Friday Harbor Automated Marine Radio Check on VHF 28

radio-check-28-datawakeUpdated March 31, 2016: The system is back online! It was down for a few months as I lost access to the building that was hosting it, but I have just installed it on my boat at the dock until a more permanent site can be located. The antenna is on the bridge deck, and the rig is in the pilothouse. Think of it as a 50-watt station with high-gain collinear antenna up about 20 feet in the Port of Friday Harbor. Just give a call on VHF-28 to hear your own signal repeated… no need to identify.

This post is mostly for my fellow mariners in the Pacific Northwest, and is about the necessary evil known as the radio check… and a new service that helps solve the problem.

In busy areas during high season, it can drive you crazy… folks putting out a call on a busy channel to see if their marine VHF is working. It’s a good thing to know, of course, but the information you derive from this method is iffy at best. When someone says, “sounding good, Skipper,” it doesn’t have much meaning unless you also know the distance between you, the nature of both rig/antenna systems, and what the stranger means by “good.”

If you try this on Channel 16 (the calling and distress frequency where you are most likely to be heard), then you’re breaking the law… so in various places channels 9 and 22A have become the defaults (22A around here). But it’s kind of intimidating to bother the Coast Guard for a radio check…

To address this, Seatow started setting up a string of automated stations on the East Coast in 2010, occupying the now-dormant marine radiotelephone channels (24, 26, 27, and 28). These Maritel rigs consist of a Motorola Radius marine VHF and a controller, along with a high-gain TG-5 antenna from GAM Electronics. They do one thing, and they do it very well: whenever the station hears a transmission, it temporarily records it… then pauses a couple of seconds and transmits a voice announcement along with a replay of the captured audio, followed by a second safety-related announcement.

The beauty of this is that you can hear your own signal and you know where the station is located. This provides much more useful information about how well your rig is working, and you don’t have to bother anybody to get it!

One of our previous sites in Friday Harbor. The rig is now atop my boat in the Port.

In 2012, after installing the Icom M504 in Nomadness, I was sitting at the dock wondering if it worked. Like most folks, I kinda hate bugging the Coast Guard for trivial radio checks, and a quick exchange with the Port of Friday Harbor only told me that my signal was making it a few hundred yards. I did a web search to confirm that it was still OK to use channel 22A for a test, and stumbled across the Seatow link above… but was immediately frustrated to discover that there were no stations in the Pacific Northwest! I sent them a note and things went from there… and I am delighted to report that I now host an automated radio check machine on VHF channel 28.

Please help us map coverage!

For this to become a useful utility around here, there needs to be some idea of the station’s range and dead spots. The terrain of the San Juan Islands is highly varied, with open water, mountains, and a maze of twisty passages that makes it an exciting place to explore by boat. That does not translate into simple inverse-square-law propagation predictions, however.

If you are out and about on your boat, please give this a try. Simply call for a radio check on VHF 28 (you don’t need to identify your vessel, although you can if you like), and listen for the automated reply. If it works, or even if it does not, please send me a quick note to tell me about it… along with this information:

  • Where were you?
  • How clearly did you hear the station?
  • How clear was YOUR signal as re-transmitted?
  • Is your radio fixed or hand-held, and is the antenna low or atop a mast?
Radio check antenna base on Datawake

Radio check antenna base on Datawake

I have created a Google map for signal reports, and it appears below. I have some test data, including a video report from a sailboat in Bellingham, about 25 miles away (with a likely reflection off Mount Constitution on Orcas to get around the 1665-foot peak of Lummi Island). It has also been heard at Shilshole Marina in Seattle (though the path was one-way), and we have received good signal reports from Oak Harbor, Sequim, Anacortes, and Sidney as well as the surrounding waters of the San Juans. Now that the site has moved (2016), more data would be good. Thanks to all who help with testing!

You can zoom and pan around the map… it should get interesting once I hear from more people who try the service (I even took a ferry trip to Anacortes with a handheld on the deck and did my own quick survey…)

In the map below, droplet style rounded icons are fixed-mount radios installed in boats, with the dotted ones sail and the plain ones power. The push-pins are hand-held VHF rigs (low power and inefficient rubber-duckie antenna). In all cases, I use this color code:

Green – solid copy with little or no noise
Blue – fully usable, but with some noise & dropouts
Yellow – marginal signal… in there, but hard to understand
Red – no copy at all

View Friday Harbor Automatic Radio Check Coverage in a larger map

Cheers from Nomadness!

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Antigravity, SSB, and Console Development

Time for an update! But first, a word from Isabelle, who has delicate sensibilities and prefers not to walk on the cabin sole when it needs to be vacuumed (although, like nature, she abhors a vacuum):

What is this "gravity" of which you speak? Must be a human thing...

