Blogs, Biz, and Bottom Jobs

Well, that sure took longer than expected. I had plenty of warning last year about the impending demise of the blogging tool I’d been using forever, but my standard PFD mode manifested itself… and for months, an item hovering ominously near the top of my to-do list was “URGENT: WordPress migration!” Actually doing this was complicated by other content in the same directory (under Joomla) as well as still more ancient static files, so I kept putting it off… even after Blogger abandoned the FTP service upon which I had been depending.

Few readers care about the infrastructure of a website, so I’ll spare you the grisly details… but the bottom line is that my friend and fellow sailor Barry Stellrecht happens to be a WordPress geek, and along with his delightful partner Meps, is taking a break from S/V Flutterby and visiting parents here on the island prior to heading off to Burning Man. In two sessions, with much heroics and magic-wand waving, Barry banished the cruft from, imported my old content, ensured that vintage permalinks still work, coached me on a few admin issues, and sent me on my way. Thanks, Barry!

A Flurry of Catch-up Notes

Since the last post was nearly 6 months ago, it would hardly do for me to just expound in detail on recent activity without first restoring context. I’ve been microblogging on Facebook, which has scratched the itch at this end, but that platform is useless when it comes to leaving a meaningful public archive. So I need to bring things up to date before sharpening the focus onto specifics.

The underlying challenge here is that there is no simple linear transition to a pair of distant sailboats from 4300 square feet of Geek Entropy on an island without moorage. I’m thus embarking on a caricature of “moving aboard,” complicated further by my quixotic desire to turn Nomadness into the Starship Enterprise in the process. I have to throw everything up in the air and expect it to fall back to earth, completely rearranged and considerably smaller… that 4300 square feet worth of stuff must now fit into about 1000.

A key tool for transitional stability is the mobile lab (named Polaris). This was well underway in my last posting, and is now essentially finished. Rather than fill space here with a description, I’ll just link to my 4-part series in MAKE:onlineMake it Anywhere with a Mobile Lab.

the mobile lab
Looking aft inside Polaris, with the folding whiteboard open to expose the wall of parts drawers.

At the moment, this machine is sitting outside my house on Camano Island, slowly becoming my primary workspace as I take the axe to over a decade of clutter. Things are leaving via FreeCycle, eBay, and garage sales… but there is a long way to go. Want some books?

Meanwhile, a temporary landing zone has been established in Olympia. We moved the sailboats a couple of months ago, and rented a small studio with enough land to accommodate trailers (the back yard of a dear old friend of Sky, about 4 miles from the marina). I’m not thrilled with the marina or South Sound in general, but I have hit a wall with every attempt to find live-aboard moorage with nearby powered parking in any of the places I’d like to be… and Sky has family health issues and a friend network pulling her in that direction.

And so, I’m spending this prime Northwest cruising season faffing about with logistics while my boat waits, freshly bottom-painted but stuck in murky waters on an end tie next to covered moorage. She’s in danger of whacking her shrouds on a metal roof in easterly winds and power-boat wakes, and if she’s still stuck there during heavy snowfall there’s the small matter of the dock sinking and being supported by bar-tight docklines connected to the trapped boats, but hey… at least I can park my mobile lab on-site and they are cool with live-aboards and boat work. That’s more than I can say for most marinas around here… few even answer email, most have waiting lists, and some will go all Nazi on your nautical ass if you dare open a paint can or spin up a drill.

Nomadness and Dervish on the end tie
Nomadness and Dervish on the 80-foot shared end tie. The metal posts hold up the roof of a long covered-moorage section.

At this point, I really want to find the fast-forward button and get moving on fun stuff. I’d take a break and go cruising, but I need to get my place on the island rented out ASAP to stem the bleeding cashflow.

Speaking of Business…

We had a somewhat crazy idea after buying Dervish (Sky’s sailboat) and being stuck with an unwanted boat trailer. Why not rent it out? Keelboat trailers are rare, and commercial boat-hauling services are expensive. I made a little web page, and she ran an ad in 48 North. The rig has been busy ever since, covering thousands of miles.

Sailboat trailer for rent
Our rental boat trailer can handle sailboats up to about 9000 pounds and 30 feet LOA.

It hasn’t been without trauma… all four tires developed bubbles and had to be replaced, the brakes had their wires pull out thanks to a rewiring job with insufficient slack, every job presents unexpected challenges, and we had to do one hauling job ourselves after a boat yard in Port Orchard declared loading a Catalina 27 impossible <eyeroll>. But it’s working, and at this rate Dervish should be paid for in a year or two of trailer-rental revenue.

Nomadness has an associated business model as well, but it requires extensive geekery and writing… a far more time-consuming process. The only ROI on my expensive monster will be the joy of geek expressionism, something I desperately want to get back to.

