Observations & Options
Communications: For us reliability is the ne plus ultra for communications. Ease of use under stress is a close second, and functionality comes in third. I don’t consider SSB to be reliable or easy to use under stress unless one is a radio-geek (no insult intended). We have opted for an SSB receiver for weather products and satphone for communications. Yes we have given up some of the functionality SSB transceivers offer, but did it knowingly. For the services we might otherwise access via SSB we have opted for subscription services (medical, weather, etc) that support satphone users. Yes, this means we’ve given up ship-to-shore DSC, but that is a calculated, and to us, reasonable, risk.
Our DSC VHF is installed below with a remote mike at the steering pedestal. Unfortunately, the manufacturer didn’t provide loudhailer functionality at the remote microphone, so we have to figure out what we want to do about that. [It means a new radio or a parallel/redundant loudhailer installation--both=$$$.] There were several times using that loudhailer would have helped on the AICW–usually when leaving the steering station was impossible.
Email goes via laptop or cellphone inshore and satphone offshore. We use the cellphone as a tethered modem when WIFI is unavailable or prevents the use of VPN or is ridiculously priced (frequently). Skype has been useful, but I’m not sure how that will play out underway. We resist communications means that require others to download software or subscribe to a service they might not otherwise chose to. [So far we have been pleased with the availability of WIFI offered as part of the docking tariff. So far we have yet to encounter much free WIFI beyond that, and people are finally getting the word on security, and open systems are rare. For the most part the VPN has worked but a few WIFI systems continue to choke when we use it. As long as 3G/4G tethering is available, this is not much of a problem. When we leave the US, we expect we will find it's gone. Fortunately, more and more banking and commerce systems are offering https connections.]
Semi-Passive Communications are possible with the cellphone and with systems like SPOT. At the moment we can share our location via Google Maps (not Latitude) so long as we have a connection we manage (cell or laptop). We have considered SPOT which uses the coverage limited Globalstar satellite constellation. The only advantage we can see for SPOT over a text message on the satphone is SPOT is automatic. When we do the dollar calculations we’ll see how we feel about the value proposition. We also don’t care for the vendor lock-in with SPOT. I don’t want our family correspondents to have to go to SPOT’s site to see where we are. [We gave up on alternatives we now use SPOT. It's OK. It eats batteries like a teenager eats chips. Would be nice it they had an external power plug.]
Navigation: I picked up my first Weems plotter when I was 14. It was so cool compared to a normal protractor, but taking it to school was a bad idea. “Geek” hadn’t been invented yet, but a rose by any other name… It was flying all over eastern Texas that showed me how to get the most out of a smaller square version of the plotter using a clipboard for a nav station. To me being a pilot at 17 was beyond amazing, but what I could do with that plotter and an E-6B “whiz wheel” computer was downright fun. I still find navigation fun. It’s partly in my DNA, partly because I like puzzles and math and partly because I was privileged to have management responsibilities for the GPS program during my military career.
We rely on GPS, (four of them if you count the cellphone) but we back-up on paper. We do overlay radar on electronic charts, but we know how to use a DMA 5090 maneuvering board. We know how to use a sextant, but use the H.O. 208 tables because approximate, easily gotten answers are better than more precise harder to derive ones. A celestial calculator, being electronic, didn’t seem to make sense. We both went for formal training because we wanted the rigor.
Our principal GPS is Furuno. It is integrated with the DSC Radio, the radar/chartplotter, the autopilot, the instruments, and we installed a serial connector to bring the NMEA 0183 sentences to a laptop if need be. We use C-Map cartography on the Furuno because the alternative was not as mature when we installed the chartplotter. We periodically download the waypoints from the chart-plotter using an app called GPSU. We can translate these to 20+ formats as we choose for other uses with GPSU or we can use GPSVisualizer.com when online. We use a lightweight laptop chartplotter called “Ozi-explorer.” It has its limits, but it easy to use, takes up minimal computer resources when running, and it is very, very stable. We may move to Rose Point’s “Express” software, but don’t like the vendor lock-in they are going for with their ”service” which is unusable offshore with our comms capability and updates content we have no use for. [We gave up and bought "Express." I remain to be convinced it was a good idea.] [Rose Point has not worked for us. It is too feature rich and as such, hard to use under stress.]
An aside here. I’m not a fan of massively feature-rich software. Aside from stability and vendor lock-in issues, there is too much going on under the hood [based on too many (informed?) assumptions] I can’t access. I would rather have several lightweight apps I can understand (and simply reload if necessary) and do the integration among them. Things like GPS-autopilot-plotter integration aside, I prefer to be the integrator. I don’t want Hal telling me ~he can’t do that Dave.~ Or worse, leaving me thinking it was done but wasn’t.
We back up to paper charts at time intervals consistent with the navigational situation. The more complex the situation and the worse the weather, the more often we plot a position. If lightning is in the area, we plot even more frequently. We also subscribe to the government GPS status messaging service which lets us know if there are issues with the GPS constellation. For local issues such as military testing, the Notices to Mariners are essential.
We parallel the Furuno electronically with a “discontinued” Lowrance color handheld GPS that includes tides and currents on it cartographic chip. We don’t use the charts on it for much more than that due to scale issues, but for back up, hydrology, and an anchor alarm, we like it better than our Garmin handhelds. It also has the ability to record and append an mp3 file to a waypoint which helps with note-taking underway.
We also have a Garmin handheld that is double wrapped in foil and kept in a grounded aluminum camera case (with the backup laptop) for emergencies. It’s black and white and very old cartography wise, but it has WAAS and can feed a laptop and was paid for long ago. What’s not to like?
We are adding AIS to the suite and I suppose if we were to add anything else, it would be FLIR optics — mostly for situation awareness at night. [The Vespermarine AIS transponder has been a success with two qualifications -- the extra cost and wiring required for the antenna splitter and the standalone GPS requirement. While it sends NMEA sentences to a laptop, that laptop can't be attached to another GPS, and if it being charged, needs a USB filter in the loop. None of this is problematic, but only the splitter issues were disclosed. I'd still buy the same unit all over again.]
Computing: Tom Neale, who has a lot to say about this topic, prefers a desktop aboard. In think I might too, if they weren’t such power hogs and weren’t quite so large. So for now it is laptops for us. Since I am called the gray geek by my younger associates in the IT business, you would think I would be looking for optimization out the exhaust. Actually, we have three requirements — Reliability, reliability, reliability. And yes we have two laptops — one for navigation capability backup and one for purser functions.
The ”navtop” runs a
very stable version of XP. [Went to W7 due to Microsoft tossing support for consumer XP overboard.] It never gets connected to the internet. All downloads and updates are manual from a scrubbed thumb drive. It has seven apps on it — security, an OS mapping capability, instrument server management, chart-plotter back-up, a GRIB reader, navtex/weatherfax and a lightweight photo manager. I t has a mongo battery upgrade that will keep it running for about 24 hours in sleep mode. [The mongo battery upgrade from Lenovo (China) failed entirely to deliver. Once charging power is lost we have an hour left.] I also kept this machine because it has connectors that have gone out of style but still are useful.
The ”purser-top” runs W7, and it is has been kept apps-light as well — an OS office suite, OS art/photo program, five different browsers, OS HTML editor, OS email client, VOIP client [We haven't found VOIP necessary or useful yet.] [Skype was a complete "Fail" for us in the Bahamas. Too many latencies made it worse than satphone used to be.], financial management SW, encryption SW and a back-up of the navtop suite. We back up on disk, stick and online as the importance of the relevant files dictates. Both laptops will be configured to work with satphone if we go that route.
Neither laptop is allowed to sit directly on a solid flat surface when on. We use plastic deck grid under them. This keeps the operating temp down, and both are allowed to cool off before they are stowed. We use re-usable desiccant packs in a Faraday Case. I am in the process of setting up a Li-ion UPS-like capability for them pending satisfaction on fire safety. Fortunately both laptops can tolerate 14.6 volts.
For a discussion of WIFI, see Special Topics.