What is this “gravity” of which you speak? Must be a human thing…

SSB Radio Installation

Now that we’ve dealt with feline matters, let’s talk tech. This first section is adapted from Issue #21 of the Nomadness Report.

Like so many projects that have been in the planning stages for a long time, my marine HF single-sideband radio gear has been sitting on the shelf for about 3 years. That translates into not having the latest version of the expensive PACTOR box, but otherwise the hardware is current: the Icom IC-M802 marine SSB rig and matching AT-140 antenna tuner are the same units I would choose if purchasing the rig today. In the developing comm console, this is joined by an Icom 706mkIIg for more flexible amateur radio use, Kenwood TD-D710A digital dual-bander, Wavenode for SWR/power monitoring, RIGblaster Advantage for digital modes, DSP speaker for noise reduction, and a few other things. But first, I needed to get the 802 cabled and online.

This is a perfect scale of project for a Geek’s Vacation (I welcome techie pals to participate in this project while spending a few days aboard Nomadness in a Pacific Northwest paradise), and I was delighted to host Daniel Collins a couple of weeks after Tim Nolan’s time here working with me on the power system. Daniel and I had struck up an enthusiastic correspondence last year… he was highly conversant with NMEA2000 networks and preparing his boat, Aletheia, for adventure. He got more than he bargained for… first a nasty storm in the Gulf of Mexico, then a dismasting and subsequent tow into Charleston after failure of a titanium tang. He’s now exploring retrofitting a junk rig on the Allied Princess, but is first taking a travel break… and I was happy to be part of that.

His visit was initially a dilemma; Daniel is such a clever chap that we had trouble deciding what project should occupy our week together! I had been assuming that it would involve the NMEA2000 network since he knows that stuff well and we’d already spent a fair bit of time on the phone chatting about design decisions… but the agility of youth trumped puzzles that could be addressed via email. I’ve been wanting to be back on the air with an HF radio for years, and installation on the boat would involve a fair bit of crawling into awkward spaces. Since he is also a radio geek, the choice was clear.

The radio consists of two pieces: a display unit that will be mounted in the comm console, and a “black box” that is the transceiver itself (as well as connection point for much of the cabling). With little fanfare, I bolted this to the bulkhead under the desk, where it can have more cooling airflow than it would have inside the enclosure.

This was not the physically awkward part, though. Daniel immediately jumped into that… installing the tuner on a bulkhead inside the hydraulics bay at the stern, then running GTO-15 feed line through a handy bit of gaposis into the lazarette, and thence to a clamping assembly at the bottom of the insulated backstay. The tuner matches this “random wire” to whatever frequency the radio is using, minimizing reflected power and keeping RF energy outside of the boat.

This is only half the antenna system, though. The tricky part is the ground, which is what this “pushes against.” Folks with fiberglass boats couple to seawater with methods ranging from bonding on-board metals or glassed-in copper screen to commercial products like sintered-stainless blocks or the popular KISS-SSB, but I have a steel hull that eliminates the need to do anything fancy… except for one little detail. Connecting the tuner to the hull would not only provide an excellent RF ground, but also create a DC ground loop that can drive galvanic corrosion. There needs to be a capacitor in there, transparent to the radio signal but opaque to direct current.

Lots of folks use disc capacitors, but they feel too fragile in this environment… so I talked to a few old-timers and went eBay shopping. This beautiful 1943 high-voltage mica capacitor from a Navy ship is just the ticket. Daniel did some metal prep to make a good connection and then bolted this to a hull rib… connecting it to the tuner via fat copper foil. This maximizes the ground current at these frequencies due to the skin effect, providing much greater conductivity than a piece of wire.

All this was done while wrapped awkwardly around a corner, and there was much grunting back there… but he emerged victorious. We spent a few hours stringing the two cables forward to the radio (tuner control and heavy coax), then turned our attention to power.

Radios like this need a solid battery connection, and should not be powered through a standard breaker panel. Here I was lucky… one of the many pieces of cruft slated to be removed from the boat is a LectraSan sewage-processing system, and it had a dedicated run of 4 AWG cable connected to a stand-alone 50-amp thermal circuit breaker. I re-routed it to the lab, and… the length was perfect.

Knowing that other radios would also need this beefy connection, I added a Blue Sea 6-circuit covered fuse block to the bulkhead in the “black box region.” (I was tempted to use a RIGrunner with its Anderson PowerPole connectors… but I have no desire to plug and unplug these rigs very often.)