But there’s another boat in the Nomadic Research Labs flotilla that hasn’t gotten much attention lately, and that is the Microship. This amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran is the result of about a decade of full-time focus, all the money I managed to earn from speaking gigs, the generous help of hundreds of sponsors and volunteers, and one hired fiberglass/machining guru who spent years on-site at the Microship lab.

My life changed in various ways 6-7 years ago, derailing the planned expedition, yet I was loathe to pull the plug… so kept puttering on the project. This segued into the Bubba kayak, then Shacktopus (an abstracted technomadic toolset independent of mobile substrate). In 2005 my father passed away, so I spent 6 months shutting down the family home in Kentucky, then decided to leverage the value of the house to move up to a boat of global-voyaging scale.

The first attempt was a mistake (Microship-on-steroids, we called it), but then I found this Amazon 44. Despite a few things that might have been deal-breakers had I known about them, this is the boat I’ll be using for the foreseeable future… but one little detail remains: I still have the Microship, parked in the middle of the building that was erected for its construction.

More than just the familiar twinge whenever I walk through the lab, this is getting to be a bit of a problem: I have no place to put it, other than tarped-over in that Olympia back yard. Since I’ve finally accepted that the 14,000-mile Clueless & Lark expedition on coastal and inland waterways is not going to happen, I guess… well… I guess I need to sell the micro-trimaran.

Microship Wordplay docked on Bainbridge Island
Microship Wordplay docked on Bainbridge Island during the 2001 maiden voyage.

I put a note on the website about this a while back and got a few inquiries, but I really need to find a mediagenic technomadling who sees this as a way to shortcut a massive development effort. Of course, my design goals are quirky enough that there may be nobody who fits this unique boatlet, but in case there is…

Nomadness Haulout – a Photo Essay

Finally, an update on the boat. While all this has been going on, serious geekery (Arduino nodes, Linux server, console fabrication, even the Waterworks) has been back-burnered.

She did have a haulout, though – her first since 2005, and long-overdue. The diver in Oak Harbor, last time down, estimated 5-600 pounds of biology clinging to the bottom. Ancient antifouling paint was long-gone, and bare metal was showing in spots. Yikes. I scheduled a haulout at Swantown, coincident with the move to Olympia (an entertaining 3-day run that included anchoring in the front row for the legendary Quartermaster Harbor fireworks display on July 4).

I’ve had a few previous boatyard experiences that left me wary of the whole industry, but I gotta say this was pretty good. The Port folks (Tony and Jessica) were superbly competent, and the guys at Shurtz Marine were a pleasure to deal with. We had a long talk first, and agreed on a flat rate bottom job (with an upcharge for fancy paint), as well as all the hand-holding I needed at no charge (though they’d be happy to start the clock anytime, of course, if I decided to delegate).

Nomadness was on the hard for a couple of weeks, and I did all the prep work for the bottom job. There were about 150 patches of bare steel, and all had to be ground to bright metal, acid-etched, and covered with multiple primer coats… with every step constrained by induction times and temperature-dependent recoat intervals.

The worst part was the bottom of the keel, where completely unfamiliar paint colors revealed that this area had been ignored during previous haulouts. I spent the brutal heat wave of July suited up, grinding just inches over my head, and slinging toxins… yielding a self-portrait I used as my Facebook profile picture for a while:

head shot while grinding under the boat
I keep adding to my list of things I would never want to do for a living…

It was grim, but worth it… here’s a before-and-after photo of this out-of-sight/out-of-mind area. There’s plenty of steel there, of course, and aesthetics are not an issue, but it is very important with a metal boat to keep the protective “glove” intact.

Keel bottom before and after
Before and after view of the bottom of the keel. This involved many hours with pneumatic die grinder and Makita angle grinder, acid etch, 5 primer layers, and (later) 3 coats of Micron 66.

I complain, but the process was actually useful in an unexpected way… really getting to know my ship. Ultimately, I’m responsible for this machine; in some distant anchorage, if something goes wrong, there is nobody in the world who will care as much as I do about the situation. As I discovered in 2008 with the plumber-from-hell, assuming that someone else will take care of it is not a viable attitude for the captain of a vessel. Not only did I get an intimate feel for the entire underwater profile, but I made a database of all the through-hulls, extracted key dimensions, and photographed every detail.

Prepping the bare spots
Using a die grinder and non-woven abrasive to feather out bare spots on the steel keel before applying acid etch and 5 primer coats.

