Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Open Season

We are back at Apex Marine in Stuart, FL, albeit in a different spot than the one we left for Trawler Fest (map).  We arrived in high wind and mid-ebb, and it was all I could do to get the boat to the end tie on the south end of the dock, arriving as we did on the weekend, when there was no one around to tell us where to dock or help with lines.  We decided we like it here on the end, and the marina let us keep the spot, although I did turn the boat around at slack a day or so later, so we could off-load the scooters.

We've been here a full two weeks already, and the time has gotten away from me.  I keep thinking I will have a quiet hour or two in which to post to the blog, but the quiet time never comes.  I confess that I am looking forward to having most of the "heavy lifting" behind me so we can enjoy the boat without the Projects of Damocles hanging over me.

That's not to say that it has been all work and no play.  On the contrary, we've been enjoying the occasional evening out with Martin and Steph, or just the two of us, and we even made a jaunt to Fort Lauderdale, where the four of us enjoyed cocktails with our friends Dave and Carole, whom we met in Baltimore, aboard Buccaneer.  We even took some time this weekend for a late breakfast and a visit to the Arts Fest in Memorial Park, downtown, followed by a quick tour through the farmers' market.

The weather has been perfect over the last week or so, which is a mixed blessing.  It means boating season is entering full swing here, and on the weekends there are some number of inconsiderate skippers who blast by here in heavy boats on full plane, sending shock waves throughout the marina.  Sunday one particularly bad wake sent us crashing into the top of a piling, scuffing the paint on the edge of the boat deck.  By the time we got hit, the offender was too far away to get a name -- skippers are (in theory, anyway) responsible for any damage done by their wakes.

Mostly, though, I have been working on the boat since we returned.  The trip to Lake Park was something of a sea trial for some of the work I did during our first month here, including the new chart plotter setup as well as the new electrical system.  While we only anchored one night on that trip, I'm happy to report that the batteries, inverter, and new alternator all worked like a charm.  The chart plotter, though, had some issues.

The new chart plotting system had worked flawlessly on our way to Stuart back in January, when it was connected via a single serial port to our old SeaCas setup, which provided both GPS position and AIS target information in a single datastream.  That was a temporary arrangement, though, as we really need to have it connected to the new Furuno FA-100 class-A AIS transponder, along with a separate GPS position receiver as well as the autopilot system, so it can drive the boat.  Here in Stuart I upgraded the single-port serial interface to a four-port model, removed the SeaCas system (whose former antennas are now connected to the FA-100), and wired the FA-100, a GPS, and the AP20 autopilot to three of the four new ports.

At the dock, it all appeared to work as expected.  But when we got underway to Lake Park, the ship's position icon seemed to be jumping around, and our ground track looked like we had had a few beers before setting out.  Slowing down to anchoring speeds in Palm Beach, and while docking in Lake Park, the track was a bit more revealing: we appeared to be moving in short hops of straight lines, due east-west, due north-south, or, occasionally, at a 45 degree angle.

Our very squared-off track in Lake Park.  Click for full size to eliminate any moiré effect.

That suggested that one of the position inputs was wonky.  The primary position source should have been the dedicated GPS, and this was the same unit that had been driving our old Northstar plotter quite successfully before the plotter itself gave up the ghost.  But I knew that the AIS was also providing a position input, embedded in the "own ship" information feed, that it was passing along from the Furuno radar/chartplotter system, and backed up by its own internal GPS.

Reasoning that either the two position sources, differing as they did by a few feet due to antenna locations, were causing the charted position to jump back and forth rapidly, or that one of the three GPS systems was providing bad data, I tried alternately disconnecting each of these two systems from the chartplotter on our way back to Stuart.  I also tried forcing the AIS onto its internal GPS by powering down the radar.  None of that changed the symptom, and we had a drunken trail most of the way back to Stuart as well.  Since we came back via the inside route, I did not have much opportunity to fiddle with it, as I needed to focus on driving the boat.  Ironically, the jumping around on the plotter was much more of a problem on the inside route than it would have been in the ocean.

We we very nearly all the way back to the marina when it finally occurred to me to disconnect the autopilot from the plotter.  This connection exists so that the plotter can send course information to the autopilot, to steer the boat.  But it is bi-directional, so that the autopilot can provide heading information (basically, the way the boat is pointed, as opposed to the direction in which it is traveling) to the plotter.  This lets you see at a glance that you are pointed one way, but moving another (for example, due to wind or current).  Et voila, the jumping around stopped immediately, our position was dead accurate, and our track was smooth.  We left the autopilot disconnected from the plotter for the remainder of the trip (we never let the plotter drive except in wide open water anyway).

Our much curvier smooth tracks from maneuvering into the slip here in Stuart.

