The Tools of Extraction

I’m aboard Nomadness at the moment, here to do the water-heater installation, but in classic fashion got drawn into the “opportunities” presented by this infernally glowing laptop. There seem to be two big changes afoot that will require difficult decisions and learning curves: the radical change in eBay’s fee structure that will induce me to build up my store, and Google throwing us faithful FTP bloggers under the bus.

The latter is a pain, but apparently there are disproportionate engineering resources associated with the .5% of all blogs hosted on separate servers (like mine) instead of I’m in no position to argue this, and almost believe it, more or less; the “pointed-index syndrome” must come up a lot, with the tech-support folk pointing fingers at each other, saying, “your problem is over there.”

Their radical solution to this is to shut it down entirely, giving us little time and only two choices… neither one pleasant. We can be assimilated, letting Google host our content while breaking the functionality of the rest of the site, or we can change blogging platforms. I have opted for the latter, and will either incorporate all this into the existing Joomla installation at or go with the crowd and install WordPress.

I mention this only as a heads-up about likely glitches over the next month or so… and to see if anyone who has been through this learning curve is willing to do a bit of hand-holding.

Ah well, that’s all just bits-and-vapor anyway! Let’s talk about the fun stuff.

Moves of a Physical Nature

There’s something substantial in the works. As recent posts have hinted, I’m working on extracting myself from 12 years of being mired in a cluttered lab, and it’s actually starting to look real. No firm date is set, but this is the season; with the mobile lab receiving an infusion of carefully filtered inventory (along with the occasional bolus of material related to specific projects), I am close to considering it my primary workspace. Already, key tools and furniture are in place, shifting the theater of operations.

The first move of the trailer (named Polaris) will be a short one – about 750 feet to a parking spot near my house. I’m repurposing the old hot-tub circuit to provide an RV-style power outlet, and for a short embryonic period I’ll work on the edge of the meadow, nursing my severed umbilicus back to the maternal building in the forest. Meanwhile, I’ll move anything that still matters in the old lab to the office suite upstairs, closed off with a separate security perimeter.

(Except the Microship, of course. I still don’t know what’s going to become of that 10-year labor of love!)

Anyway, at that point two things will be able to occur: renting out the 2000 square-foot shop space, and moving the mobile lab to the marina to provide on-site support for boat projects. With multiple power sources (30-amp shore cable, 2 kW Honda generator, and 240 watts of solar panels), along with access to the boat’s wireless LAN and good light/heat/security, it should be as useful as a small dedicated building… or more so, given the ability to trundle back to home base if needed, or, as we start to live aboard full time, to whatever marina happens to catch our fancy for the duration of pre-nomadic staging.

Both Nomadness and Dervish have huge project lists (updated daily), and the past year of slow progress has made it clear that the only way to finish is to move onto the boats and make a full-time job of it. So here we go… and not a moment too soon. I’ve been feeling increasingly old and creaky, with the occasional sickness of dear friends serving as a chilling reminder that I don’t have forever. I miss those halcyon days of seeming immortality…

Tooling Around

The exercise of selecting tools for the mobile lab has been a challenge; I no longer have the luxury of essentially unlimited space. The long-desired milling machine had to be set aside, and my existing suite of heavy motorized things had to be scaled way back. Only the table saw, floor-mount drill press, compressor, and sander/grinder made the cut (plus a few portable power tools, of course).

I’m reserving one generous bit of bench real estate for a key tool that I’m seriously considering moving aboard the boat when the time comes… a small CNC router (either a BlueChick implemented in sealed birch ply or the smaller FireBall V90, but I’m not sure yet). This will solve the pesky problem of making precise and beautiful front panels, of which I need about ten, and will also lend itself to printed-circuit milling, signage, and random small parts amenable to the 2.5-D approach (not full 3D). The thought of gliding into an anchorage with custom-parts fabrication ability, perhaps also with a future incarnation of the MakerBot tucked into a corner, is intriguing… much barter and nickel-generation potential.

In the photo above, the robot will fill the table and the wall will carry my old mini-ITX SolarPC, dedicated to stepper motor control and interfaced via parallel port. It’s how the hobby CNC world does things, and that’s fine with me… no wheels to reinvent, and just a few more learning curves!

The rest of Polaris is about what you’d expect for the intended geeky mission: a robust electronics lab, general shop, hacking space, and rolling inventory bin. As I work on projects aboard Nomadness, I find that most of them don’t need anything more than what is about to be right up the ramp in the parking lot. It should speed things considerably.

