The Shacktopus Power Beast

These are the voyages of the hand truck, Shacktopus. Her continuing mission… to seek out new loads and strange environments… to boldly blink where no one has blinked before.

Datawake Powercart SunsetOn a voyaging sailboat, stable power goes with the territory: a huge battery bank charged by isolated shore cable and solar panels, diesel genset with a ton of fuel, fine-grained switching, sine wave inverter, clear displays, circuit protection, and reliable design. I have grown used to staring at this console and having an accurate sense of my system’s current condition.

I didn’t think about this while moving off of Nomadness so she would show well; I just loaded my room in town with computers and electronics — digital piano, mixer, rack amp, video and comm gear, and even a 12-volt power supply for nautical goodies like the stereo. But when I brought home my ham rig to bounce a few APRS packets off the ISS, something started to bother me.

So, I have all this nifty technology for independence and communications, including an insanely dense pack of gizmology that I haul around on my bad back… yet I am ultimately dependent on the power grid. If that fails, I have about two days worth of charged Lithium Ion batteries for personal electronics, but if I want more, then I have to trundle down to the boat and plug in. I realized that I miss owning a floating utility company, and recalled weeks without electricity in Santa Cruz after the epic 1989 quake… depending on the bike’s solar power system to run the essentials.

How hard could it be to replicate that in a convenient portable package? I poked around Amazon for a while, assuming that I would just dangle a cheap charger off a deep-cycle battery, shove it under the desk, and clip gadgets to it during power failures. But I realized that unless I wanted to spend big bucks for a serious marine-scale system like the one on Nomadness, I’d be stuck with something disappointing. The Amazon reviews of cheapie chargers spoke volumes, and I wanted more capabilities anyway.

Datawake Power Cart Solar Test
From there, well, you know how geek obsession works. I kept refining the specs and began to think of it as the hub of my electrical life: easy mobility, fast charging from the wall, folding solar array with controller, sine wave inverter, AC and DC panels, USB charge ports, AA battery dock, and local displays.  Since it would be the one thing in my personal space that is always on, it is a perfect substrate for data collection, a camera, and a server to graphically display history on a browser and push events to my watch.

I didn’t find a suitable gadget to buy, or I would have done so and moved on… I am busy enough with the book and other projects. But now that it’s done, I find it to be a highly useful power tool, and I’m writing an eBook of plans for folks who want to build one.

Chargér d’affaires

shacktopus SKR sketchLike most of my projects, this avoids wheel-reinvention except where necessary. It’s a dense packaging and integration job involving carefully researched products, augmented by a few unusual features and overlaid with computational goodness (like BEHEMOTH).

What started as a way to keep a battery charged took on some related features. Here are the essentials that resulted from a few weeks of refinement:

  • AGM Group 24 battery (79 amp-hours)
  • 30-amp, 4-state charging from the AC power line
  • 10-amp charging from solar panels (PWM controller with display)
  • Instant change-over on power fail for reliable UPS service
  • Low and high voltage disconnect to protect sensitive loads
  • 400-watt sine wave inverter
  • Switching between line and inverter for AC distribution
  • AC monitoring (voltage, current, and frequency display)
  • 6 independently switched AC outlets (and one always on)
  • high-side DC & battery monitoring with display (volts, amps, amp-hours)
  • LED indication of all states including blown fuses and high voltage present
  • Main battery breaker (40A)
  • 12-volt distribution with individual fuses (9 free circuits)
  • Utility 12-volt outlets (one cigarette style and 3 spade terminal pairs)
  • USB outlet powered by DC source
  • USB multi-outlet charger powered by selected AC source
  • AA/AAA charger for Eneloop batteries
  • Data logging on DC system
  • Server for data collection (power, security, camera, and environmental)
  • Network connectivity, NFC-triggering of phone app, local control outputs
  • LED work light
  • Utility pack for cables, fuses, and other accessories
  • Collapsible hand-truck substrate

Shacktopus starboard quarterThat last item was a key feature for my application, as it fits under my lab/office desk… but the system scales such that one could use a heavy-duty welded industrial cart and carry two Group 27 batteries (220 amp-hours versus my 79). The current mechanical design is adequate for my needs, but I wouldn’t want to galumph with it down bumpy roads! More robust folding carts are available.

The white panels are HDPE, an easy-to-machine material that I usually acquire in the form of King Starboard (as in the boat’s power console project). For this job, I just picked up a couple of cutting boards from Amazon — not as smooth and uniform as the good marine stuff, but convenient.

powercart harness close-upAs you can see in the photos, I based the DC circuitry on a product family from West Mountain Radio, well-known in the amateur radio community for modules that make it easy to construct an uninterruptible power supply or reliable 12-volt system for home stations and repeaters. I’ll go into the various design trade-offs in the eBook about the project, but their approach to RFI minimization seems to be effective (with high-side monitoring and clean change-over between line and battery, since the charge controller is wrapped around a big Schottky diode-OR architecture). They make good use of Anderson Powerpole connectors, which integrate well into a wiring harness and are a ham radio standard. All the ones in the photos are rated at 45 amps, and I used a proper crimper to get uniform terminations.

Powercart AC DMM and USBThe solar array I used for this is the Renogy 100-watt “suitcase” model, which folds down to about 20×28 inches and comes in a nice protective case with a strong handle.

To minimize stray power electronics and cables cluttering my life, the machine includes three independent USB charging sources totaling 8 outputs, AC metering, a “cigarette lighter” 12-volt outlet, spade terminals on the battery, a utility board with barrier strips, a cable for charging the network slice of my backpack, and a charger for AA and AAA batteries.

Schacktopus cobwebsiteI am now turning my attention to the smart overlay. I had to dust off my old Shacktopus name for this monster (although Datawake was tempting, as it better reflects our vision of a wake of information streaming behind the Microships). The screen capture at right is the 2005 incarnation of Shacktopus… looks like it is about to change!

