Springtime and Shiny Things

It happens every year. Suddenly the sun is sparkling on the water, I realize another orbit has passed, and I peer critically at the epic project list with an eye toward culling non-essentials.

One of my favorite kinds of progress involves getting new gizmology off the shelf and into actual use; it’s easy to get bogged down in endless repairs and rewiring, but important to remember the geeky underpinnings of this project and savor the shiny things. Let’s devote this post to four new toys that have made the cut and found their way aboard.

The Boat Piano

Nomadness is about combining passions into a lifestyle, and despite some daunting packaging challenges, a piano is a key component. My beloved Roland RD-700SX (along with related studio gear) now has a wonderful new home on Camano Island, and I bought the Casio PX-5S that was released in early 2013. This is already getting a cult-like following and has a surprising depth of capabilities, though I have barely gotten past the level-1 learning curve. A huge win for me, though, is that it only weighs 25 pounds and is no wider than it needs to be. Another excellent feature is that an engineer on the development team is very active in the piano forums…

In the photo here, it is shown with the CAD system (Cardboard-Aided Design)… the trio of 12U equipment racks with cutouts representing the objects that will be mounted in 19″ aluminum panels Real Soon Now. The key dimensions of this region are part of this plan; the angular placement of the cabinets matches the 52″ length and 12″ depth of the piano, though the seat has to be raised about 5″ whenever I want to play music instead of hunch over the desktop to do geeky things or peer into radio dials.

Integration of this has three components, the first of which is electronic and pretty standard: connection to the mixer that will live in the left-most rackspace (or the Sennheiser HD598 cans). I chose this mixer (sadly, now a “legacy product”) because the control surface is separate from the box bristling with connectors and is thus more realistically panel-mountable.

The second problem is what do do with the piano when not playing, and that will involve a full-length drawer that stows it well under the desktop… this needs to be fabricated soon, because I want my workspace back!

And the third challenge is seating, which had to be solved anyway… but now it requires significant height adjustment and easy removal of arms. This has been the subject of a ridiculous amount of research here, and I’ve chased everything from marine pedestal seats to hacked Aerons. The solution (which I hope is correct!) is a chair from SoundSeat, a small shop in North Carolina that is much loved by drummers for their robust and comfortable thrones. We will locally fabricate a socket for the gas lift, including a quick-release hinging system to make room for my galumphing body to awkwardly squirm under there when I need to pull cable or clean the cat box.

In the photo above, by the way, you can see the music stand… elevated 5 inches above the desktop. This ended up being a fabrication project, which is described in detail here.

I look forward to posting a recording and more about the PX-5S itself in a future post!

Nomadnespresso Machine

One of the essentials of daily life in this gizmological extravaganza is coffee, and not just functional drip. I’ve been an espresso junkie for a quarter century now, but for a long time have been putting up with sanely scaled minimalist solutions (the Aeropress, fiddly but reliable… along with the often-annoying Hario mini mill grinder and a klunky microwave-whisk method for heating and frothing the milk). But this is a bootstrapping problem… after doing battle with evil sleep demons, the level of competence needed to manually conjure coffee can be daunting. I am not smart enough to make latte until I’ve had latte.

Yet, as I once wrote:

I suck down my trimethylxanthine;
By the dregs, I am hyper and panting.
Whether drip, brew, or latté
(you see, I’m not snotté),
It gives me the buzz to keep ranting.
- Steven K. Roberts

Obviously I had to put some energy into finding a suitable system, and that launched another one of my obsessive research quests… revealing that the world of espresso machines is a rich one of religious fervor, brand-faithful fans, and deeply analytical reviews.

Whittling the choices down to all-in-one units of vaguely boatable scale, and happily discovering a good deal on refurbished units, I found the Breville BES860XL Barista Express exactly six months ago (link is to newest model). I wanted to wait a while before posting about it, just to be sure it was reliable enough to earn a recommendation. I’m happy to report that I love it, and have made approximately 400 cups… amortizing out at about a buck apiece, given the refurb deal that was available at the time. If I had bought all those at the tourist joint in town, it would have cost three times as much.