With the Icom rig cabled to the fuse block, all that remained were the connections to its front panel, speaker, a ground, and a few more to bring the PACTOR modem into the picture. Fortunately, I had bought the whole package as a kit from Dockside Radio, including the modem, so it was all pretty much plug-and-play at this end. In fact, I turned away to feed Isabelle the hovercat, and by the time I looked back, Daniel had all the interconnects done and was ready for a smoke test.

It worked! Since then, I’ve chatted with at least a dozen states as well as Japan and Brazil, and we set up a WINLINK email account, running under VirtualBox emulation on the MacBook Air (which is now on the air). In this photo, Daniel is looking at the Wavenode display that shows real-time power and SWR data: 

Console Development

All the geekery that I’ve been planning and writing about for years is concentrated into a group of consoles distributed around the boat. These include ship operations and piloting (nav, engines, and power control); Internet and server tools (main computer, data collection, connectivity); and studio/communications/lab equipment (the rack spaces being mounted on the desk in the photo above). Here’s a page from a recent Nomadness Report that lists the console zones…

At the moment, I’m approaching all this on two simultaneous fronts. The original control panels in the pilothouse are being replaced by new surfaces milled from black .5″ King Starboard, and these hold most of the “normal boat stuff” like navigation instruments and circuit breakers. Down in the lab, however, the three equipment racks are getting black anodized aluminum panels packed with gizmology. By the time these are all done, it should all have a consistent overall feel… exactly what I’ve been fantasizing about since launching this project ages ago.

A huge part of the design process has been focused on usability… planning ahead for workflow, human comfort, logical clustering, and elimination of the need to run back and forth for related tasks. An example of the latter came with the boat: basic instruments and marine VHF were above the chart table across from the inside helm station, so it was impossible to steer, look forward, and talk on the radio (or select instrument modes) at the same time. Of course there are work-arounds, but the point is that attention ended up being split between control surfaces… even during routine tasks… a constant low-level annoyance.

In the pilothouse, the solution is obvious; just collect all boat-driving stuff in one place and make it purty. With the exception of a few things that I want to see from multiple places (like the stereo), the system pretty much designs itself around existing structures. So let’s instead talk about Geek Central:

This is my CAD system – Cardboard Aided Design. The three 12U rack units are in place (Middle Atlantic CFR series, 21″ tall and 19″ wide), and temporary panels of Coroplast have been screwed in place. I spent many hours cutting up recycled file folders to make actual-size mockups of the electronic goodies, hanging them in place with tape, staring at it, playing “let’s pretend” with various scenarios, re-arranging, researching alternatives to some of the gizmology I don’t own yet, and otherwise refining it all into a system that should be pleasant to use. This informal use-case analysis with actual-size objects was hugely revealing, and it didn’t take long for it to start making more sense than it ever did in the form of planning documents. (I did this with the Winnebiko II and BEHEMOTH bicycles, even going on test rides with cardboard mockups taped in place… far more immersive than manipulating Mr. Template on a computer screen with 3D models.)

This is a solid starting point, and reflects all the known constraints, though I’ll probably bump into some mounting challenges as machining proceeds and make adjustments.

So what’s in this thing? Let’s take a quick walkthrough.

1. Audio

The left panel is mostly about audio (and a little bit of video). Keep in mind that there’s a 27″ iMac screen just to the left of this, though it has been shoved aside for the photo since I couldn’t get far away for a straight-on shot that showed all three panels. The largest control surface here, to use the buzzword of choice, is a 16-channel mixer… an Edirol M-16DX that has a remote physical box for most of the connectors. That makes it much more console-friendly, and joining it on the panel is a Tascam 8-channel Portastudio for recording. There’s also a small analog video screen with adjacent camera, a voice processor for podcasting, and a Crown rackmount Amp (XLS1000)… overkill but sweet. In the lower left, there’s a region for easy access to some connectors along with a few manual controls for audio-related hardware. A Fusion MS-IP700 marine stereo is located to the right in the central panel, and is the general utility amp.

I was originally hoping for a simple architecture here, like the Microship system. For that, back in the ’90s, we built an audio crossbar network with 32 inputs and 32 outputs, with 8 possible simultaneous connections all controlled by a node on the multidrop network of 68HC11 FORTH boards. Good times.

The problem is that I want true studio-grade mixing complete with insert effects, as well as the ability to smoothly manipulate a multichannel audio environment with front-panel controls. The crossbar concept could be extended to all this, but it would be a huge wheel-reinvention project… increasingly hard to justify when nice equipment is reasonably inexpensive off the shelf, compatible with all the related hardware including boom microphone, piano, and so on.