The intent here is to take advantage of a stable power environment to support a core set of data collection tools. In the planned Nomadness implementation, this involved hundreds of data points reflecting the status of every subsystem from bow to stern… all time-stamped and collected into a database server with various clients including browsers, security and watch code, maintenance schedulers, remote telemetry tuned to available bandwidth, and so on.

Raspberry Pi B+
Raspberry Pi B+

But in the casual environment of a hand truck parked in my workspace, it is a much simpler problem… though still based on the same tools. The micro will slurp data out of the metering systems, log temperatures with DS18B20 sensors (ambient, battery, charger heat sink, and electronics enclosure), keep an eye on the room with the Raspberry Pi camera and a PIR motion sensor, monitor environmental parameters (humidity, pressure, light, gases, radiation), and provide for easy connection of other application-specific devices via slaved Arduinos or simple sensors. The Pi on the cart has WiFi, Bluetooth, and HDMI, so it feels like another computer; a little NFC tag can tell my phone to connect and turn itself into a convenient console, and before it’s all done I expect to push notifications to my Pebble Time watch.

Pi-Plates DAQC
Pi-Plates DAQC for I/O expansion

This should yield a set of tools that scale well to the next boat… or whatever I end up doing in this looming post-Nomadness epoch. It’s a development system that doubles as a portable power station covered in blinkies. Is that a good approximation of geek nirvana, or what?

(If you’d like to be notified when the eBook is available, you can sign up. It will be available at Leanpub, with the first release when I am about half done.)

I have been enjoying this project… probably because it is finite in scope, unlike my usual open-ended concepts that evolve more quickly than my ability to keep up with fabrication and coding. More fun ahead!

Shactopus Power Beast Block Diagram


Datawake and Nautical Gizmology

Phew. I was in irons for a while, taking over a year to complete a tack, passions luffing as I eased my bow through the eye of the wind. I wondered if the sails were ever going to fill again, and held my breath as she hung there… weathercocking with indecision, a confusion of wavelets slapping my aging hull. Hell, I thought, maybe I should fire up the iron genny and trundle off to another waypoint… or just swallow the anchor and quietly curl up somewhere to putter into my dotage.

But no! All my recurring gizmological fantasies, given enough over-analysis, can be mapped onto floating substrates. Those underwent wild fluctuations during this past year of relentless back pain, from industrial-scale Microship-deploying motherships to geeked-out trawlers… with multiple variants scatter-plotted across that spectrum.

Meanwhile, 2014 was a perfect northwest sailing season of watching boats scoot by, living aboard with furry Isabelle and contemplating unfinished projects… dock lines growing crusty enough to inspire jokes about potting them in epoxy. Hobbling on my battle cane, I would launch myself on daily walks to decide how to complete that life tack, schlepping my trusty lab notebook and geeky pencil with an eye toward finding a spot for inspired noodling. More often than not, strolls through the Port would land me on a friend’s Ranger 27 tug… where my notes and sketches evolved over a few weeks into something that began to look alarmingly possible, and even fun:

Ranger console sketch
Maybe that’s it… a trailerable tuglet retrofitted with solar/electric hybridization, stuffed to the gunwales with blinkies and bristling with antennas like a Soviet fishing trawler… yet small enough to gambol down the Interstate and embark on the Clueless and Lark expedition (or, more likely, the Great Loop). This became an obsession, and I spent much of the summer designing and researching, getting on the water in OPBs, devouring the friendly Tugnuts forums, visiting the Ranger factory in Kent, attending a rendezvous in Roche Harbor with Rebecca, then wrapping up that weekend with a jaunt back to Friday Harbor around the west side of the island (eternally grateful to my friend Paul for trusting us with the Maggie E, as he monitored our track from afar via AIS).

In the Strait of Juan de Fuca with Rebecca aboard the Maggie E.

There is still that other enchanting extreme (a mothership large enough to contain the lab, albeit unaffordable unless built of ancient machinery… doubtless even less likely to get off the dock once the novelty wears off). A wee tuglet is impractical for entirely different reasons, yet I’m intrigued by the idea of something shiny, easy to manage short-handed, and fun to use… gobbling a fraction of what it costs to keep a boat in the water year-round. Fabricating the console, adjustable bed, and auxiliary solar/electric propulsion system could all happen in my rented shop space with adjacent office, along with a congenial room in town for writing, music, and life-support. This is quite a change from living aboard, and sounds idyllic but for one prerequisite detail…

Nomadness Skipperquest

Before I can do more than fantasize about new nautical toys, I must reclaim space and budget from old ones… I cannot afford, nor do I have the space for, an armada.

Nomadness for sale in Friday HarborThe elephant in the room is the lovely Nomadness, bobbing hopefully at her dock in Friday Harbor and sporting a URL banner jokingly dubbed the TrySale. I am doing all I can to avoid brokers (for a host of reasons; don’t get me started…), and have had a few inevitable showings to people looking for entertainment while visiting Friday Harbor, as well as a dozen or so interesting email inquiries from the page of details.

Of course, it would be most delightful if the next owner has an expedition in mind, and I can sweeten the pot with some integrated geekery. I have already done a lot of the design work on data collection tools specific to Nomadness, and sending my beloved boat out on a remote expedition while she streams system, environmental, and biological data to a database-backed web server here… mmm, well now, that sounds like some good fun. My interest in embedded sensors and telemetry has been rekindled by this notion, leading to Yet Another Learning Curve.

Datawake and Raspberry Pi

Five years have passed since my last serious design efforts in this domain. At the time, my assumption was that there would be an always-on Technologic TS-7800 embedded ARM board fronting a power-cycled Mac Mini (the “big iron”) for archiving, graphic UI, and development. These would sync frequently and share a USB hierarchy of about 15 Arduino nodes scattered around the boat, each devoted to a local region, and there would also be a variety of streams from existing data-centric systems such as NMEA2000 and the Outback power system.

