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,

Posted in Nomadness blog | Tagged , | 7 Comments

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,

Posted in Nomadness blog | Tagged , | 9 Comments


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!

Posted in Nomadness blog | Tagged | 8 Comments

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.

Posted in Book reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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…

Posted in Nomadness blog | Tagged , | 5 Comments

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!

Posted in Nomadness blog | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Hack a Day Vintage Video – Computing Across America

I love the Hack a Day site… always something interesting in the domain of geekery, with frequent nerdgasms. It was thus a treat to find my adventures featured one day in 2009 – including embedded video excerpts from my talk at Xerox PARC on March 14, 1989. This was early in BEHEMOTH development, and I had the Winnebiko II on stage and a head full of excitement about work in progress on the new bike.

The follow-up comments here are delightful – click the picture at right to open a new tab with the Hack a Day piece.


Posted in Media - BEHEMOTH | Tagged | Leave a comment

Imperiled on a Lee Shore

As in life, disaster at sea sneaks up fast. Conditions deteriorate in a downward spiral, quietly closing off options while you fiddle with trivialities, driving you inexorably toward a dead end long before you realize it. At some point, the vague dread you’ve been feeling all day snaps into sharp focus; it’s no longer a colorful NOAA movie of well-fletched wind arrows against a colorized map of gales in the Strait… it’s here and now. Buoys that were way over there are suddenly right here; forget lunch, start the engine, turn on the windlass breaker, throw me the leather gloves, we gotta get out of here or we’re gonna lose the boat!

It wasn’t supposed to happen that way, of course. I had known for two days that Saturday was going to be feisty, and fully intended to get off our completely exposed “anchorage” against the lee shore of Camano Island long before it became an issue…

I had no illusions about any protection here, but it was close to the lab and handy logistically for the week that us cruising riff-raff had to vacate the marina to make room for go-fast toys in town for their annual regatta. It had been a mostly-calm stay but for an early lightning storm and a few gusty late-afternoon Force 4 northerlies that were only mildly alarming.

But there were unexpected complexities. Off the coddling of shore power for the first time in a while, my 8-year-old battery bank revealed the quiet disaster that resulted from the Prosine forgetting during a crash that they were AGM, charging them for months as generic gels. They were nearing end-of-life anyway, but this sped the decline, necessitating a somewhat ridiculous transfer of 560 pounds of new Group 31 Fullrivers off the beach via dinghy, followed by the same load in the opposite direction to shed the old ones. That was Friday, and I was playfully making jokes about A Salt and Battery while flexing long-dormant arm muscles, monitoring current flows, and planning the installation of the new Outback inverter/charger that has been patiently waiting in a box since fall.

Up next was a sailing weekend with friends, including an overnight of crabbing and dining in a protected anchorage, but watching the unfolding weather predictions I knew we were in for a blow. We had to get off the lee shore anyway, so might as well make an adventure of it, yah? If conditions get sloppy, we’ll just duck around to the other side of the island, drop the hook, and play there until the system passes.

All this carried a sort of energizing buzz of anticipation, but shoreside events conspired to delay departure into the danger zone. The lab security system was triggered by a spider having dinner in front of a PIR sensor at 1:30 AM, leading to a flurry of activity including a police visit, and twelve hours later, still trying to get out the door, a puddle that I initially attributed to the canine child-surrogate turned out to be the hallmark of an iced-up freezer that needed immediate defrosting (food was already mushy). More lost time, more hassles… and more rising wind.

We finally made it to the beach and undertook three back-to-back dinghy shuttles. I was knocked flat by a wave that dumped the boat on top of me, Bonnie got a leg caught and barely avoided getting slammed, Sky had a close call with a seawall, and Suzanne did quite well after being the first to brave the paint-chipping transfer to the stern of Nomadness, still stately compared to the dancing boatlets all around but starting to pitch in the building seas. While our guests worked to stow gear and food, Sky and I wrestled with the dinghy hoist, finally getting things tidy enough for what was obviously going to be a pounding.

