Nomadness Report – Issue 2

The new PDF publication was off to a good start, and the second issue dove into fuel monitoring. On the opening page, I wrote…

nomrep-2-frontpageWelcome to the second issue of the Nomadness Report, and thanks for subscribing! In the few days that have passed since the first issue, I’ve had a chance to further clarify my thinking on what separates this from the blog and other publications.

Basically, this is higher value technical information than the blog. Although I do have long-term plans to publish a collection of design packages with associated kits, I know how daunting that sort of thing can be when I’m also living the project (or sailing… there’s a concept!). Rather than wait for a time when I can produce and market the books, I’ve decided to put that class of content right here while it’s fresh (though the design packages will eventually include schematics and software listings for those who want to dive in).

On the assumption that most of my subscribers have strong technical interest in various aspects of this project, I’ll make this my most substantial publication… the blog will continue to be the public face, focusing on overviews, tales of adventure, and the transition aboard. Meanwhile, this will carry hacks, design details, geek humor, and the whole twisted gonzo-engineering narrative.

Nomadness Report — Issue 2

by Steven K. Roberts
May 3, 2011

Historical Perspective

The idea of incorporating diverse devices into a single user interface actually goes back to my BEHEMOTH bicycle, circa 1990. After 16,000 miles on two previous versions, both architecturally inflexible, I wanted to build a system that could push all my geek buttons with a minimum of wheel-reinvention.

This meant that everything had to interoperate, no matter what company built it or what “standards” might be involved. I would acquire a widget, strip it of plastics and power supplies, find the hooks, and integrate it into a system so it could share serial, audio, or other data with its neighbors.

A key component here was the crossbar network, which grew more robust in the Microship project that followed. Using the Mitel 8816 crosspoint switch and some FORTH code, we built boards that could let anything talk to anything. Want a security event to trigger a call to the cops? Just turn on the speech board, connect its serial port to the bicycle control processor, route its audio to the cellular interface, transmit a string to the phone, and watch the fun!

That was 20 years ago and the bike is now in the Computer History Museum along with my first homebrew computer, but we still have exactly the same problem despite vastly better communications. In general, stand-alone devices are available for a huge range of applications, but do not come with associated software objects that can live in a browser. This is unfortunate, and is why I have to build Shacktopus.

I coined that name in 2005 with the intent of creating a sort of “abstracted” communication and data-collection laptop. But the project was aborted due to a death in the family, and besides, now we have smart phones and don’t really need to do it anymore.

Starship Enterprise on a Sailboat

BEHEMOTH fullsystemIt’s been a long time since I was that grinning fellow on the left there, but I have the same crazy desires. I want to blend all my passions into a technomadic lifestyle, and if I don’t pay attention to system integration, that will translate into a huge mess. Data collection from inside and outside the ship, monitoring plumbing and fuel flow, power management, coordinating communications, creating a context for piano playing and podcasting, integrating existing navigation tools, dealing with a dozen video channels, remote controlling almost everything from ashore or afar, networking with the technomadic flotilla, having a robust security system, continuing R&D projects, streaming telemetry to public servers, probing the environment… this is going to take more than a bunch of commercial boxes stashed wherever they fit!

Much of the discussion in this publication is going to be about how we bring this all into one cohesive system.

Brion Toss Gives the Rig a Once-Over

Brion Toss aboard NomadnessDuring the 2008 shakedown cruise, we welcomed a wizard aboard… Brion Toss, author of The Rigger’s Apprentice and other excellent references. He had lots of useful advice, and generally gave the rig his imprimatur… but for one detail. A link plate on the jib furler, with no toggle, was “looking very tired.” It was the wrong part anyway, with very little thread engagement to the turnbuckle. When asked when I should fix it, he said, “before you put the sails up again!” We did.

Meet Shacktopus

Basically, what this requires is a central always-on server that presents the boat’s “website” to a local wireless device or any authenticated browser out on the Net… while also providing back-door interfaces via voice I/O and packet radio. This machine maintains a database of points, steadily polling about 15 nodes scattered around the boat (those are the little purple diamonds on the title background image on this PDF).

The nodes are based, for the most part, on the open-source Arduino microprocessor… readily available and cheap, with a very friendly support culture. There are so many people hacking with these now that just about any flavor of I/O can be found off the shelf as “shields,” little daughter boards that piggyback onto the Arduinos themselves.

As this project develops, much of what I’ll be writing in these reports will be about the nodes… each associated with some broad swath of ship operations. In many cases, these do not do any local control, but simply gather system state to allow meaningful graphic displays. Example: 3 diesel tanks and 2 Racor filters makes for 18 possible relationships of source/return/filter. A live block diagram with bright or grayed-out lines will let me see at a glance what’s happening with fuel flow.

The Mega-drawing

There is a poster-sized drawing on the wall of my lab (6 sheets of paper), representing the whole ship system as currently conceived. Here are the regions, from upper-left to lower-right… click image for the full-size version:

Nomadness block diagram

Nomadness network diagram – click for full-size version

From left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Computers and networking, with the Linux board, Mac Mini, USB hierarchy, speech I/O, data-type-agnostic crossbar matrix, and so on.
  2. Communications, including ham radio, datacomm, APRS, and back door.
  3. Audio, with the piano and mixer as well as stereo and distribution tools.
  4. An orthogonal view of the boat showing the Arduino nodes, all of which talk USB (or XBee, if too far away) back to the system console.
  5. Navigation and ship operations, based on standard NMEA 2000 tools… with associated subgroups like autopilot and outside helm console. This separate network has a gateway to my own server so all the ship sensors are available.
  6. Power management, including Outback inverter-charger and solar controller with its own monitoring system… also streaming into the ship server.

I don’t yet know the total number of data points (both “real” and “derived”), but it’s over 250. Each of these is added regularly to a back-end database, with time stamps… making it possible to generate historical plots for any measurement or correlate anomalous events to assist in fault detection.

And speaking of fuel…

Fuel Monitoring with NMEA-2000

Meet Jeb

I’m sure I don’t have to work to convince you that having a way to monitor the fuel in your boat’s tanks is a Good Thing… suddenly running out can turn a fun day on the water into an unwelcome lee shore adventure. If you’re burning diesel, it’s important to avoid sucking air, as it will then be necessary to bleed the system.

Nomadness starboard fuel tankEven without considering emergencies, you probably want more than a gross approximation of the amount remaining in your tanks. This data is essential to develop a fuel curve for the vessel, allowing you to find the most efficient cruising speed and increase the accuracy of range predictions in varying conditions (though you’ll get better data by directly measuring consumption).

Before getting into our tank monitoring system, I have to share a little tale from the 1970s. I had a small business in Louisville, and paid a fellow to come around every couple of weeks and do the grown-up accounting stuff that mystified me. Tom had many other clients, one of which was a coal company in Eastern Kentucky.

He showed up one day, laughing, and told me of his recent visit to the hills. The owner had told him that he reckoned someone was stealing diesel fuel from the tank at the barge dock, since there had been some wild fluctuations in its reported level. He was hoping that Tom could figure out the numbers and help find the culprit.

Looking over the purchase and consumption records was making no sense, so Tom decided to begin at the beginning, as they say. He made his way down to the dock and found the attendant, a lanky fellow named Jeb. “Morning,” he said. “We’re having trouble figuring out how much diesel is being used… can you show me how you measure it?”

“Yessir, I sure can.” He picked up a long stick, printed with numbered tick marks. “You see this here stick? I just put ‘er all the way down in the tank, like this… and then when I pull ‘er back out, I look at where it’s wet, ya see? I write that number on the clipboard and take it up to the office.”

Tom peered at the stick. “Which end do you put in the tank first?”

“Shee-it, I dunno!”

We can do better.

Manual Methods

Actually, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a stick… my ex’s Cal 2-29 with one-lung Farymann diesel uses this method, and it works fine (she even named the stick “Jeb”). With careful record-keeping, attention to which end goes in first, and basic hygiene, this may be all that’s needed.

One step up from the stick is the venerable sight glass: a piece of clear tubing mounted vertically on the outside of the tank, plumbed into it at both ends. It doesn’t get much simpler than this, and if your tanks are conveniently located and you don’t care about remote monitoring, it’s a time-tested and perfectly acceptable method.

I’ve known people who take a third approach, and have managed to fine-tune it to remarkable accuracy. With careful observation and record-keeping, one can monitor the running time of an engine (especially if it’s kept at a constant cruise RPM) and apply a simple gallons-per-hour formula to determine how much has been used. This requires accurate knowledge of the engine’s fuel curve, along with an understanding of how that varies with hull/prop fouling and sea state.

You can implement a much more refined version of that with accurate flow monitoring using readily available instruments. This is analogous to battery monitoring technology… by recording the exact amount used and paying attention to consistent fill levels, you can always figure out how much you have left. But this can get out of synch with reality if you have multiple consumers, like a diesel heater and genset, or if you are switching among multiple tanks and not taking careful notes.

In the case of Nomadness, there are three tanks: one of about 90 gallons under the berth in the aft cabin, and two “wing tanks” of about 70 each that are hard to reach beneath galley and pilothouse furniture.

Out with the Old…

Old fuel gaugeThe boat came with a clunky system, with an analog gauge on the instrument panel. This was an old meter reminiscent of a 1957 Chevy, and was made worse by the tank-selection protocol: mash one of three heavy chrome buttons to connect the associated swing-arm tank sender to the meter, displaying the fuel level.

These old senders are evil — just wire-wound rheostats (33-240Ω) with a wiper attached to a float on a swing arm. They are famous for failing, as mine had, with the measurement being so random that I longed to get Jeb involved. That wasn’t possible, of course, due to the locations of the tanks.

Wema Sensors

Starboard Wema sensorAfter considerable research, I decided that the new sensors should be from Wema. Mine are the SSS/SSL series, which have the same resistance range as the old standard but operate, magically, with a floating collar that glides loosely up and down a 316 stainless column. I played Jeb a few times to get accurate measurement of my tank depths, then placed the order.

They’re quite beautiful, industrial-strength devices, and were not difficult to install. My wing tanks already had aluminum inspection ports, and drilling the center hole and bolt circle was a quick drill-press job. The aft tank already had the same industry-standard hole pattern, and merely involved some cleanup, re-tapping, removal of old form-a-gasket, and a couple of attempts to get it sealed (re-doing old stuff is always harder than new stuff!).

Maretron TLA-100 Interfaces

OK, so now we have the raw analog data source… how does it make it to a display?  The new marine networking standard is NMEA 2000 (or N2K in boatnerdspeak), which is built electrically atop CANbus. I had already installed a backbone for the autopilot and other nav goodness, so the obvious plan here was to get the Wema sensors on the bus.

TLA 100Maretron makes a wonderful (though not particularly cheap) line of NMEA 2000 devices, and their TLA100 is designed to convert any standard resistive sender to a stream of events that allow one to see fuel levels on any display aboard the ship. In the long run, Nomadness will have her N2K data bridged to an always-on server that will allow seeing it all in a browser environment, but at the moment I just have a single DSM250 from Maretron at the inside helm.

The TLA100 is configurable, of course; from the display, you can associate each one with a tank number, set capacity, specify gauge resistance, tweak the calibration, or even define a bunch of data points while filling to map the values onto an odd-shaped tank. I should do this, but am always too stressed while at the fuel dock…

Anyway, in the middle photo you can see one of my three TLA100s plugged into the bus behind the helm console.

Virtual Gauges

fuel-3tanksNow that fuel data is streaming onto the N2K backbone, what do we do with it? This depends quite a bit on the available display, and in some cases it might be just a numerical value… or a window in a multifunction chartplotter display at the helm.