I did worry about the AC power requirement, but metered it with a Kill-a-Watt and was relieved to see that it was not too bad at about 75 watt-hours per mug (including warm-up, grinding, espresso extraction, steaming, and letting it sit powered on in anticipation of the second cup). I can live with that, and still carry the other tools for times when power is a scarce resource. Still on the to-do list: bolt it to a little fixture that will hold it in place, since I would really not want this flying around the cabin when things get feisty out there.

The machine is largely stainless, easy-to-use, and makes excellent espresso. (If you get one, by the way, you don’t need to buy proprietary cleaning tablets; these are a fraction of the price for the same thing.)

That ceramic mug in the photo was made by my mother before I was born. It’s nice to have a few old family relics in daily use aboard after decades of sitting on a Kentucky shelf.

The Ship’s Garden

OK, now I’m really going to gag a few sailing traditionalists. I have a fondness for fresh veggies, and those are expensive on this island. One of my long-range plans for the boat is a hydroponic cabin with LumiGrow lighting and relocatable networked modules… but there are a few projects that need to get done first, and that’s not going to happen this season.  I looked at scattering buckets of dirt around, but ehhh, that’s messy.

There’s a gadget called the EarthBox that has a very active online community, and it’s basically a self-watering system with a 3-gallon reservoir below a plastic grid. Above that is organic potting mix with added fertilizer and dolomite, and two enclosed columns in the corners provide a wicking path. A watering tube pokes out of one corner, and the whole thing is enclosed by a fitted plastic cover. To use it, you cut holes in the cover for the plants, then water it every day or so until it runs out an overflow port (at this stage, I give mine about one yogurt pot of water a day, at about the same time I’m fueling myself with espresso).

There’s a spot over the pilothouse where this can be out of the way, though it would have to be leveled and fixtured in place, and I have no illusions about it surviving any kind of truly heavy conditions. For the moment, it’s just sitting in the cockpit, and will probably be parked on the dock during local day sails (it’s about 80 pounds and 29″ long, and would interfere with sail handling unless moved to the topside mounting location… I want to test it before doing that much work).

Mechanical Pencil

A pencil? Seriously? This probably sounds like gratuitous Amazon affiliate click-bait, but honestly… it’s cool. I had the Pentel Kerry sitting in my “saved for later” shopping cart for about 3 years (after reading about it on BoingBoing, I think), then decided during a wild caffeine buzz to make the $12 purchase.

I didn’t really expect much other than, well, a mechanical pencil, but it’s actually amazing… and I suppose I should not have been surprised to discover that the world of such contraptions includes yet another obsessive community that analyzes them in exhaustive detail. This one has a very good review on Dave’s Mechanical Pencil blog, which pretty well reinforces my own observations.

The best thing I can say about this is that unlike every other writing implement (except for my beloved retractable-point Sharpie), this actually has a special spot in my tool cabinet… along with a stash of .5mm lead and erasers. When I get it out and snick the cap into writing mode, something changes and I draw better. When I’m done, I actually put it away. I’m not really sure how, but they did something right to make this a tool instead of just a pencil. Not bad for twelve bucks!

Now to go draw some boat parts…

Cheers from the Nomadhouse,


Tales of Boat Hacking

Cranking out boat parts with Cecil be 'da Mill

Things are about to get a lot more active in this blog… for the past year, I’ve been chipping away at the project, but have only rarely posted here. I’m happy to report that I’ve just decided to take a different approach to publishing this sprawling narrative of gonzo engineering, and there is suddenly a huge backlog of material.