Unplugging from Camano

And so, a long epoch is about to end. When I landed on Camano Island in 1998, it was to be for 2-3 years – just enough to finish the Microships and take off. But life has a way of throwing little curves, and there were enough of those to slowly grow roots much deeper than the ones I had to rip free when I left Ohio on my bicycle in 1983. Not only does that get harder with age, but “the wanderer’s danger is to find comfort,” as William Least Heat Moon once said. Or, even more poetically, this exquisite graffiti I spotted back in 1986 or so on a San Francisco municipal bus:

Soft chains are the most difficult to break:
affection, ease.
The spirit, wide-eyed, limp-muscled, nestles
on its side
and waits….

Well, not anymore. Here we go!

Fair winds,

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This post is a sort of interlude; Dervish is now rigged and is about to join Nomadness in the marina, and Polaris is complete enough to begin accepting a distillation of lab inventory. Lot of progress, in other words, but no compelling central story.

Instead, I thought it would be fun to present a couple of historical articles that have been in my media binders for ages, but just came across my desk in convenient machine-readable form thanks to my old friend Zonker Harris. Written by Mike Cassidy for the San Jose Mercury News, these capture the strange time between my cycling epoch and the transition to water.

First, from 1993:


SOME things you should know about Steven K. Roberts:

He calls his bicycle BEHEMOTH, and like other bikes it has a light, a horn and many gears. It also is 13 feet long, weighs 580 pounds fully loaded, carries three computers — a Macintosh and two DOS systems — a cellular phone with modem and fax capability, an answering machine, CD stereo system, a ham radio, solar panels for power, and a satellite receiver that allows him to send and receive electronic mail anywhere and tracks his exact longitude and latitude. It has a security system, which will page him and dial 911 on the cellular if someone tries to move the bike without logging on.

“It can say, ‘Hello. I’m a bicycle. I’m being stolen, ‘ ” said Roberts, 40, who added that no one has ever tried to steal his BEHEMOTH, a recumbent bicycle, the low-to-the-ground sort that the rider reclines on. “I don’t know what a cop would do with that information.”

Probably scream and seek professional help.

Roberts’ guiding principle is freedom, not as in freedom of religion or freedom of speech, but as in absolute, what-you-learned-about-in- philosophy- class freedom. He thinks a lot. He’s pedaled more miles than most people drive in a year. He does not live anywhere. He does not work anywhere. He falls in love, via electronic mail. And he sees a world where commuting will be obsolete, a vision for which he deserves some sort of medal.

In short, he is a complicated fellow, different from you and me. He’s different from me, anyway.

It is hard to say whether Roberts is a man ahead of his time, or whether his time is ever even coming. But it is also hard to find anyone these days who is living exactly as he or she wants to, and in that regard, Roberts comes mighty close.

He relies on the kindness of strangers — well, not strangers exactly, but people he has encountered on electronic networks — and the benevolence of 150 corporate sponsors who have given him gizmos, work space and ideas that he’s molded into the priceless BEHEMOTH (Big Electronic Human Energized Machine, Only Too Heavy).

Roberts was in Monterey last week to give a speech. It’s how he makes his living, along with writing books and articles and occasional high-tech consulting.

He is something of a celebrity in Silicon Valley, where he completed the last year of work on BEHEMOTH in a lab at Sun Microsystems Inc. in Mountain View. He is also a well-known member of the subculture that carries on transcontinental and international conversations and relationships via electronic computer networks. He has even become known among the more pedestrian who have seen his story in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Time, Newsweek and, of course, People; or heard it on National Public Radio, CBS and, of course, Donahue.

There is no question he knows people, or knows of them. From his electronic encounters, Roberts has built a Couch Circuit Management System that contains the names of 4,500 people who have offered a place to stay or other help. So, if he’s in Toledo or Tucumcari, Tallahassee or Tulsa, he simply calls up a local map grid, finds the icon that indicates a willing host, clicks on it, and up comes the file detailing just what was offered when.

It has worked for 17,000 miles since 1983 when he chucked his house, his job designing industrial control systems and his life in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, and hit the road in search of fun and to prove a point.

“It should be possible to be where you want to be, ” said Roberts, who writes while he pedals, with the aid of a series of shorthand keys on his handlebars, a head mouse and a small eye-level screen he can watch out of one eye. “An awful lot of people who are sitting in single-occupancy vehicles are just driving to work to sit at a computer, which doesn’t make much sense.”