There is one bit of redundancy at the moment that is admittedly the result of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) more than actual need. The Fusion stereo is essential, with its iPod dock and N2K integration for multiple zones, and it’s a very capable Mode D amplifier with decent speakers available from the same manufacturer… so that’s central to the audio system design and will be on almost all the time. But at the moment, I also have that Crown amp, a much-loved product good for about 350 watts per channel. It will probably be the first thing to be reluctantly sold when I discover that there’s not enough room for all the front panel gadgetry due to packaging overhead or evolving needs.

So… why all this audio gear? In addition to normal entertainment audio, it will be my studio for podcasts and other audio production. All audio sources on the boat (including low-fi stuff from radios, speech synthesizers, computers, and such) can be routed either directly into the mixer or funneled to it via a switching network under control of one of the microcontrollers (node X). This will allow anything to be recorded, databased, transmitted, blared out the hailer horn, included in a production, converted to a stream, analyzed, or whatever. The region is also my piano studio, with a MIDI controller that pulls out from under the desk like a drawer, and the instrument voices (software or rack synth) should sound pretty spectacular in this small space. I am still trying to choose the speakers to mount with limited vertical clearance atop the wooden roof that will cover the three racks…

2. Communications

The central region will be the first one fabricated, and is largely devoted to radio gear. I rattled off a list of the ham stuff  in the introduction to the SSB story above; all that fills a 6U rack in the bottom half. The upper half is more general: rack synthesizer, clock, the Fusion stereo mentioned a moment ago, Furuno NAVTEX receiver, and a docking spot for an iPad Mini that presents a browser for interfacing with the control system along with Facetime and other apps.

The “use case” for the radio gear is conventional… hours of sitting and peering at displays while twiddling knobs. I’ve been a ham for most of my life, so this is an important part of the ship system. Hope to catch you on the air!

3. Lab Equipment

Finally, this environment wouldn’t be called a lab without a proper suite of test equipment. I’m still fine-tuning the wish list with very tight panel real-estate constraints, but there will be a digital oscilloscope, multimeter, function generator, bench power supply, hot-air rework/soldering station, utility connectors for development-related stuff, and local power distribution.

There is a trade-off here, as some tools are better kept free-floating for use wherever needed. The console won’t replace a handheld Fluke DMM or the butane soldering and hot-air tools, but in general I want to eliminate the clutter of things that have to be hauled out and put away with each use. Space aboard is very tight, and one of the primary goals of this whole console project is to bring everything under one roof where it will look and feel like a single system.

I have not yet settled on the specific instruments for this region, though some favorites are emerging from hours of immersion in the excellent EEVblog and its forums. I’m lusting after an all-Rigol suite, but that’s pricey… not nearly as much as Agilent or Tek, but still a binary order of magnitude above the cheapies. We’ll see.

In Other News…

I’m yet far from having the new shop space in Friday Harbor running smoothly, and there is still a mountain of tonnage that was offloaded during the move (and I still need to fetch the Microship from my old place on Camano Island). It is shaping up to be a great workspace, though, and the plan is to bring the mobile-lab trailer inside to provide a shirtsleeve office environment during the winter and reduce heating requirements to the actual shop area (not the huge high-ceilinged open space).

The boat’s power system has made significant headway since my August post about forward solar array fabrication. I milled a little teak panel for the array breakers, cabled them to the Outback FLEXmax 60 controller, and tied that into the battery bus via shunt… it works beautifully. The system now has the company’s new MATE3 display, which is spectacular! Not only does it have a network interface for data collection and local storage on an SD card, but the unit itself provides graphic history displays that make it a lot easier to observe what’s going on in the power domain.

This is shaping up to be subject of the first in my series of Boat Hacking Design Packages… eBooks that fully document various parts of this ship. These complement the Nomadness Report series, which can be thought of as a detailed magazine-style narrative of the project. I’ve published 191 pages since I started this last April… but what if someone wants a focused picture of one subsystem without having to wade through a hundred other topics?

The Design Packages address this, including schematics, mechanical drawings, component sources, and so on. I’ll resist the temptation to try to turn them into definitive works about each topic (impossibly ambitious anyway), limiting their scope to actual working systems on this boat. This puts them in the same category as appnotes, white papers, and old trade-journal regulars like “Ideas for Design” and “Designer’s Casebook.” These were always the first places I would turn when approaching a project: starting points that are known to work, helping avoid wheel reinvention. My hope for this series is that it will serve this purpose for fellow boat geeks (though sidebars sprinkled throughout will mention alternative methods or competing products).

Enough work has gone into the power systems to make it a good choice for the first of these eBooks, and I’ve started converting a clipboard of sketches into proper 11×17 drawings. Should be a fun one, following electrons all the way from shore/solar/generator sources, through the battery management system, and out to distribution… complete with monitoring tools.

