August 2005 Archives

Sea-Me, look BIG out there

Aug 31, 2005

Cylinder round baseThe Sea-Me active radar reflector has been around for a few years, though it’s not well known in the States. I was just reminded of it by an article in the British publication Yachting Monthly, which recently tested just about every radar reflector available, both in a lab and on the water. The Sea-Me blew the others away. By amplifying and sending back the X-band radar signals that hit it, this gizmo can make a small yacht look like a big ship. Which is exactly how I’d like to look in the Dover Straits or right outside Camden on a foggy day like this. I once wrote a column discussing this concept, along with how radar reflectors are tested and the Sea-Me. The scary truth is that most radar reflectors on the market are not very effective. The fairly large and expensive passive ones that did well in Yachting Monthly’s testing were the Echomax EM230 and standard size Tri-Lens.

The magnetic compass, yay or nay?

Aug 30, 2005

KL CompassAt right is a aft-looking view of the Eastbay helm I visited last week. You can see some serious wood work that puts the steering compass right where you’d want it. The problem is that this compass performs poorly; apparently its deviation error varies with the status of various electronics and is therefore not correctable. I hear this story all the time. And the second part of the story is like most: the owner doesn’t much care, as he’s content with the COG and heading readings he gets from his GPS and the electronic compass in his autopilot. In fact, of the 4 new J-100s launched in my harbor this summer (there’s a sailboat model on fire!), only one has a magnetic compass (but all have 12” multifunction displays!). That really surprised me as sailors tend to be the most compass obsessed of boaters. What’s going on? Is the traditional compass going the way of the paper chart? Is there one on your boat? Is it adjusted properly? Do you use it? I’d appreciate your thoughts.

It happened that a very experienced compass adjuster I know stopped by yesterday. He told me that the compass above is a poor quality Danforth, and that a similarly sized Ritchie SS-2000 would likely do a better job. I’m hoping to tag along with Jeff on an adjustment job, and learn more about how to make a magnetic compass work well around a modern helm full of electro-magnetic forces.

By the way, the odd little frame next to the compass above is a serial port so that routes and waypoints can be uploaded into the Northstar 6000i’s via NMEA 0183.

DVD on a plotter, not bad

Aug 29, 2005

DVD Standard

I tried plugging a regular household DVD player into two video capable plotters last week, and the results were quite viewable, confirming the value of helm stereos that can also play video discs. That’s a Standard Horizon CP1000 10” above and a Raymarine E120 12” below. Both have some control over picture brightness, contrast, and color saturation, though the E’s is easier to find and use. The E also has a choice of aspect ratios, but I still couldn’t get the picture to fill the full width of the screen. And yes, that is the actor from Friends who now mocks his acting career on the TV show Joey. This particular job, Lost in Space, must have been inspirational. I have no idea why the DVD is lying around my house.

DVD RayE 2

Hurricane warnings, oldee style

Aug 26, 2005


Hurricane Katrina whacked south Florida fairly hard yesterday and now it looks likely that she’ll power up and smack the northwest section of the state early next week. Per usual, there’s an extraordinary amount of data and valuable prediction information at the National Hurricane Center’s web site. Hurricanes are truly meteorological loose cannon, but it is amazing how far our ability to forecast them has advanced. I got to tour the NHC facility in Miami in early 2004 and was bowled over by the high levels of technology, data i/o, and brain power. That was the year that NHC’s back testing program indicated that their forecasting was good enough to begin issuing 5 day track predictions, which have no doubt saved lives and property since. By contrast, observe above how hurricane warnings were delivered to sponge boats off St. Pete, Florida, in 1938 (from NOAA’s online photo library).

Now, no idiot U.S. Senator (carrying water for a few private weather companies) is going to stop NOAA from distributing hurricane information, but, as you likely know, Senator Santorum of Pennsylvania does have a bill in process that might severely limit its ability to share less critical information. BoatU.S. has just posted a good editorial on the issue. Following one of its links, I found and used an easy e-mail form to register opposition to the bill with my senators. Why don’t you? 

Update, 8/28: Naturally I’m curious if Katrina could reach Maine with any force, and I now see that the NHC has a new series of ‘experimental’ wind graphics that are quite valuable. This one shows me that the models now predict a 5–10% probability of over 50 knot winds on Thursday. Hmmmmm. Note that it can be animated if you click on ‘loop’.

Navman M300, GPS as a pedometer?

Aug 25, 2005


I’ve been trying this Navman M300, the marine model in a  new line of small GPS “Sport Tools” designed to strap to your arm while you windsurf, skate, ski, run, or walk. It delivers speed, heading, distance covered, lap times, etc., but not position or “go to” guidance. And it will not interface to a PC for data collection or waypoint passing. Both interface and tightly defined purpose are KISS (keep it simple, stupid) ideas, largely I’m guessing to differentiate the Tools from the various Garmin Foretrex and Forerunner models that dominate this niche. There are only two buttons and about six choices for the text screen (which is small but readable in all daylight conditions). The firmware for some models seems to have especially valuable features—like the way the ski model leaves the lift segments out of your speed averages and distances—but personally this marine model doesn’t excite me (learning how Richard Stephens uses his Foretrex did, but that’s me). I’m also dubious that “reliably water resistant” is good enough for wind surfers; I know that when I used to do it I’d spend a good deal of the time thrashing about while submerged up to my chin! Then again I would like to know how blindingly fast I was going when I had it together. By the way, the 19 knots max speed above was on my bike, going down a steep hill. I need to exercise more.

Update, 9/2: My doubts abut the windsurfing model may be off base. I’ve now learned that they were used successfully for the Maui Speed Challenge (yes, Navman was a sponsor, but these are the top guys and wouldn’t tolerate a product that didn’t work well). 


