by Steven K. Roberts
Nomadic Research Labs
Santa Clara, California
January 21, 1997

A whim, once watered with imagination, becomes a dream, and the best time to take your first step toward a dream is always yesterday; the worst time: tomorrow. Our best compromise is today.

Alvah Simon, aboard Roger Henry

Since this is the first report of 1997, it’s only fitting that I spend a few moments taking the long view. After all, we’re now officially less than one year from the end of our lease on the Microship lab, and suddenly all sorts of things are beginning to take shape (including a touch of panic). I’d like to open this issue with the first real statement of an actual travel plan… then talk about a few other events of note.

A Mission At Last!

Something has been subtly bothering me for the past year or so, just enough below the surface that I haven’t quite addressed it. Every time someone asked where I was planning to sail this wonder-vessel, I would twinge slightly and mumble my old mantra about how thinking too much about where you’re going makes you lose respect for where you are, quote the adage about how a sailor with no schedule always has fair winds, then wrap up my answer with some abstract comments about coastal cruising topped with a perky, “in other words, who knows?” This was as unsatisfying to the questioner as to me.

Last Friday, I gave a talk in Napa for the annual meeting of Aspect Telecommunications (using the Microship’s intranet web server as a metaphor for data warehousing in the call center environment), and as always, that question popped out of the audience. “So where are you headed?” As I gave the stock answer, something inside snapped… and at last there was clarity.

I finally know where I’m going!

Actually, there’s a bit of history in this. I grew up near Louisville, along the Ohio River (though I was never a true “river rat” like some of my friends, whom I always envied). I was always intrigued by that endless flow of water to and from places distant and mysterious, and years later, as I traveled the US on my bicycle, I would linger along rivers… the Intracoastal Waterway… the coasts. These magic places draw me more than bluewater passages, at least for now — I find more fascination in the interactions between water and land than in unbroken expanses of either. Even in a kayak, I’d sooner putter along the vast sweep of a bay rather than take the straight shot across: there’s more to see.

On top of this, there’s a twist in my family history. I was adopted as an infant, and at age 28, prodded by years of accumulated curiosity, I tracked down my bio-parents. This led to all sorts of fascinating encounters and discoveries, and one of the many intriguing characters who emerged from my biological roots was Ralph Pearson, my paternal grandfather. Between an early flirtation with aircraft design (with Lycoming and others) and a lifelong career in the arts (countless etchings and 7 books on teaching art), he had a bit of an adventure: in 1909 he set out from Chicago with his mother in a homemade boat named Catherine M, ventured down the Mississippi River, through the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida (through a hurricane!), up the Atlantic Coast, down the St. Lawrence and through the Great Lakes to home. There’s an unpublished manuscript about this historic Great Loop expedition in the family archives in Maine, and something about that sounds exactly right.

My own twist will include some variations, of course, such as beginning at my childhood home in Kentucky (where my father lives). This will all be preceded by a few months in the San Francisco Bay and Delta… my Silicon Valley neighborhood shakedown cruise. The first journey itself, somewhere around 6,000 miles, will probably cover two years, since I’ll be in no hurry beyond seasonal synchronization. That loop around the Eastern US happens to include a good percentage of the finest cruising grounds of North America: the Keys, most of the ICW, Kentucky Lakes, Tenn-Tom Waterway, Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, Boston and Cape Cod, the wonderfully convoluted Maine Coast, Canada’s Atlantic Provinces, the Great Lakes, the rivers, the canals… with countless nautical and cultural distractions in between and an endless variety of Netfriends to visit. No rush, as always — I’ll leave the high-speed record-setting voyages to others.

And after that, who knows? There will be plenty of variety and challenge in that journey for a newbie on a teched-out solar/sail multihull, and from it should come enough real-world education to allow a more informed decision about the NEXT phase of that “open-ended international wandering” I’ve been talking about. So I have no predictions beyond that, though there’s a long list of places that intrigue me…

Having this focus clarifies everything, and already I see a difference in my work. Things are accelerating at last!

Relationship Changes…

Speaking of changes and adventures, a number of readers picked up on a few offhand comments in my last report and wrote to express condolences and concerns about the state of my partnership with Faun. I suppose I should be less vague and let you know what’s happening in that department — after all, my life seems to be an open book these days…

Faun shipping Microship monographs back at UCSD

Faun and I have been together since July of ’94, though the last year has been somewhat turbulent. We finally figured out what was causing it: she’s too much like me. More to the point, she’s every bit as restless as I am, and at the feisty and immortal age of 26, she finds herself wondering what she’s doing hanging around in MY shadow when she could be a freelancing technomad in her own right. With 2.5 years of learning curve investment in the cradle of Nomadic Research Labs, she’s now aching to get out on her own. I expected this to happen eventually, though for a time we sported complementary gold rings (made by Ronald Hayes Pearson, my bio-dad) to symbolize our hope for a lifelong partnership.