It took me a while to track it down, but it turned out that, even though the documentation says the autopilot sends only heading sentences on output #2 (where the plotter is connected), it was actually sending a whole panoply of sentences, including GPS position sentences.  It was getting the GPS position from the Furuno radar/plotter, which is connected to input/ouput port #1 (so we can drive the boat from that system, too, if need be).  That alone probably would not have caused this problem, but apparently the autopilot was truncating the last two decimal places from the GPS position sentences.  Moreover, it was sending ten times as many position reports as either of the two actual GPS inputs. Having two fewer digits of position data yields the squared-off, stair-step plot that we were seeing.  The jumping would happen when a more accurate report arrived from one of the GPS units, immediately followed again by a less precise report from the autopilot.

I called Simrad to ask about this and they immediately knew the answer, as it is a known problem.  After having me check my software version they informed me that the problem had been fixed in a later (and final) release.  In the case of our now-antique unit, upgrading the software requires installing a new ROM, which any dealer will be happy to sell me for upwards of $200.  Instead I simply turned off the input from the autopilot on the plotter -- the pilot will still get commands from the plotter, but the plotter will not hear the pilot babbling away.  The plotter will get heading information from the AIS (which gets it from the autopilot in the first place) while we are under way, and we'll just forego having the heading display when we are at anchor unless we also keep the AIS powered up.

This is now my second interaction with Simrad (the first being when the Northstar quit working), and I would be hard-pressed to ever buy another piece of equipment from them.  By contrast, Furuno has been phenomenal in supporting their older gear on Vector, while they have yet to charge me a penny.  When I am in the market for a new radar or other dedicated marine electronics, they will be the first place I look.

Shortly after we returned here, the new VHF radio I ordered in Miami arrived.  We've been having some signal quality problems with the venerable Icom 602 in the pilothouse.  On top of the signal issues, the DSC is nearly impossible to use, and the loudhailer's fog repertoire lacks an anchor bell function.  It was a bit of an impulse buy, but I got a great deal on Standard Horizon's new top-of-the-line radio, which in addition to having user-friendly DSC operation and a fog bell, also has a built-in AIS receiver/display and its own built-in GPS.  The AIS is redundant aboard Vector, but having it built right into the radio means we can contact any AIS target via DSC with just a couple of button presses, rather than having to copy the MMSI off the AIS or plotter and enter it into the radio.

New radio installed, showing AIS "plotter" display and position.  I need to make a trim plate to cover the larger hole from the older radio.

The new radio looks and works great, but it is considerably smaller than the Icom and I will need to make a trim plate of some sort to cover the larger hole in the console.  I think I can get a fair amount of money for the old radio, but I first need to have Icom blank out our MMSI.  If that proves too troublesome or expensive, I'll just box it up and stow it as a spare.

While I was under the helm installing the new radio and wrapping up the plotter issues, I discovered some mis-wired grounds, and I am still in the process of cleaning those up.  I also took the opportunity to fish a CAT-5 up to the overhead and installed the proper exterior cable for the WiFi amplifier, which heretofore has been running on a jury-rigged cable hanging exposed from the pilothouse ceiling.  I hope to have all the under-helm work (for now) finished in the next couple of days, so I can replace all the safety gear that stows under there, which is currently strewn around the pilothouse.

Among the safety gear is a Zoll AED, which this month decided it needs new batteries.  That's straightforward enough, but in the process of looking up batteries I learned it also needs a software update.  As if I did not already have enough to do, that's one more project on the list.  As long as I am on the subject of safety gear, the life raft also needs to be re-certified, and I took it off its mounts in preparation for bringing it in for service.  In the process I discovered it had been installed upside down.  I'll be moving the bracket anyway before re-installing it, as the old position on the starboard rail of the boat deck made it the widest thing on the boat, and more than once I had to dodge a piling threatening to knock it off the boat.

Upside-down raft canister.  This cord, which serves as the painter and also activates the inflator, is supposed to be on top.

I actually typed all the foregoing paragraphs Sunday afternoon, with the best of intentions to finish up and get this posted on Monday, making an even two weeks since my last update.  But Monday morning I had my first consultation at the ophthalmologist for Lasik surgery, and they dilated my eyes, which kept me off the computer the rest of the day.  Instead, I put on very dark sunglasses and we hitched a ride with Steph, on her way to Fort Lauderdale to pick Martin up from the airport, so we could drop the life raft off at Viking in Miami for service.

In the back of the Viking warehouse I felt like a very insignificant drop in a very large ocean.  The huge facility was stacked to the rafters with enormous canisters of ship-sized rafts awaiting service.  One whole section was dedicated to Carnival Cruises, for example, and if you've ever been aboard a cruise ship you've seen dozens of these, looking a bit like oversized 55-gallon drums on their sides, racked on the decks to supplement the hard-sided lifeboats.  The young lady taking my service order assured me that I did not have the smallest raft -- they make one size smaller than ours.  At least I know we are in good company with our six-person, offshore rated raft with IMO-compliant emergency equipment pack.

So surely Tuesday I could have finished this diatribe and gotten it posted.  Ha.  While I was reading my morning news over my first cup of coffee, the screen on my fairly new Asus laptop went kaput.  As in not readable at all.  I cleared a spot on the chart table, heretofore piled high with project paraphernalia, so I could plug the laptop into the same monitor we use for the chartplotter.  Fortunately, the rest of the laptop was fully operational, but there went my whole day, as I then spent the rest of the day arranging for warranty repair, backing up all my data, and clearing off any confidential information in preparation for sending it in.  We dropped it at the post office yesterday evening; ironically, it is going to Milpitas, California, where I lived for several years.  I have my fingers crossed that we'll have it back here before we want to shove off, mid-April.