View from the Top

I’m closing this post with an amazing photo taken by my friend Voytec Wacowski who visited last month. One of the items that has been on my to-do list for ages was to clamber to the top of the mast, feed a line through a sheave for a little utility platform project, and examine the bird-shattered remnants of my masthead light so I know how to prep the LED replacement. He fearlessly ascended and took some photos, then returned to deck level and said through a grin and thick Polish accent: “this is instance of your Tom Sawyer fence-painting principle.”

Of the 50 or so photos he snapped aloft, this was the gem. Nomadness looks like she’s docked to the Space Station… any Photoshop wizards out there want to make a composite with the earth in the background? I don’t have the mad image-editing skilz…

Nomadness from Masthead (photo by Wojtek ‘Voytec’ Wacowski, October 2012)



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Solar Array and Other Empowerment


The Nomadic Research Labs Geek’s Vacation Program is back in full swing, bringing back excellent memories of the Olden Days in the BEHEMOTH and Microship labs. Brilliant techies would arrive from far-away places to dive into a project with me, contributing not only their own formidable expertise but giving mine a much-needed shot in the arm… whether through skill-building or just the motivation of working together. My old friend Tim Nolan designed the Microship 8-channel peak-power-tracking solar charge controller about a decade ago, and he just flew back to Wisconsin after 10 days here aboard Nomadness.

This time, we worked together on some of the ship power projects… notably installation of the forward photovoltaic array, along with extensive cruft removal and internal system upgrades. The beautiful stainless substrate for the solar panel was recently fabricated by Derek Peterson in Stanwood; Tim and I bonded six 30-watt modules onto this, bussed them into a series-parallel configuration, then wrestled it into place with some temporary wood fixtures at the interface between the panel and its support struts. In the photo, you can see notches on the sides to clear the backstays… and the extra metal border provides a little bit of mounting space for antennas and cockpit lighting.

The tan fabric under the boom is a sort of bimini that came with the boat; it zips to the trailing edge of the dodger and then ties somewhat clumsily to the arch. This will go away, with the new structure providing a starting point for a more robust cockpit enclosure… but it will do for the moment. The distant edge of the solar panel is supported by the radar arch, which also carries the cabling.

These photovoltaic modules were custom-made long ago by Solarex for the Microship project, and consist of a Tedlar-encapsulated sandwich with no metal backing… very fragile. The wires emerge from the back near the edge with little fillets of silicone; to clear these, we drilled 3/4″ holes with Cecil the milling machine (Cecil be ‘da Mill).

I agonized for quite a while over the proper adhesive for this project, having recently been driven a bit crazy by the problem of bonding neodymium magnets to aluminum brackets for the pilothouse curtains. Heat is the enemy, and even with preparatory solvents and surface-sanding I’ve had many of them fall apart from differing coefficients of thermal expansion (and lousy epoxy adhesion to the nickel plating). Solar panels get very hot, so I was concerned about the mess that could result from a poor choice of goo.

We decided to take a chance on high-temperature 3M VHB (Very High Bond) adhesive tape #4646, though the thickness of .025″ did introduce the risk of cracking the silicon wafers if we were overzealous during application. Time will tell if this was a good choice, but so far it has handled a few hot days without delaminating or doing anything else disturbing. I debated about leaving a little gaposis for outgassing, then imagined it being an ingress point for water that will freeze and decided against it… I might even double down on that conclusion with a surrounding fillet of sealant. (The tape pattern is a full perimeter along with a single strip down the center.)

Once the modules were bonded in place, it was time for the cabling… I slumped at the desk to rest my back while Tim took over with ratchet crimper and heat gun. We decided to wire them into a 24-volt series-parallel configuration (I would have liked a higher voltage to reduce I2R cabling loss as much as possible, but the total array size will be 14 modules once the second panel is mounted over the dinghy, and it doesn’t parse any other way). The bundle of red and gray wires will be spliced to a jacketed #10 cable, with another for the aft array of 8 modules; these terminate at an Outback MX60 solar charge controller, which maximizes the power point and pushes current into the batteries via a dedicated shunt (with an Ethernet connection to the other Outback power equipment to allow centralized monitoring and control).

The final stage was installation… physically difficult, but simplified by Derek’s excellent design work, including the hinging fixture he is holding in the photo at left. I had previously done a test-fit of the frame once these were mounted to the top of the arch on either side of the radar, and that left one loosely defined TBDWL item (To Be Dealt With Later): the angled connection to a pair of support struts that terminate at split collars on the arch support legs (right).

The top ends of the tubing struts contain three welded-in half-inch nuts; I chased these with a tap to work out the rather substantial thermal distortion, added stainless rod-ends, and then, with Tim holding everything level, pinned them to temporary chunks of wood that will be replaced by stainless now that we actually have something to measure. Nothing on a boat is ever parallel, square, or the same on both port and starboard sides… that’s part of their charm, I suppose, but it can turn fabrication projects into hair-pulling challenges.