Nomadness block diagram, late 2009
That design was very sensible in the context of obsessive technomadic excess, but the past half-decade has brought a few developments that simplify the data-collection challenge. Most notably, it’s gotten cheap… and for a few nickels we can scatter horsepower and gigabytes of storage wherever needed. It has become a bit redundant to hand-off responsibility between a power-efficient embedded system and a robust chunk of big iron; with tools like the Raspberry Pi ($35) and BeagleBone Black ($55), we can let one board with 64GB of flash take care of the hub and user interface environment, then deploy a few on the ship’s LAN to support sensors and protocol translation. The community around these things is huge, translating into lots of add-on interface boards (I just got one of these), and so many solutions have been published that one can conjure an entire telemetry system with a C-note and a few hours of spirited Googlage. Like the Arduino community, this class of computing has become very accessible.

Rasberry Pi flickering to lifeOf course, this is all abstract until I actually use it for something, so rather than wait to see if Nomadness will sail the seven seas streaming a wake of data, I bought a machine to install in my backpack. In this photo, I have just installed Rasbian from the NOOBS included on the microSD card that came with the Raspberry Pi starter kit (with another $25 adding a 5-megapixel camera tucked into the same little black box that talks HDMI to the monitor and WiFi to the Net). It was insanely easy to get to this point, and I’m now finding my way around the Python IDE, Wolfram Language, and GPIO interfaces to sensors. Getting from here to stuffing time-stamped measurements into an SQLite database is not particularly daunting, and the final hop involves transmitting a subset of that via various communication pipes to a web server that includes a few graphing tools to make it purty.

Backpack comm server sliceAlong the way I’ve gotten interested in making a homebrew NAS to replace the confusing HooToo gadget attached to the 2-terabyte hard disk that lives in a Grid-It slice of my 5.11 Rush 24 backpack, just under the Verizon Jetpack between battery bank and 5-port USB charger. Ah, the times we live in! I’m hobbling around town with enough file space to carry 2.5 million novels, 40 gigabytes/month of connectivity that averages over 25 megabits/second, about 30 amp-hours of Lithium-Ion batteries, scanner, software-defined radio, dual-band ham rig with packet capability for tracking and datacomm, two serious computers (one called a “phone” because it comes with a voice communication program I rarely use), wicked LED flashlight, thermal camera, weather datalogger, a few favorite tools, crypto and memory dongles, a sling, basic first aid supplies, Makers Notebook, and gizmos various. Oh, and a water bottle. No wonder my back hurts!

Skipperquest the Second

OK, back to boats, and the surplus thereof. Before I can seriously contemplate rolling a trailerable tug into a lab already piled high with artifacts, I need to open about 250 square feet of floor space… the Microship parking spot.

Microship crane-launch in 2013 (photo by Kristi Thomason)This boatlet was the product of an obsessive decade (1993-2003), then she sat for another decade before joining me in local waters for a swan song in 2013. That summer was so delightful that many of my subsequent noodlings about the post-Nomadness epoch involved motherships that could crane-launch the micro-trimaran from an upper deck to take exploration breaks from laboring in my mad-scientist lair below. Scaled Technomadics, I called it, dreaming of rumbling into an interesting cove and dropping anchor, spinning down the big diesels, then hopping into the amphibian sprite to poke around under pedal, solar, and sail power.

Race to Alaska logoRealistically, of course, that is unlikely to happen, so I’ve been keeping my eye open for a suitable young madman who would be well-matched to this machine. Lo ‘n behold, an event is coming up that would be just perfect… the Race to Alaska, a 750-mile jaunt from Port Townsend to Ketchikan that launches June 4, 2015… with a $10,000 winner-take-all pot! And, it turns out, there’s a fellow here on the island who has fallen in love with the Microship and is keen to do exactly that. Here is Nick’s Gofundme page, if you want to give him a nudge in that direction.

NIcolas Wainwright (left) and Mark Coulter rebuilding the Microship Spinfin pedal drive unitHe has already moved the boat to a neighboring shop space and (with the help of Mark Coulter, visiting via his trimaran from Salt Spring Island) rebuilt the Spinfin pedal drive unit that was damaged by a boat-intruder at the Port in 2013. It is now spinning more freely than ever, and is ready to hit the water; the only other big job is some repair to leaky steering hydraulics that led to my marginally effective on-water bridle kluge. I’m looking forward to seeing the Microship afloat by February, with Nick grinning at the helm as he imagines future technomadic adventures.

If all goes well, he will acquire the boat, do the race under human and sail power, then attach the solar array to return from Ketchikan and begin a more sanely paced exploration of the Salish Sea and points beyond. This would be a fitting legacy for the project, which was intended to be a geeky platform for prowling coastal and inland waterways. We will have to figure out “branding,” since the Microship name has been my primary project moniker since about 1993… although it was a bit disturbing to discover recently while Yachtworld-surfing that someone gave that name to a pretty Defever 49′ trawler.

Anyway, all that dovetails nicely with the system we are designing to provide a “virtual console” for these ships. We could eventually end up with three floating data sources (plus the gratuitous test system in my backpack), streaming hundreds of telemetry channels to a server that can display simulated instruments, historical graphs, and animated cartoon ships reflecting on-board inertial reference systems (the kind of thing that used to require expensive military-grade gyros). Ain’t technology wonderful?

In Other News…

Now that there is a semblance of an actual plan, life is starting to seem fun again. I’m getting back to the High Tech Nomad book project (with a corresponding Facebook page if you’d like to join us), and resuming additions to the technomadic archives. And now that I have a more spacious place to hang out when not puttering in the lab or working on tonnage reduction, I’ve resumed tickling the ivories.

On-Stage WS8700 worstationA new Kawai MP7 is drool-inducing, but I’m going to keep my GAS in check and stick with the delightfully capable PX-5S (25 pounds, and svelte enough to tuck into a future tuglet, should that materialize). The community around this rig is huge, and I have parked it on an adjustable steel workstation to optimize ergonomics and give me a place to hang monitors, computer, stereo, mixer, looper, ham gear, recording tools, microphone, and all the other audio stuff that has been languishing for too long on the shelf.

With that, it’s back to geekery! I look forward to posting, hopefully soon, with good news about the Skipperquests… and with luck, I’ll be adding a live data feed from the Datawake-development system.

