Tip of the hat to Scuttlebutt for today’s kind News Brief about Panbo. It’s been crazy here, it’s Friday, and I’m going to keep it quite light. So meet LightCap, a 32 oz water jug with a solar panel, Ni-Cad battery pack, and both red and white LEDs built into its top. It sounds like a foolish thing but I’m liking the prototype Sollight sent over. You can’t quite read by it but there’s a wonderful shimmer created by the light passing through the water, which also gives it some stay-put heft. LightCap could definitely add a little more magic to a balmy summer evening spent relaxing in the cockpit.
Do unto others dept: visit Zephyr, a newish blog pleasantly probing “sailing culture for voyagers, zealots, poets and populists”.
Alrighty, then, it’s Uniden Day. While getting links for the earlier entry, I spotted this new Bluetooth cordless phone system that just might be terrific for bigger yachts. The key feature is connectivity between a Bluetooth cell phone and the base station which supports up to 10 cordless handsets. Hence you could tuck your precious cell away on the boat, safe from saltwater and preferably connected to an amp and high gain marine antenna. Bluetooth headsets are also supported, which means that some yachties may eventually look like those guys at the airports with blue LEDs blinking on their ears.
I actually think that the most important innovations in marine networking are happening over wires — Ethernet and NMEA 2000 wires — but some of the wireless happenings certainly are, er, sexy. I tested Uniden’s first WHAM wireless mic and, while it worked OK, the screen was hard to read and the overall build quality didn’t impress. Now I’ve seen a prototype of the second generation WHAM and it is a whole new animal. Not only does the screen look very readable, but it now has greater range and function. It seems possible that you’ll be able to wander anywhere on a boat, and maybe a ways down the docks, easily carrying full power (25W) VHF and intercom capabilities. I’m supposedly on the list to try a couple of WHAMs, along with the interesting UM625c (for color) fixed radio, soon.
Hot words about NMEA 2000 were tossed into a recent rec.boats.electronics thread:
“Oh, boy! Another proprietary, improperly documented, non-standard data protocol designed to keep the marine electronics assholes swimming in money for another decade...”
Yike! I believe that every phrase and implication — heck, every word — in that diatribe is wrong, though I do understand the frustration of hobbyists and small developers who want the same access to NMEA 2000 that they have to 0183. But 0183 can not do what needs to be done on today’s boats, at least not easily. For an example of “not easily” check out the data system on Steve Dashew’s new boat, mentioned earlier, especially the bigger version of the diagram below. I’ll be posting a lot about 2000 in future weeks as I test some interesting gear.
SSB SailMail, Sat C, GSM phones using GPRS data, Iridium, marina WiFi, Internet Cafes (“Curses to French keyboards!”), online banking, malicious spyware — damn, some long range cruisers are becoming IT professionals. Yesterday, SetSail.com put up a series of “Sailor Logs” on the topic of “Staying in Touch & Paying the Bills While Cruising”. Very interesting stuff from 5 cruisers in different parts of the world. Among other things, I learned that Iridium now has $1/minute pre-paid SIM cards and — they’re popping up everywhere — Australia has a marina WiFi service.
SetSail is the work of Steve and Linda Dashew (and family), and it’s loaded with content. In fact you can get lost. Do check out the radical cruising powerboat that the Dashews will soon launch in New Zealand. Sometimes called FPB for Fast Pilot Boat, sometimes “The Unsailboat”, it is wired.
Just got a note from a beloved, though former, in-law who’s wicked frustrated in his quest to find the right radar/plotter for his classic sail boat. The Raymarine C80 would do the trick, except for all the “damn cables”:
“There are at least three of them to allow for radar, gps, and power, and more if you want more instruments. And these are not lightweight lamp cords, either: the C-series specs tell us to allow 8" clearance behind the instrument for the radar cable. Absurd. And it really ties down the unit to a very fixed mount, which is my ultimate objection. I'd like to have it mounted at the nav station, but be able to swing it out to the cockpit at need. It's possible, but with all those heavy cables, very clumsy and inelegant.”