Most important: the new addition has received the Isabelle seal of approval. She now has a high soft shaded spot, complete with a bit of cordage to provide amusement! Here, she is checking the wire routing…

Other Power Upgrades

Tim’s geek vacation also yielded some other much-needed changes to the Nomadness power system. Looking at the relevant section of the To-Do List, we decided to focus on battery-management and shore-power issues.

Please don’t ever do this. These “terminals” were carrying 30 amps of shore power, mashed under screws on an old AC source-selector switch in an almost completely unserviceable location!

Much of this was in the category of cruft-elimination, and there are now three plastic grocery bags of extracted wire in the lab along with a few eBayables… including a triple battery isolator formerly used for the alternator, a smaller two-bank unit that once took care of a solar panel, and a galvanic isolator that was used to control stray-current corrosion. We also excised a scary old shore-power fire-starter selector switch with pitted contacts and redneck wiring. It’s really scary, sometimes, to go through this process and realize what I’ve been living with…

We didn’t change the business end of the engine-charging system (a vintage Lestek 130-amp alternator and a Balmar 4-stage regulator), but eliminated the downstream battery isolator that is basically three huge diodes with lots of cooling fins… allowing charge current to flow to multiple banks while preventing them from discharging to each other. But the cool kids these days are using a new device called an Automatic Charging Relay (ACR); I first heard of this when my marine electrician friend back in La Conner, Al Felker, suggested it while extracting an antique shore-power change-over relay that had been rendered obsolete by the Outback (and the inverter-charger before it… talk about relics!). These contraptions notice when charging is happening and connect battery banks together without diode losses… then keeps them that way until the state of charge drops far enough that isolation is needed to allow such niceties as later engine-starting.

While doing all this, we were hauling out old dead-end cables, discovering lots of naughty things like loads connected directly to the 690 amp-hour house bank (some without fuses, each a potential harness-melter or boat-destroyer). Every exorcised no-no added to the clarity and safety of the system, and the new drawing is much less confusing. This is all stuff I’ve wanted to do for ages, but I often need a rather strong nudge to start tearing apart things that work and are hard to reach. Huge thanks to Tim…

The final task of his time here was installation of the Charles ISO-G2 isolation transformer, which completely severs all direct connections between shore power/ground systems and those aboard the boat. This protects the hull from induced corrosion (which can be severe) and prevents delicate humans from providing a return path to shore through their bodies. All metal boats should do this as a matter of course, and I’ve been hauling this 60-pound monster around for a couple of years without actually hooking it up… largely because the AC side of my power system was such a mess.  Now it is in place, and ground-isolation measurements are in the multiple-megohm range. In this photo, Tim is working on the jumper wires that parallel windings to configure the transformer for 120-volt operation (it also handles 240), with Isabelle doing quality-control checks on his crimping job. I bolted this down to the plywood substrate of the power bay, but the 60 Hz hum is quite noticeable; vibration-damping mounts are on order.

And then, a much-anticipated sailing day! We humans had a wonderful time tacking back and forth while exploring our new back yard in the San Juan Islands, but Izzy was not at all happy about it. She did manage to stoically ride it out until we docked… whereupon she bolted and tried to catch the ferry back to the mainland so she could hitchhike to the shelter and take another shot at finding a suitable human for the cat-support staff position. She got over the trauma, but clearly needs some more time on water… and she’s not the only one…

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Friday Harbor – the new home port of Nomadness

I’ve been quiet in this blog lately, not wanting to write a series of posts about the numbingly boring topic of moving, but now it is essentially done but for one final trailer load to bring the Microship from Camano Island. I am no longer based in La Conner, where a long shoaling channel with tricky currents separated me from open water (but where the proximity of workspace to boat was as good as it can get).

The new trade-off resolves very differently… Nomadness is about three boat-lengths away from putting up her sails, right on the end tie to the south of the Friday Harbor ferry terminal…

Living aboard Nomadness at her new dock in Friday Harbor

The lab is at the other end of town (hence the bicycle on the stern rail), and is 2200 square feet that I am just starting to organize after far too many ferry trips involving a 50-foot truck-trailer rig packed with tonnage. I’ll spare you the photos of box-mountains, and even those showing the beginnings of organized workspace, but I do want to introduce Cecil, posed next to the drill press named Big Red (now seeming rather a misnomer):

Cecil be 'da Mill

This is excellent space for a project, even with the commute (annoying at times, but that’s a First World problem). At the moment, I’m in a mad rush to finish basic setup of work surfaces, inventory, security cams, and all that other infrastructure stuff… August will be a full month of boat geekery featuring Tim Nolan, coming from Wisconsin to take a geek’s vacation and help with the power system, followed by Daniel Collins, fresh from an intense adventure in a Gulf Stream gale.