Maybe not. But it would seem Roberts’ life isn’t for everyone. People who are uncomfortable staying with strangers, for instance, or those who like neat schedules or people who need people, for that matter. But what do I know? Roberts said he’s never lonely.

“No, it’s wonderful living on the net, ” he said with genuine enthusiasm. “I have a very strong community there. What it feels like is wandering around my neighborhood and dropping in on my friends.”

He said he’s even fallen in love with the woman next door, electronically speaking.

“You just get to know somebody so well, ” he said. “What you end up doing is having a rendezvous somewhere.”

Interesting. Do tell about the time that happened.

“Which one?”

Roberts said he can’t imagine a world without electronic mail anymore than he can imagine returning to his life in Ohio. But he is making some concessions. He hasn’t been on a long ride with BEHEMOTH in nearly two years. Instead, he’s hauling the bike around in a trailer pulled by a pickup, making speeches and appearing at bicycle shows and technology expositions. In fact, his life with the BEHEMOTH is coming to an end.

“I’ve gotten burned out on asphalt, ” he said. “After 17,000 miles, the road is no longer interesting. I’m tired of being in a noisy, dirty environment.”

Which is why he is building a high-tech kayak.

That was written right at the beginning of the Microship project, when it was still endearingly simple (indeed, based on a single kayak, before I started venturing into kayakamarans and beyond).

Three years later in 1996, when I was working on a 30-foot trimaran in the Silicon Valley lab sponsored by Apple Computer, Mike wrote this bittersweet piece:


Steven Roberts is an analytical man who knew better than to become too attached.

Still, it was hard not to.

He and his friend, whom he calls Behemoth, had traveled thousands of miles together. If Behemoth did not save Roberts’ life, he certainly sustained it. But Roberts always knew this day would come – the day to say goodbye.

Very soon, Behemoth, a 580-pound recumbent bicycle that Roberts packed with the computer power of a spaceship, will be history.

This isn’t simply about a man and his bicycle. For while Roberts, 43, is simply a man, Behemoth is not simply a bicycle.

Behemoth is 12 feet long, carries a Mac and two IBM compatibles. Its equipment includes a cellular phone, a fax, a satellite transmitter and receiver, a ham radio, solar panels for power, a handlebar keyboard and a mouse Roberts can manipulate with his head as he rides. Behemoth also talks, with a heavy computer synthesizer accent, but it’s talking nonetheless.

It was a glorious machine in its prime, which is not what Behemoth is in now. Instead, like an aging elephant, Behemoth has returned to Silicon Valley to die where it was born. It sits in a Santa Clara warehouse surrounded by Roberts’ new loves: Faun Skyles, a 25-year-old human, and Microship, a 30-foot trimaran hull that Roberts and Skyles plan to pack with computers and launch in early 1998.

“I have very warm feelings for Behemoth, ” Roberts says. “But there comes a point when you say, ‘OK, I’ve done it.’ “

Such is the peril of high-tech relationships. The bonds between people and machines are inevitably broken by the incredible pace of innovation. Silicon Valley is not a place for permanence, nostalgia or sentiment. Sure, Roberts has feelings for Behemoth, which in its current and two earlier forms carried him around the country for more than a decade.

“That changed my life, ” Roberts said glancing at the idle bike.

But that was then.

In 1983, Behemoth was just the thing. That’s when its prototype, the Winnebiko, carried Roberts away from the Midwest and his drab suburban existence.

“I was stuck in Columbus, Ohio, doing things I didn’t like that much so I could buy things I didn’t really want that much.”

Roberts spent the next dozen years pedaling, using the Internet to make new friends and keep in touch with the world. He camped and stayed with those he met on the Net. He lived on free-lance writing, paid speaking engagements and computer consulting work.

He built and perfected Behemoth with the help of high-tech sponsors who donated gizmos and volunteers who donated time. He wrote a book.

And then one day, pedaling through Wisconsin along Lake Michigan, it struck him. Behemoth was through. It was time for the next thing. An innovation. A boat.

So, for two years, most recently in the Santa Clara warehouse, Roberts and Skyles have been assembling the Microship. They are outfitting it with four computers, video cameras to beam pictures to the Web, a satellite navigational system and a solar-driven power plant.