In my case, the excellent Maretron DSM250 provided an opportunity to put all three tanks logically on one screen. The largest tank is aft (at the bottom); port and starboard wing tanks are slightly smaller (top).  At a glance, I can get a good sense of my fuel situation:

Would I do this again, in retrospect? Probably yes, given interoperability with other equipment including a display at the outside helm. But the Bluesea Vessel Systems Monitor (on Amazon here) is much cheaper and, while not graphically “modern” looking, can present an amazing amount of information (including three tanks). Ahhh, so many ways to spend boat bucks!

A Word on Complexity

I have often, not surprisingly, had to endure criticism from people who feel that I am over-complicating things. This goes all the way back to the bike epoch, when every few months in the midst of all the fan mail there would be a hostile letter with comments like: “you are bastardizing the simple, beautiful act of bicycling.”

These days, such criticism is more likely to come from sailing purists, for indeed there is a very well-known phenomenon on boats: complicated stuff breaks. Just ask any long-distance voyager about their refrigeration system.

I do find some of those comments ironic, though… with the exception of pure traditional wooden-boat sailing, almost everyone on the water these days is carrying a fairly substantial collection of high-tech tools: internet access, smart phones, radar, GPS chartplotters, sonar, weather sensors, satellite radio, TV, MP3 player, sine wave inverter/chargers, solar panels, and engine monitoring systems. When such folks look at my gizmological overlays and call them “too complicated,” I do have to chuckle a bit.

The whole point here is a reduction of complexity… at least from the perspective of day-to-day operation. If instead all this stuff adds to the confusion and creates more maintenance headaches, then I will have failed.

The real point of this project is to achieve the sort of smooth layering of technology that was well depicted (fictionally) in the Star Trek Next Generation series. Huge sensor arrays and complex systems were reduced to voice interaction and clear graphics, and the whole operation was paperless. The underlying complexity did not go away; it just didn’t nag the user with the need to be cognizant of every little detail. Like my fuel example earlier, something as trivial as a few magnetic reed switches on the tailpieces of rarely seen valves down in the engine room translates into a clear vision of what’s going on in real time.

The key point here is that I am not handing over control to a bunch of microprocessors… at least, not where anything critical is involved. I would never trust a network of computers enough to make it my only way to turn on the navigation lights, for example, but if I throw the toggle switch on the power console and a synthesized voice informs me that the stern light is not drawing current, then the machines are doing their job. If integration of water flow causes a counter in an Arduino to roll over 5000 gallons, prompting it to send a flag to a database-backed server that then includes a service advisory in my morning report, then I will have created a useful work-around for my own inadequacy regarding preventive maintenance.

The Importance of Passion

But there’s a less-pragmatic component to this, and to be honest, that’s what truly drives me. This is not just a toolset, but a way to fold all my technopassions into a single immersive lifestyle. Fellow geeks totally get this, but traditionalists look at all the projects and go, “whoaaaa, dude, are you nuts?”

As I wrote in my Gonzo Engineering essay, “our motives are usually as guileless as passion itself:  chasing daydreams, building tools, realizing obsessions, shattering limits, publishing, earning grins of appreciation from the cognoscenti and accolades from neophytes.” In other words, it’s fun.

There’s nothing radical about combining one’s interests with travel; mine just happen to be übergeeky. The sailor who paints the scenery while anchored in a beautiful cove is pushing exactly the same set of buttons.


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Nomadness Report – Issue 1

Nomadness Report - Issue 1This is the first in a series of 22 “magazine-style” pieces about the Nomadness boat project that I published between April 2011 and January 2013. These went into much more detail than blog posts, and were available by subscription. As is my custom, I began with an ambitious weekly publishing schedule, then monthly, then… whenever I felt guilty. 

After this ran its course, I did about ten emailed newsletters for existing subscribers, compiled the whole collection into an eBook, and returned to casual blogging. I am incorporating all of them into this archive, blended with the blogs and other posts, to create a consistent timeline of the project. 

Nomadness Report – Issue 1

by Steven K. Roberts
April 24, 2011

An Impractical Commute

The Nomadness project has been hobbled for over 3 years by an absurd lack of workspace convenience. This may sound a little like whining, coming from a guy with a 3000 square-foot building in the woods, but when said woods are on an island with no moorage, we have a problem.

I bought the boat in October 2007 and managed to make reasonable progress on the initial, most-urgent items… both at the dock and underway during a 621-mile shakedown cruise in 2008. But then I was ready to turn my attention to the big project, and secured moorage in Oak Harbor with the intent of getting to work. It was close to home as the crow flies, but when the crow had to drive a diesel pickup truck 2 hours each way between boat and lab, progress slowed dramatically. “Damn, I forgot the bifurcated widgetframus! Oh well, next week…”

Things continued in this vein for another year, the to-do list growing. expensive gizmology depreciating in boxes, a sense of futility creeping in. Was I being realistic? As another winter settled over Puget Sound, the boat mostly just sat.

I began to realize that the only way out of this would be to find a way to bring living/working space into mutual proximity with boat parking. How hard could that be in Puget Sound? But a  few months of house-hunting proved it to be VERY hard, and again very little sailing (or boat work) got done.

It became clear that I needed to decouple myself from the Microship lab in the forest, and that led to the Polaris project that began in the Spring of 2009

Conjuring a Mobile Lab

polaris-outsideThere’s a thorough four-part series in Make:Online about this rolling workspace, as well as a few posts in the Nomadness blog… so I won’t go into detail here. But basically, this 24-foot Wells-Cargo trailer is a distillation of the big lab into a very tight and efficient portable workspace that I can tow behind my truck… and this is a hugely liberating toolset for decoupling project from lifestyle.

Polaris Mobile LabBy early 2010, the problem changed: if I could find a place to live aboard with Polaris parked nearby, I could get on with the project. I tried relocating to Olympia, but the marina was intolerable and the logistics never added up (though I did manage a substantial haulout and bottom-job while there). On the cusp of looming relationship change, I moved Nomadness north to Everett… about as inconvenient as Oak Harbor, but twice the cost and less congenial. OK, this is getting ridiculous. What to do? Go broke with all the expenses and then sell the boat, dreams unfulfilled?  No.

Enter La Conner

When Everett started waffling on the promised space for the mobile lab, I went on an urgent quest… and a Craigslist post yielded the answer. A dock on the Swinomish Channel, a retail/office space, and inside parking for the mobile lab… all in a friendly town with considerable boat traffic and a deluge of visitors drawn by tulips, art, and the upcoming Paddle to Swinomish at the reservation across the Channel at the end of July.

limedocksignBut the best part? Mobile lab, public staging area, and boat… all are within about 2 city blocks. Messy work happens in Polaris, systems get integrated and brought online in the “gallery,” then everything all gets installed into the boat when ready.

Geek Performance Art?

It’s a little bizarre, but I have a long history of this sort of thing (though usually in a more tech-culture setting like Silicon Valley). It will be an interesting experiment to see how I can handle project immersion behind a glass storefront between a winery and scone shop. “Look, honey! The traveling circuits is in town!”

Nomadness in La Conner

Nomadness Lifestyle Updates

Water Heater

When I bought the boat, it came with a Bosch demand propane water heater with standing pilot… something that is illegal according to ABYC standards and definitely not insurable. Besides, it had been installed badly and didn’t draft well; taking a shower resulted in combustion products (CO and water vapor) all over the cabin. I pulled it out and sold it on eBay to a fellow in Reno (fine for land use).

When dealing with the Plumber-from-Hell on the 2008 holding tank installation, I bought an Isotemp Slim Square 4.2 gallon unit, which (like so many other things during the facilities ordeal) sat idle for over 2 years. I finally installed it last week, in a little cabinet behind the wall of the shower compartment.

isotemp-smallThe unit is interesting in that it has a 115 volt AC heating element in addition to a heat exchanger that’s intended to be inserted in the boat’s engine cooling loop. The former scales well to Nomadness, but the latter scares me… a failure there would be catastrophic. So my plan is to build a solar collector atop the dodger (once it’s redone in stainless), and run a tiny gear pump to push the working fluid down into the boat and through this coil. I haven’t seen anyone try this, but there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work.

Installation involved the usual fixturing, as well as more-than-the-usual confusion with plumbing fittings. The manufacturer uses BSP (British) threads on the mixing valve, and NPT (US) threads on the rest… at least, I think so. Their documentation is annoyingly vague, and since the fittings appear to interoperate but won’t hold pressure if mixed, it’s not easy to figure out. But after much head-banging, it seems to work… and I’ve now had 2 delightful hot showers aboard (about $350 each, if I recall the purchase price correctly). Now I can proceed to amortize this investment, and be less frustrated by the biological components of staying aboard for 3-4 days at a time!


This is one of those things that doesn’t sound like a big deal… but remember my comments about the tourists? Nomadness feels like a fishbowl in any marina, given all the pilothouse windows, but I feel even more naked when the general public is walking around and taking pictures of the pretty sailboats from shore.

front-curtainYears ago, my fabrics-guru friend Karen made curtains for the three steeply angled forward windows. A rich blue Jacquard fabric faces inside, and UV-resistant Solarplex faces out. Because of the sag problem that would normally require complex tracks or annoying Velcro, we used high-power N52 neodymium magnets — one at each attachment point bonded to the window frame with adhesive foam tape, the other sewn into the curtain.

This has worked well, so now the four side windows have received similar treatment. Kirsten has done a beautiful job sewing them, with the magnets tightly hand-stitched just inside the outer seam of the fabric sandwich. Now I don’t have to “suck it in” when galumphing through the cabin at night…

Adjustable Bed

All this “lifestyle stuff” sounds boring compared to a distributed network of Arduino-based nodes talking to an always-on Linux server, but a boat is a complete life-support system. Keeping bodies working is just as important as the gizmology.

This is going to be no ordinary berth. I have some nasty back problems and sleep is painful if I’m stuck on even the cushiest of flat beds. At the home base, I use a pair of remote-control S-Cape adjustable beds from Leggett & Platt, with latex mattresses (that’s a lot o’ bunk!). But what to do on the boat?

This is a work in progress, but basically I reverse-engineered the home bed to find the hinge points, factored in mattress thickness, and cut plywood panels shaped to fit the VEE berth in the forward cabin. (I’ve moved from the king-size oppressive cave at the stern to the bright but compact PENFA suite… so named because the Pointy End’s Not Far Away.)

Anyway, these are articulated with polyolefin hinges from McMaster-Carr, much cheaper than stainless (about $3.50) and fine for the application. Since there’s no room for fancy motors, I considered hydraulics but settled on something more in the sailing context: standard blocks and cleats. I’ll have two control lines on the bulkhead, one for the top half o’ me, and the other for the knee segment.

A Froli sleep system might be added below the existing mattresses, but that can be decided later. My only concern is the cat, Isabelle, who may decide the magic cave is a perfect place to sleep… then be crushed in the middle of the night when I decide to roll over.

Extra Cabin Seating

companionway-seatThe conversion of the saloon to a lab is eliminating the traditional dinette, so adding places to perch was a priority. I drilled blind holes in the companionway rails, and mounted a pair of stainless spring latches on a piece of plywood. With a little upholstery work (using a pneumatic stapler and left-over fabrics), I ended up with a convenient step-seat that can be quickly attached at any of four locations… from kid-level to catbird. Those latches are the key, and the price is right since they’re not called “marine spring latches”!