That’s when I noticed that we were dragging anchor on 120 feet of chain, drifting into a bevy of little motorboats, the beach dangerously close astern. Red alert!

The Battle

I fired up the diesel, grabbed the headsets, threw one to Sky, donned leather gloves, and made my way to the pitching bow. “No time to change, screw the dog, we’re going now. Keep the bow pointed into the wind!” It began as it usually does; she got the boat creeping forward as I started to bring in chain. But something quickly went wrong… the bow was blown off to starboard, and we came up tight on the still-fast anchor. Coupled with the violent vertical motion, the force of this was enough to yank the chain free. The slipping windlass clutch was no match for the momentum of a running chain, and within seconds all 300 feet of it had flown off the bow roller while I yelped and tried (pointlessly) to slow it down by hand.

I’ve never even seen the bitter end of my anchor rode, and had no idea whether it would disappear completely – something normally considered a disaster. In this case, that would have actually been OK, since we could have sent a diver after it the next day and avoided being pinned to a lee shore. The more likely possibility is that the end would be bent to a length of line that is in turn made fast to an eye in the anchor locker, allowing the ground tackle to be cut away in an emergency.

But it was neither. I didn’t have time to examine it closely, but there was a big knot of chain, apparently seized or clamped; this slammed into the bottom end of the hawse pipe with a loud bang, and held.

Well, hell, now what? A quick glance to leeward revealed that we were between other boats and falling fast toward the rocks, and the only way out would be to recover 300 feet of all-chain rode and a 65-pound Bruce anchor with a failing Lighthouse 1501 windlass clutch and intermittent deck switch. Any attempt to haul the chain while 18 tons of boat strained against it was futile, so we had to work to windward to make slack, gain ground during the few seconds available, then hold it with the hook of a cleated snubber to keep from losing it again. This would have been impossible alone, and nearly so without the full-duplex hands-free communication afforded by our headsets (they’re not industrial quality, and are prone to noise and interference, but they saved our asses on this day… $60 well-spent).

I can only describe the process as brutal, hard on equipment and bodies. I tried to keep Sky advised of the angle that the chain was running into the water, but it was all she could do to buy us a few precious moments of nose to wind… and that frequently involved going around and coming up hard. At one point, I saw us starting to encircle a mooring buoy, which would have complicated things considerably by fouling our chain with theirs, and shouted orders to hit reverse and do a 3-point turn. Bit by bit, I hauled in slack and manually attached the hook to keep from losing precious links.

We must have created quite a show for the vacationing folks in their beach houses, cooking crab and drinking beer, especially since Sky had thrown on a temporary miniskirt to get out of wet clothes from the dinghy mishaps. We’re canvassing the neighborhood to see if there are any photos; if anyone stopped gawking long enough to grab a camera, I’ll post them here (unless they’re NSFW!).


After a 30-45 minutes of this ordeal, soaked by waves over the plunging bow and nearing exhaustion, the painted marks on the chain indicated 5 fathoms… meaning that we had broken free. Sky drove us to windward to get us off the deadly beach, slowing only when I got the anchor to waterline to keep it from flailing wildly. Once stowed, we powered up and headed for the lee of Whidbey Island, the anemometer clocking 30-35 including our own speed.

But now what? According to NOAA, this wind was going to be with us for a while, and there were no protected anchorages nearby (besides, at this point I was wary of anchoring; the windlass needs to be rebuilt). Cornet Bay, a cozy little nook at the east end of Deception Pass, was 3 hours away and likely packed with weekendeers seeking refuge… an assumption that was later proven correct when I had a chat with a friend who witnessed the gusty anchoring frenzy there. La Conner would be about the same distance and seemed alluring, but wind howls over Skagit Flats and the narrow channel is unforgiving… one error and we’d be aground on a falling 12-foot tide. I grabbed the VHF and called Oak Harbor Marina.

“I don’t recommend it,” the fellow said. “We have 30 knots over the seawall and the anchorage is all whitecaps.”

