position and speed, depth and temperature from the hull transducer, AIS information from other ships, and heading information from the autopilot. It also allows the computer to send route information to the autopilot in real time to steer the ship.

Perle 4-port serial-to-USB converter, with cables from four NMEA devices connected.

Suffice it to say that without this device, the whole setup is for naught. And so when Windows was unable to load it, I knew I had a big problem. The converter box is branded Perle and so I went to Perle's web site to find 64-bit Windows 8 drivers. Hah. I found none there; the latest drivers on the site were the ones I was using on XP.

Perle's web site has one of those "live chat" features on the support page, and after a few lines back and forth with a service rep I learned that Perle exited the USB converter business a few years back (they still make serial cards for desktop PCs) and no longer supports these devices. There are no Windows 8 drivers. Harumph.

Four-port converter boxes are not cheap, and suddenly it looked as if my $180 computer was going to cost double that when I added in the cost of a new, Windows-8 compatible converter. This is where I seriously considered replacing Windows with Linux, where I knew I could somehow get hold of drivers. Nevertheless, I started searching around on the Internet for a replacement four-port converter that was explicitly listed as being compatible with 64-bit Windows 8.

I came up with lots of $300 converters and a very few for half that much. Lo and behold, though, I found one brand that looked identical to the one I already had, right down to the custom, oddly-shaped plastic casing. The only detectable difference was the brand name and logo stenciled on the plastic.

Oddly familiar...

Some further investigation revealed that both this box and my box contain identical FTDI chipsets, and the Windows-8 drivers included with the new box, downloadable from their web site, are the FTDI drivers. Naturally, I downloaded the drivers, reasoning that the chipset in my box can utilize these newer drivers, developed by FTDI, to work with Windows 8.

Of course, things could not be as simple as just pointing the Windows "Add New Hardware" wizard at these drivers, and anyone who has ever been in Windows driver hell knows this. When Perle OEMed this board from FTDI they had FTDI code a custom device name and ID number. So when you plug this in, it comes up not as "FTDI USB Serial Port" but rather as "Perle USB Serial Port." And that means that Windows will not load the drivers unless they are also coded as "Perle USB Serial Port" drivers.

At the risk of losing people here to some technical mumbo-jumbo, let me say that changing this coding is technically very easy -- it's a few lines of text in a text file in the installation folder containing the drivers. The file or files in question have the filename extension ".INF" and can be modified with any text editor such as Notepad. Changing the .INF files that came in the FTDI installation to work with the Perle box was easy -- I just needed to copy the lines with the device names and ID numbers from my old XP driver files into the new FTDI files.

But not so fast; ever since XP, Windows no longer allows you to install drivers for any device at all unless those drivers are digitally "signed" by a recognized certificate authority. The signature files are included in the install folder. Changing the .INF file changes its hash value, which thus no longer matches the signature file. Since you can't sign the drivers yourself, or fudge the signatures, the best you can do is to delete the signature line in the .INF file, making it an unsigned driver.

In previous versions, Windows would squawk loudly if you tried to install an unsigned driver, with dire warnings about how it has not been tested, could corrupt your Windows installation, and generally spell the end of the universe as we know it. But it then gave you the option to say "yes, yes indeed I want to go directly to hell by installing this here unsigned driver."

No longer. Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, has decided we can not be trusted to make these adult decisions for ourselves, and this option is no longer given. It took me a while to find the workaround.

After a very tedious multi-step process that must start from a running system, one can access the Boot Options menu, turn off the driver-signing requirement, and reboot. This allowed me to finally install the drivers and verify that, yes, they did work with my older Perle device and I was able to see incoming data on all ports. Whew.

But wait, what's this? The drivers no longer work after rebooting. Checking Device Manager shows that they have been disabled because they are unsigned. Apparently, the boot options workaround only works for one session -- it needs to be done each time you boot, which means you have to boot twice and fiddle with settings in between. That's not going to work for us; if the plotter crashes under way we need to restart it pronto, not after five minutes of fiddling while driving the boat at the same time.