They have a ways to go, but one day they will sail. At best, the old Behemoth will tour Silicon Valley as an oddity at brown bag lunches. It is a fate Behemoth does not relish. This we know, because Behemoth said so.

“Big, stupid boat, ” Behemoth croaked in its synthesized voice recently. “Steve. Steve, are you ever going to ride me again?”

Roberts had no answer. He simply kept ab
out his work.

I know, we shouldn’t anthropomorphize machines. They hate that!

So where are they now? The bike is in the Computer History Museum, where it belongs. The 30-foot trimaran was sold shortly after this piece was written, and I redirected development efforts toward an amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran… which now lies idle in my lab here on Camano Island, Washington. After a brief rocketship interlude (sort of a Microship-on-steroids in the form of a Corsair 36 trimaran), I’m now working on moving aboard a 44-foot steel pilothouse monohull while my partner does likewise with a Cal 2-29, together forming the seed of the technomadic flotilla.

It’s been a long and convoluted journey, but on one level it’s just beginning!

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Dervish of the Salish Sea

The trickiest part of an insanely complex and steadily morphing project is the way it warps the lives of all involved. I have a long history of watching relationships flounder while I devote all available time and energy to technomadic dreams, obsessed with gizmological overlays on boats and bikes, revising designs to keep pace with technology, sometimes hitting RESET and reverting to square one with only the satisfaction of a learning curve to amortize the years and dollars past.

It has thus been no surprise that we have been experiencing rising tension along these lines here at Nomadic Research Labs. One little part of my brain mutters, “oh no, here we go again,” another takes stabs at logistical palliatives like real estate, and the rest continues to design quixotic network architectures whilst drooling over the latest shiny bits.

I certainly have been taking too long to get moving; no argument there. Part of the problem is my habit of being “boggled by my own imagination,” as Dave Wright astutely observed; the rest lies squarely in the domain of facilities that are simply wrong for this project. A dozen years ago, I landed here to get the Microship done, but now the boatlet is a sculpture in my lab and my real ship is too far away.

This is what drives the Polaris mobile lab project (which is going well), but we have also been searching for the magic wand that would bring all the rest together… including us. Sky arrived here almost 2 years ago, eager to hop aboard a sailboat and take off with me on a life of adventure; she cares little for blinky bits and on-board servers. “This is my business and passion,” I would explain, going on to sketch product spin-offs, book ideas, monetized bloggage… all interspersed with the soaring vision of my starship and magnum opus.

About a month ago, I thought of a solution radical enough to border on the absurd: get a second boat for Sky and her dog, finish the mobile lab, put tonnage-reduction into turbo mode, and move the whole kitten kaboodle to a marina where we could pursue dreams various while renting out the home-base facilities (a positive cash flow would be nice about now). This would let me focus on geekery, plant the seeds of the flotilla, let Sky spend more time on water, and eliminate the need to stay rooted to a land-based lifestyle that we don’t want.

She naturally loved that idea and went on a quest… but the boat she chose (a nicely equipped Cascade 27) was too expensive, yet prohibitively small for my galumphing body. I vetoed it with much gnashing of teeth, and there the matter sat for a while, neither of us sure what was to follow, storm clouds on the horizon.

Had we reached an impasse? While we never really questioned the fundamentals of the 2-boat idea, we were coming to fear that my shrunken budget would not cover anything adequate for Sky to live aboard. The cheapies (like an abandoned Watkins that went up for auction recently) were too depressing.

But through a classic friend-of-a-friend scenario, my sweetie located a 1974 Cal 2-29 on a trailer in Olympia. In a curious twist, the owner had taken it in trade from a fellow whom I knew from a few Cruisers Forum threads, and he turned out to be a wealth of good information about the boat (see his blog). We concluded that this was an interesting opportunity, so without giving ourselves too much time to over-analyze and come to our senses, we bought the boat… trailer and all!

My first suggestion for a name was Dharma, which is an acronym for “Dog House And Relationship Maintenance Accessory.” We decided that explaining this would become tiresome, and the otherwise meaningful term had been tainted by the silly Dharma and Greg sitcom. But for years, Sky has carried a vision of her dream boat, jaunty and salty, to be named Dervish. A fiberglass Cal may not have quite the look she had imagined, but life is here and now, and this will take her on many a dance with the winds of the Salish Sea. Dervish it is.

