Edson Radar Tower

We are really happy with the way our new radar installation came out, particularly the Edson tower.

We have long felt that the best place for a radar is on a tower, not on the mast or backstay.

It even inclines for when we are heeled in fog…yes, we get wind and fog here in Nova Scotia.

And here’s a fun hack. When I got it installed it was a little wobbly due to the slight play between the tube glassed into the hull and the tower tube, so I preloaded it to the rail with Dyneema lashings—lighter and easier than struts.

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Is Your Radio Talking to Your GPS?

Even though I have been working on our new-to-us J/109 off and on for nearly two years, there are still chores on the to-do list, one being to program our new MMSI number into the VHF—I did our AIS transmitter as soon as we got the boat.

Luckily for me, although disturbing to find out, there was no MMSI number in the VHF, so the two previous owners were forgoing a big safety feature.

I say luckily because radios and AIS transmitters sold in the USA can only be programmed once, or at most twice, at least without help from the manufacturer. Who thought that was a good idea? Homeland Security, as I understand it. Don’t get me started.

Anyway, I had assumed that the radio was at least getting GPS positioning sentences, since there were two wires leading from the correct terminals on the radio to…the wrong terminals on the source.

I hadn’t changed that, so clearly it had been that way for years since the “professional” hooked it up and never bothered to check it worked! Saints preserve us from “professionally maintained boats”.

The fix took minutes and was confirmed when “GPS” came up on the panel.

With these two problems put together, the nice red distress button on the radio was for decoration only.

So I have made a mental note to always check the display for that indicator when I turn the radio on, since it would be easy for the wires to get disconnected or a parameter to get changed in the source GPS (say BAUD rate), rendering this important feature useless.

By the way, while this crappy little radio is adequate for our needs, if I we were still going offshore and cruising countries where DSC is used more than it is here, we would be replacing it. More here.


Bluetooth Autopilot Remote Rocks

I have been out sailing our new-to-us J/109 a couple of times singlehanded, which keeps me, shall we say, totally engaged at pretty much every moment, particularly in the rock garden that is Mahone Bay.

Given that, this remote control for our new B&G autopilot is invaluable and just generally adds to the fun. A couple of button presses will even make the boat tack automatically while I handle the sheets—beats heck out of steering with a foot while tacking.

Highly recommended and way better than wired remotes or running back and forth to a fixed autopilot control panel, although we need that too in case Bluetooth goes screwy—not to be relied upon for mission-critical stuff.

B&G sell the gadget with a neck strap, which, if you think about it, is a very bad idea, particularly for a singlehander constantly hanging over and grinding winches—do these people actually ever go sailing?

Anyway, it will also fit on a velcro watchband. I bought one from Amazon and then kluged it to work with a needle and palm. Supposedly B&G sell a band, for extra (of course), but I couldn’t find one.

Note to B&G: Stop being jerks and just ship the thing with a band before someone strangles themselves!


B&G Navigation App Not Ready For Use

We ended up with a B&G system on our J/109, mainly because most of it was already there when we got the boat.

Given that, I thought it would be a good idea to use the B&G App on our iPad, which we use to supplement the plotter.

What a mistake that was:

  • No manual
  • Constant hangups
  • Clunky synchronization of routes with the plotter
  • Terrible and counterintuitive interface
  • Dangerous autorouting function

I just canceled my subscription, thankfully before the two-week trial ran out.

Back to TZ iBoat, which is, in my view, the gold standard for tablet navigation software.

Hopefully B&G will get their app sorted out, since I would love to have a tablet app that synchronized routes with the plotter, but B&G have a long, long, long way to go to catch up with TZ iBoat or to even be a safe and functional app, in my view.


Beware Auto-Tune on Modern Radars

Engineer and experienced mariner Eric Klem has just updated his review of his Furuno DRS2D-NXT doppler radar with a sobering account of how the auto-tune feature failed during a night approach to a crowded harbour.

Eric is an experienced radar user, and so was able to quickly diagnose the problem and fix it by taking over manual control of the gain and clutter settings, but those of us who are used to relying on fully automated radars may not have been able to do the same, or even figure out what the problem was.

To me the takeaway from Eric’s experience is that it’s vital to take the time to understand what these automated electronics are doing and how to take over when the automations get it wrong.

Further Reading

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Instrument Loads

Seems like a lot of cruisers are leaving their instrumentation on, even when at anchor, these days.