A bit more hunting around the 'net turned up a pair of commands to modify some internal settings to turn the driver signing requirement off permanently. The newfangled "Secure Boot" system, however, prevents these commands from taking effect. Once again unto the breach; this time to delve into the UEFI BIOS settings to disable Secure Boot. More dire warnings about the end of civilization, including one informing me that changing this setting might turn my brand new PC into an unbootable brick.

That finally did the trick, and now I have working serial ports that persist through shutdown and reboot. Of course, space aliens can now access my PC, since I've disabled three of Microsoft's darkest security features, thus opening a rift in the space-time continuum. Or possibly sending the boat off course and off the edge of the Earth.

These are the sorts of things that endear Microsoft to system administrators everywhere, and make plenty of money for training institutes offering courses in how to navigate the byzantine universe of Windows settings and administration. And my frustration with the folks in Redmond did not end there.

As if the driver issue was not enough, once I got the ports working and fired up the NMEA instruments, the mouse pointer went bonkers, driving itself all over the screen and clicking on random things. I had to pull the plug on the USB ports until I could fix this.

This is an ancient problem, and shame on Microsoft for not having fixed it by now. It exists in every version of Windows at least back as far as XP. There are certain NMEA sentences that contain strings of characters identical to the output of a Microsoft Ballpoint Serial Mouse, a device which has not been sold in well over a decade (it came out in 1991 -- really). Windows, in its infinite wisdom, sees these strings, decides on your behalf that you have connected a vintage Ballpoint Mouse, installs the drivers, and begins interpreting the port as a mouse immediately.

Even the most common of USB GPS devices, the venerable BU-353 "puck," emits these strings, and the problem was so huge back in the days of Delorme Street Atlas, and its ilk, being popular in-car navigation systems, that the hue and cry was raised and Microsoft released a downloadable tool to fix the problem. You ran the tool for each COM port with an NMEA device, and no more Ballpoint shenanigans.

Of course this tool does not run on Windows 8. Microsoft has neither fixed the root cause, nor released an updated tool. Part of what is so frustrating about this is that they don't think twice about obsoleting hundreds, if not thousands, of older third-party peripherals with their driver policies, while at the same time making sure their own idiotic obsolete mouse still works. Another half hour of Internet sleuthing led me to the obscure setting to change in the device manager to fix this, available with the latest FTDI driver.

Having thus set up the base machine and gotten the ports working, I moved ahead with installing PolarView and going through an equally tedious process of transferring my settings from the other machine. I can't blame this one on Redmond, of course, but the Polar Navy folks also have buried their settings in a non-intuitive and undocumented XML file. I'd gotten good at decoding this file once I discovered that it was often corrupted by the aforementioned BSOD errors that crashed the computer, causing PolarView to launch with no settings, license, or charts.

It took me about an hour to hand edit the XML file from the old computer to work with the new installation. Among other things, Windows gives you no control over what COM port numbers get assigned to the USB converter ports, so my four NMEA devices were now on different COM ports than previously. Once I got it all entered, Polar View came right up, and I only needed to enter the license key and download fresh charts.

Mid-setup. PolarView is downloading charts. The supplied keyboard and mouse, shown here, are too big and clunky for the helm station and have since been relegated to back-up status.

I did have to enter my Active Captain credentials to download their database -- the only place in the whole installation where I've entered any personal details. I also had to enter the Polar View license, which is tied to my email, but I consider the license to be part of the boat.

Once everything was working "normally" I turned my attention to tweaking the settings for daily use as a chart plotter. I again smacked into Redmond's "dumbing down" of the user interface, this time with respect to color settings.

The default Windows color scheme is fine for daytime use. But under way at night, the computer display is one of the brightest items on the bridge, yet at the same time the most often consulted. PolarView and other chart plotter programs have a "night mode" for just this reason, darkening the display and inverting many colors so that the plotter is as dark as possible, yet with all key information still readable.

That's great, but this is a Windows application, and so it is surrounded by window borders, with title and menu bars. Each instrument cluster is also a separate window on top of the main plotter, and at any given moment I have five or more windows open on the screen. A bright title or menu bar color renders the dark settings of the plotter program itself almost worthless.