Coming Up

Infrastructure Projects

There are quite a few ship systems that are about to receive serious attention:

  • A new AC and DC power console, including a bottom-hinged panel to replace the one that currently makes service painful. This includes about 50 circuit breakers, power monitoring displays, generator controls, and the user interface for the Outback inverter/charger and solar charge controller.
  • Waterworks, which will pretty well fill the forward wall of the aft head compartment and bring all fresh-water processing into one region. This includes a Katadyn 40E desalinator, ultraviolet & carbon filter system, and all the valves for routing among shore water, port and starboard tanks, and distribution. This gets a node, which uses a flowmeter and valve-position sensors to track usage, tank levels, filter media life, TDS, and so on.
  • Sewage upgrades, including elimination of the crufty old Lectrasan that came with the boat and additional repairs to the problems introduced by the Plumber from Hell (a botched Spinweld, sheet-metal screws instead of bolts bulging the access panel in poly holding tank, and hose leaks).
  • Solar array integrated with the arch, including support for enclosed cockpit fabric.
  • Redneck Bow Thruster, which is essential. Cap Sante Marine quoted me $13K for installation of a Lewmar tunnel thruster, but I think I can meet its performance with a more flexible system for about $3K. The boat needs something, as there is about 11 feet between the 3-blade Max-Prop at the trailing edge of the modified fin keel and the leading edge of the skeg-hung rudder. No prop-walk translates into tricky close-in maneuvering, and I don’t want docking to involve insurance companies.

Console System

Of course, the part of this that most pushes my geek buttons is the lab… which will occupy an 8-foot segment of the boat just forward of the raised-salon pilothouse. A desk will fill the original dinette region, with a wrap-around sloping console of four panels. These are loosely grouped into computer systems, communications, audio-visual production, and lab.

Folding table wings at the ends will allow this to be a pretty immersive environment wrapped around a swivel chair, and a hinged panel on the desktop will open to reveal a full-size digital piano (my existing Roland RD-700SX). The console includes a mixer and tools for podcasting and annotating videos.

Until the La Conner situation materialized, I figured I would do all this in place, with the components assembled piecemeal in the mobile lab.  But this would have been physically awkward, rendering life aboard intolerable for months.

The immediate project this week, then, is to build a laminated 4×8 work table in the public space, which will serve as a development facility for at least the next year. I’ll build the console systems here, then carry the whole mess aboard when it’s time to cable it up.

Stay tuned!


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New Places, Products, Publications, Partners, & Pussycats

It’s astounding how much can change between one blog post and the next. The more time passes, the more I find myself in that catch-up mode that tempts me to blast through a huge range of subjects, addressing none of them well. Topics like relationship change, for example, can keep a blogger procrastinating for months.

The nutshell summary, at least in the domain that is the primary subject of this blog, is that the brief Everett epoch is over; Nomadness is now in La Conner, with moorage on the channel and two rental spaces a short walk away. One, where I’m writing this, is a cute little retail storefront, passed daily by the rising tide of tourists drawn by tulip season. The other is a sort of garage, stealthy tucked away and perfect for the Polaris mobile lab.

I have not looked back toward Everett for a moment. The physical marina facilities were excellent and expensive, but getting anything done (like parking the trailer or receiving mail) was nearly impossible, and the rather rough town was a long way off… even getting a bite to eat was a project. I put some brainstorm energy into starting a cruiser support operation to reduce the well-known annoyances, but that would have been a crazy wrong turn in life. Better to move on… and here’s the new home of my little ship:

moored in La Conner on the Swinomish ChannelIt’s quite wonderful. There’s a sense of congeniality about the whole town, my dock neighbors are friendly, and the physical facilities are all I need to get on with the project. So, onward!

Nickel Generators and a New Publishing Model

One of the factors that has reduced my blogging output is easy access to microblogging on Facebook, and although that does keep me in touch with lots of people I care about, it’s pretty much a black hole where archives are concerned. A blog is eternally Googlable, with time spent on the well-turned phrase paying off for years. Facebook posts trigger entertaining real-time chat and are quickly forgotten. It has its place, but is starting to annoy me.

I’ve been thinking about all this, as well as the precarious state of my finances (thanks to Peter Schiff’s organization, which talked me out of buying AAPL a few years ago since it would crash the moment Steve gets sick again). For a while after shutting down the old family home, I enjoyed the illusion of passive income and being “set,” but that turned out to be a fantasy. So, just like in the old BEHEMOTH and Microship days, I need to leverage my projects into something that provides break-even cash flow.

There are both fun and hard ways to do this. The hard ways include consulting and tech writing, leveraging my tools and learning curves, and I am in fact doing a little of this. It also includes book-writing (huge time investment but emotionally rewarding), magazine freelancing (iffy but fun), and developing products spawned by my projects (complex to start, but lucrative if done well and kept simple).

The most recent of these is a line of Expedition Medical Chests that my partner and I are producing. She’s a nurse, and with her experience patching up bodies and my years of adventure, we think we’ve found a sweet spot with ER-grade supplies, gasketed Lexan packaging, and a self-published book keyed to the contents. We’ll see… initial feedback is very positive.

Expedition Medical Chest

That’s all fun stuff, but really, my home territory is expressed very simply: build machines that scratch the persistent itch of technopassion, sharing the process publicly. I never outgrew Science Fairs…

When I took off from Ohio in 1983 on the Winnebiko, I became the proto-blogger… posting tales of adventure on CompuServe, uploaded from my Radio Shack Model 100 via payphones. As the bike evolved though various upgrade projects into the Winnebiko II and then BEHEMOTH, this ongoing narrative veered into gizmology, and soon that became the core publishing activity. The Bikelab Notes and the 8-year series of Microship Status Reports ended up with thousands of subscribers… and benefited me hugely in terms of general PR, sponsor relations, media coverage, and even a primitive “Dear Lazyweb” crowdsourced research department. I don’t think I ever asked a question without getting at least some well-meaning advice (and usually the answers I needed).

It also built a community around the projects, making them part of a shared geek culture. Still, 20 years later, I occasionally get email from someone that begins, “I used to subscribe to your Bikelab Reports…” and then goes on to ask what’s up, share a thought upon stumbling across my current projects, or just say hello.

Speaking of BEHEMOTH, it has been in the Computer History Museum for many years and is now in their permanent Revolution exhibit. Those of you who remember the bike from yesteryear might get a kick out of this:

the bike as part of the Revolution exhibit

So thinking about all this, and recognizing the central role that ongoing narrative has played in my technomadics, I’ve decided to dust off the old publishing model and cast it in a new role as part of the Nomadness project.

This blog will not go away; in fact, it will improve by becoming a succession of articles about specific topics. Since it is eternally Googlable, it does its job best if posts are focused on one subject at a time… not rambling narratives about thinking about whether or not to plan a new way to manage a project that might be a better alternative to the current design… and oh, by the way, I put up some curtains. The blog should be clear and useful to people in the future who want solutions, not updates on the intermediate states of an ancient project.

A larger version of this same concept is the set of planned Boat Hacking monographs… hardcopy design packages with, in some cases, associated kits. But those don’t exist yet, so let’s not talk about them.

All that is good stuff, but it leaves out the personal narrative that made the Microship Status Reports so much fun. Those, being subscription-based, are the perfect vehicle for a nickel generator.

So here’s the announcement: I have just begun producing weekly newsletters about the Nomadness project, with lots of personal geeky rambling fun (here’s Issue #1 as a free sample, a 1.36 meg PDF). I’ve pondered the best way to deliver these, since the old method of plain-text email with links to pictures was messy and prone to link rot. To keep it client-agnostic and allow inline images, I’ll do them as PDF documents, which will be emailed to subscribers. For those who really prefer paper, they will be compiled into quarterly digests printed by MagCloud.

There is a Subscribe button over there on the right, and PayPal takes care of renewal (which can be declined or canceled, of course). Subscriptions to the weekly updates are $20/year, which is 38¢ a week. If the idea of automatic renewal makes you nervous, then you can order a single year for $20 with the Buy Now button instead.

Also, if you don’t want to use PayPal, no problem… I have a wonderful widget called Square that plugs into my Droid X and lets me take plastic via cell phone. Ain’t technology wonderful? We can do that by phone, or take an old-fashioned check by mail.

I’m looking forward to getting back to the fun, nearly real-time writing!

Life Changes

It seems odd, for someone who has lived a life of geek exhibitionism, to be all shy and private when it comes to matters of the heart. Readers of Computing Across America might be snickering, but that was more a retrospective… not real-time. Yes, changes have occurred, and Sky now owns and lives aboard Dervish, with which she will sail the Salish Sea this summer. Differences of direction from two strong-willed characters moved us to the two-boat solution, then beyond.

I’m now aboard Nomadness most of the time, with renewed project focus after the angst of Big Change… something that gets harder as we age. My new partner has taken over the house, and I return weekly to spend quality time, work on our Medical Chest business venture, recover from back pain episodes, shed tonnage, putter with chickens and kittens, play the piano, and get geared up for my next assault on the boat project. Kirsten is a wonderful friend and dorkelgånger… and I’m also relieved that I didn’t have to rent my house to strangers while still depending on the facilities there.

Oh, did I mention kittens? My dearly beloved Java disappeared around Thanksgiving, after being with me for 13 years. I’m assuming it was predation, but for months was haunted by not knowing, calling her every time I walked from house to lab, checking her usual hangouts inside and out for evidence of recent activity.

After a respectful interval we agreed that feline company is essential, so finally adopted a goofy pair and named them after two sailors on the 1994 BOC Challenge (round-the-world single-handed sailing race): Isabelle Autissier and The Ghost of Harry Mitchell. Izzy accompanies me to the boat where she never leaves my side; Harry has bonded with Kirsten; when together they switch modes and become bestest of kitty pals with our role relegated to support staff. Typical cats, in other words.

The cats of Nomadic Research LabsSo those are the headlines, as they say. The boat projects are coming back to life with the reluctant return of warmth to the Pacific Northwest; already I’ve installed the new water heater, Fusion stereo with embedded iPod, removable padded step seat, and one of the final four pilothouse curtains. Next up is an adjustable bed in the forward cabin (back problems), new power system panel, and then the lab desk that will carry all the geeky bits.

If you want weekly ongoing updates, please consider the new subscription newsletter… future blog posts will be more focused on single projects as they are completed.

Cheers from Nomadness,

Posted in Nomadness blog | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Paperless Voyaging

It’s not easy to move aboard after over a decade in a familiar home and cluttered lab. Not only are there changes of expectation about what constitutes “comfort,” but everything important to daily life must somehow be incorporated into a space that is, in my case, less than 5% of the square footage that I have somehow expanded to fill over the years.

Many of the decisions are trivial, of course; ancient computers, long-dormant parts inventory, and piles of accumulated cruft are not hard to eliminate. Tools are a little harder, but I’ve already distilled an efficient subset of the redundancy of my unkempt shop (and I have the luxury of an intermediate workspace in the form of a mobile lab). Key systems are being built in to the ship’s console, treasures are being sold or stored, and I’m selecting the best of the kitchen stuff for my seagoing galley and donating the rest. So far, so good. It’s mostly just tonnage, replaceable down the road if need be.

But what about all the paper?

This is huge, and the more I stared at the problem, the more I realized that it has become a real obstacle:  35 years or more of correspondence, financial records, manufacturer literature, notebooks, saved articles, product documentation, maps, books, publication masters, magazine back issues, business cards, random scraps… along with dozens of binders packed with my own magazine articles and expedition media coverage. It adds up to an absurd quantity of paper, some of which is actually important (or might be someday) and all of which feels like undifferentiated, overwhelming clutter. Three 5-drawer file cabinets, multiple other drawers, overflowing bookcases and shelves, musty bankers’ boxes of sagging file folders… every document is a tiny anchor holding me down.