But after much discussion, I made the executive decision to go for it anyway: it’s familiar territory, help would be available, the anchorage would be a backup if docking failed, and if even that failed we could fire up the nav software and tiptoe out of the channel to motor around in the dark until things calmed down a bit. Set course for Red Buoy #2!

The Second Battle

Nomadness is a stout ship, and before she came into my life covered both coasts of North America, with a couple of Panama Canal transits and lots of time in the Caribbean. So I rather trust her, and the crossing of Penn Cove, where the gale in the Strait was only slightly attenuated by the narrow neck of Whidbey Island, was actually exhilarating. I drizzled a little hydraulic steering oil into the bouncing pedestal with a makeshift funnel, since the wheel felt bubbly after all the excitement, but otherwise all was well and the new battery bank was happily slurping up alternator amps.

The oil led to an amusing moment, however. I was peering around with the binoculars, trying to find the outlying buoy so I could keep it safely to starboard, when Sky called from the companionway: “Could you hand me the hydraulic fluid? Zuby really likes it.”

“No! I need it for the steering system!” It took me a moment to see why they were all laughing at me…

But we had a job to do. Alternating between VHF and cellphone, I contacted Mack the harbormaster, Jerry of the transient Mirador, and Frank of the resident Blue Moorea… making sure that we would have the best possible chance of getting our lines caught before the wind started having its way with my sometimes recalcitrant vessel (she does not behave well without steerageway, making close-in maneuvers much too exciting in wind and current). This was about twice the wind speed I had ever had for a docking attempt… and the force rises with the cube of velocity. Doubling the wind speed means 8 times the force on hull, rigging, kayaks, and everything else that would conspire to blow us off.

The approach was dicey. Three boats in the whitewater anchorage bucked and strained at their chains, and I was being directed to the unfamiliar north entrance that included a skinny sidewind romp along the seawall with a hard U-turn at the end. I swung wide, lined ‘er up, and was a little relieved to see the wind only a few degrees off the nose. OK, here we go…

Three women stood by to toss lines aboard the closing Nomadness; five men on the dock prepared to catch them. I nosed in and a bow line made it, but I timidly dropped power too soon and started to blow back at an alarming angle while the guys fought to hold us. More lines, bursts of power, fast cleating, straining muscles… and at last we were made fast.

The dock angels drifted into the night after shrugging off our hearty thanks, and almost immediately I got to repay a bit of docking karma with the next white-knuckled guy. Later that night, one of the boats in the anchorage dragged down on the seawall and some brave soul leapt aboard, deployed fenders, and lashed her to a pole to keep her off the bricks. This is the best thing about the nautical community.

It was surreal, after all that, to be cracking fresh dungeness crab, enjoying salad from our garden, and drinking much-needed wine with Sky, Suzanne, and Bonnie. Wind whistling around, warm feminine chatter, laptop aglow, instruments still on to attach numbers to the howling outside… all quite cozy aboard our little ship after a vigorous day that already seemed dreamlike and impossible.

Rigging the sailing dinghy the next afternoon. In the dink, that’s Bonnie on the left and Suzanne on the right; Sky is perched on the dock.
Posted in Nomadness blog | Tagged | 3 Comments

The Zen of Geeky Boat Projects

I’m anchored north of Hope Island at the moment, the boat feeling much lighter off the dock, the rhythm of life distinctly more relaxed than the task-oriented staccato that has characterized the past eight months. There is much of the latter yet ahead, alas, but this break is a good reminder of why I’m putting myself through this.

As expeditions go, this is a minor one. There was talk of popping over to the San Juans, but my diesel is suddenly putting out black smoke above 1800 RPM or so and I have yet to diagnose the problem. (That typically means partially burned fuel from either restricted airflow, high engine load like a fouled prop, exhaust back pressure, or a bad injector.) I’ll deal with it, but for now I am more focused on remembering life aboard… the best part of which is the pace.

At the lab, I juggle management tools, nudging a dozen parallel projects ranging from eBay and homeowner stuff to enclosure fabrication and boat network design. It is never simple, never feels calm, and only rarely gives any indication that it might end someday.