Faun’s plan is to outfit a highly-portable system based on a Feathercraft folding kayak and a sea bag of essentials (PowerBook, solar panel, ham radio and TNC, camping gear, survival tools), then take off for a mix of crewing and sea kayaking while generating cashflow with web site design and scripting. In the meantime, she’s still here — helping with my project and business in exchange for space and resources.

It will be interesting to see how this develops… and I’m making sure that nothing in the Microship design precludes singlehanded sailing…

As to the future… we’ll see. Over 40,000 miles of experience suggests that we travel well together but chafe under fluorescents. So Faun may just be suffering from a variant of the same illness that led to my own espresso addiction: Illumination Affective Disorder, curable only by liberal doses of sunshine.

WA7NWP: A Hacking Lab Guest

Meanwhile, the project presses on. We had an interesting lab guest for about 3.5 weeks — Bill Vodall arrived from Montana around Christmas and stayed until a few days ago. In addition to helping Faun with Perl scripting and participating in our various amusements, he put quite a bit of time into the comm tools…

We went out and actually BOUGHT <cringe> a KAM Plus multimode TNC at the local Ham Radio Outlet, and interfaced it to the serial crossbar and the Icom 725 borrowed from BEHEMOTH. Bill did a major mod on the lab HF antenna (coax to the tuner instead of ladderline), and soon we were chatting away merrily on PACTOR with folks up and down the West Coast. This is pretty cool stuff… speedy error-free datacomm via fading, noisy radio links. With a bit more tinkering, we managed to connect to a PACTOR BBS and route email via the Internet. Since this is one of the Microship’s key non-business communication channels, I’ll be exercising the capability over the next few months and building it into the system.

On a roll, Bill then wrote some FORTH code that interacts with the Icom 725 via the CI-V interface, allowing my wireless Newton (Digital Ocean Tarpon) front end to tune the radio and change operating modes. Chris Burmester coached me through the creation of an HF channels soup identical to the macro tool he designed earlier, allowing a list of named frequencies to be maintained in the Newton, each accessible at a pen touch.

At this point, Bill and I started discussing the ideal suite of manpack comm tools, and decided it comes down to the following:

  • Tarpon for graphic front-end control.
  • Dual-band ham radio (Yaesu FT-50) for voice, DTMF, paging, emergency back-channel control, etc. At the ship there will be a Yaesu FT-8500 dual-band mobile under software control; among other things, this pair will allow the system to alert me when I need to turn on the Tarpon, and let me force power-up of all systems via a touch-tone command (70 cm only for auxiliary control operation — it’s not legal on 2 meters).
  • FM stereo walkman with corresponding synthesized transmitter on the ship.
  • Small LCD or micro-CRT television receiver, with VHF TV transmitter on the ship.

These last two are a recent twist, and may eventually be replaced by increased bandwidth and display resolution in the Tarpon/Newton environment. In the meantime, since we added a couple of Ramsey Kit transmitters to the crossbar network for stereo audio (assembled by Bill) and video (assembled by Faun), it has become possible to walk around the general vicinity of the lab (out to the street), select any of 32 audio or 16 video inputs via wireless control… and see and hear what’s going on.

OK, this is starting to get fun. Purely for amusement, we routed HF audio to the KAM, remotely commanded the radio to 518 kHz LSB, linked KAM terminal data to the Audapter speech synthesizer, piped speech audio to the FM transmitter… and wandered around the lab listening to live synthesized voice readings of incoming Coast Guard NAVTEX weather transmissions. The whole lashup took about a minute. Ahhh, technology…

When anything can be connected to anything under software control, a whole new level of synergy emerges!

Plumbing Systems

OK, I know. Plumbing doesn’t sound very exciting. It was with this bias that I somewhat reluctantly started making lists of needed components for the saltwater, freshwater, head, and LPG systems — hoping to knock it out in a day and hand it to Faun for a quick West Marine shopping run, just in case that lovely employee discount takes off to kayak the Sea of Cortez.

Ahem. Five days later, my head swimming with NPT specs, competing seacock designs, pump tradeoffs, the absurdity of $7/foot hose, holding tank specifications, and incompatible systems of water fittings, I finally arrived at something approaching a spec — which, of course, changed daily as new information continued to pour in. I should have known this wouldn’t be trivial.