Cheers from the San Juan Islands!


Dark Side, with a Twist

Oh good grief, I’ve done it again. All those good intentions to blog frequently, and it’s been seven months since my last post! But I have a good excuse, and it has something to do with the Microship that I spent a decade building, ignored for a decade, then launched last summer. That, and chronic back pain… along with a few other profoundly life-changing things that add up to Nomadness looking for a new home (lots of tech details at that link).

It’s a lot to cram in, but first, here’s a bit of fun from those mini-voyages.

Spike Africa FlybyI had a pas de deux with Spike Africa one September afternoon, after turning my back on pressing projects and taking the boatlet on an impromptu sanity sail to the northwest corner of Shaw Island. North of Parks Bay, I heard a rushing noise and looked over my shoulder to see this lovely 80′ schooner gaining fast, doing a fly-by. As they passed close to leeward, all the guests called in unison: “Hi, Steven!”  I hollered back, “Careful! You are in my wind shadow!” Laughter all around, a sweet moment. They did a broad tack around me and headed back south to Friday Harbor, the salvo of grins delivered, mission accomplished.

Microship Jaunts 2013It was a treat to take the boatlet on micro-voyages, a welcome “return on investment” after the decade of development that ended 12 years ago. There were a few burps, of course, but that’s to be expected… this is, after all, just a long-delayed beta test, and it didn’t take long to start a to-do list that included a design flaw in the rudder hydraulics, power system refinements, comfort issues, and a few other things. Still, the stress level was low, since I was just doing day trips (not gearing up for a 12,000-mile expedition as I was in this video from the construction phase). I got to know the local waters fairly well, and by fall I was fantasizing about a Mothership that would let me explore farther afield… dropping anchor, deploying the boatlet, and heading off to explore while streaming a datawake of telemetry. “Scaled Technomadics,” I called it one day, sailing across the San Juan Channel, savoring the moment.

Windstorm dock sterntieThis was pretty much the languid flavor of the whole summer, although rudder hydraulic leakage eventually became enough of a problem that I lost a few weeks doing a fiddly on-water Amsteel bridle retrofit, taking the dinghy between Nomadness and Microship for every little step in the process. The to-do list was growing… but seeds had been planted! As the days shortened, I decided to get ready for haulout and moved her from the port to a slip near Nomadness where she lay for a couple of weeks, the occasional focus of a show ‘n tell, putting off the physical challenge until I was prodded by a nasty northerly that lashed the exposed marina for over 24 hours. I still shudder at the memory of bronco-busting the walkway in 60 knot gusts and breaking seas after midnight, trying to add fenders to stop the starboard ama from diving under the dock, and running a line to the next finger in the hope of saving the rudder. The boat was being vigorously thrashed, the mast swinging through a fore-aft arc of about 80 degrees. Scary… but the extra line held and no damage was done (and thanks to Dan Ward for helping in the peak of the storm).

It was the end of October and clearly time to get this baby out of the water for the winter. The following day, a stalwart crew of assistants (my pal Rebecca, plus Paul and Seth from s/v Phoenix) met me down at Shipyard Cove, and after a bit of fiddling with the creaky landing gear we hauled her up the ramp. The barnacle-encrusted slimy bottom was evidence that I should have applied some proper anti-fouling paint over the original gelcoat, but this was the first time she had ever spent a season in the water. We wrestled her into the mobile-lab trailer and parked beside my building, then Rebecca and I got busy with hull-scraping, squirming in a pile of redolent biology under the boat, working overhead with numb hands long into the freezing night. Ah, boats…

Microship haulout
She (Microship Wordplay, not Rebecca!) has been folded in the mobile-lab trailer ever since, but the experience of having the boatlet afloat, at first just a playful distraction from Nomadness projects, turned out to be pivotal. There are a few jobs that must be done for it to be reliable, but they are of human scale and are on a deeply familiar substrate. I often forget that a decade of my life went into this little ship…

NRL Store LogoMore to the point, there is something about this that was like coming home. Some parts may be absurd, and others need fine-tuning, but there was a startling familiarity in the mini-adventures… heading out on a home-built high-tech gadget, attracting interesting passers-by, cruising along while brainstorming hacks and additions, and dreaming of more. Like the bike, it’s a deeply personal bit of geekery.

Of course, it is impractical, and only carries one person. Gear stowage is inconvenient, it’s wet, going forward underway requires gymnastics, and dancing between cockpit and dock is dangerous enough that I’m surprised I didn’t end up falling between the hulls and dying of hypothermia (got damn close one stormy night, slipping on wet fiberglass in the dark while foolishly trying to rig a boom tent to reduce the next day’s bailing). Serviceability is a pain, she makes too much leeway under sail, the pedal drive unit is broken, and I never finished the solar array that would give the electric drive more range. But it’s home, in a twisted sense. I spent ten obsessed years building this, and the term “return on investment” isn’t just about money.

Jim Guy Nomadness masthead
Self portrait by Jim Guy from the masthead of Nomadness, after climbing aloft to install the new LED anchor light.

I started gazing at Nomadness and brainstorming. How could I incorporate little Wordplay into a technomadic lifestyle? An open-ended camping expedition would be too hard… and I shudder at the idea of creaking into my dotage with an annual ritual of trailering to the same dock from a dusty garage, making little crossings and dreaming of the Epic Circumnavigation of Lopez Island (E. Coli). If only she could fit onto the dinghy davits at the stern of Nomadness… but no, the scale is wrong.

Mothership Dreams

Noodling around local waters last summer, I conjured an updated technomadic fantasy consistent with the realities of chronic back pain, relationship changes, and other personal issues (subjects I have resisted discussing in this public forum, but which have become increasingly significant in recent years). Imagine a spacious Mothership that can deploy the Microship via hydraulic crane from an upper deck, allowing a lifestyle of slowly exploring coastal and inland waters with occasional forays via micro-trimaran. From a purely practical standpoint, this could be done with a dinghy and a couple of kayaks, but a big part of this is that quirky blend of art and engineering about which I love to rhapsodize… I’m not ready to give up the passion that drove that project.