And so, on to logistics. Boats are clumsy and useless on trailers, though I did briefly have the vision of parking it by the lab for a long project of incorporating Geeky Goodness. Aghast, Sky said “nothing doing,” and took control of the project… beginning with extraction from what became a very muddy field when the rains came. My truck doesn’t offer much in the traction domain, so we ended up doing a big loop with the aid of a 1952 Case tractor.

We hauled her to Olympia’s Swantown Boatyard and splashed the next day via Travelift, then she got a tow north to West Bay Marina where her friends awaited. Here’s the happy skipper, still not quite believing that this is real…

With help from a fellow in the marina who does this sort of thing for a living, we got the one-lung Farymann diesel running and installed the shiny new Racor fuel filter that came with the boat. Little jobs progressed well, interspersed with evenings aboard other boats and social events various… Sky flying high as a new skipper, her friends excited, notebook filling with lists and sketches. For once I was in the background, enjoying the sense of not being responsible for any decisions, helping when needed but sometimes just staying out of the way. Rather relaxing.

Of course, being a boat, something had to go awry. After a brutal night at the windward dock in 50-knot winds (with one person getting blown into the water after midnight and rescued), we had an appointment to get the mast stepped. Our rigger, on the clock, showed up on schedule and confirmed the readiness of standing rigging. Sky gingerly motored over to the slip below the crane. Then we waited… and waited… while the guys puttered with the masterwork of deferred maintenance, trying to get it to start. It never did.

Jim Benson and Sky

Out of time, we put Dervish back to bed and drove north, making plans for the next attempt and the hundred-mile delivery sail to bring the boat to the marina where Nomadness lies a-wintering. Once Polaris joins them (in the parking lot, of course), all three elements of Nomadic Research Labs will be in place. Sky and Zuby-dog will move aboard the little boat, Java-cat and I will occupy the big boat, and we’ll be one huge step closer to resuming a life of technomadic adventure.

Sky’s version of this tale appears in her Dramanauts blog, with some interesting contrasts compared with my take.

Nomadness (not yet renamed in this pre-purchase photo), Dervish, and Polaris

Working on systems while living with them should be much more entertaining, and Sky will no longer be sitting around waiting for me to get done with my ├╝bergeekery so we can go sailing. It sounds a little crazy, but I’m convinced that the Two Boat Solution is an elegant lifestyle hack. Now I just need to find someone who wants to rent a 4000 square feet of shop and house in the woods of Camano Island…

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Adventures in a Geek Playpen

Oh good grief… has it really been 5 months since the post about clawing our way off a lee shore with a failed anchor windlass? It seems ages ago, back when leaves were on trees, the sun shone late into the evening, and I was lulled once again into the complacent fiction that sweet summer would last forever. Time slipped away with too little sailing, too many lists, and not enough of the fun that really is the bottom line.

Now the forest is naked, it’s been dark since about 4 PM, Christmas just jangled by (as surreal as ever), and there is an impossible backlog of bloggage. I’ve let Facebook, Twitter, and my live page be the safety valve for news, and that has delayed the production of more substantial and enduring efforts. There has been good progress on multiple fronts, however, so let’s dive in:

Mobile Lab

It has become clear that I’ve been in a cushy trap for quite a long time – huge building for geekery and cozy little house in an isolated forest setting, my nautical escape pod too far away in a marina. This translates into absurd inefficiency, with infrequent “work trips” truncated by the need for parts or tools. Time… just… passes… and when I see ads for shiny new versions of yet-uninstalled hardware on the shelf, alarm bells go off in my head.

We did spend quite a while on a quest for alternative real estate near marinas, investigating purchase and rental options, but in this market the thought of trying to get a bridge loan is daunting and I’m not drawn to either side of the landlord/tenant equation. So after much time spent chasing around, that idea fell by the wayside; the goal is to move aboard, not shuffle home base facilities. We recently looked into the seemingly mad idea of getting a second (much smaller) boat for Sky and her dog, allowing me and my cat to wallow in geeky clutter aboard Nomadness until the cows come home. That still doesn’t solve the lab-far-from-boat problem, however, though it may become rational when tonnage-reduction asymptotes and we find ourselves wanting to seed the technomadic flotilla.

The real problem is deceptively simple: having workspace near the boat. So, as I discussed back in April, I’m building a mobile lab named Polaris that can be parked in a marina and provide enough R&D; facilities to get me through this project. Progress on that has moved in spurts, and it is shaping up well: the trailer now has insulation, shore power, breaker panel, general lighting, and all major furniture installed. I am about to start incorporating inventory, building a DC power system with the boat’s old inverter/charger, and adding a small machine shop in the stern with a dust-control curtain to keep flying aluminum chips away from ones made of silicon.