He wonders if there is a black box solution with wireless display? There is the Panasonic MDWD and other untethered PC solutions, not to mention some really interesting wireless instruments coming from the likes of TackTick and Deep Blue Marine, but a real marine portable multifunction display doesn’t really exist…yet. The good news is that most of the big boys—Furuno, Northstar, Garmin, and Raymarine—now use Ethernet to connect multiple displays, which means a WiFi connection is quite possible. (My “it could be worse” photo shows one locker on the bridge of a mega yacht under construction in Italy.)
Yesterday KVH announced that ISDN (by-the-minute data) service for its big Fleet 77 Inmarsat communications systems is going from 64 to 128 kilobits per second. And hence “with KVH's exclusive Velocity™ Acceleration software, broadband data connections as fast as 500 Kbps - roughly the speed of residential DSL or cable Internet service - can be achieved, depending on network traffic and the data being transmitted.” The release says that existing F77 systems are compatible with the upgrade, and seems to imply that 128 Kbps will be charged differently than 64, though the new rates aren’t yet on KVH’s Inmarsat Airtime sheet (a PDF file here). It’s amazing how connected a deep sea vessel can be these days, but the difference between the hardware and costs involved and what’s happening on land, or near to land, remains profound. Some coastal cruisers complain about high power marina WiFi services that cost about $10 per day while Inmarsat ISDN is $7 per minute. And boats using satellite Internet have to be careful about leaving computers online or letting programs like Windows automatically download updates. A few years ago I attended (and wrote about) a communications seminar where several mega yacht captains spoke of accidental $50,000/month Inmarsat bills!
Another important feature of the new Max and Platinum chart card formats I wrote about earlier today is their vastly expanded POI (Points of Interest) databases. Click on an icon and you can find out a marina’s phone #, services offered, and much more. Ditto for hotels, grocery stores, and other services. One electronics wag predicts that eventually we’ll be able to check out the menu at a dock-and-dine restaurant before we tie up. But this stuff is not entirely new. Contemporary paper charts don’t include POI info, but old time cartographers were often artful with it. The snip below is just a couple of square inches from a panoramic of the New York City waterfront that fills one corner of a 1685 chart of New England. Many points of interest are labeled with letter keys, including the gallows (G), illustrated in use! Click here for a larger image of the chart (a new Panbo feature). I’ll write an entry soon on where to find high resolution antique chart images like this on the Web.
Why do C-Map’s full page ads for its new Max chart format feature a woman wearing a cartographic body suit? Even the model looks like she thinks it a goofy idea! Especially since Max has so many interesting and graphic new features — panoramic photos of harbor entrances, animated tidal current predictions and navigation light characteristics, street mapping, 15 levels of land contours and 32 of depth (now in 256 colors), and a perspective view that let’s a navigator see chart detail up close to the boat while still keeping an eye on what’s further ahead. And none of it has been seen on plotters before. C-Map has a dedicated Max site here. I wrote about Max and Navionics’ new Platinum format (not much on the Web yet) for the June issues of PMY and Sail, and we tried to use as many illustrations as possible. I think that both new formats are sexy, but not literally!
I’ve learned a lot about how boaters are using WiFi along the our coasts, and it’s darn exciting. Savvy folks are using the Internet to the max for fun, work, and even cruise planning (weather, slip reservations, etc.) using fast wireless connections, either free or from dedicated marine services, in anchorages and marinas from the Abacos to the Straits of Georgia. You won’t hear much about this in the marine press because it’s kind of a helter skelter scene with very few big players.
Yet a clear key to success is good equipment. You might find an occasional hotspot using Centrino built in WiFi and standard Windows XP WiFi software but you’ll do a whole lot better with a high power (200 mw) WiFi card or USB device connected to a high gain (6–12 db) 2.4 GHz omnidirectional antenna with low loss LMR400 coax cable and some decent WiFi software (like the free program available from Boingo). You won’t find this stuff at Staples! And so far hardly any regular marine electronics outlets have gotten into this market. Places to look for long range WiFi gear are: Broadband Express, a Pacific Northwest marine service provider (gear shown); MarineNet, a Florida marine communications outfit; and HyperLink Technologies, a commercial all-things-wireless equipment vendor (where there’s also great detail on which cards use which connectors, etc.).