In previous versions of Windows, one could simply right-click on the desktop, go to the display settings, and chose foreground and background colors for every single item on the screen individually -- screen background, title bars, menu bars, selections, foreground text, et cetera. On the XP machine, I had carefully selected black or dark backgrounds with medium contrast text for every item; if you walked by the computer when it was running normal apps (rather than the plotter) you'd have thought I went Goth, or maybe hipster. But it worked well both day and night for the plotter.

Windows 8 has removed this capability entirely. Instead, you get to pick a theme under "Personalization," and you get the settings for each item set for you by the theme. There is one color "choice" once the theme is chosen, and that single choice sets all the colors on the screen.

More head-banging on the 'net turned up plenty of aftermarket themes and even some third-party tools to basically adjust the theme colors yourself, but I was really not looking to add software to an already slim system. Instead I found a workaround in Microsoft's "accessibility" settings.

It turns out that if you pick one of the "high contrast" themes (originally intended for the visually impaired), you get to choose more of the colors yourself. It is still nowhere near the level of control we had in previous versions, but it's a lot better than just a single choice.

I fiddled with the theme settings for over an hour, and I could not set colors that worked well both day and night as I had done with XP. I settled for a "regular" theme for daytime use, and a customized "high contrast" theme for night running. It takes ten keystrokes to switch between them, on top of the six required to switch Polar View's mode. I selected larger, higher-contrast mouse pointers for both -- the pointer tends to get lost on a busy chart.

A running plotter in Live Ship mode, showing Vector at center and AIS targets elsewhere in the marina. This was a beer-worthy moment.

If you've clicked through to this article because you're putting together your own Windows-8-based plotter, I should point out here that we use an inexpensive ($99) LED/LCD TV for a monitor. It works great, having VGA, HDMI, and composite video inputs along with a built-in TV tuner. But like most TVs or even dedicated computer monitors, it lacks either the high-NIT brightness required to see it outdoors in daylight (as, for example, on a flybridge), or the ability to turn the brightness down far enough for a darkened pilothouse at night.

We don't need the high-NIT capability; it's indoors and plenty bright enough in any conditions we encounter in the pilothouse (we have a different plotter on the flybridge). The lack of dimmability, though, is a real issue for us. We solved this with some self-cling neutral-density window tint from Walmart for $13. I bought the darkest one they had, 5% transmissivity, and cut it to the size of the screen. We put it on at sunset and peel it off in the morning; it's reusable and adheres by static cling.

Marine-grade HDMI/VGA monitors are readily available for both pilothouse and flybridge use that avoid both of these issues, but they start at upwards of $1,000 apiece. If my main helm station was outdoors, or if I drove the boat every night instead of just a dozen nights or so per year, I would seriously consider one.

I did need to make one more modification to accommodate this new system. The old plotter was a laptop, so it had a battery and could easily tolerate power interruptions, such as the brief ones that sometimes occur when switching between generator (or shore) and battery power, or when we trip the inverter (rare) by turning on too many cooking appliances at once. This is a desktop machine, and enjoys no such protection.

150-watt inverter zip-tied in place, with a hard-wired 12v socket connected and a cube tap for the two devices.

I had a 150-watt "cigarette-lighter" inverter lying around, and I wired that up to the 12 volt DC supply in the network cabinet. Both the computer and the USB serial adapter are now powered by this small, dedicated inverter, a total of less than 20 watts. Although the little inverter can easily handle it, I opted to leave the TV/monitor connected to an outlet on the main inverter, which provides cleaner power and is more efficient.

As I type this, we are in the middle of a four day, 500 nautical mile ocean passage, and so far the new system is working well. No BSOD errors or other system failures, and between the faster processor and the solid-state disks, it's much snappier than its predecessor. Also, the display is much crisper than before; I'm not sure if that's a difference between HDMI and VGA, or just that the older machine had a lousy video adapter. I do think the system might be memory-bound; there is one free slot available, and I will probably spring for another 4GB of RAM just to speed things up a bit.