Cruising on the high end, w/ Northstar

Aug 24, 2005

KL helm

Sorry if there’ve been too many “what’s on board” entries recently, but these are the high days of summer here, they don’t last long, and I’m enjoying them! Yesterday I took a little spin on this spiffy Eastbay 54SX; the ‘research’ will go into my next Helm Shot column in Voyaging. I’m particularly pleased with this picture (bigger here); I had to do a lot of fiddling to make it look like reality! (By the way, those are the Camden Hills out there; I live in the westward lee of the middle one).

Yes, there are FOUR Northstar 6000i’s on this single helm boat, but the very experienced owner—this may be his 13th sizable boat, he’s lost count—has his reasons. The two 10” displays on the Himalaya (that’s what they call that little mountain of an electronics cabinet you see on these tall windowed boats) are the main navigation tools, usually run chart left, radar right. (North up and head up, respectively…the man has been doing this a long time, and says he’s sticking with the modes he knows). They’re networked together with Northstar’s N2 (Ethernet), sharing a 4’ 12kw (special order) radar scanner, a GPS, and a black box fishfinder. The two smaller overhead displays share their own N2 network, another GPS, and a 4kw dome scanner. Redundancy! The system is also designed so that guests, or a co-pilot, can use that 6” display at far left without getting in the skipper’s way. Meanwhile the right 8” is ready to serve as backup if the main system packs up. (It’s also set to use radar overlay, which the owner admits to ‘peeking’ at on occasion ;-). There’s more of interest on this boat, but for later…

Onboard PC, what's the ideal?

Aug 23, 2005

 Funky nav laptop1

Over at there’s a great thread underway about the ‘perfect’ built-in onboard computer. I’m particularly interested as I’ll likely go that route if and when I ever manage to finagle a larger cruising boat. In the meantime, last week I put some miles on the rather funky rig above (bigger here), and it actually performed pretty darn well, even gunkholing around the hairy unmarked ledges in Penobscot Bay’s outer waters (it was calm and clear). I used the old soft case (and sometimes a towel) to keep the laptop from sliding around. Valuable accessories are the Hoodman screen hood (really cuts glare, though I notice they don't seem to sell this model anymore), a tiny Atek optical USB mouse, and an old Deluo USB GPS (no WAAS and weak signals in my cabin, but still consistently accurate). Here I’m using Coastal Explorer 1.1 (now shipping), which is giving me that “the more I use it, the more I like it” feeling. It happens that the designer of CE has an interesting description of his own onboard PC system here.

SART, what's that on my radar?

Aug 22, 2005

 Simrad RA85 sart

If you see the distinctive twelve pulse signature above on your radar screen, it means that someone in trouble has Simrad S50 SARTactivated a Search and Rescue Radar Transponder (SART). You’ll find them at the pulse closest to you. SARTs are a lesser known component of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), and thus are required on many commercial vessels, as well as some offshore races like the Fastnet. They're designed to be used in addition to DSC or EPIRB distress calls, helping already alerted rescuers zero in from about 10 miles to within about 500 feet. Simrad’s new SA50 model is especially compact at about 10" tall and 3" wide. It can be set up to turn on when a life raft is deployed, or manually activated. It retails at $975, and uses a battery pack that does not require ‘hazardous’ handling and has a 5 year shelf life. (Why Simrad distributes highly angled and/or shadowy pictures baffles me, but I do appreciate seeing what a SART actually looks like in use).

Photographing LCD screens, a challenge

Aug 18, 2005

PMYP-050800-electr-1My PMY column about testing NMEA 2000 is in print and online now, but something odd happened during the production process. It opens with a picture of the NMEA test setup aboard my little outboard boat, Gizmo. The screen on the laptop is naturally quite blown out in the open sunlight, so the PMY page designer asked the “color house” to goose it up a bit. Actually, this is often necessary to make photographs of LCD screens look more realistic, since a camera is nowhere near as agile as the human eye. But someone in the color house took a shortcut and simply copied the Raymarine E screen onto to the laptop, creating a very unrealistic image. Nobody noticed until it was printed.

Ralph test boat 2

At any rate, above is another image of the two NMEA 2000 plotters, plus a Standard Horizon CP1000, aboard my other test boat. It’s unretouched, meaning all the screens actually seemed brighter in reality, but it does show (bigger here) how comparatively bright the Raymarine E is (though note that the screens are not in direct sunlight, so transflective properties are not evident). If there was a laptop in the scene, it would look darn dim. (A March article I wrote about the E series is also now online, though without pictures.)

Test boat #2, by the way, is the long neglected Ralph, which deserves an entry one day. But today the missus and I are headed off for a long weekend of cruising aboard, so there will be no entry tomorrow unless I come across an odd WiFi connection in the outer islands.

Jensen MDV, splash resistant DVD plus

Aug 17, 2005

Jensen MDV6115

I’ve already noodled on my theory that the proliferation of video capable plotters will stimulate more and more boaters toward helm stereos that can also play DVDs. Well, here’s a new one from Jensen that would fit the bill even installed in a place that sometimes takes spray. The MDV6115 has a dual gasketed CD door and conformal coated circuit boards, and its LCD is supposedly sunlight readable. Besides AM & FM, the 200 watt stereo plays VHF weather stations. Besides regular CDs, the deck will play MP3 CDs, and of course DVDs. You can even select the PAL region, meaning it should work with DVDs rented in any country you travel to. It comes with both wired and wireless remotes, all for a suggested retail of $500. The Jensen site doesn’t have info on this model yet, but an interesting online store called Rock the Boat Audio does, though not in their marine video section (we’re all just getting used to this video thing).