I went ahead and acquired a 20-pound horizontal LP tank, along with a regulator & gauge, 3/8″ solenoid valve, vaportight bulkhead passthrough, and suitable hoses and fittings. This is now being mounted in a walled-off starboard cockpit locker, with holes to allow gravity venting of any leakage. Inside, in the galley, there will be a small 2-burner range (probably the Force 10), since the hull shape allows no room for the luxury of a gimbaled oven or even the broiler. I’ll leave a capped-off TEE fitting for later installation of an outside barbecue.

In the freshwater department, I’ll install an integral tank of 40-50 gallons bounded by the centerboard trunk and starboard hull. After studying back issues of Practical Sailor, reading ads, and talking to boat friends, I chose the Shurflo 2.8 GPM pump… and am delighted to report that the company has become a sponsor with the donation of that unit, a couple of sink fixtures, and the lovely little model 100 pump that will probably be used for hydroponic nutrient distribution. We picked up a small stainless steel sink at West Marine, and will plumb it all with Whale System 15.

A thru-hull, seacock, and sea chest will admit salt water for a variety of needs: anchor chain washdown, dish pre-rinsing, RO watermaker, head flushing, and possibly a refrigeration heat exchanger. No details yet on componentry.

And the Marine Sanitation Device (head) will be mounted in the port lazarette well above waterline, with a trio of 1.5″ Y-valves allowing every combination of interconnections among it, a small holding tank down by the propulsion battery bank, a bilge strainer, a manual pump, and the discharge thru-hull below waterline. The mini-heads that were my initial naive catalog-browsing choice all got terrible reviews from Practical Sailor (a sort of nautical Consumer Reports), so I’m now looking at the Raritan PH-II as a compromise. The much-recommended Blake Lavac seems to require that the bottom of its discharge pump be located above the bowl…

I must say, however, that it is satisfying to be playing with “real boat stuff” — this may sound silly, but I’ve been craving marine supplies. I love all the gizmology, but circuit boards don’t feel very nautical lying naked on the bench… and the Epic Bulkhead Project was too low-level structurally to feel much like “boat progress.” Hey, whatever motivates…

Updates Various

Finally, a few quickies before the length of this report gets completely out of hand.

First, a reminder — this is the week for our Computer Chronicles show on PBS…

I spent a day at MacWorld and was, as always, blown away by the vibrancy of this industry. I also got to see a Newton 2000, which is a spectacular maturation of an already wonderful platform… bigger gray scale display, 162 MHz StrongARM RISC processor, 8MB ROM, 5 MB RAM, 2 PC Card slots, handwriting recognition that’s FAST and flawless, audio I/O, and a lot more. Yow. They did it! Other MacWorld highlights for me were a demo of Lasso, which allows painless exporting of FileMaker Pro databases to the web; a great visit with the Beehive folks of ADB I/O fame (with a long follow-up visit to the lab that included a QTVR shoot); a chance to chat again with the Digital Ocean wizards; more Apple contacts; and the usual surprise encounters with at least a dozen friends.

QTVR photoshoot in the Microship lab

Faun and I had the pleasure of attending a lecture and slide show at Corinthian Yacht Club by Hawaiian BJ Caldwell, who for 45 days held the record of being the youngest solo circumnavigator. We chatted quite a bit with Brian and his mother, and were impressed. Keep an eye on this guy… you’ll be hearing more about him!

Finally, thanks go this issue to THREE new sponsors! First, Shurflo — makers of excellent marine pumps from tiny 1 GPM models up to megayacht-scale. All the published comparative reviews seem to rate them best in terms of noise, power efficiency, reliability, and ease of service.

Our next-door neighbors here at the lab, Mon-Tek Tool and Engineering, are in the process of machining a custom mast step using the 304 stainless trailer ball from McMaster-Carr welded into a lovely 5″ x 8″ hunk of matching stainless from their stock bin. They’re milling in a spot face and drilling the hole to compensate for the 10 degree forward slope of the deck, and the 5/8″ thick plate will be embedded into the doug-fir nest we bonded into the crossbeam so long ago… then glassed over and filleted with 3M 5200. Jim Antrim and David Berkstresser contributed design and specification data for this project (it has to handle vertical loads up to 15,000 pounds!). Mon-Tek is a tool & die shop that turns out precision work for the semiconductor industry.

And just as this issue was going to press, we heard from Claiborne S. Young of Watermark Publishing . He has generously agreed to donate a copy of each of his five cruising guides to the southeast US coastal regions — highly-recommended books I was about to order through West Marine. Thanks, Claiborne, and seeya on the ICW!