The most significant recent project aboard Nomadness is the lab desk substrate, something I’ve been thinking about for ages. The entire console system design was frozen, awaiting something more than the crude plywood visualization model that has been there for a year; thanks to the creative energy of Fred Westergaard, it is now complete (and gorgeous):

Nomadness lab desktop and integrated tool cabinet

The desktop is 1.5″ thick, laminated, and very well supported all around in addition to a stainless post in the center. One of the more novel features is a 32″ x 16″ steel plate inset along the middle of the front edge, allowing magnetic fixturing for lights and key tools. I’ve already moved into the tool cabinet, and can observe that it is a lot easier to find things when it is convenient to put them away in the first place. The left edge of that box defines the start of the wrap-around console of 13U rackspaces.

I’ve said this countless times, but I’ll try to be better about blogging here. Most of the project details have been published in the Nomadness Report, which is now a monthly except cough for June… which didn’t happen. Issue #20 is now underway, including a long feature about desk construction, the Raymarine E7 chart plotter, the power project, and details about the new life in Friday Harbor.

It feels wonderful to be here, with sails drifting by and a constant buzz of nautical activity. Much more to come!


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Preparing for My Final Voyage

In the April issue of the Nomadness Report, I ran this little feature… thought it might be fun to share it more widely here in the blog:


The Nomadness Emulation & Telepresence System
April 1, 2012

Finally, as this issue draws to a close, I want to tell you about the skunkworks project that is underway here at Nomadic Research Labs, shepherded by a hand-picked team of engineers.

We ran an extrapolation of my progress on nautical technomadic projects, including Microship. In 20 years, a staggering amount of human time and other resources have been poured into these endeavors.

Along the way, we formulated the Roberts Law of Fractal To-Do List Complexity, which postulates that each item on a list is itself the title of a new list. This proceeds recursively all the way down (like the famed turtles), providing endless opportunities for discovery along with the potential for negative progress as work is completed (exacerbated by product life cycles and the emergence of seductive new technologies).

Meanwhile, we must contend with the well-known adage that the average completion time of a homebuilt boat is 137 years. While the Microship project was back-burnered after only about 10% of that and Nomadness is already a perfectly serviceable boat, the layers of added geekery are restoring the developmental time-sinks that were eliminated by starting with something that was well-suited to voyaging before I started tinkering with it.

Lest these combined influences result in one of those never-ending projects that you can find in any marina, we’ve decided to leapfrog the current trajectory with a system designed to provide adventure opportunities well into my dotage.

The Nomadness Emulation and Telepresence System (NETS) eliminates the inconvenient issues of handling a heavy boat and powerful rig with an ever-weakening body — a problem that has led many intrepid voyagers to trade in their sailboats for trawlers. Unwilling to go quietly to the Dark Side, I have decided to replace myself with a suite of real-time telemetry tools coupled to an immersive simulation pod, providing a toolset for adventure synthesis.

The idea was sparked by a nameless wag who once quipped, “you can simulate sailing by standing in a cold shower and tearing up hundred-dollar bills.” On a hunch, we set up a double-blind test to see if this was indeed the case, and while there were numerous flaws in the illusion, we found that 42% of our experimental subjects reacted to the shower chamber with nearly identical levels of adrenaline and cardiac arousal (especially when they were required to use their own hundred-dollar bills, an experience that one participant compared to dropping by West Marine for a “simple plumbing problem” before financial issues forced him to quit the experiment).

Encouraged, we decided to extend the metaphor with more of a live boat experience, and pulled out all the stops. Hydraulic control systems drive a helm pod with six-axis motion simulation, including all three translation axes (fore-aft, lateral, and vertical) as well as roll, pitch, and yaw. Background vibration and cross-axis motion are minimized by dedicated closed-loop controllers with accelerometer feedback, faithfully reproducing the streaming input data with critical damping.

Our visual production team surrounded the helm pod with a large dome that is essentially a “hemisphere plus,” allowing us to present the illusion of wave patterns that go negative relative to the apparent horizon. A dedicated network of graphics processors provides gigapixel, flicker-free imagery at about 60 frames per second, depending on wearable Polhemus sensors to devote the bulk of this considerable processing power to the region bounded by the pilot’s current gaze vector and further optimized in the foveal region as detected by laser retro-reflection.