Do what you want, but this practice could push you into a major electrical system makeover that might not be necessary if we just turned that stuff off.

The above photo shows the load (battery monitor to the right) from the instrument package and NMEA 2000 network on our J/109, added to a 9″ plotter.

Nearly two amps at 12 volts. Leave that on for 24 hours and that’s nearly 50 amp hours out of the battery!

And our system is comparatively small and miserly. Add in a big plotter, AIS, and worst off all, a laptop computer running navigation software, and we can easily burn through 100 amp hours or more.

To put that in perspective that’s over a third of the power Phyllis and I used in the run of a day for everything on our 56 foot live-aboard boat!

When left on all the time, small loads add up to big usage.

Here’s how to estimate usage and choose the right battery bank size, the easy way—no long boring spreadsheet to fill out…we provide a short, and not boring, spreadsheet.

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NMEA 2000 Trouble Shooting Kit

I’m in the throws of installing a new autopilot and radar on our new-to-us J/109.

As part of that I cleaned up the dogs breakfast of a NMEA 2000 network the boat came with to make it both easier to trouble shoot and hopefully more reliable, particularly since this new kit required adding quite a few network devices.

When all was said and done I ended up with a couple of old network cables that I had replaced because they looked a bit manky (another deeply technical word).

I was about to throw the old cables away when it struck me that by cutting them both in half and stripping the ends I would end up with a zero cost NMEA 2000 trouble shooting kit for use with a voltmeter.

I also added a male to female connector I had left over to the kit. Useful to substitute for a T connector to get a suspected device or drop out of the mix, but still keep the backbone connected.

The kit proved invaluable while hunting down a brand new power-T with an open circuit on one of the network lines.

And here’s a good primer on trouble shooting NMEA 2000.

By the way, I don’t think most of us need an expensive N2K meter, particular since a lot of devices, such as plotters, have trouble shooting screens which will let us check for excess error packets and the like—dig deep in the menus and check regularly to catch potential intermittent problems early.

More thoughts on NMEA 2000:

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Garmin Cut Vesper Users Loose


Although we had a lot of trouble with our first Vesper AIS, I have long been a fan of their products, with the exception of the Cortex, which tried to do too many things in one unit and had a lot of issues as a result.

When Garmin bought Vesper I had a sense of impending doom—these acquisitions of small companies by big ones almost always go badly for us users.

And I was right, Garmin has just announced that they will no longer sell any of the Vesper products except the Cortex, which, as I understand it, is still buggy.

That’s bad news since these were still good products at a fair price.

The Big Suck

But far worse news is that Garmin will not maintain the WatchMate app, which means that at some point, probably sooner rather than later, those of us with Vesper products—particularly those with no screen, like the XB-8000—are truly screwed, since unmaintained apps tend to stop working when the device operating system is updated.

In my view, this is totally unacceptable behaviour on the part of Garmin, particularly since the units that they are, in effect, trashing, were available for sale up until a few weeks ago, and some are still in the supply chainour XB-8000 on our new-to-us J/109 is just 30 months old.

To be clear, this likely means that someone who bought a XB-8000 a week ago will have a near-useless lump of plastic and components on their hands a couple of years from now, and maybe sooner.

And even if it keeps working with some reduced functionality, a working app was what said buyer was sold, so they should get that for a reasonable period of time.

Decent companies like, for example, Furuno make sure that their products are fully supported with parts and software for at least ten years after the last one is sold.

I suggest we all write to Garmin pointing out their bad behaviour and informing them that we will not buy their products in the future because they clearly don’t give a damn about us—this is my letter to them.

At the very least, Gamin should be maintaining the app on iTunes and Google Play for 10 years. That’s just basic, guys, and not that hard.

I’m also disappointed in Panbo for not making more of a fuss about this. I get that they are advertising funded, and Garmin are probably a big part of that, but, even so, sometimes you have to stand up and be counted. Just telling us that we can buy a new fancy and expensive, and probably still buggy Cortex from Gamin is not good enough, guys.


TZ iBoat Updated

I have used a bunch of iPad navigation software over the years, but TZ iBoat, by the same folks who have been doing navigation software on computers for some 30 years, is by far the best.

Lots of reasons, but the most important is that it’s the only app that I can enter and edit a route on without being driven to distraction. No, not as easy as a computer with a mouse, but way better than a plotter.