(Just kidding – this is the Coast Guard’s Sea-Based Aerostat surveillance platform)

Such a vessel would have to be largish… 12×20 feet of clear deck space with a crane isn’t easy to find, and the ship would probably be in the 60-70 foot range. Large power boats, in general, have never turned my head, and my budget would limit me to older ones with potential hull or mechanical gotchas (not to mention fuel costs that quickly become prohibitive)… so I am being extremely careful researching unfamiliar territory. But it’s an interesting line of reasoning, and not entirely absurd. A side benefit is that anything of this scale would have considerably more space aboard for a lab, consoles, office, room to relax, and an adjustable bed that I could step around. That last item has become a bit of a problem while living aboard for the past two years. I’m in pain all the time, and it’s exhausting.

Cecil be 'da Mill
Cecil be ‘da Mill weighs about 2,650 pounds and is not really boatable. This is part of my current shore-side facilities.

This will only work if it’s big enough to get me completely out of building rental for shop and other tonnage. That has been a financial nightmare these past two years, paying way too much for a huge expensive mausoleum with no heat or bathroom. The lease is up on May 1… and I’m moving to a smaller temporary space over the next few weeks. The plan is to compress my machine shop into the mobile lab trailer, put a Probotix CNC router and other fab tools into a big honkin’ Mothership, integrate a capable electronics lab using the existing 19″ rack gear I’ve been developing for Nomadness, stuff a piano somewhere, and live aboard full time with a Microship perched on the roof amidst a thicket of antennas like a geeky caricature of a megayacht with a helipad. Hey, why not?

And so….

nomreturningAfter something like 8 months of agonizing, I have a decision. My beloved Amazon 44 needs to find a new home before I can do likewise, and I have moved off to clear the personal clutter and let me focus on a few jobs that have to happen before I hand over the keys.

It’s important to admit that this is excruciating, as I’ve been pouring all available resources into the project for  years… dreaming of open-ended voyaging. But my creaky body has other ideas, and I’ve painted myself into a corner with no room for crew. The alternatives were looking like defeat, but I’m getting that old excitement back with this Mothership vision.

A Quick Footnote on Publishing

nombook-all-coverimage-widgetFrom April 2011 until January 2013, I published 22 issues of the Nomadness Report, an elaborate magazine-style production that detailed the project as it unfolded (these are now collected into a single eBook of about 200 pages that you can order by clicking the cover image at right). When I wound this down last year, partly because of all this noodling about major life changes, I started putting out a less-formal email newsletter to my subscribers. The last one of those was in September, and there were 9 issues (plus one more that will deal with business matters, pointing to this and other recent news).

The new model is much simpler. Project narratives will be here on the blog. Finished designs and how-to material will take the form of either stand-alone articles (free, like the little music stand piece) or more technically detailed eBooks. There are a few of these on the immediate horizon, in addition to the Nomadness Report collection, and I’ll announce them here as they become available. The most substantial one details the complete ship power system including battery management, shore power, grounding, AC & DC distribution, and console fabrication.

Also, I have finally started a project I’ve been talking about for, um, 20 years… a combined volume of the whole bike epoch including Computing Across America, Miles with Maggie, and tons of detailed tech info collected from all the paper files and postings from 1983 to 1991. The first step was slicing up a copy of the book and running it through my scan/OCR process to create a text file, so now it’s just a matter of editing. It is going well, and you can sign up to be notified when it is available.

So. Changes are in the air… not the ones I was expecting, but life is a twisted journey, hopefully a long one, and we have to roll with it. Last year it became obvious that some kind of course correction was going to be necessary, and it took ages to figure out what that should be… and then more ages to get up the nerve to discuss it publicly.

Fair winds, and I look forward to sharing the next steps, whatever they may be!

 EB White quote

Microship Revival

I didn’t expect this nautical non-sequitur, but even a career technomad needs to get shaken out of a rut now and again.

Way back in 1993, after ten years and 17,000 miles of wandering the US aboard my “computerized recumbent bicycle,” I decided to build an amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran and chase the same crazy dream on water, heading down the Missouri River and turning right to begin the Great Loop of coastal and inland waterways… about 10,000 miles. The plan was gizmologically intense, and there are plenty of stories on my Microship cobwebsite about the development decade that followed. A 132-mile mini-expedition happened in 2001, then another year or two of refinement… and then, as life evolved, I quietly moved on to other things, eventually wanting a boat big enough to live aboard. The little boatlet sat untouched, a forgotten centerpiece of my life. 

Well, OK, that was frustrating. Ten years of intense effort for a piece of dusty artwork, occasionally shown to lab visitors? I reluctantly listed her on Yachtworld, but the market for geeky unfinished one-person amphibian multi-mode micro-trimarans is not exactly booming. I posted a few articles about loaning her to the right person in the hopes of seeing my labor of love get Out There to do a proper expedition… even if not with me. Nothing came of that either. 

But a couple of months ago, taking a break from the seemingly endless Nomadness project, I went for a stroll on the docks over at the Port of Friday Harbor. I chatted with a friendly fellow traveling through the islands on his homemade Marsh Duck, then another couple of guys on a beautiful wooden boat named Tern. “Gosh, I wish I had a little boat…” I mused, imagining how much fun it would be to hop in and go for a sail, not needing crew, not worried about back pain or projects… hey, wait! I have a little boat! One that consumed a quarter of my adult life! I think I even smote myself on the forehead as I doubled my pace and hurried back to Nomadness to start the (deliberately short) to-do list.

In less than a month, she was on the water:

But let’s back up a bit. Getting her splashed was an adventure, and took advantage of one of the most complex and time-consuming parts of the project… the landing gear.