But now I’m swinging at anchor, a pasta in the oven, Sky off to give the dog a shore excursion, genset purring to slurp a few amp-hours back into the aging AGM bank, body pleasantly tired from unfamiliar exertions, a hint of sun-sting here and there, and really nothing I urgently need to do at the moment but write this blog posting. What a difference. One project can be the focus of a whole day, with time for a nap, a hike, a frolicsome dinkabout, and an eventful ride (complete with retrieval of a powerboat-pooped dinghy) over to Cornet Bay for ice cream with friends aboard Nereid… our buddy-boat companions on this little jaunt.

Projects aboard have more immediacy than the ones that involve Linux servers, distributed Arduini, and radio gear. Yesterday an intermittent in the engine-starting circuit blossomed into a full-blown failure, so I dug into the wiring harness, found a mashed-together butt splice that had not been properly crimped, fixed it, and vroom. It’s no big deal, but there’s a perverse, almost pleasant purity in having a single task in focus… and a real satisfaction in getting it done.

Especially when the engine starts again.

Random Thoughts on Boat Projects

This calls to mind a discussion that percolated on Cruisersforum recently… someone launched a thread on refit lessons and I was inspired to contribute. Given the focus of this blog, an edited version is worth including here:

  1. Never hire a guy who hates his work… I’m still fixing messes left by the plumber-from-hell, and there were lots of clues while he was on the job that should have been grounds for termination. The latest discovery: instead of using the correct bolts for the SeaLand inspection plate, he just shot in some sheet-metal screws. This distorted the polyethylene Ronco tank material, with one screw even penetrating the sidewall of the oversize cutout… creating a gap that leaks under pressure and insufficient material for a proper re-installation. This hotshot charges $80/hour. Hiring him was a mistake even though some of the tasks were intimidating and I felt I needed his skills… but ever since, I have been chasing the leaks and cleaning up after him.

  2. In that spirit, I’ve learned that DIY should always be first choice, with the hiring of professionals limited to cases of esoteric knowledge, true gurus, or jobs requiring expensive capital equipment. As I proceed with the geeking-out of the ship, my “business model,” although very casual, is publishing the designs and in some cases assembling kits. I think a lot of boaters are coming to the same conclusion, and the economy has a lot to do with it. (Speaking of kits, Navagear did a very nice post about my marine GPS datalogger based on the Sparkfun Geochron.)

  3. To-Do lists are fractal. The closer you zoom into one item, the more it expands into a cluster of component items. I try to anticipate this with what I call “CDTs,” or Clearly Defined Tasks. Writing these out ahead of time may seem like over-detailing, but pays off when it helps avoid gross underestimation of time and costs.

  4. Project management tools can make or break a job. I like OmniFocus since you can list by projects and then review by contexts (like, “what else do I need to do now that I’m aboard with wiring tools spread out?”). And Scrivener is very useful for keeping the sprawling collection of design documents in one cohesive environment… before that, I had stray files everywhere.

  5. If a project requires n components, there will be n-1 units in stock (quoting an ancient collection of Murphy’s laws, circa 1969). It is really worthwhile to buy in bulk… and besides, you end up with repair inventory and trade goods. For hardware, McMaster-Carr is spectacular.

  6. Tool duplication between home and boat is unavoidable. You’ll end up needing ’em anyway. Expensive tools are usually good investments, though they sink just as fast as cheap ones (don’t be too macho to use a lanyard when leaning over the rail). The new Li-Ion Makita LXT power tools are awesome… I love them, along with the best drill bits I’ve ever owned. This felt like a crazy splurge at the time, but has already been a winning investment.

  7. Document, document, document! Buy a cable-labeling machine (I like the IDpal from Brady) and ID every cable as it is identified. Take the time to do good drawings (I use OmniGraffle Pro for overall diagrams, and Eagle for detailed schematics). Start a binder for the known-correct information that you will want to be able to find again… sprinkled throughout project notebooks and random scraps, it gets lost. Dedicate portable file boxes to manuals and individual projects. Use your digital camera to chase otherwise invisible mysteries, and save the images. Take photos before closing off an area so you will know later where not to drill.