Here’s the power panel, built into a hinged door on the front wall where the nose cone provides plenty of clearance:

Those are Blue Sea Systems marine AC & DC breaker panels on the left, with a retro AC voltmeter in the middle. The right column is the Prosine 2.0 panel, LINK battery monitor, and Trace C40 solar charge controller. The black knob on the right is a Southco latching system with two rods that are guided into wooden receivers top and bottom; this allows easy access for service.

Shore power is a 50-foot 30-amp marine cable, with a pigtail at the distant end adapting it to the RV standard when needed. This keeps the hardware interoperable with the boat, and the whole lashup is a precise replica of a typical small-boat power system… providing a development environment for two of the Arduino-based nodes that are part of the Shacktopus network that runs the ship.

In the furniture domain, there is a beautiful steel desk at the bow (port side), followed by a massive wooden bench modified to clear the wheel well. On the starboard side, there is a combination steel file/drawer cabinet at the bow, followed by the man-door, a small cabinet for trailer-related hardware, a stainless tool chest, the “inventory bench” I built ages ago for a previous mothership, and the standing workbench that will carry power tools. All this is stuff repurposed from my lab, and has so far been free:

Once I finish bolting everything down and wiring AC and DC power to the benches, the fun begins: cherry-picking the choice bits out of my sloppy 3000 square-foot building and packing them efficiently into 6.4% of that. Obviously, my old “never know, might need it someday” criterion for what to keep will no longer apply. I may miss a few things, but it is going to be a joy to walk (imagine!) from Nomadness to Polaris, roll up my sleeves, mill a slot in a hunk of polycarbonate, solder up a cable, and saunter back to the ship to knock another couple of things off the to-do list.

Ship Power System

Aboard the boat, one of the most critical tasks has finally been completed: extracting the finicky old power-management system and installing an all-Outback solution. This consists of an inverter/charger, a control panel known as the MATE, a monitoring node with three shunts, a maximum power point solar charge manager, and an ethernet hub tying them all together. The MATE makes data streams from all components available via a serial port, so this will be a key data-collection project to allow observing the system from afar and plotting historical data.

I did a quick temporary plywood packaging hack where the old hardware was located, including an exit vent for new fans that can be automatically turned on when things get hot (a feature missing from the original system, requiring 50% derating during heavy charge).

Once this region of the power panel (adjacent to the Bridge) is rebuilt, this will be more elegantly integrated… but it’s great to see the batteries being managed properly. The old gear is not going to waste; it’s been reassigned to the mobile lab.

The Playpen

My plan ever since acquiring the boat has been to convert the original nav station into an equipment console, so much of the planning involved just how, exactly, to shoehorn everything into such a small space… yet keep it serviceable. Unfolding onto the chart table was the general plan, but I was dreading the cabling and general back-breaking access issues in what was basically a blind corner.

It occurred to me recently that there is no reason to cram this geekery into a restrictive space. I consider the system integration project to be central to the entire mission of the boat, and have decided to reawaken the spirit that drove the Winnebiko (photo) and BEHEMOTH (photo) projects. The bike became an iconic technomadic substrate because the incorporation of cutting-edge computing and communication tools was my primary design goal… not an afterthought or something that had to be tucked away discretely in packs.

Like the bike, the boat is a platform for my life’s enduring passion… and that is not something that can thrive when banished to a distant hobby room.

Sooooo, space constraints have relaxed. Here’s the area that is about to change dramatically:

I’ve never much liked this space, even though the table is beautifully made; I can’t fit my galumphing body into the end near the mast partner, and the seats are uncomfortable. It usually ends up being a storage space for clutter, cleared occasionally for dinner or a spirited round of Mexican Train.

The new plan is a complete inversion, with a swivel chair replacing the table, wrap-around desktop that does not interfere with existing stowage below the seats, and 3 or 4 sloping-panel consoles (maybe 19″ rackmount, though there is little reason to adhere to that standard). Integrated into the long part of the desk is a full-size digital piano (this one, since I already have it, although a sleeker/cheaper unit would be smarter in this environment), with a hinged cover that allows conversion between music studio and lab space.