Gulliver tied down in Lilliput

Clearly, the first step is to eliminate most of it; I’ve hauled many a load to the recycling center and destroyed old financials that carry personal information. But still… there is a lot left. This posting is about two tools that I’ve recently added to my life that are specifically intended to deal with this problem.

The Kindle

I’ve dabbled in e-books over the years, most actively when I was carrying around a Tapwave Zodiac PDA back in 2005. I’ve since been aware of various offerings in that product space, but figured I’d eventually move to an iPad.

Well. The Kindle popped up on my radar recently when I read about the combined WiFi and 3G communications with no recurring fees, battery life (wireless offf) on the order of a month, spectacular screen, PDF support, and other interesting features. Could it really be that good? I spent many hours reading reviews and MobileRead forums, thought it through, and went for it… along with the leather cover with built-in light.  It’s been about a month now, and I haven’t regretted it for a moment.

Kindle in case with light extended

Frankly, I’m rather blown away by this thing. Not only has it improved the reading experience over books (which I never thought I’d say), but the communications are so sweetly integrated that I think of it as my little knowledge gadget. The browser does not replace a full-featured environment like Firefox/Safari/Chrome, of course… there’s no color, only one window can exist at a time, cursor control is fiddly compared to a mouse, the print is tiny if you display a busy web page fit-to-screen instead of zoomed, and navigation is slow… but it’s free and secondary to the primary function of the device. It integrates “sharing” very well, and allows a painless post to Facebook and Twitter without going through the browser at all.

Searching is well-integrated, making it feel more like a research tool than just an e-book reader. I can be reading along and decide I want to know more about something, type the term, then choose the scope of the search: the current book, all the books stored in the device (fully indexed, so it’s instant), the Amazon store, Google, or Wikipedia. If a browser page is “busy” with sidebars like Wikipedia, I click “Article Mode” to strip all that and display the text just like a book.

In other words, it’s really well thought out… better than I expected by far. The fact that it can hold about 3,500 books in addition to all this is just crazy to contemplate, and a single keystroke starts a surprisingly good text-to-speech reading of the current page. (It also plays audiobooks, which I have not tried, and includes a minimal MP3 player.)

The environment is not as rich as an iPad or netbook, of course, but I like it better for reading since the screen is passive, happy in direct sunlight, power-miserly, visible over a very wide angle, and even useful in bed at night (by pulling out the light integrated into the case). It’s also much cheaper, and the lack of monthly fees makes it painless to own. Of course, Amazon does that in the hope that readers will shop regularly in their store… something I have already done a few times. Here’s a page of my own Reaching Escape Velocity Kindle book:

Reaching Escape Velocity on Kindle

The device also supports PDF, and I’ve been installing a library of manuals and system documentation to provide a portable documentation resource on the boat, functional in awkward corners or when there has been a system failure with the Big Iron or related network tools. Transferring files is easy – plug in the USB cable and drag them across, or send them to your Kindle’s unique email address at no charge (unless you use 3G, in which case Amazon charges 15 cents a megabyte for the transfer). That service can even do format conversions on the fly, but there is a free tool called Calibre that makes locally managing the Kindle library easy, including conversion of other e-book formats to MOBI (which is what underlies Amazon’s copy-protected AZW).

If your primary need is complex technical PDF viewing, the larger Kindle DX is probably the better choice… it has a 9.7″ display instead of the 6″ one that’s on mine, and the difference is reportedly huge when in PDF-land. I was tempted, but when I considered the wide range of uses and the premium I place on portable convenience, the smaller (and cheaper) one made more sense. Some graphics-intensive files are better viewed by rotating the image, and it’s possible to zoom and scroll in discrete steps…

Chopin Prelude on Kindle

So how will all this map onto life aboard Nomadness? The bookshelf over the pilothouse nav station is 42 inches wide, and there are a few little nooks here and there where other volumes will doubtless be tucked (berth-side shelves and nacelles in the lab area). Almost all of that premium library space is going to be given over to reference material like cruising guides, books about ship systems, software manuals, and so on. General fiction and nonfiction titles will live in the Kindle… and I’ve already found that for linear reading I prefer this over paper.

In addition to books, the portable PDF library, and general online research, the Kindle will serve as a repository of reference material like checklists and procedures. There is obvious overlap between this and the local server that can be accessed by any wireless browser on the boat (iPhone Touch, Droid, iPad, laptop, or whatever), but the single-point failure potential of a complex and power-hungry system is significant enough to justify a backup that takes almost no power and works in bright sunlight. Calibre will be used to manage this, keeping version control from being an issue in the more dynamic documents… including a running backup of the logbook and PDF copies of all ship’s papers.

Document Conversion via ScanSnap

I keep mentioning PDF versions of my own documents, but until recently that was a difficult thing to accomplish. For years, the Mac has been able to “print to PDF,” which is fine… but what about all the paper I complained about at the beginning of this article?

The traditional method of getting documents into a computer, of course, is a scanner… and I have a nice Canon 8800F flatbed that I quite adore for photos and taking crisp eBay images of philatelic or numismatic artifacts. It will probably even travel with me, unless I break down and get a Brother all-in-one compromise machine to handle the 11×17 printouts that are the technical drawing standard on the boat.

The problem, however, is that a flatbed scanner is a real pain for text: it turns papers into beautiful images, not text files that can be indexed by your computer. You can feed scans to OCR software, of course, but there are a lot of fiddly steps (which translate into it never getting done, if you’re like me). What we really want is to convert paper documents into Searchable PDF files, which invisibly overlay machine readable text over an image of the physical document and are thus the best of both worlds. These are automatically indexed by your computer (via Spotlight on the Mac), and you can copy and paste from them.

Fortunately, someone has been building devices optimized for this over the past few years: the Fujitsu ScanSnap series. Current models are the S15oo desktop machine, and the svelte little S1300 portable version. Inspired by an excellent e-book (Take Control of your Paperless Office, by Joe Kissell), I ordered the portable version from Amazon and spent an evening fine-tuning the various options.

And, I gotta tellya, I’m impressed. A little “ScanSnap manager” window pops up, letting you select whether you’re aiming the next scan at the standard default process (which for me is a Searchable PDF with multiple pages and auto-detection of double-sided documents), or to various alternatives: image, business-card interpreter tied to the address book, email, Word document, Excel, print, raw image to a folder, or iPhoto. Then you just drop the stack of paper in the machine and it does the rest.

Naturally, there are lots of knobs to twiddle regarding image quality and other options, and since my interest is archival, I’m making the magazine articles pretty but settling for average on the receipts and business documents. They all get sorted into a growing file hierarchy in a folder called “PDF Library,” though many people use enhanced database tools (like Devon Think) to manage it all. It’s pretty cool to type “ScanSnap” into Spotlight and get a PDF of the Amazon invoice that arrived when I bought it… maybe I’ll be less sloppy when the next tax time rolls around.

An interesting side-project that’s falling out of this is my attempt to publish the full collection of my media coverage and magazine articles over the years… probably in some content-management system like WordPress so I don’t get buried in site-design and navigation details. This led me into an exploration of how PDFs get indexed by Google, and it turns out that some fine-tuning is a good idea. Title and author metadata, in particular, should be deliberately set so that the search results don’t plug in some arbitrary string from the beginning of the document.

The canonical way to do this is the powerful Adobe Acrobat Pro, of course, but I found a couple of free tools. My favorite, which just does the job without requiring me to think very much, is the free PDFInfo from Sybrex; there is also a very flexible PDF Toolkit licensed under the GPL and available on all platforms. Since the “ABBYY FineReader for ScanSnap” doesn’t let you set this metadata, adding one of these tools to the workflow will give you more control over the indexing of the resulting file.

The other issue is how, exactly, to display these on a web page. It’s user-hostile to just put in a PDF-download link, which drops a file in the user’s computer that is then opened by a reader app. It turns out that there are various ways to embed them on a page, and I’m still experimenting with various platforms and browsers to be sure they don’t require non-universal plug-ins.

What I noticed while doing this is that the process is very fiddly in WordPress, with it adding a Shockwave wrapper and making the editing and sizing process a royal pain. In practice,I prefer doing a jpeg thumbnail of the article, the full extracted text as plain HTML, and a link to download the Searchable PDF. (All with Automator!) There is now an evolving archive of articles and other technomadic documents.

Anyway, the main point of all this is to convert mountains of paper into bits on a disk, and at that, the ScanSnap excels. Every time I scan something and throw it into the recycling bin, I feel incrementally lighter… and a little closer to sailing away.

Down with Paper

All in all, tonnage-reduction is a painful process, especially when it comes to those irreplaceable things like documents that carry much more meaning than the physical paper itself. Integrating a paperless toolset into the boat is thus a critical part of disconnecting from a land-based existence, and although it is daunting at first, the net effect is hugely liberating.

Among other things, it becomes possible to do proper backups… including off-site or cloud storage of the complete archive. Where a fire would have meant catastrophic loss of a lifetime’s personal archives, now it just means the loss of stuff. Individual items can be found instantly, as if a “personal Google” has suddenly materialized with access to all that stuff from the dark ages before our current computers. Hard copy can still be conjured when needed for tax or legal purposes, and sharing is easy. This is all consistent with the agility needed for a true technomadic lifestyle.

My next post here will probably be about the larger aspects of that, in fact. I coined the term technomad back in 1984, and over the years have evangelized the set of concepts that enabled me to travel full time. The world has changed considerably, and there a number of people now doing this with an agility that I could barely have imagined back then. My friends Chris and Cherie, for example, have been wandering freely for many years and documenting the process so clearly that they, in turn, have become an inspiration to others through their Tales from Techomadia blog. I’ve just been reading their excellent new e-book: Answers to the Common Excuses, which addresses a lot of the things that keep people from chasing technomadic dreams.

Cheers from the Nomadhouse, which will not be home for much longer!

Posted in Nomadness blog | 17 Comments

Mobile Lab, Biz, and Bottom Jobs

Since the last post was nearly 6 months ago, it would hardly do for me to just expound in detail on recent activity without first restoring context. I’ve been microblogging on Facebook, which has scratched the itch at this end, but that platform is useless when it comes to leaving a meaningful public archive. So I need to bring things up to date before sharpening the focus onto specifics.

The underlying challenge here is that there is no simple linear transition to a pair of distant sailboats from 4300 square feet of Geek Entropy on an island without moorage. I’m thus embarking on a caricature of “moving aboard,” complicated further by my quixotic desire to turn Nomadness into the Starship Enterprise in the process. I have to throw everything up in the air and expect it to fall back to earth, completely rearranged and considerably smaller… that 4300 square feet worth of stuff must now fit into about 1000.

A key tool for transitional stability is the mobile lab (named Polaris). This was well underway in my last posting, and is now essentially finished. Rather than fill space here with a description, I’ll just link to my detailed article about Polaris elsewhere on this site.

the mobile lab

Looking aft inside Polaris, with the folding whiteboard open to expose the wall of parts drawers.

At the moment, this machine is sitting outside my house on Camano Island, slowly becoming my primary workspace as I take the axe to over a decade of clutter. Things are leaving via FreeCycle, eBay, and garage sales… but there is a long way to go. Want some books?

Meanwhile, a temporary landing zone has been established in Olympia. We moved the sailboats a couple of months ago, and rented a small studio with enough land to accommodate trailers (the back yard of a dear old friend of Sky, about 4 miles from the marina). I’m not thrilled with the marina or South Sound in general, but I have hit a wall with every attempt to find live-aboard moorage with nearby powered parking in any of the places I’d like to be… and Sky has family health issues and a friend network pulling her in that direction.