  8. Save labeled core samples from hole-saw adventures.

There are a lot more lessons that fall out of all this, and I’ll share them as they occur. But for now, there’s a bit of catch-up to do; somehow I let 5 weeks get away since my last posting here.

Stove Cage

The Navigator Little Cod wood stove that was installed last year was excellent company over the winter, but one job remained unfinished. The exposed stovepipe, especially with the related sacrifice of a wooden pole in the cabin, was an accident waiting to happen: hot or not, a lurch into sharp sheet metal during a hands-free transit at the instant of wave impact could have devastating consequences. So I built a cage:

I’ll probably soften up the top rail and the upper halves of the verticals with St. Mary’s hitching some night at anchor, but even as it is we already find it pleasant to use as both a leaning station and a grabrail when passing through. The parts are standard 7/8″ rail and associated fittings, and the 60° angle of the struts both opens more rail to gripping and minimizes flexion of the top half.


Another major lifestyle enhancement in the raised-salon pilothouse is a set of curtains… especially on the sloping front windows that make a highly effective greenhouse on sunny days. After months of frequent staring at the problem and a number of brainstorming sessions, we decided to take a novel approach and use high-power neodymium magnets sewn into the edges of the curtain panels… with matching ones attached to the window frame with double-stick foam tape. Our fabrics guru was not at all happy about trying to keep feisty magnets under control while sewing on her industrial steel machine, but eventually she got them all in there.

The panels are a lush patterned dark blue fabric inside, and a special light-colored UV-resistant material outside. And while there is a little gaposis and sag, they are a huge improvement in quality of life aboard. Peeking out is easy: just pop open a corner, have a look, and slap it shut. It is much tidier than rods and associated hardware.

(The black contraption at the top wrapped in foam and gorilla tape needs to come out – it’s one of the old windshield-wiper motors. I’d like some, actually, but one of the three melted its wiring in the harness and I no longer trust them… and besides, they are head-bangers. One of these days.)

Bow Navlight Assembly

In my last post, I moaned about the mounting scheme used by the Aqua Signal Series 32 LED navigation lights, and I remain unimpressed… it should not have taken so much work to get them installed. One of the units, fresh from the clamshell packaging, had the key expando-plastic toy part fractured and useless, so any cop-out attempt to mount according to the nearly nonexistent documentation was out the window anyway.

Instead, I cobbled up a little machined aluminum assembly that bolts to the original mounting plate that carried a milky incandescent power-hog from yesteryear:

(That little black thing in the foreground is the broken critical mounting part, which is supposed to expand when a tapered knurled brass plug is pulled into it by the one and only mounting screw. I like my approach better… a longer #8 button-head, turned down slightly to fit in the metric-sized hole in the plastic, threaded into a block of aluminum. This might have to take green water over the bow someday.)

Marine GPS Datalogger Kit

Thought I’d insert a quick plug for our little datalogger kit; my enthusiastic tales about various incarnations of this technology have generated a lot of interest over the years, so I finally packaged my favorite logging engine along with a sealed enclosure, charge cable, SD card, mounting velcro, and expanded how-to. These things are a hoot, and provide all sorts of graphic evidence of adventures (and embarrassing oops moments like trying to dock in a cross-current). The marine GPS datalogger is now in my online store, and delivery is typically a week or so (I configure and test each one). The unit can live permanently in some out-of-the-way location with a sky view, and is acessible via Bluetooth. Over 6 months of continuous track logs (one point per second) can accumulate in the SD card before it starts to get crowded in there, and the retrieved files can be displayed in Google Earth, Google Maps, or other formats with a free online tool.

Nomadness at Anchor, Part 2

This posting has been idle for a while, though I have occasionally poked at it with a stick or added notes about stuff to add. I should just do short postings and not make each one such a multi-threaded repository of techno-philosophical musings. Old habits die hard; I still think of these as articles and use my vintage live page for short news bits of interest to friends.