The new system installed and in place on the shelf. There's that same string again, but I will be making a more secure bracket for it when I can get parts. You can see the SD card peeking out on the right side. The two USB ports on the front are free and available for thumb drives or other temporary connections; the Perle and the keyboard/mouse connect at the back.

I still have a few more tweaks to make when we get back into Internet coverage. I'm sure there are still some performance-sucking apps and background services running that can be removed, and I need to ditch the trial version of McAfee, with its incessant license nag, for AVG or something similar. I also need to install VNC so that I can access the plotter from the flybridge on a tablet, or from the stateroom on the old Android phone I keep down there for the purpose (it's nice to be able to see the track and anchor circle when anchored without getting out of the bed). Lastly, my Bahamas charts came with a license for a "backup" computer and I need to install it on this machine so I can load those charts.

Step by step, here's what I did to install a Windows 8.1 slim desktop as a chart plotter:
  1. Unboxed the machine
  2. Connected it to an existing monitor with an HDMI cable
  3. Connected the keyboard and mouse to USB ports (the HP has four USB 3.0 ports)
  4. Connected the wired ethernet port to the ship's router with a CAT-5 cable (the HP also has built-in WiFi)
  5. Attached the power adapter
  6. Pressed the power button and followed the on-screen setup prompts
  7. Skipped the Microsoft Account setup and instead setup a local account "Vector"
  8. Accepted all Windows updates
  9. Set Windows desktop as default environment
  10. Created a restore USB using the HP support app
  11. Deleted all Metro tile apps
  12. Deleted non-essential HP-supplied apps
  13. Inserted an empty 32GB SDHC card into the SD slot for storage of charts, routes, and other data, keeping what remains of the built-in SSD for applications
  14. Connected a four-port serial-to-USB converter. Get a Windows-8 compatible model to skip the next steps
  15. Downloaded and extracted FTDI 64-bit Windows drivers
  16. Added device names and numbers from my old drivers to the FTDI .INF files
  17. Removed the signature line from the .INF files
  18. Disabled UEFI Secure Boot
  19. Modifed Windows to accept unsigned drivers
  20. Connected Perle four-port USB serial adapter
  21. Installed the driver for each COM port from the modified FTDI folder
  22. Disabled "Serial Enumeration" on each COM port to avoid "Ballpoint Mouse" problem
  23. Downloaded and installed latest Polar View NS software
  24. Downloaded charts for Polar View and installed them on SD card
  25. Configured Polar View for my four NMEA ports
  26. Turned on NMEA instruments and tested ports with "Live Ship" mode
  27. Imported waypoints, routes, and other settings from my old laptop
  28. After fully testing the installation, installed the license for Polar View, thus taking it out of 30-day "trial" mode and using up the last of my five licenses
  29. Adjusted Windows display "personalization" for best viewing in day and night modes, including larger, higher-contrast mouse pointers
  30. Replaced the wired keyboard and mouse with a wireless combo unit that we had for the old computer (whose keyboard was built-in and thus inaccessible in the cabinet)
  31. Moved the computer and USB converter power inputs to a dedicated inverter on ship's batteries
  32. Set a reserved IP address in the router and install VNC so I can access the plotter from other devices on board

For the record, starting from scratch, this is what it cost to put together this PC-based plotter system:

HP Stream 200-10 $179
Proscan 17" Monitor $99
Tint Film $13
HDMI cable $6
4-port USB adapter $28
32 GB SDHC card $13
4x DB-9 connectors $6
Bulk 2-pair signal cable $20
PolarView NS $50
Total $414

I don't think you can buy the smallest NMEA-enabled Garmin for that little, and this system packs a lot more punch. (The Garmin, however, is weatherproof and daylight-readable.)

In theory, we should now be all set to install Coastal Explorer or any other Windows-based charting software when the time comes. I'll be using the old Acer as a test mule to try out anything first, before installing it on the live system. The Acer is still set up to recognize the USB converter, so it's a simple matter of moving one USB cable to test any new chart plotting software.

Gone to Carolina...

As I start to type this we are under way in the North Atlantic, about 56 nautical miles S-SE of Cape Fear, North Carolina. It's about 3:30 Monday afternoon, on the third day of what will prove to be a passage of just a little more than three full days.

Sunday night's sunset. Saturday we had too many clouds to the west.

We weighed anchor in Palm Beach as planned at 05:00 Saturday morning. That had us navigating the inlet in the dark, and, this being the weekend, we had to dodge all manner of early fishermen, including the moron who anchored his center console nearly dead center in the ship channel. Still, with good breadcrumbs, nice navigational aids, and some familiarity with this inlet, we made it out without incident.

Before we even reached the jetties, though, we were being pounded by the swell. The forecast was for less than three foot seas, and these were at or just above the upper limit, but we had no period information. The period turned out to be short, perhaps four seconds, and the waves were steep and square. We very nearly turned around after clearing the jetties.

We decided to stick it out at least until we were in deeper water; swell gets pushed up by the shallows into steeper waves closer to shore. Between deeper water and having turned north, putting us broadside to the waves where the stabilizers could help the most, the ride became tolerable, but barely so. The cat made her displeasure known loudly, and even Louise was a bit green around the gills.

True to forecast, the ride got better throughout the day, and by dinner time it was almost placid. Our first night at sea was quite calm indeed. We also had a considerable push from the Gulf Stream for most of the day, at one point doing over nine knots. That tapered off toward evening, though, and by the 9pm watch, we had slowed to just 7.2 knots, a bit over our normal speed through the water.

The early push gave us a false sense of optimism, with the plotter showing an arrival sometime this morning, falling only to this evening by the watch change. But all that changed overnight, as we entered a lull and then a counter-current, with our speed over ground dropping as low as 5.1 knots at one point.

Things have not gotten better since, with speeds in the sixes predominant, occasionally climbing into the low sevens but also occasionally falling back into the fives. When I started typing we were doing 7, and as I glance at the dial now I see we are doing just 5.7 knots.

Checking our progress against the Gulf Stream forecasts. These proved useless.

Before we left we downloaded and printed the model forecasts for Gulf Stream velocities, a beautiful color-coded chart that was hopelessly stale and just plain wrong by the time we needed it. The Stream right now is going through a cycle of transforming from a graceful arc along the coast to a pair of swirls which meet about 300 nautical miles east of the Georgia/Florida border. Most of what's west of that meeting point is a confusing mess of eddies and counter-currents.

Without good, timely information about where the eddies start and end, it's nearly impossible to hunt around and find the sweet spot. Once you find yourself in an adverse current, you could easily be 20-30 nautical miles off the favorable flow in either direction. For perhaps a knot or so of delta, there's no percentage in driving that far off course, possibly two or three times, trying to find it.

Instead we maintained our heading, a direct line to Beaufort Inlet, which our model chart had showed would also be favorable almost the whole cruise. From our current position it is unlikely we will get any more push, and the best we can hope for is that this counter-current will let up. At this moment the plotter predicts we will arrive around 9:30am tomorrow morning.

At least it has been an almost entirely calm and mostly pleasant cruise so far. I've been on deck each evening marveling at the stars; the Milky Way is quite prominent, and with the binoculars I can see hundreds of Messier objects. Saturn is also prominent in the west for a few hours after sunset, and though I can not see any detail I can at least tell the rings are there with the glasses.

Sunday morning after the 3am change of watch, Louise called me back upstairs (before I turned in) to see bio-luminescence prominent in our bow wave. And shortly after I awoke in the morning she called me upstairs again to look at the group of seven dolphins that were playing in our bow wave. I missed them breaching, which she caught early on as they were swimming for the boat.

Most of Sunday, well offshore, we were apparently ideally positioned to hear both Coast Guard Sector Charleston and Coast Guard Sector Miami on the VHF. Both were working weekend mayday calls. Charleston was dealing with a 35' catamaran that capsized offshore with five souls aboard; the vessel later sank. All five were picked up by a fishing boat named "The Office." Miami was working a mayday call from a 25' Mako taking on water offshore; they were eventually assisted by a commercial towboat. Mostly what we heard was both sectors chastising boaters for inappropriate use of channel 16, one of the ways we full-timers know it's the weekend.

Dead flying fish on deck. The brown stain behind him is one of our never-ending rust spots. This one turned out to be the first of over half a dozen.

Today Louise was on deck rinsing the salt off the boat when she found a flying fish that had gotten a bit overzealous, paying for his error with his life. We've seen hundreds of them on this passage. I am always amazed at just how far they can fly.

What we have not seen is any other traffic. The radar set has been empty and even the AIS display has been devoid of targets for most of the cruise since passing Canaveral. We saw a distant cruise ship Saturday night, and this morning a 130' yacht passed us. Now that we're again within a few dozen miles of some major ports, I've got 71 targets on the AIS. But the closest ship is still ten miles distant, and I see nothing on the horizon without glasses.

Built-in charging ports keep the "warts" out of the way and leave us with a free receptacle.

It's been calm enough for much of the trip to get some projects done. It was even calm enough for a while for Louise to do some sewing. With the goodies from Home Depot I installed a magnetic catch for our bathroom door -- the existing brass hook-and-eye, while very nautical, rattles when under way, and is fiddly to operate, especially with your hands full. I also replaced the helm outlet, which I installed a year ago, with one that has built-in USB charging ports, which is what we've mostly used that outlet for anyway. I renewed the finish on the flybridge cocktail table, which was getting weathered. And I fabricated a retainer for our galley drawers.

Fresh finish on the flybridge table.

These drawers have never come out under way, but neither have we been in any truly rough seas. Even pitching over six footers gave us concern though; the drawers are heavy. The top one is full of silverware and utensils, including kitchen knives that would become dangerous projectiles, and the middle one has the dishes, which are heavy and breakable. The existing latches seem ill-suited to the task.

Drawer retainer bar for heavy seas.

This setup involves two through-bolted rings that are sold as drawer pulls, and a heavy oak dowel. To fit the dowel in place the upper ring must flip down over the top after first inserting the base into the lower ring; the counter-top overhang precludes just sliding the whole dowel in from the top. It's pretty sturdy and should keep the drawers in place even in the worst seas; we'll only deploy it when needed. The upper ring flips up out of the way so the drawer can be used normally, and the dowel stows in a nearby locker.

Unobtrusive when not in use.

I've also caught up a bit on my reading backlog, pounded out an enormous diatribe about installing a Windows 8.1 machine for a chart plotter, and got most of this post written. I'll upload both posts when we are back in cell coverage just outside of Beaufort; the next time you hear from me will be after we've caught up on our sleep and gotten settled in someplace. I've also watched a bit of TV, thankful for our gyro-stabilized satellite dish.

With any luck we'll have another calm night, and we should be arriving at Beaufort Inlet tomorrow morning. We'll have a favorable tide until 10am, so I hope we can arrive before then. We'll most likely drop the hook in a familiar spot off the Coast Guard station there at Fort Macon, and move the boat no sooner than Wednesday, after we've had a good night's sleep.

Update: We are safely anchored near our familiar spot, just a bit closer to Fort Macon State Park (map). While I'm sure we had cell coverage for a good few miles offshore, I went off watch at 02:30 and we had to negotiate the inlet at 07:30 this morning, so I slept right up until we reached the sea buoy. No time then to get the posts uploaded.

Over the course of last night, another six or so flying fish also committed suicide by bashing into the boat, five of which ended up on deck. And just after the turn of the watch last night, I got very busy, dodging an enormous freighter and passing two tugs close aboard. Fortunately, the heavy traffic was all in one big cluster, and things were quiet the rest of the night.

Just after dinner we had a lovely sunset, followed by the arrival of a group of a half dozen or so adolescent dolphins, who stayed with us a good ten minutes or more, enjoying playing in our bow wave. We got to see breaching, and a tail-slapping behavior, and quite a number of underwater barrel rolls. I took some photos and a minute or so of video, which I will try to upload in a later post.