And so, I’m spending this prime Northwest cruising season faffing about with logistics while my boat waits, freshly bottom-painted but stuck in murky waters on an end tie next to covered moorage. She’s in danger of whacking her shrouds on a metal roof in easterly winds and power-boat wakes, and if she’s still stuck there during heavy snowfall there’s the small matter of the dock sinking and being supported by bar-tight docklines connected to the trapped boats, but hey… at least I can park my mobile lab on-site and they are cool with live-aboards and boat work. That’s more than I can say for most marinas around here… few even answer email, most have waiting lists, and some will go all Nazi on your nautical ass if you dare open a paint can or spin up a drill.

Nomadness and Dervish on the end tie

Nomadness and Dervish on the 80-foot shared end tie. The metal posts hold up the roof of a long covered-moorage section.

At this point, I really want to find the fast-forward button and get moving on fun stuff. I’d take a break and go cruising, but I need to get my place on the island rented out ASAP to stem the bleeding cashflow.

Speaking of Business…

We had a somewhat crazy idea after buying Dervish (Sky’s sailboat) and being stuck with an unwanted boat trailer. Why not rent it out? Keelboat trailers are rare, and commercial boat-hauling services are expensive. I made a little web page, and she ran an ad in 48 North. The rig has been busy ever since, covering thousands of miles.

Sailboat trailer for rent

Our rental boat trailer can handle sailboats up to about 9000 pounds and 30 feet LOA.

It hasn’t been without trauma… all four tires developed bubbles and had to be replaced, the brakes had their wires pull out thanks to a rewiring job with insufficient slack, every job presents unexpected challenges, and we had to do one hauling job ourselves after a boat yard in Port Orchard declared loading a Catalina 27 impossible <eyeroll>. But it’s working, and at this rate Dervish should be paid for in a year or two of trailer-rental revenue.

Nomadness has an associated business model as well, but it requires extensive geekery and writing… a far more time-consuming process. The only ROI on my expensive monster will be the joy of geek expressionism, something I desperately want to get back to.

But there’s another boat in the Nomadic Research Labs flotilla that hasn’t gotten much attention lately, and that is the Microship. This amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran is the result of about a decade of full-time focus, all the money I managed to earn from speaking gigs, the generous help of hundreds of sponsors and volunteers, and one hired fiberglass/machining guru who spent years on-site at the Microship lab.

My life changed in various ways 6-7 years ago, derailing the planned expedition, yet I was loathe to pull the plug… so kept puttering on the project. This segued into the Bubba kayak, then Shacktopus (an abstracted technomadic toolset independent of mobile substrate). In 2005 my father passed away, so I spent 6 months shutting down the family home in Kentucky, then decided to leverage the value of the house to move up to a boat of global-voyaging scale.

The first attempt was a mistake (Microship-on-steroids, we called it), but then I found this Amazon 44. Despite a few things that might have been deal-breakers had I known about them, this is the boat I’ll be using for the foreseeable future… but one little detail remains: I still have the Microship, parked in the middle of the building that was erected for its construction.

More than just the familiar twinge whenever I walk through the lab, this is getting to be a bit of a problem: I have no place to put it, other than tarped-over in that Olympia back yard. Since I’ve finally accepted that the 14,000-mile Clueless & Lark expedition on coastal and inland waterways is not going to happen, I guess… well… I guess I need to sell the micro-trimaran.

Microship Wordplay docked on Bainbridge Island

Microship Wordplay docked on Bainbridge Island during the 2001 maiden voyage.

I put a note on the website about this a while back and got a few inquiries, but I really need to find a mediagenic technomadling who sees this as a way to shortcut a massive development effort. Of course, my design goals are quirky enough that there may be nobody who fits this unique boatlet, but in case there is…

Nomadness Haulout – a Photo Essay

Finally, an update on the boat. While all this has been going on, serious geekery (Arduino nodes, Linux server, console fabrication, even the Waterworks) has been back-burnered.

She did have a haulout, though – her first since 2005, and long-overdue. The diver in Oak Harbor, last time down, estimated 5-600 pounds of biology clinging to the bottom. Ancient antifouling paint was long-gone, and bare metal was showing in spots. Yikes. I scheduled a haulout at Swantown, coincident with the move to Olympia (an entertaining 3-day run that included anchoring in the front row for the legendary Quartermaster Harbor fireworks display on July 4).

I’ve had a few previous boatyard experiences that left me wary of the whole industry, but I gotta say this was pretty good. The Port folks (Tony and Jessica) were superbly competent, and the guys at Shurtz Marine were a pleasure to deal with. We had a long talk first, and agreed on a flat rate bottom job (with an upcharge for fancy paint), as well as all the hand-holding I needed at no charge (though they’d be happy to start the clock anytime, of course, if I decided to delegate).

Nomadness was on the hard for a couple of weeks, and I did all the prep work for the bottom job. There were about 150 patches of bare steel, and all had to be ground to bright metal, acid-etched, and covered with multiple primer coats… with every step constrained by induction times and temperature-dependent recoat intervals.

The worst part was the bottom of the keel, where completely unfamiliar paint colors revealed that this area had been ignored during previous haulouts. I spent the brutal heat wave of July suited up, grinding just inches over my head, and slinging toxins… yielding a self-portrait I used as my Facebook profile picture for a while:

head shot while grinding under the boat

I keep adding to my list of things I would never want to do for a living…

It was grim, but worth it… here’s a before-and-after photo of this out-of-sight/out-of-mind area. There’s plenty of steel there, of course, and aesthetics are not an issue, but it is very important with a metal boat to keep the protective “glove” intact.

Keel bottom before and after

Before and after view of the bottom of the keel. This involved many hours with pneumatic die grinder and Makita angle grinder, acid etch, 5 primer layers, and (later) 3 coats of Micron 66.

I complain, but the process was actually useful in an unexpected way… really getting to know my ship. Ultimately, I’m responsible for this machine; in some distant anchorage, if something goes wrong, there is nobody in the world who will care as much as I do about the situation. As I discovered in 2008 with the plumber-from-hell, assuming that someone else will take care of it is not a viable attitude for the captain of a vessel. Not only did I get an intimate feel for the entire underwater profile, but I made a database of all the through-hulls, extracted key dimensions, and photographed every detail.

Prepping the bare spots

Using a die grinder and non-woven abrasive to feather out bare spots on the steel keel before applying acid etch and 5 primer coats.

After completing all the prep, I stepped back and let their guys do the bottom job. I chose Micron 66, a self-polishing copper-acrylate copolymer that does not use TBT. Antifouling is one of those subjects that leads to endless passionate discussion in the forums, and I have no idea if it was really the best choice… but after discounting others that have not worked well for me and factoring in the steel hull and northwest usage pattern, I opted for this top-of-the-line Interlux product in the hope that it will delay my next haulout by a year. We went with a red indicator layer covered by blue, both with cayenne pepper added (useful, according to anecdotal evidence, but nobody really knows):

Bottom job complete

Bottom job nearly done. At this point, the boat had to be hoisted and re-blocked to allow access to the spots that were supporting the keel.

The remaining below-waterline details included Max-prop maintenance, replacing all the zincs, and going over everything with a keen eye. Here are the new sacrificial zincs, which are intended to give up material in response to galvanic or electrolytic influence before the much more expensive metal parts of the boat. Given the excellent coating, I’m not worried about the hull for now… but protecting that prop is critical, as well as the rudder shaft.

New zincs

Sacrificial zinc anodes on Nomadness. From top to bottom: one of these monsters is on each side amidships, the rudder post zinc is machined to fit, and both shaft and nose zincs protect the expensive 3-blade Max-prop

With the bottom done, I had to make a decision… how much to do topsides. There is no shortage of projects that would be much easier in a boatyard, including the looming mess caused by improper installation of aluminum opening ports. But that’s a big one, and I was getting nervous about time and money. I decided to limit the above-waterline jobs to repairing paint damage in three areas: the stem (from running up on a dock during a tricky maneuver in the wind last year, as well as other badly patched dings before my time), a 3″ starboard patch (from the rough workdock at Cap Sante after it ate one of my fenders in a storm), and a variety of rusty spots on the stern caused by bites from nasty steel fixtures on the dinghy.

Here is where Steve, the resident paint wizard at Shurtz Marine, really helped. He patiently explained the whole Awlgrip repair process, finally writing out an illustrated procedure sheet. I took everything down to bare metal with a vacuum sandblaster (coolest tool ever)…

Vacuum sandblaster

This amazing sandblaster eliminates the whole tenting and dust-control problem on localized jobs – it gloms onto the surface and blasts a spot about 1/2″ across.

From that point, it was just another precisely timed sequence of coatings, bringing the damaged areas up to a solid primer that can remain in that state for years (precise color-matching with Awlgrip is another matter entirely, and Steve didn’t blink with I told him that Cap Sante had quoted me $1300 to fix that little 3-inch patch caused by their dock). I’m just not going to go there; the only way to stay sane and avoid going broke as the owner of a steel boat is to frequently repeat this mantra:  “workboat patina.”

The stem, by the way, will be protected by a chunk of KeelGuard. This is a dense plastic strip that is held in place by a highly aggressive adhesive (“you have one shot,” said Steve). It’s not often seen on sailboats, but who cares? Next time I plow into something, it will provide another layer of protection… and the VEE of the Redneck Bow Thruster will use it as a gasket. Alas, we didn’t quite get to this, so I get to take that one shot from the wobbly platform of a dinghy.

Launch day arrived. Tony and the crew picked her up again (protecting the fresh bottom paint with wax paper under the straps) and gingerly deposited her back in the brackish waters of South Puget Sound. There is no relief quite like that of seeing your boat once again afloat…

Launching after Bottom Job

Nomadness flies back into the water after 2 weeks in the boatyard.

Now that the boatyard ordeal is over, my first project is inspired by the “hot” marina in which I’m parked, infamous for electrolytic corrosion due to deferred maintenance, metal dock structures, and a large number of derelict boats. My new zincs may be experiencing accelerated dissolution at the moment, but hopefully the galvanic isolator that came with the boat will minimize damage until I install the new isolation transformer.

I’ll save details on the AC power system for my next post, but here’s a nutshell summary of this project. To meet ABYC standards, I’ve added a dedicated shore-power circuit breaker, and also got rid of the old 30-amp twist connector in favor of a new SmartPlug. This goes straight to the Charles ISO-G2 isolation transformer, which is then one of the sources selected by a new Blue Sea panel. This is moving to the main power console, since the original location for AC switching was painfully unserviceable (it will become a much-needed pantry). And of course there will be new metering, integration with the Outback inverter/charger, and other refinements.

The most novel bit is a dedicated outlet (with ground-fault protection) for Dervish – making Nomadness the “shore power” source for the smaller boat. Given my 7.5 KW genset, shore isolation, and impending 420-watt solar array, this makes sense.

And Now, On with the Project!

Well, it feels good to catch up with this blog (tossing both Joomla and Blogger in the process). The writing process with WordPress is much more interactive and flexible, and I am no longer looking at maintaining this site as a chore.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be focused on shutting down the facilities on Camano Island (want some stuff?) and moving all operations to two boats, one mobile lab, an auxiliary trailer, and the studio. Sheesh. It’s a little embarrassing to realize that I used to live on a bicycle!

Cheers from the Nomadhouse,

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The Tools of Extraction

I’m aboard Nomadness at the moment, here to do the water-heater installation, but in classic fashion got drawn into the “opportunities” presented by this infernally glowing laptop. There seem to be two big changes afoot that will require difficult decisions and learning curves: the radical change in eBay’s fee structure that will induce me to build up my store, and Google throwing us faithful FTP bloggers under the bus.

The latter is a pain, but apparently there are disproportionate engineering resources associated with the .5% of all blogs hosted on separate servers (like mine) instead of I’m in no position to argue this, and almost believe it, more or less; the “pointed-index syndrome” must come up a lot, with the tech-support folk pointing fingers at each other, saying, “your problem is over there.”

Their radical solution to this is to shut it down entirely, giving us little time and only two choices… neither one pleasant. We can be assimilated, letting Google host our content while breaking the functionality of the rest of the site, or we can change blogging platforms. I have opted for the latter, and will either incorporate all this into the existing Joomla installation at or go with the crowd and install WordPress.

I mention this only as a heads-up about likely glitches over the next month or so… and to see if anyone who has been through this learning curve is willing to do a bit of hand-holding.

Ah well, that’s all just bits-and-vapor anyway! Let’s talk about the fun stuff.

Moves of a Physical Nature

There’s something substantial in the works. As recent posts have hinted, I’m working on extracting myself from 12 years of being mired in a cluttered lab, and it’s actually starting to look real. No firm date is set, but this is the season; with the mobile lab receiving an infusion of carefully filtered inventory (along with the occasional bolus of material related to specific projects), I am close to considering it my primary workspace. Already, key tools and furniture are in place, shifting the theater of operations.

The first move of the trailer (named Polaris) will be a short one – about 750 feet to a parking spot near my house. I’m repurposing the old hot-tub circuit to provide an RV-style power outlet, and for a short embryonic period I’ll work on the edge of the meadow, nursing my severed umbilicus back to the maternal building in the forest. Meanwhile, I’ll move anything that still matters in the old lab to the office suite upstairs, closed off with a separate security perimeter.

(Except the Microship, of course. I still don’t know what’s going to become of that 10-year labor of love!)

Anyway, at that point two things will be able to occur: renting out the 2000 square-foot shop space, and moving the mobile lab to the marina to provide on-site support for boat projects. With multiple power sources (30-amp shore cable, 2 kW Honda generator, and 240 watts of solar panels), along with access to the boat’s wireless LAN and good light/heat/security, it should be as useful as a small dedicated building… or more so, given the ability to trundle back to home base if needed, or, as we start to live aboard full time, to whatever marina happens to catch our fancy for the duration of pre-nomadic staging.

Both Nomadness and Dervish have huge project lists (updated daily), and the past year of slow progress has made it clear that the only way to finish is to move onto the boats and make a full-time job of it. So here we go… and not a moment too soon. I’ve been feeling increasingly old and creaky, with the occasional sickness of dear friends serving as a chilling reminder that I don’t have forever. I miss those halcyon days of seeming immortality…

Tooling Around

The exercise of selecting tools for the mobile lab has been a challenge; I no longer have the luxury of essentially unlimited space. The long-desired milling machine had to be set aside, and my existing suite of heavy motorized things had to be scaled way back. Only the table saw, floor-mount drill press, compressor, and sander/grinder made the cut (plus a few portable power tools, of course).

I’m reserving one generous bit of bench real estate for a key tool that I’m seriously considering moving aboard the boat when the time comes… a small CNC router (either a BlueChick implemented in sealed birch ply or the smaller FireBall V90, but I’m not sure yet). This will solve the pesky problem of making precise and beautiful front panels, of which I need about ten, and will also lend itself to printed-circuit milling, signage, and random small parts amenable to the 2.5-D approach (not full 3D). The thought of gliding into an anchorage with custom-parts fabrication ability, perhaps also with a future incarnation of the MakerBot tucked into a corner, is intriguing… much barter and nickel-generation potential.

In the photo above, the robot will fill the table and the wall will carry my old mini-ITX SolarPC, dedicated to stepper motor control and interfaced via parallel port. It’s how the hobby CNC world does things, and that’s fine with me… no wheels to reinvent, and just a few more learning curves!

The rest of Polaris is about what you’d expect for the intended geeky mission: a robust electronics lab, general shop, hacking space, and rolling inventory bin. As I work on projects aboard Nomadness, I find that most of them don’t need anything more than what is about to be right up the ramp in the parking lot. It should speed things considerably.

Unplugging from Camano

And so, a long epoch is about to end. When I landed on Camano Island in 1998, it was to be for 2-3 years – just enough to finish the Microships and take off. But life has a way of throwing little curves, and there were enough of those to slowly grow roots much deeper than the ones I had to rip free when I left Ohio on my bicycle in 1983. Not only does that get harder with age, but “the wanderer’s danger is to find comfort,” as William Least Heat Moon once said. Or, even more poetically, this exquisite graffiti I spotted back in 1986 or so on a San Francisco municipal bus:

Soft chains are the most difficult to break:
affection, ease.
The spirit, wide-eyed, limp-muscled, nestles
on its side
and waits….

Well, not anymore. Here we go!

Fair winds,

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This post is a sort of interlude; Dervish is now rigged and is about to join Nomadness in the marina, and Polaris is complete enough to begin accepting a distillation of lab inventory. Lot of progress, in other words, but no compelling central story.

Instead, I thought it would be fun to present a couple of historical articles that have been in my media binders for ages, but just came across my desk in convenient machine-readable form thanks to my old friend Zonker Harris. Written by Mike Cassidy for the San Jose Mercury News, these capture the strange time between my cycling epoch and the transition to water.

First, from 1993:


SOME things you should know about Steven K. Roberts:

He calls his bicycle BEHEMOTH, and like other bikes it has a light, a horn and many gears. It also is 13 feet long, weighs 580 pounds fully loaded, carries three computers — a Macintosh and two DOS systems — a cellular phone with modem and fax capability, an answering machine, CD stereo system, a ham radio, solar panels for power, and a satellite receiver that allows him to send and receive electronic mail anywhere and tracks his exact longitude and latitude. It has a security system, which will page him and dial 911 on the cellular if someone tries to move the bike without logging on.

“It can say, ‘Hello. I’m a bicycle. I’m being stolen, ‘ ” said Roberts, 40, who added that no one has ever tried to steal his BEHEMOTH, a recumbent bicycle, the low-to-the-ground sort that the rider reclines on. “I don’t know what a cop would do with that information.”

Probably scream and seek professional help.

Roberts’ guiding principle is freedom, not as in freedom of religion or freedom of speech, but as in absolute, what-you-learned-about-in- philosophy- class freedom. He thinks a lot. He’s pedaled more miles than most people drive in a year. He does not live anywhere. He does not work anywhere. He falls in love, via electronic mail. And he sees a world where commuting will be obsolete, a vision for which he deserves some sort of medal.

In short, he is a complicated fellow, different from you and me. He’s different from me, anyway.

It is hard to say whether Roberts is a man ahead of his time, or whether his time is ever even coming. But it is also hard to find anyone these days who is living exactly as he or she wants to, and in that regard, Roberts comes mighty close.

He relies on the kindness of strangers — well, not strangers exactly, but people he has encountered on electronic networks — and the benevolence of 150 corporate sponsors who have given him gizmos, work space and ideas that he’s molded into the priceless BEHEMOTH (Big Electronic Human Energized Machine, Only Too Heavy).

Roberts was in Monterey last week to give a speech. It’s how he makes his living, along with writing books and articles and occasional high-tech consulting.

He is something of a celebrity in Silicon Valley, where he completed the last year of work on BEHEMOTH in a lab at Sun Microsystems Inc. in Mountain View. He is also a well-known member of the subculture that carries on transcontinental and international conversations and relationships via electronic computer networks. He has even become known among the more pedestrian who have seen his story in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Time, Newsweek and, of course, People; or heard it on National Public Radio, CBS and, of course, Donahue.

There is no question he knows people, or knows of them. From his electronic encounters, Roberts has built a Couch Circuit Management System that contains the names of 4,500 people who have offered a place to stay or other help. So, if he’s in Toledo or Tucumcari, Tallahassee or Tulsa, he simply calls up a local map grid, finds the icon that indicates a willing host, clicks on it, and up comes the file detailing just what was offered when.

It has worked for 17,000 miles since 1983 when he chucked his house, his job designing industrial control systems and his life in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, and hit the road in search of fun and to prove a point.

“It should be possible to be where you want to be, ” said Roberts, who writes while he pedals, with the aid of a series of shorthand keys on his handlebars, a head mouse and a small eye-level screen he can watch out of one eye. “An awful lot of people who are sitting in single-occupancy vehicles are just driving to work to sit at a computer, which doesn’t make much sense.”

Maybe not. But it would seem Roberts’ life isn’t for everyone. People who are uncomfortable staying with strangers, for instance, or those who like neat schedules or people who need people, for that matter. But what do I know? Roberts said he’s never lonely.

“No, it’s wonderful living on the net, ” he said with genuine enthusiasm. “I have a very strong community there. What it feels like is wandering around my neighborhood and dropping in on my friends.”

He said he’s even fallen in love with the woman next door, electronically speaking.

“You just get to know somebody so well, ” he said. “What you end up doing is having a rendezvous somewhere.”

Interesting. Do tell about the time that happened.

“Which one?”

Roberts said he can’t imagine a world without electronic mail anymore than he can imagine returning to his life in Ohio. But he is making some concessions. He hasn’t been on a long ride with BEHEMOTH in nearly two years. Instead, he’s hauling the bike around in a trailer pulled by a pickup, making speeches and appearing at bicycle shows and technology expositions. In fact, his life with the BEHEMOTH is coming to an end.

“I’ve gotten burned out on asphalt, ” he said. “After 17,000 miles, the road is no longer interesting. I’m tired of being in a noisy, dirty environment.”

Which is why he is building a high-tech kayak.

That was written right at the beginning of the Microship project, when it was still endearingly simple (indeed, based on a single kayak, before I started venturing into kayakamarans and beyond).

Three years later in 1996, when I was working on a 30-foot trimaran in the Silicon Valley lab sponsored by Apple Computer, Mike wrote this bittersweet piece:


Steven Roberts is an analytical man who knew better than to become too attached.

Still, it was hard not to.

He and his friend, whom he calls Behemoth, had traveled thousands of miles together. If Behemoth did not save Roberts’ life, he certainly sustained it. But Roberts always knew this day would come – the day to say goodbye.

Very soon, Behemoth, a 580-pound recumbent bicycle that Roberts packed with the computer power of a spaceship, will be history.

This isn’t simply about a man and his bicycle. For while Roberts, 43, is simply a man, Behemoth is not simply a bicycle.

Behemoth is 12 feet long, carries a Mac and two IBM compatibles. Its equipment includes a cellular phone, a fax, a satellite transmitter and receiver, a ham radio, solar panels for power, a handlebar keyboard and a mouse Roberts can manipulate with his head as he rides. Behemoth also talks, with a heavy computer synthesizer accent, but it’s talking nonetheless.

It was a glorious machine in its prime, which is not what Behemoth is in now. Instead, like an aging elephant, Behemoth has returned to Silicon Valley to die where it was born. It sits in a Santa Clara warehouse surrounded by Roberts’ new loves: Faun Skyles, a 25-year-old human, and Microship, a 30-foot trimaran hull that Roberts and Skyles plan to pack with computers and launch in early 1998.

“I have very warm feelings for Behemoth, ” Roberts says. “But there comes a point when you say, ‘OK, I’ve done it.’ “

Such is the peril of high-tech relationships. The bonds between people and machines are inevitably broken by the incredible pace of innovation. Silicon Valley is not a place for permanence, nostalgia or sentiment. Sure, Roberts has feelings for Behemoth, which in its current and two earlier forms carried him around the country for more than a decade.

“That changed my life, ” Roberts said glancing at the idle bike.

But that was then.

In 1983, Behemoth was just the thing. That’s when its prototype, the Winnebiko, carried Roberts away from the Midwest and his drab suburban existence.

“I was stuck in Columbus, Ohio, doing things I didn’t like that much so I could buy things I didn’t really want that much.”

Roberts spent the next dozen years pedaling, using the Internet to make new friends and keep in touch with the world. He camped and stayed with those he met on the Net. He lived on free-lance writing, paid speaking engagements and computer consulting work.

He built and perfected Behemoth with the help of high-tech sponsors who donated gizmos and volunteers who donated time. He wrote a book.

And then one day, pedaling through Wisconsin along Lake Michigan, it struck him. Behemoth was through. It was time for the next thing. An innovation. A boat.

So, for two years, most recently in the Santa Clara warehouse, Roberts and Skyles have been assembling the Microship. They are outfitting it with four computers, video cameras to beam pictures to the Web, a satellite navigational system and a solar-driven power plant.

They have a ways to go, but one day they will sail. At best, the old Behemoth will tour Silicon Valley as an oddity at brown bag lunches. It is a fate Behemoth does not relish. This we know, because Behemoth said so.

“Big, stupid boat, ” Behemoth croaked in its synthesized voice recently. “Steve. Steve, are you ever going to ride me again?”

Roberts had no answer. He simply kept ab
out his work.

I know, we shouldn’t anthropomorphize machines. They hate that!

So where are they now? The bike is in the Computer History Museum, where it belongs. The 30-foot trimaran was sold shortly after this piece was written, and I redirected development efforts toward an amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran… which now lies idle in my lab here on Camano Island, Washington. After a brief rocketship interlude (sort of a Microship-on-steroids in the form of a Corsair 36 trimaran), I’m now working on moving aboard a 44-foot steel pilothouse monohull while my partner does likewise with a Cal 2-29, together forming the seed of the technomadic flotilla.

It’s been a long and convoluted journey, but on one level it’s just beginning!

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Gonzo Wisdom – Reaching Escape Velocity mini-review in Make

Project, Sponsors, and Media Symbiosis (from Reaching Escape Velocity)

I was most delighted to find my little Reaching Escape Velocity book mentioned in the pages of my favorite magazine — creative makers were exactly the readers I had in mind when writing it. The book covers the art of working with sponsors, volunteers, and media in order to launch audacious gonzo engineering projects… and is basically a distillation of the meta-hacks that made my BEHEMOTH and Microship projects possible. It may be a short review, but it’s by Gareth Branwyn… author of Borg Like Me… so I couldn’t be more delighted!

DIY on Demand

by Gareth Branwyn, Make: Volume 21

When I first got involved in hardware hacking, in the late 1980s, a lot of what I learned came from a series of hardware “cookbooks” self-published by a guy named Don Lancaster. He desktop-printed and bound the books himself. It seemed like on-demand publishing was finally here. It wasn’t (for most of us), but it is now, with services like Lulu and CreateSpace. Recently I received four new self-published books in a single week, exploring different areas of making. Amazingly, they’re some of the best books to have crossed my desk in a while. —Gareth Branwyn

Gonzo Wisdom
Reaching Escape Velocity
by Steven K. Roberts

Steve Roberts was also an early hardware hacking pioneer, writing his first self-published book, Computing Across America (in the late ’80s) literally from the seat of his tricked-out, gadget-laden, internet-connected bike. This new, deceptively slim volume contains 25 years of Roberts’ trade secrets on how to capitalize, publicize, and find support for your own “gonzo engineering” projects. It’s meta-hack project wisdom from the original high-tech nomad (see MAKE, Volume 06, page 28, “Tech-nomading from Shore to Ship”).


Reaching Escape Velocity is available as an eBook, and this button will take you to PayPal and then provide a download link:

Buy Now

Or, more traditionally, I would be delighted to autograph a paper copy and ship it to you… this button will ask for your address and then email me the details:

Buy Now

It’s also available from Amazon as a Kindle edition, if you prefer, and there’s a bit more information about it in my Boat Hacking Store.

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Dervish of the Salish Sea

The trickiest part of an insanely complex and steadily morphing project is the way it warps the lives of all involved. I have a long history of watching relationships flounder while I devote all available time and energy to technomadic dreams, obsessed with gizmological overlays on boats and bikes, revising designs to keep pace with technology, sometimes hitting RESET and reverting to square one with only the satisfaction of a learning curve to amortize the years and dollars past.

It has thus been no surprise that we have been experiencing rising tension along these lines here at Nomadic Research Labs. One little part of my brain mutters, “oh no, here we go again,” another takes stabs at logistical palliatives like real estate, and the rest continues to design quixotic network architectures whilst drooling over the latest shiny bits.

I certainly have been taking too long to get moving; no argument there. Part of the problem is my habit of being “boggled by my own imagination,” as Dave Wright astutely observed; the rest lies squarely in the domain of facilities that are simply wrong for this project. A dozen years ago, I landed here to get the Microship done, but now the boatlet is a sculpture in my lab and my real ship is too far away.

This is what drives the Polaris mobile lab project (which is going well), but we have also been searching for the magic wand that would bring all the rest together… including us. Sky arrived here almost 2 years ago, eager to hop aboard a sailboat and take off with me on a life of adventure; she cares little for blinky bits and on-board servers. “This is my business and passion,” I would explain, going on to sketch product spin-offs, book ideas, monetized bloggage… all interspersed with the soaring vision of my starship and magnum opus.

About a month ago, I thought of a solution radical enough to border on the absurd: get a second boat for Sky and her dog, finish the mobile lab, put tonnage-reduction into turbo mode, and move the whole kitten kaboodle to a marina where we could pursue dreams various while renting out the home-base facilities (a positive cash flow would be nice about now). This would let me focus on geekery, plant the seeds of the flotilla, let Sky spend more time on water, and eliminate the need to stay rooted to a land-based lifestyle that we don’t want.

She naturally loved that idea and went on a quest… but the boat she chose (a nicely equipped Cascade 27) was too expensive, yet prohibitively small for my galumphing body. I vetoed it with much gnashing of teeth, and there the matter sat for a while, neither of us sure what was to follow, storm clouds on the horizon.

Had we reached an impasse? While we never really questioned the fundamentals of the 2-boat idea, we were coming to fear that my shrunken budget would not cover anything adequate for Sky to live aboard. The cheapies (like an abandoned Watkins that went up for auction recently) were too depressing.

But through a classic friend-of-a-friend scenario, my sweetie located a 1974 Cal 2-29 on a trailer in Olympia. In a curious twist, the owner had taken it in trade from a fellow whom I knew from a few Cruisers Forum threads, and he turned out to be a wealth of good information about the boat (see his blog). We concluded that this was an interesting opportunity, so without giving ourselves too much time to over-analyze and come to our senses, we bought the boat… trailer and all!

My first suggestion for a name was Dharma, which is an acronym for “Dog House And Relationship Maintenance Accessory.” We decided that explaining this would become tiresome, and the otherwise meaningful term had been tainted by the silly Dharma and Greg sitcom. But for years, Sky has carried a vision of her dream boat, jaunty and salty, to be named Dervish. A fiberglass Cal may not have quite the look she had imagined, but life is here and now, and this will take her on many a dance with the winds of the Salish Sea. Dervish it is.

And so, on to logistics. Boats are clumsy and useless on trailers, though I did briefly have the vision of parking it by the lab for a long project of incorporating Geeky Goodness. Aghast, Sky said “nothing doing,” and took control of the project… beginning with extraction from what became a very muddy field when the rains came. My truck doesn’t offer much in the traction domain, so we ended up doing a big loop with the aid of a 1952 Case tractor.

We hauled her to Olympia’s Swantown Boatyard and splashed the next day via Travelift, then she got a tow north to West Bay Marina where her friends awaited. Here’s the happy skipper, still not quite believing that this is real…

With help from a fellow in the marina who does this sort of thing for a living, we got the one-lung Farymann diesel running and installed the shiny new Racor fuel filter that came with the boat. Little jobs progressed well, interspersed with evenings aboard other boats and social events various… Sky flying high as a new skipper, her friends excited, notebook filling with lists and sketches. For once I was in the background, enjoying the sense of not being responsible for any decisions, helping when needed but sometimes just staying out of the way. Rather relaxing.

Of course, being a boat, something had to go awry. After a brutal night at the windward dock in 50-knot winds (with one person getting blown into the water after midnight and rescued), we had an appointment to get the mast stepped. Our rigger, on the clock, showed up on schedule and confirmed the readiness of standing rigging. Sky gingerly motored over to the slip below the crane. Then we waited… and waited… while the guys puttered with the masterwork of deferred maintenance, trying to get it to start. It never did.

Jim Benson and Sky

Out of time, we put Dervish back to bed and drove north, making plans for the next attempt and the hundred-mile delivery sail to bring the boat to the marina where Nomadness lies a-wintering. Once Polaris joins them (in the parking lot, of course), all three elements of Nomadic Research Labs will be in place. Sky and Zuby-dog will move aboard the little boat, Java-cat and I will occupy the big boat, and we’ll be one huge step closer to resuming a life of technomadic adventure.

Sky’s version of this tale appears in her Dramanauts blog, with some interesting contrasts compared with my take.

Nomadness (not yet renamed in this pre-purchase photo), Dervish, and Polaris

Working on systems while living with them should be much more entertaining, and Sky will no longer be sitting around waiting for me to get done with my übergeekery so we can go sailing. It sounds a little crazy, but I’m convinced that the Two Boat Solution is an elegant lifestyle hack. Now I just need to find someone who wants to rent a 4000 square feet of shop and house in the woods of Camano Island…

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Adventures in a Geek Playpen

Oh good grief… has it really been 5 months since the post about clawing our way off a lee shore with a failed anchor windlass? It seems ages ago, back when leaves were on trees, the sun shone late into the evening, and I was lulled once again into the complacent fiction that sweet summer would last forever. Time slipped away with too little sailing, too many lists, and not enough of the fun that really is the bottom line.

Now the forest is naked, it’s been dark since about 4 PM, Christmas just jangled by (as surreal as ever), and there is an impossible backlog of bloggage. I’ve let Facebook, Twitter, and my live page be the safety valve for news, and that has delayed the production of more substantial and enduring efforts. There has been good progress on multiple fronts, however, so let’s dive in:

Mobile Lab

It has become clear that I’ve been in a cushy trap for quite a long time – huge building for geekery and cozy little house in an isolated forest setting, my nautical escape pod too far away in a marina. This translates into absurd inefficiency, with infrequent “work trips” truncated by the need for parts or tools. Time… just… passes… and when I see ads for shiny new versions of yet-uninstalled hardware on the shelf, alarm bells go off in my head.

We did spend quite a while on a quest for alternative real estate near marinas, investigating purchase and rental options, but in this market the thought of trying to get a bridge loan is daunting and I’m not drawn to either side of the landlord/tenant equation. So after much time spent chasing around, that idea fell by the wayside; the goal is to move aboard, not shuffle home base facilities. We recently looked into the seemingly mad idea of getting a second (much smaller) boat for Sky and her dog, allowing me and my cat to wallow in geeky clutter aboard Nomadness until the cows come home. That still doesn’t solve the lab-far-from-boat problem, however, though it may become rational when tonnage-reduction asymptotes and we find ourselves wanting to seed the technomadic flotilla.

The real problem is deceptively simple: having workspace near the boat. So, as I discussed back in April, I’m building a mobile lab named Polaris that can be parked in a marina and provide enough R&D; facilities to get me through this project. Progress on that has moved in spurts, and it is shaping up well: the trailer now has insulation, shore power, breaker panel, general lighting, and all major furniture installed. I am about to start incorporating inventory, building a DC power system with the boat’s old inverter/charger, and adding a small machine shop in the stern with a dust-control curtain to keep flying aluminum chips away from ones made of silicon.