(That page has a new feature, by the way: it now has a retro HTML table with the most immediate temporal layer scraped from the epic to-do list, presenting only the things that need to be done next across a landscape of 30-40 project categories. It’s a lot easier to grasp than the totality of All Known List Items, which get vapourous anyway when you try to look beyond the current wavefront of progress. Besides, all I really need to know when rolling up my sleeves is what needs to be done right now. I have made it public mostly to share with the NRL team, but also invite participation if something there catches your eye…)

Anyway, I’m at anchor again. A week or so has passed, and the big week-long regatta has taken over the marina where Nomadness has been moored. Us riffraff have been asked to vacate the docks to make room for all the go-fast toys, so for a while we will be gunkholing about, taking friends for long-promised sails, and returning randomly to the lab to keep the nickel generators sputtering along.

It has been a very eventful few days. Way back at the beginning of this post, I mentioned the black smoke above 1800 RPM. This was quite worrying, and I concocted a theory that the diver who replaced the nose zinc on my Max Prop had somehow fungled the pitch and increased engine loading. Only… it still went from forward to reverse so was not jammed, and an email exchange with helpful PYI tech support pretty well convinced me that such a phenomenon was not possible. I have the Classic 3-Blade model, shown here during the pre-purchase haulout before cleaning and zincage:

I was not happily contemplating either an engine service call or haulout with prop-removal… so, grasping at straws, I asked the diver to take a look even though it has only been a couple of months since the last cleaning. And guess what… this has been the worst year in memory for marine growth around here! It was fouled from bow to stern, the running gear covered with barnacles and other biology. They went back down the next day and polished her up, and yesterday I cranked the engine to 3200 RPM and purred along smoothly with nary a wisp of smoke. All betterz…

Feeling smug about a cheap solution to a scary problem immediately induced another one… I carelessly let the furling line get away when deploying the headsail, so at the end of the day, rounding up in a fresh breeze to anchor off a friend’s beach, the sail got stuck HARD when still about 30% out. No amount of fiddling had any effect, so I cast off the furling line, wrestled the drum around until I had a couple of sheet wraps, and tied it off to the pulpit with small stuff. All day today, with gorgeous perfect breezes and sails dancing in bright sunshine, we swung at anchor waiting for enough calm to drop the basket and untangle the mess.

I suppose there are worse things than a day at anchor since we had no place in particular to go. “Cruising,” quoth some ancient wag, “is the art of fixing your boat in exotic ports.”

A Critical Comment

This is a good time to answer a comment from “Anonymous” that came in response to my blog post of a few weeks ago. Every now and then, someone will write a stinging criticism of my peculiar blend of passions, usually from the perspective of the traditional values associated with the most visible substrate. Someone in 1989 told me that I was “bastardizing the simple, beautiful act of bicycling” with the BEHEMOTH project, and a few years later, a guy in Arizona lambasted my transition to the Microship… insisting that I remove him from my mailing list since I was “abandoning my bicycle roots.” One needs a bit of a thick skin when making a life public, and I was initially going to just ignore Mr. Anonymous. But he actually makes a valid point that I should address, even though he did not do so very kindly:

So mr nomad how’s outfitting the space shuttle going? Excuse me for being skeptical, only you seem stuck in the yuppie yesteryear of “too much is never enough.” Complex systems galore, oh…and you’re going to swing it by going global and what… tweeting from fiji?

Salt water, the motion of the ocean, an unrealistically long supply chain combined a global depression will have the final word on your work I feel.

Really, go cruising and report how the multitude of systems are holding up… that is if you aren’t too busy maintaining broken systems. I’ll give your techno path some credence if you can go a year or two of cruising without giving up in exhaustion.

There are a few things this fellow is overlooking, though his perspective on complexity is not uncommon in the cruising community and is not entirely irrational.