Exactly two years ago, I had the idea of conjuring a “nickel generator” in the form of a subscription PDF called the Nomadness Report. Produced like a magazine, it would carry the most substantial content about all this unfolding gizmology… with the blog reserved for general updates. It seemed like a pretty good way to monetize without advertising, so I started publishing issues… and people liked it.

I did it weekly for a while, then after missing too many deadlines I redefined it as a monthly (with larger issues). I did a few that were around 16 pages, but the schedule started to slip again… lately feeling more like a quarterly. This is familiar territory; as a perfectionist, I spend way too much time procrastinating and fine-tuning the text and layout, to the point that it stops being fun and steals time from its own subject matter. It’s an old pattern… the two cover photos here are issues #8 and #10 of a print zine I published over 20 years ago. As I recall, it was already called a quarterly, but I was joking about that meaning “every quarter decade.”

Meeting deadlines on this more recent publication was not the only problem. More serious was the fact that most of my “good stuff” was ending up behind a paywall… not a particularly forbidding one at $20/year, but definitely a layer of obscurity in an era when there is so much information available for free. And while there are now 205 pages of polished back issues in my online store, not many people want to buy “Issue 17″ of something unless they can be sure that there is useful content. My income from the whole series was minimum wage at best.

Over the past few weeks, this has really been bothering me… so I just sent a note to all my subscribers, announcing the new plan:

  1. Send out a frequent email newsletter. This will be free, and the initial mailing list is everyone subscribed to the Nomadness Report. This is a lot less work than doing a complete page layout, and I expect the publication frequency to be approximately weekly, with highly variable length and no attachments.
  2. Blog more, with lots of photos; this makes the project narrative searchable and more open to the world than that collection of PDFs (which will be combined into an anthology with a good table of contents).
  3. Produce a series of stand-alone monographs, perhaps called the Boat Hacking Collection. These will each be devoted to one system or how-to subject… giving them long-term value as eBooks. Most will be 8.5×11 PDF with a lots of graphics, and I have a few larger ones planned that will take the form of 11×17 wire-bound books with detailed schematics.
London Daily Mail - Sunday, May 24, 1992

That combination covers all the bases, with fine-grained real-time updates as well as long-term archiving and nickel-generation. The mailing list will be fun… over the years I most enjoyed the Notes from the Bikelab (90-92) and Microship Status Reports (92-01) series, along with “Nomadness Notes” spanning the same era (all together, about 200 issues). These went to a mailing list that eventually reached 4,500 people… and were playful, informal, and free. The biggest win from my perspective was having a community of interesting folks who sparked ideas, replied quickly with answers to questions, and offered logistical support.

I loved doing those listserv postings, but as the years passed and the Microship project faltered, I stopped… and the list grew stale as people changed addresses. Meanwhile, new publishing tools emerged: blogs, PDFs, eBooks… then ephemeral high-noise social media like Facebook and Twitter, seductive for real-time chatter, but impossible to use alone as archives. I have gone along with it, but miss the personal immediacy of that original “push technology.”

Want to be on the mailing list, or sign up for the “Gonzo Subscription” that includes all eBooks as they are published? More info is on the publications page.

OK, enough with all this planning talk – time to get to the fun stuff! Let’s start with a light sampler of recent progress, with more detail over the next few weeks as I catch up with blogging.

Power Distribution Console

The photo of my intently milling mug at the top was from a week or two ago while I was breaking ground on the new power distribution console substrate. All the hardware for this is on hand, and includes nearly 50 circuit breakers with backlights and status indicators, a separate AC digital multimeter, the MATE3 control/display unit for the Outback system, a homebrew replacement for the old Yanmar generator control cluster, and about a dozen stainless pushbuttons with ring LEDs and legend plates (including a row for local console and equipment bay lighting). The power consoles have been annoying ever since I got the boat, with obsolete cruft and serviceability issues… this new panel is going to be sweet. I’ve already pulled a mountain of abandoned cable, and once this in in place there should be nothing that is undocumented.