The console segments are much more accessible than the one that was planned for the navstation space, each consisting of two or three surfaces: horizontal base substrate that can pull out from the cabinet for major service, hinged front panel that lays down on the desk, and optional top panel hinged off of that and supported at the distal end by rollers in mounted channels. I believe there will be three major enclosures, with a smooth segue into a fourth zone for test equipment and tools.

Most of the intense geekery is in the “System” console, containing the Linux server, Mac Mini, Time Machine backup drive, hierarchy of USB hubs and related serial stuff, EVDO router and other networking tools, local sensors, resource management, speech I/O hardware, video, monitor screens, and so on. This will be in the foreground on the photo above (I’d be facing the camera when using it), and the swing-arm LCD monitor will “park” on top of it and blend into the workspace. That monitor can also swivel to face the Bridge for charting use when underway, or land at the nav station desk for voyage planning and other pilothouse applications.

The second console, mounted at an angle to the first and in the forward left corner of the photo, is devoted to communications… voice/data radios and related tools. That turns out to be quite a bit of front-panel hardware, and also involves a few “black boxes” that need free airspace for cooling… those go in a loose enclosure on top, along with a coax patch panel, probes for the SWR/wattmeter, antenna analyzer, and so on.

Third, just above the piano and continuing the wrap-around console theme, is the audio system. This includes the stereo, studio mixer and control surface, podcasting studio equipment, and editing tools. Presumably, the swing-arm monitor can park close enough to this to be useful, as the Mac is essential for digital audio work.

Finally, the distant corner and far wall in the photo are spaces devoted to hackage, tools, test equipment, and other “workbench” activities. This should be vastly more pleasant than my current low “tool drawer” with everything in roll-up pouches; using that system is inconvenient enough that I end up not putting things away (and there’s no dedicated workspace).

This whole description is still a bit speculative, as I have not yet done the essential reality check of removing the table, parking a chair in its place, and using my CAD system (cardboard-aided design) to cobble an actual-size mockup of what my old friend Frank Feczko dubbed the Playpen. Things will get more clear once that “human factors” design is done and I’ve had a chance to sit and stare at it for a few hours.


What is suddenly more real, however, is the overall network design. The liberating vision described above prompted me to do something that has been on my list for months: create a module-level drawing of the entire ship system. The granularity on this is 1:1, with each object on the drawing corresponding to an actual physical device.

The full-size OmniGraffle drawing fills 18 pages, though it prints readably on 8. Since I’m not quite ready to reveal all the details yet, I’ll tease you with a version that’s a bit too small to read… but once the project is physically underway I’ll publish it as a full-size poster:

The best part about this is an unexpected psychological effect… for months, I’ve had a background process in my brain that has been continuously refreshing and refining this system. Since it wasn’t yet documented, I couldn’t fully let it go. After about a week of work on this drawing, however, I was able to free wetware resources for other things (like console packaging). Mental backups are just as important as those of the hard-disk variety!

There’s enough detail in the clickable image above to quickly run through the overall design. Each of those five blue rounded rectangles is a major console zone: across the top are the three described above (Systems, Comms, and Audio); the bottom right is power, and bottom center is the pilothouse Bridge including NMEA2000 and navigation. Breaking from that organizational level, the graphic at the lower left shows the location of all the Arduino nodes around the boat, with a brief summary of each.

A big part of the system console is simply signal routing… those five long gray rectangles are USB hubs, and the ones owned by the red Linux board also pass through a switch that allows them to be picked up by the Mac. I have my software work cut out for me.

In a somewhat related aside, I drove to Silicon Valley last month for my favorite conference, and while there made a pilgrimage to my bike at the always-enchanting Computer History Museum and visited a few dear old friends. Enroute back, I spent an otherwise boring night in Williams… but chanced to go to a little Chinese restaurant. The food was OK, but the fortune cookie was perfect:

Firing up the TS-7800

The two serious computers in the console system are the Mac Mini with wireless keyboard and mouse (now in regular use here, since my clunky old MacBook Pro won’t accept a Leopard install) and the Technologic TS-7800 Linux board. We just fired up the latter for the first time a few nights ago, and are now in the early phases of that non-trivial learning curve.

The first hurdle was silly, but difficult… the board’s little piggyback switching regulator (allowing a wide input voltage range) did not have its input polarity labeled. I was surprised to find nothing on the manufacturer’s website about this, nor even in the Yahoo TS-7000 group archives, and the board itself was surprisingly inscrutable. The cost of an error here is high, and finally, after much Googlage, I found a comment on a forum where someone had fried his protection diodes by guessing wrong. So here, to simplify future attempts by other people to solve this mystery, is the answer:

Looking at the edge of the board with the power connector, +12 goes on the left pin of the OP-SWITCHREG (closest to the PC-104 header), and GROUND goes on the right, close to the three jumpers… as shown in the photo:

Anyway, once we avoided letting the smoke out and made a backup of the SD card image, the board came up and booted Linux as promised… whereupon we set up user accounts, SSH, encryption keys, and so on. Unfortunately, it seems to have come with an older version of Debian Linux – old enough that apt-get doesn’t recognize the structure of the new archive – so we couldn’t install the essential sudo to allow temporary root privileges while safe in a user environment. The current status of this project is thus squarely in the sysadmin domain, trying to figure out how to update the distro and otherwise get to the point where the fun stuff can begin.

I did try a sensor hello-world with the on-board SPI temperature sensor, but got a segmentation fault when I compiled and ran the included demo code. Ahhhh, learning curves.

The funny psychology here is that I still think of a board this size as a lightweight microcontroller. It feels weird to log into it via the LAN, run top, and see it frittering away on tasks various; it’s vastly more powerful than what I would have considered “Big Iron” during the BEHEMOTH epoch. But more complexity means more head-scratching; here’s Linux wizard Dave Warman, muttering about the 2007 Debian version in a brand new board:


This is getting a little long, but there’s 5 months worth of catch-up. I’ll close with a few random tidbits.

First, in the process of fulfilling a Christmas gift hint from Sky, I set off on a quest to find a cushy hot-water bottle for cold Northwest nights aboard. Amazon’s most visible offering is the German Fashy brand, with various cover options, but it’s pricey; Etsy was iffy at best. But on eBay I found a friendly seller with two bottle sizes and a variety of fleece covers. I ended up buying a his ‘n hers pair; mine is the big plaid one and Sky’s is the cat’s paw 32-ouncer. Almost “body-weight proportional,” even:

Here’s a link to their current auctions for 72-oz hot water bottles (which I recommend). It’s a great way to pre-heat a frigid berth, ease the back pain, or just improve general coziness. I mentioned that I’d be sending them some linky goodness, and he said the first five sailors who order and mention my name will receive a gift (no idea what, but that sounds good to me!).

Speaking of selling things, my online store has been stable for a while now, though I’ve been lazy about populating the catalog beyond a few Arduino-related geeky bits, random parts, surplus gizmology, and my books. Three recent additions are worth noting, however – Sky’s getting into the nickel-generation spirit with some products of her own: Zuby Snax homemade bacon doggie treats, eye pillows with flax seed and lavender, and Booty Bench meditation stools (which I find perfect for holding a laptop in bed). Her little corner of the store is the Geek-free Zone.

I mentioned at the beginning of this long posting that I’ve had a safety valve for news in the orthogonal social media contexts of Twitter (@nomadness) and Facebook (where I prefer to “make friends” only with people I actually know on some level, though I’ve been known to accept invitions that suggest a good connection). This has been handy, and has reached the level of critical mass where I can ask a technical question and have a fairly good chance of getting an answer. I really miss the old Nomadness mailing list, which at one time was over 4000 people; I don’t think I ever failed to elicit useful information by simply mentioning a problem in an update. My Facebook and Twitter connections are each around 10% of that, but the easy low-granularity chat has made them useful… to the detriment of this blog, since I put something out of my mind once it’s “posted.” I’ll try to be better about that, since once things fade into the past over there they are effectively lost (except to Facebook’s massive data-mining servers, of course, which know all).

It’s rather sinister, actually, but fun and convenient. Isn’t that always how it goes?

Those two tools are at one end of the spectrum, this and my static content pages are at another, and in the middle is the live page that actually gets tweaked almost every day. Among other things, it now shows the most recent minute of the boat’s on-board security camera (not automatically updating, however; you’ll get really bored if you stare at it). I tried to include that here, but it spills over the column and breaks the page layout.

Anyway, Happy New Year from Nomadness, and I look forward to reporting more frequently on the developing geekery!

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Imperiled on a Lee Shore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Second Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rigging the sailing dinghy the next afternoon. In the dink, that’s Bonnie on the left and Suzanne on the right; Sky is perched on the dock.
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