The Launch

Purging air by using the bleeder ports added to all 13 hydraulic cylinders aboard the Microship (this is landing-gear control, which implements the Ackerman steering function)

Energized by the plan, I threw myself into preparations: renting a slip at the port, buying a registration sticker, replacing the very dead split-open marine battery with a new pair of golf-cart monsters, adding a solar charger, recharging the hydraulic system with water, fixing the LED navlights, and tweaking things I had barely touched since the turn of the century. When the day arrived, I was fortunate to have the assistance of three friends: Paul Elliott of Valis (a lovely Pacific Seacraft 44 sailboat… he’s on the left in the photo below), and Al & Kristi Thomason of Viking Star (45′ Monk trawler). Geeks, muscles, and an event photographer, all rolled into a fun day with people I enjoy… how much luckier could I get? 

We almost turned back at the start, though. The ferry Elwha had just disgorged a summer-scale bolus of cars, and we found ourselves gingerly navigating this crazy contraption through turbulent traffic while fielding questions and testing landing gear calibration to minimize drag. But we pressed on, got in the groove, and decided to go for it. With one stop to rehydrate, we covered the mile between lab and port in about an hour (zig-zagging on back roads to avoid the busy Spring Street through town). In the photo at right, we are rolling down through the ferry loading area, with the guys keeping gravity from taking over and me steering via a winch handle plugged into the hydraulic control at the bow. You can see the 60-foot white Nomadness mast dead ahead.

We made it onto the marina walkway without incident, then I biked back to the lab to fetch my truck with sail rig and other hardware. The next phase was one that I had been nervously dreading… installing 130 pounds of batteries and crankset, hoisting the boat with the crane, swinging it over the rail, and lowering it to the water far below with the hope of safely getting it from there to a dock where I could step the mast, climb aboard and make the short trek to my slip. In the photo below, the guys have rigged my dock lines and some stray webbing straps into a quartet of matched slings hanging from the hook overhead, and I have retracted the landing gear. That’s Kristi, our photographer, at left.

Holding the crane-control pendant (up, down, in, out) in one hand, I got her clear of the rail and threw myself into the arm that swings it around. Paul managed a pair of looped-back control lines he had fashioned with old halyards to keep it properly oriented, and Al waited on the water in his inflatable dinghy. It looked like a long way down… but only took about a minute once in the air.

There was no dock adjacent to the crane, so the plan was for him to catch the boat, free the slings, lash himself alongside, and trundle off to a more suitable location for mast-raising and climbing aboard before making the run to my slip. In this photo, Al has the Microship under tow…

After we tidied up the crane and Paul recovered all the deployment lines, I shouldered the mast and started trotting out to the breakwater to meet my little boatlet… already looking almost comically small against a backdrop of yachts. The tiny amas were no match for our first planned landing spot (behind a 70-footer, as I recall), so we located an open area on the walkway and Al brought her alongside. The task now was to step the mast, leading to what quickly became known as our Iwo Jima moment:

(The mast has Delrin bearings at the base, which drop into a Teflon-anodized aluminum tube solidly glassed to the forward bulkhead. It can be rotated via a long loop of line and the double furling drum, allowing the 93 square-foot sail to be deployed or retracted from the safety of the cockpit.)

And then, before I knew it, I was afloat! Things were creaky and unfamiliar, but it felt spectacular… and when I pedaled away from the dock to head around the outside breakwater toward my slip for the summer, I recalled the fantasies that had long ago sparked the obsessive creation of this machine. The next day, I rigged the sail, adjusted the crankset (coupled via Tran-Torque to the deployable Spinfin drive unit, spinning a model-airplane propeller at about 600 RPM), tweaked the hydraulic rudder control system, and pedaled out of the harbor for the first test run.

Having this in such a public place takes me back to the bike epoch, when emerging from a cafe to resume my trek would first require answering a round of questions… and, sometimes, getting to know interesting people. At the marina, conversations on the dock are frequent, and I’m glad I installed those Nomadic Research Labs decals with a link to the old Microship front door. Of course, it sometimes makes it hard to get things done. The other day I was head-down in there with rump aimed skyward, and from somewhere behind me came nonstop chatter as folks speculated about the machine and fired questions my way. Just like the good old days…

A Month of Micro-Adventures

Launch date was June 26, and I am writing this exactly one month later. She has been off the dock 14 times, covering somewhere around 50 miles, getting slowly refined one piece at a time. It’s a short hike from Nomadness to Microship via foot, bicycle, dinghy, or kayak… and I’ve been delighted to discover that when it’s a nice day in the San Juan Islands I can just go sailing. What a strange concept.

She sails well, other than making a bit more leeway than I would like (probably a result of the flat canoe hull, daggerboard notwithstanding)… and I was particularly pleased that the furler is now behaving. In the photo above, the black plastic “shelf” under the drum is a recent addition, helping keep the line from falling off, wrapping around the mast base, and making it impossible to stow the sail without clambering awkwardly forward and unwinding it… a tricky and dangerous maneuver even in mild conditions. This is assisted by a small block on a bungee in the cockpit to keep the loop tensioned when not immobilized by a pair of cam cleats.

The most frustrating problem so far has been human-induced. On the first Saturday night in the port, somebody climbed aboard the boat, scuffed some paint, broke my radar reflector, left the nav lights on, and… the only serious part… tried to pedal with the Spinfin drive unit retracted! This sheared the bond between the 5/8″ stainless input shaft and the collar that supports the top drive gear, robbing me of my primary mode of non-sail propulsion (I do have a trolling motor, but pedaling is faster and a lot more fun… and includes an automatic turbo mode triggered by being on a collision course with a ferry). The drive is now in the lab as I research solutions… probably drilling a hole through the entire assembly and pinning it with a hardened steel rod, since a full rebuild would be a huge project. But hey, the electric motor works, there are new batteries, and I’m not going to let this interfere with my short summer of mini-expeditions.

How is it otherwise? Well, look at this happy selfie taken outside Parks Bay on Shaw Island, just after crossing San Juan Channel:

One of the greatest pleasures of all this is being able to focus on the sailing, something I’ve been missing during this long dock marathon in Nomadness. As some wise person once observed, “the smaller the boat, the bigger the adventure,” and I am suddenly attuned to every wake, tide rip, frond of Nereocystis Leutkeana, and creak of my little ship. I’m getting to know local waters, and taking the time to enjoy the moments instead of working endlessly on chipping away at a massively complex long-term project. In the big boat, local trips like these would barely warm up the Yanmar or shake out old sail wrinkles, and many days would be spent preparing for departure (and, with some challenging back and knee problems, I’ve been reluctant to single-hand my 18-ton ship). The Microship is a perfect antidote to those crunchy-dockline blues. Both of the little jaunts shown on this chart plotter photo were micro-adventures of a mere 5 miles or so, filled with challenges and memories, glimpses of the beauty of this place, and reminders of why I’m putting so much energy into the larger project.

Microship hydraulic calibration valves and manifold

I’d like to share a few tech details of the boatlet, but I think I’ll save that for next time; I’ve been tweaking the hydraulic system (getting rid of a leaky over-pressure valve that was letting the rudder drift up, along with identifying the cause of some steering mushiness), trying to get an APRS tracker going, muttering about RFI from the solar MPPT charger, fiddling with video monitoring, researching a suitable fixed-mount VHF to replace the dead one installed 12 years ago, assembling a simple on-water bivouac system to extend my range, gathering the parts for a “clothesline” anchoring rig to allow beaching in tidal waters, and so on. This machine was never truly finished, back when the project wound down in 2002, but current plans are much more modest than the high-stress large-scale expedition for which she was designed.

And yarrrh… it was blowin’ half a gale. We had no business out there, but were making for Hicks Bay… then the eddies kicked up around Reid Rock and swept us off course, streamers flying off the waves, whirlpools spinning logs, birds screeching, rudder hard over as we fought off a gybe, too much sail out, wakes from fender-slappin’ powerboats throwing spray off the amas, crossbeams a-creakin’. It was grim, I tell you. Them what died… them was the lucky ones…


Power Console Fabrication

One of my frustrations with this boat has been difficult serviceability in a very critical place: power-distribution. This a region that needs to have easy access, excellent lighting, clear labeling, and a lack of clutter… not only is it otherwise maddening to make changes, but it can be a serious safety issue. (Thrice over the years I have found burned wires and had a hard time squirming in there to fix them; many boats have been lost to this sort of thing, and it should never be difficult to access a nexus of power cabling!)

A few months ago, I wrote about the first phase in the fabrication of the new Nomadness pilothouse console (upper helm panel). I used black half-inch King Starboard as a substrate, machined holes for the instruments, and added a hinge structure with simple latching system to keep it in place. I did that one first because it was relatively easy… sort of a practice piece for this new one that I just completed:

The gap at the top is about to be closed by a thin panel that carries vent louvers and a temperature monitor. The original panel hinged up, suited more to a willowy contortionist than a big galumphing guy with back problems; the new one hinges to the right, and thus had to be shorter to clear the structures overhead.

Difficult access into the old power console translated into my not dealing with things, so the boat’s power system has been rather opaque since I’ve owned it (not helped by ancient out-of-synch documentation and cruft left over from long-removed hardware). Now that I’m taking a top-down approach, nothing is connected unless it is actually relevant… and there is a satisfying mountain of old wire in the lab. The effort has already been worthwhile, for it is now a pleasure to work on the power panel:

We’ll get into how that works in a moment, but first let’s look at the overall design and fabrication process.

In this photo of the boat just before I acquired it, you can see the original pilothouse. That area off to the left (over the chart table) is becoming the Internet Alcove, with the data collection stuff all just under the tabletop; the control panels around that chair are being completely re-done. It’s not visible in this picture, but the most awkward area was off to the right and just out of frame… another panel that was even harder to use than the main one, carrying AC breakers, a cluster for the Yanmar generator, and controls for a long-gone watermaker. For years, I’ve been eying that region with thoughts of converting it to galley-related stowage, so I decided to blend all AC and DC controls into the new integrated console. While this does raises a few safety issues, it’s nothing that can’t be overcome.

Since this change involved new breaker panels, I spent quite a bit of time fine-tuning the list of circuits and trying to think far enough ahead to accommodate future additions. I threw together a database (FileMaker) that gave me a place to keep notes, locations, and related data for the 80 or so circuit-protection devices on the boat (including random fuses). A typical record is shown here, though I found that it was most useful showing groups as a sorted table.

Since this was to become the central cluster for all power-related controls and displays on the boat, fabrication was slowed by over-thinking… a maddening process, but one that eventually pays off. Here’s what ended up being mounted:

  • DC breaker panel (Blue Sea 8382) with DMM, 100A main, and 35 positions
  • AC breaker panel (Blue Sea 8459) with source-select 30A breakers and 8 loads
  • AC digital multimeter (Blue Sea 8247)
  • MATE3 control/display unit for Outback power system (2KW inverter-charger and solar charge controller)
  • Yanmar 3GM generator control panel (homebrew)… on-off, start, stop, alarm LEDs (with audio behind panel), and run-time meter
  • Green status LED for Blue Sea ACR and override button to disconnect
  • Two ring LED/pushbuttons for Power Node status and fault alarm
  • 12-volt DC utility outlet on the Charging Alcove circuit
  • 115-volt AC utility outlet on the Rack Outlets circuit
  • Grab handle that lashes to desk edge to provide support when open, with nearby hole for thumbscrew to lock closed
  • Eight latching buttons with blue ring LEDs and legend plates for local lighting… pilothouse table, power console interior, helm console interior, pantry interior, under-table, battery bay, engine compartment, and control surface floods.

Panel dimensions (27.5″ X 19″) were defined by existing framing, so I started with a piece of half-inch Starboard cut to size with clearance for a stainless piano hinge, then amused myself for days by nudging objects around on the surface while imagining use cases, interactions, cabling, aesthetics, safety, lighting, upgrades, room for stuff on the back, and a rational layout that will have to make sense to somebody after I’m long gone. A few things were obvious, like putting breaker panels close to the hinge to prevent other devices from being obscured by bundles of heavy wire; others were more in the domain of intuition. To aid in visualization, I used a low-tech modeling system that involved blue tape, cardboard, legend plates, and the objects themselves… continuing this process iteratively as machining progressed, until it was done (the curse of perfectionism).

Eventually, with the help of my trusty Bridgeport, I had a chunk of high-density polyethylene with holes for everything. In the photo, you can see the detailing that was necessary for the Blue Sea breaker panels… the “bolt circle” for mounting is inside the outer envelope of hardware, which makes for a compact installation but complicates the hole cutouts (their newer 360 Panel family is much easier in this regard, though I personally prefer the look of the traditional series). The photo also shows a large round hole at the top for the AC digital multimeter, positioned to line up with the DC one built into the breaker panel, as well as a square hole for the two Ethernet cables that go to the Outback MATE3 controller.

Of course, no task is ever as simple as we expect it to be, so some of those holes required spot-facing to accommodate components that don’t play nicely with a half-inch substrate (in the photo at right… toggle switches, Dialight LED indicators, the grab handle, and an old AC outlet all required additional attention).

At last it was time for the fun stuff! I pre-assembled the panel in the lab, using laser-etched legend plates to label the buttons and indicators (those folks did a beautiful and quick job, not expensive at all, a perfect match to the 16mm holes required for the buttons I bought from Adafruit… like these blue momentary ones… though I have noted that blue LEDs get very warm and the green ones not at all). The cluster of controls at the lower left replaces the old Yanmar generator panel, and the adjacent grab handle was positioned relative to other hardware so that would be the only thing impacting the edge of the nearby tabletop when the panel is opened for service. Given the physical difficulty of doing the actual hinge mounting, I was putting a lot of faith in templates and measurements at this point, but I was on a roll…

It made sense to do some of the fiddly wiring in the lab while I had more room to work, so after playing with backlights and breaker blinkies for a while (who can resist?) I installed a barrier strip for the eight pilothouse LED circuits and wired all the latching buttons. While it might seem redundant to have lights that light up to indicate that lights are on (!), half of the latter are in enclosed spaces and easy to forget… so this provides at-a-glance status along with a big button to let me quickly go dark without losing the setup configuration or taking down other loads on the same circuit. This is a lot of work and expense, but I have come to realize that one of the biggest problems with serviceability aboard is simply not being able to see what I’m doing… adding decent lighting has already improved the galley immeasurably. I want it everywhere.

With this and some other pre-wiring done, it was time to haul the thing aboard, disconnect and extract the old panel, mount the new hinge while hoping for a successful fit, then hook up at least the bare-essential circuits for lighting/water/refrigeration. Before long I had a thicket of wires dangling inside the power bay, labeled with blue tape, then wrestled the new panel into place… propping it up with a stack of books while installing the piano hinge screws. There was a huge sigh of relief when it closed smoothly and snuggled into the frame.

One of the things in the TBDWL category (To Be Dealt With Later) had been how, precisely, I was going to hold the panel open in a working position. I had carefully arranged components so the handle would be the only point of contact with the table edge, but my to-do list vaguely referenced some kind of “latching system” that I was having trouble visualizing. As it turned out, the problem was trivial to solve with a scrap of stretchy 3/16″ nylon braid, a carabiner, and the endlessly useful Mini RopeTie. It takes but a few seconds to clip on to the handle, toss a loop around the table, and conjure an instant trucker’s hitch to keep the panel solidly in place while I work inside the console.

From here, it was mostly a matter of wiring, with even more cruft finding its way to the scrap pile. Once the DC essentials were online, I did the same for AC… vastly simplifying the system in the process. In the old configuration, raw AC appeared on the terminal board behind this region, then was hauled via fat welding cable across the table to the breaker panel with all the switched circuits returning to labeled barrier strips. This was a lot of wire-tonnage, confusing and hard to modify… so it is now local and simple. Here’s a look at the back of the new AC panel:

In the photo above, you can see the black current transformer that is used to determine the AC load for the front-panel multimeter. The bundle of wire going off to the left (where it turns down to exit in parallel with the hinges to minimize cyclic flexion) splits immediately into two distinct groups… eight switched load circuits to a labeled barrier strip, and all the heavy stuff related to the shore/generator input side that includes an isolation transformer and the AC section of the inverter/charger. Meanwhile, all DC cabling heads up in the opposite direction, so one can tell at a glance which bundle of cable contains lethal voltages.

Still, I was concerned about the exposed back of the AC breaker panel itself, so I added tall stand-offs to extend three of the studs supporting the ground buses, then used those to support a clear polycarbonate safety shield. This keeps stray fingers and tools from accidentally contacting high voltage when the panel is open. Just to be sure, I mounted an LED on a little bracket labeled HOT… indicating that things are alive in there. Also, while it is not very visible in the photo, the wire bundle is zip-tied to a black aluminum handle mounted to the panel (with another one at the top for DC). These keep loading stresses from tugging on crimp terminals and breaker screws.

Already I have noticed a huge difference in my interaction with the ship’s power system. The status of circuits is obvious at a glance, all switching is in the same region, and the “situation awareness” added by the Blue Sea multimeters and Outback display keep me constantly aware of what’s going on. I notice the Automatic Charging Relay, water-heater cycling, espresso machine usage, and even the presence of plugged-in computers and other gadgets. After the local node is installed all this will be databased, viewable in a browser, and used to initiate alarm notifications if something is amiss. The area is getting better illuminated in more ways than one!

Once the power system is complete, it will be the subject of the first of the published Design Packages, wire-bound into a lay-flat 11×17 book with detailed schematics and a thorough explanation. This is for my own documentation (always a challenge to actually get that done), as well as a product… while this system is unique to Nomadness, the principles and techniques map to lots of other applications, and having a known-working design for reference is always a helpful project starting point. I always reference such resources if they are available, since life is too short for wheel-reinvention.

This was the hardest of the pilothouse consoles; the three that remain are the skinny one mentioned earlier, inside helm station (dominated by nav LCD and engine controls), and one over the tabletop (stereo remote, NAVTEX, and random stuff). Then attention will turn to the wrap-around console in the lab/studio… and things will start to get a bit geeky around here!

Cheers from Nomadness,