Since the real Nomadness is not yet complete, all initial testing of the NETS has involved simulated data… something that has been entertaining for all concerned. Roll-overs and knockdowns are as easy to generate as a lazy reach or a muggy day in the Doldrums; with environmental controls and saline nozzles, it’s just a matter of coordinating fluid-physics emulation with the corresponding reaction of the simulated ship. Sea-sickness was initially a problem, but after some fMRI data collection we were able to synchronize kinesthetic and visual data. Powerful broad-spectrum illumination induces melanin synthesis when needed, and of course we can hammer the helm with wind of sufficient velocity to complete the illusion of a gale.

Still, it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear off when you know it’s just a simulation. Phase 2 involves a massive real-time data feed from Nomadness herself, including everything from a suite of high-def cameras to accelerometers and environmental sensors. The link is bidirectional, as the ship is unmanned to optimize the illusion of being there.

When complete, the pod’s wheel, instruments, lines, winches, and other affordances will transmit live command and control data to the ship, driving end effectors coupled to corresponding components (amplified by a feebleness constant to compensate for my aging). Even biological factors are taken into consideration; invoking the zippered man-hour extension facility to utilize the 4U2PN2 device (rail emulation if outside, head if below) is fraught with a level of peril matched to the current PSD plot of accelerometer data… since we realized that being too casual about such matters in the middle of a gale would shatter the entire illusion.

It remains to be seen how well remote socialization works, but we are preparing a series of tests involving anchorages, marinas, and raft-ups… with a crusty avatar engaging as needed with live sailors.

Once complete, the NETS pod will be installed in a Friday Harbor extended care facility, and I will move aboard to while away my sunset years in a voyage of discovery.



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Microship Available for Vancouver Island Adventure

Updated September 18, 2014:  I am leaving this post here just so I don’t break deep links from Out There, but this offer is no longer available. When I wrote this post, I was planning to pull together a group of boats to circumnavigate Vancouver Island, and would have loved to have the Microship come along as part of the adventure. 

Microship Available for Vancouver Island Circumnavigation

This geeky boatlet has been sitting in its lab for a decade now, with no on-water adventures since a Puget Sound loop in 2001. With about a decade of intensive effort on the project and incalculable cost, that’s bugging me more and more… and the latest twist is that I have just sold the building as part of my move toward full-time voyaging in a much larger boat.

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A Single System Perspective

In an early issue of the Nomadness Report, I found myself discussing the mental model necessary to take on something so insanely complex as a homebrew starship of sorts. Companies handle this sort of thing by creating a hierarchy of departments and design groups, but I’m working more or less alone on this tour de force of geekery… and that is frankly overwhelming. I have already lived through some of the risks of this: watching completed systems become obsolete while spending years building the physical substrate that should have come first (Microship), getting seduced by gizmology and letting it overwhelm issues of usability (BEHEMOTH), diving into design without a clear internal “elevator pitch” to keep things focused (Shacktopus), buying gadgets long before they are really needed and then watching them go stale on the shelf (Nomadness). If it weren’t for the existence proof of well-executed successful projects (Winnebiko, Winnebiko II, Bubba, & Polaris), I’d start to worry…
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The Original Technomad

This lovely piece by Karl Smerecnik served as a reminder to press on… back when I was stuck in a deadlock between a lab in the Camano Island woods and the lovely Nomadness moored 2 hours away. I’m grateful to the author for motivating me with my own adventures. Click image to go to the full article on the teknomadics site.



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Settling into the New Nomadness Lab

I suppose it is ironic for a paleo-technomad to look at something as mundane as moving and note that it’s personally epic.

But epic it is, after 13 years in a place that was created for the high-energy Microship project… fabulous facilities that were perfect at time but are now too far from my nautical substrate du jour, haunted by the swirling ghosts of relationships past, and cluttered with the echoes of yesteryear’s hackage.

I’ve known this for a while, held captive by spacious digs that make geek friends envious, complete with an award-winning house nestled against a sylvan backdrop that outshines many a State Park. A few times over the years I went on quests for moorage and lab facilities integrated with a home base, but nothing ever pushed all the right buttons until this one. Continue reading

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The move to La Conner is now about half-complete, with the Camano house empty and the lab still cluttered. New facilities are online and working well, and when the relocation is complete I’ll give you a proper walkthrough. Already I’m noticing that there are no more excuses… lab, shop, office, home base, and all the rest are now right at the head of the dock where Nomadness is berthed!

The Nomadness Report is going very well, with the first compilation (both eBook and print) coming when we pass the #12 milestone.

This post is just a quick update to provide a link to the boat’s webcam, though when I posted this it was a view across the Swinomish Channel.  I have since moved to Friday Harbor, and the camera is usually looking at the ferry terminal. Continue reading

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