Hmm.  I can't read this at all...

I'm now back to using my old laptop, which you might recall was recently re-purposed as the new chart plotter at the helm.  It took a while for me to get all my email and other items synced back up to this computer, and it's a little clunky, but it will suffice until I get my new one back.  It still has all the charts on it, too, so it can quickly be put back at the helm should we need to get under way.

Speaking of laptops, when we are under way, Louise sets hers on the table at the pilothouse settee, where she is generally seated while I am driving.  She has the same chart software loaded, and this gives us two sets of eyes on the charts.  Moreover, I can ask her, for example, to scroll ahead, or to read the details of some chart object such as a marina or anchorage, without having to divert the screen of the main chart plotter for that function.  Up to now, we've been using one of those USB-connected GPS "pucks" to show our position on her computer.  Naturally, the puck does not get a great signal inside the aluminum pilothouse, and, having it positioned as near as practical to the port side window for this reason, her display always shows us a little to the left of where our main plotters show us.

Having removed the SeaCas AIS unit to make way for the Furuno FA-100 transponder, I saw an opportunity here to ditch the puck and its clumsy cable running across the settee, get her a more accurate updated position fix, and add AIS targets to her display all in one fell swoop, and so I ordered an inexpensive car-top GPS antenna and a "rubber ducky" VHF antenna made for handhelds and re-installed the SeaCas unit in the flybridge coaming, running the output down to her position on the settee.  I also installed a power outlet in the settee, so she no longer has to drape the cord around to the galley.

Amplified GPS antenna and flexible VHF antenna installed on the flybridge.  The receiver is under the coaming and wired to the pilothouse settee area.

So this might be taking redundancy to the point of absurdity, but we now have aboard Vector three separate AIS receivers, four working VHF transceivers, four fully separate chart plotters with their own position inputs, and six dedicated GPS receivers.  And that's not counting three Android phones and one iPad, all with their own GPS receivers, as well as the aforementioned puck, which can be added to a third laptop, if needed, for chart display.  The only way we can get lost is if the GPS constellation goes dark, and even then, we carry paper charts and know how to dead reckon.

All of the re-wiring of NMEA inputs and outputs to get all this working was the excuse I needed to finally clean up the mess under the helm that formerly passed for an NMEA "junction," and now it's all wired through a compression terminal block and properly labeled.  The depth transducer is also now connected to the radar/plotter as well as the numerical display, so we can get a graphic picture of the bottom, and the depth is also being passed to the PC plotter, so it can be correlated directly with the depths on the chart.

Not the prettiest, but a far cry from the way it was, and more flexible and functional.  I was a bit too limited on real estate to dress all the wires off squarely.

While I was under the helm I also installed a wireless remote for the anchor windlass.  One of the two foot switches crapped out a few months ago, and I've been having to work the windlass from the helm, with Louise giving me instructions over the headsets.  I'd like to fix the foot switch, too, but I'm worried removing it will damage the paint, and I want to wait until we are having paint work done on the foredeck.

I still have a lot left to do before we are ready to take the boat out of sight of land.  The life raft bracket needs to be bolted down in its new location, the new tender chocks need to be secured, the water maker needs to be serviced, and a host of smaller projects needed to be ticked off the list.  I have another three weeks or so of relative calm here in Stuart, and I am hoping to have the boat open-ocean-ready by the time we leave.

As it stands now, our plan is to shove off from here mid-April and head to Fort Lauderdale, where we will spend a week or so visiting folks.  After that, things are a bit fuzzier, but we'll either continue south to Miami and the keys, or else head east to the Bahamas.  We'll remain in these southerly latitudes until June or so, when we plan to head north along the US east coast for what is likely the last time in the foreseeable future.

With any luck, it will be something less than another two weeks before I post here again.  For one thing, I need to commit the 24-volt upgrade project to writing before it fades too much from memory, and for another, these gargantuan updates are a bear to type.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to try to sell a VHF radio, an inverter, and maybe a bus.


  1. Where do you plan to head after heading up the East Coast?

  2. Great to hear about all your projects. I think it is unlikely the GPS constellation will go dark so you are probably going to be able to find your way most anywhere with a lot of confidence that you won't lose all systems.

  3. Sean, glad you figured out the auto-pilot,plot, gps problem, that sounds like it could make you "head hurt". It did mine just listening to you writing about it. Combining all those electronic devices is never easy. Great job. Steve

  4. Your methodical troubleshooting wins out again. I found myself wondering if you could turn such an exercise in a field trial failure. Having all those sources/outputs are great, and having seen all the different combinations of symptoms you could encounter from individual or multiple failures might save you some time in a critical situation someday. A battery operated device handheld device would be the only other thing I would consider. My ditch bag for the plane had handheld radio, GPS, and a hand crank generator.


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