After completing all the prep, I stepped back and let their guys do the bottom job. I chose Micron 66, a self-polishing copper-acrylate copolymer that does not use TBT. Antifouling is one of those subjects that leads to endless passionate discussion in the forums, and I have no idea if it was really the best choice… but after discounting others that have not worked well for me and factoring in the steel hull and northwest usage pattern, I opted for this top-of-the-line Interlux product in the hope that it will delay my next haulout by a year. We went with a red indicator layer covered by blue, both with cayenne pepper added (useful, according to anecdotal evidence, but nobody really knows):

Bottom job complete
Bottom job nearly done. At this point, the boat had to be hoisted and re-blocked to allow access to the spots that were supporting the keel.

The remaining below-waterline details included Max-prop maintenance, replacing all the zincs, and going over everything with a keen eye. Here are the new sacrificial zincs, which are intended to give up material in response to galvanic or electrolytic influence before the much more expensive metal parts of the boat. Given the excellent coating, I’m not worried about the hull for now… but protecting that prop is critical, as well as the rudder shaft.

New zincs
Sacrificial zinc anodes on Nomadness. From top to bottom: one of these monsters is on each side amidships, the rudder post zinc is machined to fit, and both shaft and nose zincs protect the expensive 3-blade Max-prop

With the bottom done, I had to make a decision… how much to do topsides. There is no shortage of projects that would be much easier in a boatyard, including the looming mess caused by improper installation of aluminum opening ports. But that’s a big one, and I was getting nervous about time and money. I decided to limit the above-waterline jobs to repairing paint damage in three areas: the stem (from running up on a dock during a tricky maneuver in the wind last year, as well as other badly patched dings before my time), a 3″ starboard patch (from the rough workdock at Cap Sante after it ate one of my fenders in a storm), and a variety of rusty spots on the stern caused by bites from nasty steel fixtures on the dinghy.

Here is where Steve, the resident paint wizard at Shurtz Marine, really helped. He patiently explained the whole Awlgrip repair process, finally writing out an illustrated procedure sheet. I took everything down to bare metal with a vacuum sandblaster (coolest tool ever)…

Vacuum sandblaster
This amazing sandblaster eliminates the whole tenting and dust-control problem on localized jobs – it gloms onto the surface and blasts a spot about 1/2″ across.

From that point, it was just another precisely timed sequence of coatings, bringing the damaged areas up to a solid primer that can remain in that state for years (precise color-matching with Awlgrip is another matter entirely, and Steve didn’t blink with I told him that Cap Sante had quoted me $1300 to fix that little 3-inch patch caused by their dock). I’m just not going to go there; the only way to stay sane and avoid going broke as the owner of a steel boat is to frequently repeat this mantra:┬á “workboat patina.”

The stem, by the way, will be protected by a chunk of KeelGuard. This is a dense plastic strip that is held in place by a highly aggressive adhesive (“you have one shot,” said Steve). It’s not often seen on sailboats, but who cares? Next time I plow into something, it will provide another layer of protection… and the VEE of the Redneck Bow Thruster will use it as a gasket. Alas, we didn’t quite get to this, so I get to take that one shot from the wobbly platform of a dinghy.

Launch day arrived. Tony and the crew picked her up again (protecting the fresh bottom paint with wax paper under the straps) and gingerly deposited her back in the brackish waters of South Puget Sound. There is no relief quite like that of seeing your boat once again afloat…

Launching after Bottom Job
Nomadness flies back into the water after 2 weeks in the boatyard.

Now that the boatyard ordeal is over, my first project is inspired by the “hot” marina in which I’m parked, infamous for electrolytic corrosion due to deferred maintenance, metal dock structures, and a large number of derelict boats. My new zincs may be experiencing accelerated dissolution at the moment, but hopefully the galvanic isolator that came with the boat will minimize damage until I install the new isolation transformer.

I’ll save details on the AC power system for my next post, but here’s a nutshell summary of this project. To meet ABYC standards, I’ve added a dedicated shore-power circuit breaker, and also got rid of the old 30-amp twist connector in favor of a new SmartPlug. This goes straight to the Charles ISO-G2 isolation transformer, which is then one of the sources selected by a new Blue Sea panel. This is moving to the main power console, since the original location for AC switching was painfully unserviceable (it will become a much-needed pantry). And of course there will be new metering, integration with the Outback inverter/charger, and other refinements.

The most novel bit is a dedicated outlet (with ground-fault protection) for Dervish – making Nomadness the “shore power” source for the smaller boat. Given my 7.5 KW genset, shore isolation, and impending 420-watt solar array, this makes sense.

And Now, On with the Project!

Well, it feels good to catch up with this blog (tossing both Joomla and Blogger in the process). The writing process with WordPress is much more interactive and flexible, and I am no longer looking at maintaining this site as a chore.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be focused on shutting down the facilities on Camano Island (want some stuff?) and moving all operations to two boats, one mobile lab, an auxiliary trailer, and the studio. Sheesh. It’s a little embarrassing to realize that I used to live on a bicycle!

Cheers from the Nomadhouse,

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,


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!

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…

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!