First, and I think most of my readers know this, my primary source of geek pleasure is the blending of passions. From my ancient 1983 “computerized recumbent bicycle” to this crazy starship-to-be, what has kept me going for a quarter-century has been the integration of geek delights into adventure substrates and then (usually) spending quality time playing with the quirky combination. So my initial response to his comment is that I am not just getting distracted by technology in what is fundamentally a cruising project; the whole point here is the combination of the two.

Of course, he is absolutely correct in pointing out the potential fragility. “Water corrodes; salt water corrodes absolutely.” Systems crash, parts can be hard to get, and complexity is anathema to reliability. A purist would have already snorted at my furling drum problem; a hanked-on jib would never “jam.” And if I do find myself dealing with constant electronics failures, then I have not done my job well, since a rather large percentage of the design is related to robustness, sealing, serviceability, isolation, backups, and easy replacement if it’s all toasted by lightning.

But beyond all that, one of the fundamental design standards here is that none of this gizmology can be mission critical… at least in the sense of disabling basic ship operation if it fails (like requiring power to move a swing keel on a high-performance race boat). I still pull strings for sheets and halyards, there are TWO independent hydraulic backups to the autopilot as well as a wind vane and emergency tiller, I have an Astra IIIB sextant on board that will still work when the GPS toys crap out, I don’t use microprocessors to control navigation lights, and safety-critical things like the marine VHF are not dependent on crossbar networks to get audio in and out.

So why, one might cynically ask, am I farting around for years with lab-logistics and development tools when I could just go cruising (other than the fact that I find the geek stuff fundamentally entertaining)?

In a purely practical sense, the systems that I am building address a very specific need that is not well met by existing tools. When I am off the boat, I want to be able to see it and scan sensors. When I am in bed and it gets bouncy, I want to reach up to a display and take a quick reassuring look at GPS guard zone, depth, and wind data. When batteries are sagging, I want to know why. When I forget how the 20 or so valves related to engine fluids are configured (3 tanks, 2 Racors, transfer pump, oil changing system, coolant loop pickoff for water heating), I want to see a live drawing with active lines a different color than inactive ones and relevant flow sensor values displayed in context. When I’m tired and try to fire up the macerator pumpout without first opening the tank vent and seacock (duh), I want something to yell at me very loudly. And so on.

None of this suggests that I should get lazy and hand all responsibility over to systems; instead it is an attempt to bring the insane complexity of a modern cruising yacht’s systems into a user interface that looks and feels like a simple website… accessible from anywhere on or off the boat. If that fails, oh well. The boat still works.

A secondary benefit of all this, besides my finding it intrinsically fun and justifiable on that basis, is that a lot of other people are interested as well… so there is an associated business model that yields publications and kits.

Finally, a bit of broader perspective… sailing itself is not low-tech, even though it has been done for centuries. We’ve come a long way from square-riggers and tallow-tipped sounding leads; by the time you throw in N2K navigation networks, watermakers, high-brightness LEDs, windvane self-steering, carbon composites, FLIR, forward-looking
sonar, broadband radar, and MPPT solar charge management, a cruising boat is a masterpiece of multi-disciplinary engineering. But I think I understand Mr. Anonymous’ objection to complexity: it is anything that is not already a turn-key product.

Footnote: Life Under a Lightning Rod

I was just about to send this via the trusty EVDO link when I started seeing flashes outside, and emerged to observe huge cloud-to-cloud lightning displays covering many miles (with occasional ground strikes). When you’re in a steel box with a 60-foot aluminum stick in the air, the tallest thing around with a hook down just off a lee shore as reversing wind gusts whistle the rigging, this is somewhat disconcerting.

The dilemma: stay aboard, let more chain out, and watch the sky show… even though swinging then becomes dicey if the wind shifts to the west… or hop in the dink and paddle to the home of an out-of-town friend. We opted for the latter, and have been watching my anchor light drift back and forth like a motile Venus against a backdrop of lightning-streaked clouds and distant shoreline.

A nice, primal footnote to all those existential questions about the essence of technomadics…

Fair winds,

Posted in Nomadness blog | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments