Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Who Governs the Governor?

Ripple is powered by a quirky one cylinder diesel engine (a Yanmar 1GM10) whose operating costs round to zero.  At a liter an hour and an oil change once or twice a season, it just runs.  For the first three years I had Ripple, I had no difficulties with it, and developed a fondness for its pockety-pockety rhythms.  The last two years, however, I have had trouble starting, with symptoms that had all the earmarks of air in the fuel.  Once started and warmed up, the engine ran like a top, but getting to that point was often challenging.

The problem was ameliorated somewhat by rebuilding the injector, which was 30% or more out of spec.  The air-head diagnosis was reinforced by various minor faults discovered in the fuel system: a dodgy Racor filter head, loose banjos, looser-than-ideal fuel hoses.  Most everything pointed in the same direction, and the mechanic I engaged helped get all of this stuff sorted, including rebuilding the injector, installing a more reliable Racor filter head (no prone-to-failure vent at the top), and a valve adjustment (long overdue).

The starting problem survived all this fussing.  A pressure check on the fuel tank revealed no flow problems.  Sourcing the fuel supply to an isolated tank did not solve the problem.  Head scratching and consternation led to consultation with a higher authority.  The culprit turned out to be the injector limiting component of the governor, which was badly out of adjustment.

I am happy to have had all the other components inspected, adjusted, rebuilt or replaced, but the essence of the problem that i've been struggling with for two years was the tension on a spring associated with the governor.  Such a joy, to turn the key, and have the engine fire right up.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Connecting a Chart Plotter, VHF, AIS Receiver and Tiller Pilot using the NMEA 0183 protocol

Ripple's complement of communication and navigational electronics now includes:
  • Standard Horizon CP390i chart plotter 
  • Digital Yacht AIS receiver  
  • Raymarine ST2000  tiller pilot 
  • Standard Horizon VHF/DSC radio
These devices can all be networked, so installing them includes making decisions about whether and how to connect them.  As with most everything on a boat, there are tradeoffs.  The benefits of additional functionality are always at war with the unanticipated dangers of creeping elegance and the instability that arises from proliferating connections (natural failure points).

My four devices, like most modern electronics, can talk to one another using the well-established NMEA 0183 protocol.  NMEA 0183 falls short of a full-blown network, but it meets the need for point-to-point connections such as are appropriate to my configuration..  The NMEA 2000 protocol provides a full network solution that may be more reliable, and certainly more suitable when many devices are connected, but the cabling is far more costly without providing much additional benefit in my situation.

NMEA 0183 is a fairly simple protocol, explained at some length here. Each device is either a talker or a listener.  Some devices have both talker and listener channels. The communication possible among NMEA 0183 devices is limited to a defined set of sentences that have a registered meaning. Talkers can broadcast messages to as many as 4 other devices, while listeners are limited to listening to only one talker.  A listener that doesn't understand a sentence just ignores it.

A communication channel is established via a simple point-to-point wiring of two wires for each channel, to provide a circuit.  So, connections at devices are labeled as either OUT (+), OUT(-), IN(+), or IN(-).  IN and OUT refer to the direction of the communication (whether a device is a talker or listener).  (+) and (-) indicate which connection is the signal and which is for grounding the circuit. Notice that on the accompanying diagram, all (-) connections are connected to a common ground on the chart plotter, simplifying the wiring somewhat.

For my configuration, the following signal channels exist:
  • Connection of a DSC VHF radio to the chart plotter enables display of DSC distress calls on the chart plotter. The VHF is the talker, the chart plotter the listener.
  • The AIS receiver provides information to the chart plotter to display the location and associated data for all vessels transmitting AIS data. The AIS receiver does the talking, and the chart plotter the listening.
  • Connecting the tiller pilot to the chart plotter should allow the tiller pilot to accept instructions from the chart plotter for route-following.  The Chart plotter is the talker and the tiller pilot the listener.
  • The chart plotter also sends GPS sentences to the VHF, but the VHF that I have already has GPS capability.  It is unclear to me which, if either, has precedence, or if there is ever likely to be conflict between them.
Installation instructions for all of the devices to be connected are necessary (though, not necessarily sufficient).  While the NMEA specification defines wire colors for various connections, manufacturers do not necessarily abide by these recommendations: make no assumptions! I found the instructions in the Standard Horizon manuals to be confusing and ambiguous (and I suspect, incorrect in the case of the VHF manual).  Even connecting two of their own devices proved confusing.  My email request for assistance was answered within 12 hours, however.

As with any job, having the correct tools is essential.   I tried to use an inexpensive crimper to attach terminal lugs to the wires, and my success rate was about 50%.  Getting the crimping right is essential, and being able to strip the wires effectively is as well.  The 22 or 23 gauge wires are delicate but their insulation is very tough, making them hard to strip without damaging the conductor. If you don't have much experience with this, do some research on the tool options, and talk with someone whose experience you trust.  The security of your terminal connections may be the single most important factor to assure a reliable installation.

The Chart plotter comes with a cable with a connector on one end (that plugs into the device) and bare wires on the other.  I terminated each with crimped wire connectors to connect with a terminal block I installed near the chart plotter.  I situated a second terminal block near the radio equipement and connected the two with 16 gauge cabling (much larger than required, but inexpensive and far easier to crimp reliably than the small stuff).

I made mistakes that have increased the cost and complexity of my task. I bought a VHF Radio last season before I had decided to acquire an AIS receiver.  Standard Horizon makes one with an AIS receiver built in, which would simplify installation (and increase reliability). I missed that boat.  Instead, I found an inexpensive AIS receiver and ordered it online, not anticipating the problem of the AIS receiver and the radio needing to use the same antenna.  So, now I realize that i need an antenna splitter as well: another device to purchase and install -- more cabling, clutter, and connections (failure points) to worry about.  Poor planning on my part.  So it goes.  If you are interested in taking advantage of the information that an AIS receiver provides, look for one with a built-in antenna splitter, or get a VHF with AIS as part of the device.

The whole installation works fine. Having the AIS information on the chart plotter will afford an additional measure of security along the inside passage, especially in limited visibility with traffic congestion.  Given that I don't have radar, I am pleased to have this capability.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Choosing a Chart Plotter

Digital photography aficionados are probably familiar with review sites (DPReview is a notable example) that elaborate the myriad technical and physical specifications of even the most humble digital cameras.  When I started looking for a chart plotter, I expected to find something similar -- the market is far smaller than for digital cameras, but it is still substantial. No such luck.  It is difficult to find useful reviews on the Internet, and I'm starting to understand why (though I still think this is an unfilled niche that someone could profitably exploit).

Choosing a chart plotter involves many interlinked factors:
  • Physical installation constraints - location, wiring, bulkhead pass-throughs.... 
  • GPS satellite systems and capabilities (see the Wikipedia article for summaries)
  • Proprietary mapping suites (one of the most important factors with substantial cost implications).  The lack of good information on the variety of choices, even within a single provider, is frustrating and maddening.  It is easy to suspect that the obfuscation is intentional, though perhaps it simply reflects a stronger focus on technology than on consumers.  
  • Connectivity to other devices - VHF, AIS, Radar, instrumentation, autopilots, depth, wind, and temperature transducers.  Fortunately, devices made in recent years mostly conform to NMEA 0183 or NMEA 2000 networking protocols.  Still, hooking them all together is challenging and fraught (the reliability of any electronic system is inversely proportional to the number of connections... connection is, after all, Latin for failure point).  At some point one faces the decision to go from wire-the-damned-things-together, to actually setting up a multiple device NMEA network.  I think I'm still in the wire-em-up stage.
  • User interface models and implementation.  This is huge, and very difficult to evaluate on a showroom floor, and impossible from online information.  Crap shoot, or talk to users.
  • Reliability.  Furuno or all the rest, as near as I can tell.
  • Documentation (these devices are not iPhones...  they require good documentation).  
  • Screen quality -- the ultimate interface issue.  Is it easily readable in direct sun? How splash resistant is it?  This is one of the major reason why I abandoned the iPad as a chart plotter surrogate.  It is hard to read in the sun, it overheats easily, and the power connector (the old style) is dodgy and unreliable.
  • Range of functionality -- single station? multi-screen? digital instrument screens?  You have to decide whether you want charts or fish or bottom contours or radar displays or instruments or a stereo or all of the above.  I chose charts.
  • Availability of planning applications, and transferability (iPad or laptop apps that allow you to plan a trip and transfer it to the chart plotter).  This is perhaps my biggest worry about my choice.  I may have aimed too low.
I spent many hours over several months pondering these variable (having to re-educate myself between intervals of research, as it is hard to keep all the factors in perspective over time).

I finally selected the Standard Horizon CP390i based on the physical controls of the unit and that I could get the entire west coast of North American on a single C-MAP chart set.  This chart set does not have all the bells and whistles of newer chart sets but I'm betting that what it doesn't have, I can probably do without.  I want charts, not restaurant reviews.  As it turns out, I only learned of this chart set at the Seattle Boat Show.  This single piece of information saved me more than $175 compared with the two sets I would have needed for the chart sets with richer features. Whether this is the right decision, only time will tell. At some point, you just have to pull the trigger and hope you're on target.

The last two units in my selection tree were the CP390i and a similarly priced Furuno unit.  Furuno has a great reliability reputation, and I almost went that way for that reason alone.  The same chart set will work with that model.  In the end,  I chose the Standard Horizon because it has more physical buttons.  I'm leery of having to navigate through menus to get to a display or information page, and the 6 programmable soft keys (as well as fixed keys for basic functions) appealed to me.  No pinch-to-zoom, which I suspect might be problematic under certain conditions (Ripple has an open cockpit, and i'll often have gloves on in the rainy Inside Passage).

My first complaint about the model I purchased is a truly dreadful manual.  It is printed in black and white, spiral bound, 5.5"x8" and the text is printed in perhaps 8 point type!  The diagrams and tables are too small and the screen shots are unreadable.  For old-fart eyes like mine, this is terrible, and if you have to find information in it in suboptimal conditions (on a pitching 26 foot cutter, for example),  it will be problematic to say the least.  You can download the manual from the Internet in PDF format, and it prints 8.5 x 11 -- much better!  But really ... the product comes with a toy manual and I have to print and bind my own to be readable?  

Oh, and there is an addendum with fairly important changes that has NOT been incorporated in the manual, so you have to do that yourself.  None of this inspires confidence, but I remain optimistic about my eventual satisfaction. More as the installation proceeds.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Stiller Tiller

My motivation to acquire a tiller pilot was primarily to afford myself a steady hand at the tiller while I'm occupied  elsewhere while sailing solo.  After a few (3 or 4) voyages ranging from 30 minutes to  four hours or so, I like it a lot.  I expect I'll use it even for puttering around Lake Union and Lake Washington.  Call me lazy, but to my surprise, it (so far) makes me more heading-conscious.  I'm thinking of reciprocal bearings and wanting a compass close at hand as well.  My dirty little secret is that I rarely (ok, never) have used one for the boating I typically do.

Thinking about an extended cruise to the North, I'll be largely in waters unfamiliar to me, and having paper charts, a chart plotter, radio heading info, tiller-pilot heading info, and compass bearings will help me always to be connecting the dots, triangulating and cross checking position.  This seems like an excellent thing.

Today I spent time calibrating my eyesight, finding sighting markers on my lifelines for the standard 10-degree course change.  As it happens, the heading deviation aligns with the pinrail forward shroud for a change in one direction (on the same side as the steering position), and the forward lifeline stanchion (on the opposite sie).  Having approximate markers means that it is very easy to work your way through a course change 10 degrees at a time, knowing that if, say, a line of buoys needs to be left to one side or the other, you simply wait until it is (visually) aft of your marker.   Nifty.

Great day to be on the water here... a ridiculous 60 degree, sunny day.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Russian America: The Great Alaskan Venture, 1741-1867

I've just finished Hector Chevigny's history of the Russian American Company, Russian America: The Great Alaskan Adventure, 1741-1867.  This book is dense with geopolitical context and the cultural underpinnings of Russia's eastern expansion into the Pacific (go east, young man, go east!).  Written by a scholar, one might imagine such a tome to be dry with the friction of dates and Russian names.  It certainly is a dense history, with antecedents in the Mongol invasion of Russia in the 13th century, the expansion of Russia across 6,000 miles of Siberia, Sino-Russian trade, and the irresistible catastrophe of the fur trade (and Russia is far from alone in its culpability here).

But it is the story of individuals that compels this history, a cast of characters worthy of the great epics of literature and history. 

The entrepreneur and charlatan, Grigorii Shelikhov, with his wife and his business partner,  envisioned and launched a worthy competitor to The Hudson Bay Company.  Had Catherine the Great endorsed their venture more strongly, as it once appeared she might, Pacific geopolitics would be vastly different today.

Alexandr Baranov, a self-made man of low birth, arrived as The Russian American Company's leader prone in the bottom of a baidarka, brought low with pneumonia. A landlubber who escaped a bad marriage in Russia, effectively husbanded The Company's interests for decades, protected the interests of natives, assured educational and spiritual attention on their behalf, and was ultimately ignobly cast aside.  His bigamous marriage to the daughter of a chieftain helped assure the security of the colony, and bore children that grounded his life.  He founded New Archangel (now Sitka), rebuilt it from the ashes after the Tinglets burned it down, and helped it become the cultural nexus of South East Alaska.  He is honored in the name of the island that is the backdrop of Sitka.

Prince Nikolai Rezanov, a director of The Company, fell in love with the beautiful Concha Arguello, a vivacious, 15-year-old Spanish damsel in California, and lost his life trying to return to her.  She never married, and eventually entered a Dominican convent at the age of 60.

Father Ioann Veniaminov, a paragon of virtue and industry, devoted his life and energy to the spiritual foundations of the Colony.  A man who could make clocks of wood at his workbench, the remnants and dividends of his work remain today in the Orthodox churches of Alaska.

The strange tale of the sale of Alaska to the US in 1867 remains inscrutable.  In Chevigny's words:
A nation having small desire to sell did so to a nation that was not eager to buy, their motives the belief they would please each other.  History does not invariably make sense.
And having gotten what surely is among the greatest bargains in the history of commerce, Congress did its level best to welch on its promise, both to Russia with slack payment, and to the people who became its newest citizens, taking 17 years to replace the lost governance.  Then, as now,  congressional minions wore proudly the mantle of shamelessness.

The story has shipwrecks, insurrections, betrayals, epic journeys, impossible loves, political intrigues, alliances (broken, and honored), and unlikely heroes throughout.  It is hard to imagine 275 pages that could so succinctly and satisfyingly chronicle the formative events of a such an expanse of geopolitics and natural discovery.  It is no accident that this book remains readily available 50 years after it was first published.  Someone ought to write the screenplay!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I Khan See Russia From Here

Product Details
I stopped into Magus Books and bought all the books they had on the Inside Passage.  This one attracted me particularly, because Sitka is a primary objective for my trip north this summer.

Hector Chevigny begins his book, Russian America, with the invasion of Russia by the Mongols (Ghengis' grandson, Batu Khan) in 1237.  Chevigny describes him as "the world's foremost genius at murder."  For a time roughly equivalent to the American Revolution to now, the Mongols had their way with Russia, enjoying a tenth tribute (in lieu of terror), and furs comprised no small part of this levy.

As Mother Russia reemerged as her own, Muscovy found this ready-made taxation system convenient, and as over-hunting depleted the wealth (and amplified the value) of furs, Russia found it expedient to expand across what is now known as Siberia.   At one point a single sable pelt would buy a 50 acre farm.  Cossack ferocity... then, as now, a mixed blessing, helped bring the expanse of Siberia (5800 miles) within the hegemony of Moscow in the span of a mere sixty years.

In the ensuing 100 years or so,  the resurgent Mongols were marginalized, and Russia and China jockeyed for control of the rich Amur river valley and bickered over trade routes.  China prevailed in the Amur with the signing of the treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, isolating Russia in the north.  But trade routes were granted from Irkutsk to Peking,  and furs retained great export import.  Peter the Great began his rein of enlightenment at this time, and with the help of Germans and Danes, a brief period of outward-looking, science-friendly curiosity prevailed.  Bering's expedition to Alaska was part of the result -- the first, if fleeting, contact with the Alaskan mainland in 1741.  Bering (and a third of his crew) died for his troubles before making it back, the victims of poor leadership and scurvy.  For a fascinating account of this expedition, have a look at Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, by Corey Ford.

Peter died too soon to institutionalize scientific curiosity in the Russian psyche, and by the time Elizabeth, his daughter, became tsaritsa, furs were the only motivation for the view eastward from the Kamchatka Penninsula. Alaska is the only bit of  North America colonized from Asia, but the Russians themselves didn't really colonize so much as exploit.  The Russian word promyshlenniki rounds to 'those with a warrant for unbridled ecological looting' (nothing has really changed, eh?), and this they did. According to Chevigny, there were never more than 1000 Russians strung along some 40 outposts in Russian America.  It was all about the furs.

The distance between Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands is a scant 400 miles, and the promise of wealth in the form of sea otter pelts motivated early entrepreneurs to make the crossing in leather-lashed boats of green wood, more suitable for river travel than open oceans.  Early successes (1745) fanned fur fever, and it took less than 20 years for fur commerce to traverse the 1200 miles of the Aleutian chain to Kodiak Island.  As one would expect, the Aleuts found little benefit in the trade. The otters did even less well, of course, thought to have been hunted to extinction until a small colony was discovered after World War II.

This slim volume, published 50 years ago, is chockablock with context and detail about this strange aspect of our last geographic frontier.  If you're interested, it is available from Amazon for little more than the cost of shipping.  More to say as I read further.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Artful Dodger(ing)

Among the many preparations I am making for my planned trip up the inside passage is making a dodger to mitigate the discomfort of motoring northward against wind and water.  Protection from wind and waves and rain over long, cold, rainy days is problematic on a boat as small as Ripple.

Then too, there are esthetic considerations.  I don't much like breaking up Ripple's classic lines with a stainless steel cage and canvas, so I am hoping to craft a suitably effective, easily removable solution without overly compromising her looks.

Searching for design approaches led me to a slim, if pricey, volume by Tom Hunter: Frame Design for Boat Tops.  Hunter is an engineer by training and apparently the leading frame architect in the field.  His book is not for the faint of heart... in fact it is pretty much for canvas fabricators only -- there are precious few nods to the DIY dodger-building public.  And you won't find it in your public library.  WorldCat.org, a compendium of bibliographic records representing the majority of libraries in the developed world, shows no trace.

Still, if you are hankering to try your hand at making a dodger, or even if you are going to have someone else build a dodger for you, this book could save you a lot of money and disappointment.   Hunter's style is no-nonsense engineering, edging toward the abstruse.  There isn't much effort to build up the neophyte's vocabulary -- you'll have to pick it up as you go along.  He is clearly writing for practitioners, not wanna-bees.

But a couple of hours with this book will afford critical expertise about the decisions that have to be made to build a solid frame that enhances your boat and protects the people in it.  You'll be able to ask thoughtful questions of a fabricator, specify characteristics that are important to you, and appraise the work.  The fabricator will also understand that you are a discerning customer.  In a field where nearly every product is custom built for one boat, this in itself is worth the price of the book.

The drawing accompanying this post was the third of my early seat-of-the-pants efforts to proportion a dodger for Ripple.  Looking at it now, I understand many more of the nuances require design attention if I am to fabricate this complex and important structure in a way that is functional, esthetic, and safe.  I'm working on it, with rather more confidence than, say, yesterday.

One final note.  You can order the book through Amazon for under $44, tax and shipping included.  It is substantially more costly through Hunter's own website, as the shipping starts at something like $20.  He's selling frames, not books.