Here’s the power panel, built into a hinged door on the front wall where the nose cone provides plenty of clearance:

Those are Blue Sea Systems marine AC & DC breaker panels on the left, with a retro AC voltmeter in the middle. The right column is the Prosine 2.0 panel, LINK battery monitor, and Trace C40 solar charge controller. The black knob on the right is a Southco latching system with two rods that are guided into wooden receivers top and bottom; this allows easy access for service.

Shore power is a 50-foot 30-amp marine cable, with a pigtail at the distant end adapting it to the RV standard when needed. This keeps the hardware interoperable with the boat, and the whole lashup is a precise replica of a typical small-boat power system… providing a development environment for two of the Arduino-based nodes that are part of the Shacktopus network that runs the ship.

In the furniture domain, there is a beautiful steel desk at the bow (port side), followed by a massive wooden bench modified to clear the wheel well. On the starboard side, there is a combination steel file/drawer cabinet at the bow, followed by the man-door, a small cabinet for trailer-related hardware, a stainless tool chest, the “inventory bench” I built ages ago for a previous mothership, and the standing workbench that will carry power tools. All this is stuff repurposed from my lab, and has so far been free:

Once I finish bolting everything down and wiring AC and DC power to the benches, the fun begins: cherry-picking the choice bits out of my sloppy 3000 square-foot building and packing them efficiently into 6.4% of that. Obviously, my old “never know, might need it someday” criterion for what to keep will no longer apply. I may miss a few things, but it is going to be a joy to walk (imagine!) from Nomadness to Polaris, roll up my sleeves, mill a slot in a hunk of polycarbonate, solder up a cable, and saunter back to the ship to knock another couple of things off the to-do list.

Ship Power System

Aboard the boat, one of the most critical tasks has finally been completed: extracting the finicky old power-management system and installing an all-Outback solution. This consists of an inverter/charger, a control panel known as the MATE, a monitoring node with three shunts, a maximum power point solar charge manager, and an ethernet hub tying them all together. The MATE makes data streams from all components available via a serial port, so this will be a key data-collection project to allow observing the system from afar and plotting historical data.

I did a quick temporary plywood packaging hack where the old hardware was located, including an exit vent for new fans that can be automatically turned on when things get hot (a feature missing from the original system, requiring 50% derating during heavy charge).

Once this region of the power panel (adjacent to the Bridge) is rebuilt, this will be more elegantly integrated… but it’s great to see the batteries being managed properly. The old gear is not going to waste; it’s been reassigned to the mobile lab.

The Playpen

My plan ever since acquiring the boat has been to convert the original nav station into an equipment console, so much of the planning involved just how, exactly, to shoehorn everything into such a small space… yet keep it serviceable. Unfolding onto the chart table was the general plan, but I was dreading the cabling and general back-breaking access issues in what was basically a blind corner.

It occurred to me recently that there is no reason to cram this geekery into a restrictive space. I consider the system integration project to be central to the entire mission of the boat, and have decided to reawaken the spirit that drove the Winnebiko (photo) and BEHEMOTH (photo) projects. The bike became an iconic technomadic substrate because the incorporation of cutting-edge computing and communication tools was my primary design goal… not an afterthought or something that had to be tucked away discretely in packs.

Like the bike, the boat is a platform for my life’s enduring passion… and that is not something that can thrive when banished to a distant hobby room.

Sooooo, space constraints have relaxed. Here’s the area that is about to change dramatically:

I’ve never much liked this space, even though the table is beautifully made; I can’t fit my galumphing body into the end near the mast partner, and the seats are uncomfortable. It usually ends up being a storage space for clutter, cleared occasionally for dinner or a spirited round of Mexican Train.

The new plan is a complete inversion, with a swivel chair replacing the table, wrap-around desktop that does not interfere with existing stowage below the seats, and 3 or 4 sloping-panel consoles (maybe 19″ rackmount, though there is little reason to adhere to that standard). Integrated into the long part of the desk is a full-size digital piano (this one, since I already have it, although a sleeker/cheaper unit would be smarter in this environment), with a hinged cover that allows conversion between music studio and lab space.

The console segments are much more accessible than the one that was planned for the navstation space, each consisting of two or three surfaces: horizontal base substrate that can pull out from the cabinet for major service, hinged front panel that lays down on the desk, and optional top panel hinged off of that and supported at the distal end by rollers in mounted channels. I believe there will be three major enclosures, with a smooth segue into a fourth zone for test equipment and tools.

Most of the intense geekery is in the “System” console, containing the Linux server, Mac Mini, Time Machine backup drive, hierarchy of USB hubs and related serial stuff, EVDO router and other networking tools, local sensors, resource management, speech I/O hardware, video, monitor screens, and so on. This will be in the foreground on the photo above (I’d be facing the camera when using it), and the swing-arm LCD monitor will “park” on top of it and blend into the workspace. That monitor can also swivel to face the Bridge for charting use when underway, or land at the nav station desk for voyage planning and other pilothouse applications.

The second console, mounted at an angle to the first and in the forward left corner of the photo, is devoted to communications… voice/data radios and related tools. That turns out to be quite a bit of front-panel hardware, and also involves a few “black boxes” that need free airspace for cooling… those go in a loose enclosure on top, along with a coax patch panel, probes for the SWR/wattmeter, antenna analyzer, and so on.

Third, just above the piano and continuing the wrap-around console theme, is the audio system. This includes the stereo, studio mixer and control surface, podcasting studio equipment, and editing tools. Presumably, the swing-arm monitor can park close enough to this to be useful, as the Mac is essential for digital audio work.

Finally, the distant corner and far wall in the photo are spaces devoted to hackage, tools, test equipment, and other “workbench” activities. This should be vastly more pleasant than my current low “tool drawer” with everything in roll-up pouches; using that system is inconvenient enough that I end up not putting things away (and there’s no dedicated workspace).

This whole description is still a bit speculative, as I have not yet done the essential reality check of removing the table, parking a chair in its place, and using my CAD system (cardboard-aided design) to cobble an actual-size mockup of what my old friend Frank Feczko dubbed the Playpen. Things will get more clear once that “human factors” design is done and I’ve had a chance to sit and stare at it for a few hours.


What is suddenly more real, however, is the overall network design. The liberating vision described above prompted me to do something that has been on my list for months: create a module-level drawing of the entire ship system. The granularity on this is 1:1, with each object on the drawing corresponding to an actual physical device.

The full-size OmniGraffle drawing fills 18 pages, though it prints readably on 8. Since I’m not quite ready to reveal all the details yet, I’ll tease you with a version that’s a bit too small to read… but once the project is physically underway I’ll publish it as a full-size poster:

The best part about this is an unexpected psychological effect… for months, I’ve had a background process in my brain that has been continuously refreshing and refining this system. Since it wasn’t yet documented, I couldn’t fully let it go. After about a week of work on this drawing, however, I was able to free wetware resources for other things (like console packaging). Mental backups are just as important as those of the hard-disk variety!

There’s enough detail in the clickable image above to quickly run through the overall design. Each of those five blue rounded rectangles is a major console zone: across the top are the three described above (Systems, Comms, and Audio); the bottom right is power, and bottom center is the pilothouse Bridge including NMEA2000 and navigation. Breaking from that organizational level, the graphic at the lower left shows the location of all the Arduino nodes around the boat, with a brief summary of each.

A big part of the system console is simply signal routing… those five long gray rectangles are USB hubs, and the ones owned by the red Linux board also pass through a switch that allows them to be picked up by the Mac. I have my software work cut out for me.

In a somewhat related aside, I drove to Silicon Valley last month for my favorite conference, and while there made a pilgrimage to my bike at the always-enchanting Computer History Museum and visited a few dear old friends. Enroute back, I spent an otherwise boring night in Williams… but chanced to go to a little Chinese restaurant. The food was OK, but the fortune cookie was perfect:

Firing up the TS-7800

The two serious computers in the console system are the Mac Mini with wireless keyboard and mouse (now in regular use here, since my clunky old MacBook Pro won’t accept a Leopard install) and the Technologic TS-7800 Linux board. We just fired up the latter for the first time a few nights ago, and are now in the early phases of that non-trivial learning curve.

The first hurdle was silly, but difficult… the board’s little piggyback switching regulator (allowing a wide input voltage range) did not have its input polarity labeled. I was surprised to find nothing on the manufacturer’s website about this, nor even in the Yahoo TS-7000 group archives, and the board itself was surprisingly inscrutable. The cost of an error here is high, and finally, after much Googlage, I found a comment on a forum where someone had fried his protection diodes by guessing wrong. So here, to simplify future attempts by other people to solve this mystery, is the answer:

Looking at the edge of the board with the power connector, +12 goes on the left pin of the OP-SWITCHREG (closest to the PC-104 header), and GROUND goes on the right, close to the three jumpers… as shown in the photo:

Anyway, once we avoided letting the smoke out and made a backup of the SD card image, the board came up and booted Linux as promised… whereupon we set up user accounts, SSH, encryption keys, and so on. Unfortunately, it seems to have come with an older version of Debian Linux – old enough that apt-get doesn’t recognize the structure of the new archive – so we couldn’t install the essential sudo to allow temporary root privileges while safe in a user environment. The current status of this project is thus squarely in the sysadmin domain, trying to figure out how to update the distro and otherwise get to the point where the fun stuff can begin.

I did try a sensor hello-world with the on-board SPI temperature sensor, but got a segmentation fault when I compiled and ran the included demo code. Ahhhh, learning curves.

The funny psychology here is that I still think of a board this size as a lightweight microcontroller. It feels weird to log into it via the LAN, run top, and see it frittering away on tasks various; it’s vastly more powerful than what I would have considered “Big Iron” during the BEHEMOTH epoch. But more complexity means more head-scratching; here’s Linux wizard Dave Warman, muttering about the 2007 Debian version in a brand new board:


This is getting a little long, but there’s 5 months worth of catch-up. I’ll close with a few random tidbits.

First, in the process of fulfilling a Christmas gift hint from Sky, I set off on a quest to find a cushy hot-water bottle for cold Northwest nights aboard. Amazon’s most visible offering is the German Fashy brand, with various cover options, but it’s pricey; Etsy was iffy at best. But on eBay I found a friendly seller with two bottle sizes and a variety of fleece covers. I ended up buying a his ‘n hers pair; mine is the big plaid one and Sky’s is the cat’s paw 32-ouncer. Almost “body-weight proportional,” even:

It’s a great way to pre-heat a frigid berth, ease the back pain, or just improve general coziness.

I mentioned at the beginning of this long posting that I’ve had a safety valve for news in the orthogonal social media contexts of Twitter (@nomadness) and Facebook (where I prefer to “make friends” only with people I actually know on some level, though I’ve been known to accept invitions that suggest a good connection). This has been handy, and has reached the level of critical mass where I can ask a technical question and have a fairly good chance of getting an answer. I really miss the old Nomadness mailing list, which at one time was over 4000 people; I don’t think I ever failed to elicit useful information by simply mentioning a problem in an update. My Facebook and Twitter connections are each around 10% of that, but the easy low-granularity chat has made them useful… to the detriment of this blog, since I put something out of my mind once it’s “posted.” I’ll try to be better about that, since once things fade into the past over there they are effectively lost (except to Facebook’s massive data-mining servers, of course, which know all).

It’s rather sinister, actually, but fun and convenient. Isn’t that always how it goes?

Anyway, Happy New Year from Nomadness, and I look forward to reporting more frequently on the developing geekery!

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