The new panel will also eliminate the old separate console region for the AC side of the power system, opening up space for a much-needed pantry…

This week I expect to finish the milling, mount hardware, and start the transition into the boat (the messy part… moving lots of wires in a temporarily cramped space). In the photo at the top of the page, I was just starting to cut the complex openings for the Blue Sea breaker panels; they are shown complete at left.

Much more detail about this part of the system will be posted once it’s in place. Over the next few days, I expect to be staring a lot at this scene:

Lab iMac

I use a laptop most of the time, since I’m commuting between boat and shop almost every day, but there are times when there is just not enough display real estate. Doing drawings with OmniGraffle, editing images, setting up an audio workstation, and lots of other activities all call for way more pixels, and an iMac 27 is a key part of the wrap-around console region.

I’ve used an Ergotron monitor arm before, and was delighted to discover that they have a model (the MX) that can handle the weight of this machine (but not while sailing!) and that Apple sells an interface gadget that lets you convert from a desk stand to a VESA mount. This solves the problem neatly, and the mounting location works well at various heights and distances with a deployable keyboard side-table, swings around over the little “demi wall” to allow watching the screen from the pilothouse seating, or lets me stow it into a nest and strap it down when getting off the dock (note to self: put that on preflight checklist).

The Ergotron MX has a good range of adjustability that lets you reach a neutral balance point, and the external body is anodized aluminum. There are steel parts, which I treated with CorrosionX (essential stuff on a boat), but of course if this takes salt spray then I will be a lot more worried about what’s attached to it! The adjacent console will have a roof with overhang and a fabric curtain to shed random droplets, but a knockdown would be most unpleasant for all the electronics (not that it wouldn’t be a bad day anyway).

The white surface holding the Apple wireless keyboard has a felt-lined lip at the table end, four rubber bumpers to engage the mast support, and a loop of line that goes over a cleat up near the top. A Heil SB-2 microphone boom mounts just under that cleat, conveniently located for podcasting (seated) or flute-playing (standing). And, speaking of seating, we’re going to pedestal-mount a gas-lift throne with removable arms from Soundseat… I need a 5-inch range of vertical adjustment to switch gears between lab desktop and piano studio. When in piano mode, the keyboard side-table lifts off and slips into a fabric pocket down by the base of the mast (otherwise known as Isabelle’s scratching post).

Comm Panel Update

Finally, although it is on the back burner until pilothouse power and helm consoles are done, I’m gradually gathering the pieces and refining the layout of the wrap-around lab/studio region.

The equipment racks, once the frames are fixtured to the desk, will be assembled in stages that are loosely based on need. First one is probably stereo, partly since wiring for the old one is very much in the way of some of the power-region stuff. Immediately thereafter, I want to start packaging the mountain of communication gear that is lying around waiting to be used.

This is the CAD layout (cardboard-aided design) for the center of the three 12U rack cabinets… each 21″ tall and 19″ wide. I do it this way to allow sitting at the desk and playing “let’s pretend,” which is a much more effective way of catching usability issues than staring at a picture on a computer. There is deliberate redundancy here (the Icom 706 duplicates some of the HF capability of the 802 and some of the VHF/UHF coverage of the D710A), but the idea is to have that as a parallel system with an uncommitted feed line that pops out the deck at the base of the mast, where a new halyard is in place to haul aloft HF antennas or a platform that rides in the trysail track to deploy sensors, cameras, or WiFi antennas. (The antenna analyzer at the upper right is for some of that tinkering, though it might be more practical as a hand-held instrument… none of this is cast in aluminum yet.)

In the middle is an iPad, which serves multiple purposes here, and some of the speaker routing is at the upper left. One of the destinations of any audio channel is the 16-channel mixer located in the nearby A/V panel, and another is a sparse-matrix crossbar system reminiscent of my old Audio, Video, and Serial units from the Microship era. Lots more on all this as it unfolds, but a fundamental design goal  in this part of the system is to let anything talk to anything without requiring computers to be working to enable core functions related to survival. I don’t trust them.

OK, enough for now. More photos and details soon; I’m off to make some boat parts! I’ll leave you with this… a talk I gave in September of 2000 at the Computer History Museum, on the occasion of adding the BEHEMOTH bicycle to their collection:




A Simple Hinged Instrument Panel

It is nice to be able to report that the first Nomadness pilothouse helm control surface has been completed, fabricated with King Starboard material and carrying a basic suite of instruments: network displays, AIS transponder, autopilot, and weather monitor… flanked by VHF, clock, and spotlight remote control.

The operating position shown here is becoming the home of everything needed to drive the boat; before my time, the VHF and instruments were over on the port side, difficult to see and use while at the helm (that original nav station with sloped desktop is now becoming the Internet Alcove and Zone of Hackage). The Main Helm Console to starboard carries engine controls, throttle/ transmission levers, a large Planar touchscreen for the nav Mac, joysticks for steering and camera control, and a few related connectors and switches (more detail on the Console Devices page).

The new Upper Helm (located at the bright green blob in the photo above) hinges down for service. The VHF is mounted to the right at an angle that matches the radar… here is the new console region, finished and powered up on a calm evening:

The devices are: 

  • Maretron DSM250 color display for the NMEA2000 network, with a number of configurable screens for showing instrument and sensor data, nav info, fuel tank levels, and so on
  • Vesper WatchMate 850 AIS transponder to display other ships’ locations relative to mine… and transmit mine to them.
  • Two old B&G Networks h1000 (PDF) instrument displays, connected to masthead wind direction & speed sensors, depth sounder, and speed-thru-water paddlewheel sensor. Data is bridged to the N2K network, so these are arguably redundant, but they work well… and there are similar screens over the companionway.
  • Kestrel 4000 weather meter for local data collection of temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and various calculations derived from those values
  • Simrad AP24 Autopilot head, connected to the autopilot computer, wireless remote, and rudder-angle sensor
  • MFJ 133RC digital clock with WWV receiver and dual time-zone display
  • Icom IC-M504A marine VHF with remote CommandMicIII at the outside helm station, GPS feed from the AIS unit, and hailer horn for external audio
  • Wireless remote for Golight Stryker Az-El steerable HID spotlight on the bow, with attached video camera

There is a lot of information clustered here, but it is mostly normal marine stuff and doesn’t require a lot of explanation. I want tell you instead about the fabrication…

The VHF radio and its immediate neighbors are simply attached to the wall framing, just under one of the pilothouse windows. For the panel, I wanted an attractive material, easily machinable and hackable later, with a look that is consistent with the rest of the boat’s control surfaces. Down in the lab, the rack faces will be black anodized aluminum, but up in the pilothouse the new panels had to have the same thickness as the old ones… so I don’t have to hack joinery to change existing hinges and frames. The original panels, a half-inch thick, are a very dense plastic with white laminate (a real pain to modify). 

After lots of research, I decided to replace them all with half-inch black King Starboard material, available cut-to-size from Tap Plastics. This stuff machines like butter and even takes wood screws, and has a finely textured finish so it won’t show fingerprints. The new main helm console and power panels will simply drop into the same frames as their predecessors, mounted on stainless piano hinges, but the upper helm is new and requires a different approach.

Since making it co-planar with the lower one would require massive surgery (including the shower stall on the other side of the wall), I decided to hinge-mount it on a teak strip about 2″ wide… spacing the panel out far enough that the backs of the instruments and their cables would have clearance.

The project began with an 11×16″ piece of Starboard, and I milled a thin lip on the bottom to hide the piano hinge edge. After much noodling and sketching, I started cutting holes, beginning with the Maretron display.

As I mentioned, the material is very easy to cut; after using a fluted mill for the two rectangular holes, I switched to a fly cutter for the round ones. This left a glassy-smooth edge (much nicer than a test with a hole saw, which left globby bits from melting).

The biggest hassle was hole placement; with proper template files and a CAD system, it would not have depended so much on eyeballing. That will be a recurring theme here for a while, I think… the trade-off of low-tech vs high-tech approaches to a one-off project does not necessarily favor one over the other. Either way, you spend a lot of time trying to make it pretty.

(Of course, in this case, all the holes are hidden anyway. A garage-shop saber saw would have been adequate in the long run. It’s a sickness, I tellya…)

Once the big openings were cut, mounting the instruments was just a matter of providing each with the holes needed for its particular design… again, actual-size templates would have made this easy, but it’s nothing that can’t be done with ruler, calipers, and patience.

By the way, this is a good example of the problem with mixing legacy hardware with more modern tools, especially with the added annoyance of proprietary connectors. There are four different “standards” represented in those photos at right:  NMEA2000, NMEA0183, Simrad’s version of NMEA2000 called SimNet, and the vintage FastNet that ties B&G stuff together. There is a lot wrong with this… it is just one small part of one small boat, yet still we see the need to splice electrically equivalent devices together (Simrad vs Maretron) and install two different gateway products to interface standard (183) and proprietary (FastNet) protocols with the newer network. A hybrid package like this is almost unavoidable these days without spending huge amounts of money to upgrade everything at once, and gradual evolution of the system is complicated by the need to maintain backward compatibility.

Anyway, back to packaging! In the photos, you can see the panel mounted, both closed and open… the yellow B&G cables slide nicely into the thin space behind the wall, and the gray one is N2K from the Maretron with a lazy loop through an existing hole. If you peer closely, you can see the elongated pockets I made with the Kreg R3 Jr jig (which I highly recommend)… this magical device lets you drill precise angled holes out the edge of one board with a built-in clamping face, whereupon you use the company’s special screws to attach the pieces together without all the usual fixturing headaches. These are widely used for cabinetry and such, but what turned my head was the availability of stainless Kreg screws. Right-angle attachment jobs like this that would once have been a pain are now actually rather easy, though during the learning curve I did manage to trash one hole by chasing it manually after failing to set the jig thickness correctly. Well, duh. I glued in a plug to minimize the chance of some future skipper lying on the floor, looking up, and insulting the previous owner… though that’s inevitable regardless, I’m sure.

The whole thing is just grafted on to an existing wall, but it’s clear why flush-mount would have been a nightmare. As it turned out, the VHF radio in the corner perfectly matched the offset of the new upper helm panel, so it looks like it was supposed to be this way, at least when closed.

Serviceability is easy. The hinge lets it open flat (originally it flopped all the way down, but that would have led to front panels getting dinged). It’s kept under control by a couple of stainless rope guides and a piece of line tied with buntline hitches. When closed, it’s held in place by a lovely brass swinging hook latch that has been looking for an application aboard.

Next console project: the two main helm panels, navigation and power. Both are currently in progress, with power coming first. I’ll close this post with a sneak preview:

Cheers from Nomadness


Friday Harbor Automated Marine Radio Check on VHF 28

Updated May 31, 2014. 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…

Automated Radio Check system is at right, next to Linux box that forwards AIS packets to a variety of servers.

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 the ADS-SR1 simplex repeater from Argent Data Systems, 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!

radio-check-rock-island-siteLast year, 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.

The system was moved on May 30, 2014 to a new site in Friday Harbor: the top of the Rock Island Technology building (48.535, -123.018), shown in the photo above. The tip of the antenna is about 50 feet off the ground, and it is a 7dbi collinear. When you use the machine, you can factor this information in to your assessment of radio link performance. As a rough approximation, think of the station as being in the center of town, approximately 100 feet above sea level.

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?

I have created a Google map for signal reports, and it appears below. I am starting to get 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. 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!

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...

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)