Anyway, TZ iBoat has just been upgraded with three new features, two useful, and one that should be avoided like the plague:

  • Autopilot Output: TZ iBoat is now able to send information to your Autopilot (NMEA0183 sentences via TCP) when a route is activated. Make sure to check out their user guide for more information under the “Help” section.
  • Bluetooth Mouse support: Many of our power users on iPad wanted a way to control TZ iBoat with a mouse. This is now possible.
    • This is a wonderful upgrade. A finger is just too blunt an instrument for entering waypoints and routes, and a mouse (or track ball) is best.
  • Instruments Damping and Offset: TZ iBoat offers new settings to offset and damp instruments (course, speed, wind…). Speed damping can be especially useful in some cases to stabilize the Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA).
    • Probably useful, depending on setup.

Further Reading


Q & A: Iridium Go! or Go Exec


The new Predict Wind Iridium Go Exec device does indeed have a subscription plan that limits data according to how much one pays, i.e: $159.95/month buys you only 50MB of data. That includes all data transfer including tracking data.

Do you happen to have a clue how much data you found that you used, on the average, per month with the original Iridium Go device?

I am just trying to figure out what size plan would be needed in order to not have to worry about constantly hitting the ceiling towards the end of the month. I believe you & I would have similar usage (that is forecasts & basic emails).


The exact amount of data we used varied a lot, so I don’t think that’s the way to make the decision.

Rather, what I can say is that we never had a problem getting all the weather information I needed, and I download a lot more than most people, as well as being able to handle all of our email, which, again, is a heavier load than most people, because of running AAC.

Sure, sometimes the GO! took as much as an hour to deal with all that, but so what? With good software you don’t need to sit around and watch it, and if there’s a drop-out it reconnects automatically and continues on until done.

So if it were me, I would stick with GO! to get the unlimited plan, given that I just don’t want the stress and aggravation of worrying about a hard data limit and the huge charges if that gets inadvertently breached.

I also would not want to have to figure out how to buy more data if I ran out while at sea.

So given that GO Exec is not fast enough to surf the internet, and does not have an unlimited data plan, I just don’t see the point of it against the original GO! with an unlimited plan.

That said, as I have said before, being able to make calls without the kluge of a connected smart phone is a nice upgrade, but not enough to push me into Exec. Rather I would recommend buying a secondhand Iridium handset for the emergency call function.

More on exactly how to use G0! For both strategic and tactical weather forecasting.


The Rolls Royce of iPad Waterproof Covers

While I’m not a fan of relying on tablets exclusively for navigation, on smaller boats like our new-to-us J/109 they can be a good option, at least in conjunction with a plotter.

However, the big problem can be how to charge a tablet and still keep it waterproof. The product pictured above solves that problem.

I’m planning to order one for next season.

On the same subject, here are:


Navigation Where It Belongs

I don’t care how much butchery it takes, we are having a plotter/radar at the forward end of the cockpit where it belongs, to supplement and backup the iPad we use for navigation.

The plotter below-decks is useless when shorthanded and we don’t like plotters on the binnacle, either.

The new on-deck plotter will act as an autopilot control head as well as show strategic information like laylines, should I have a rush of blood to the head and go racing.

The new plotter is much smaller than I would like, but compromises are required on any boat, and the smaller the boat gets, the bigger the compromises.

More on making the most of these small-boat navigation compromises.

Mock-up of the fascia that I just made to assist the composite technician who is going to fix my butchery and make it look nice.

Yes, I could do the glasswork, but it would take me three times as long and look half as nice—know your limitations.


New Iridium Go! exec

Predict Wind have a preliminary announcement video for a new faster version of the Iridium GO!.

Not a lot of details yet, but it’s supposedly a lot faster, although not fast enough to use for actual internet surfing.

The big drawback will be if the unlimited data package available with the original GO! is not offered with this new unit or is a lot more expensive.

I’m guessing it might not be the great deal that the unlimited plan on the original unit is since the new GO! uses the Certus modem like Iridium Pro.

If no unlimited plan is offered, or a much more expensive one, I’m thinking that for many users who are just looking to download email and weather information at sea the original GO! may still be the best option since I have never had any problems getting all the weather data and email I need over the older unit.

Definitely the key thing to look into and clearly understand before purchasing one of these new units is the availability and cost of an unlimited plan.

One upgrade I did like is that the new unit has a speaker and microphone and so can be used for telephone calls without connecting a smartphone. This is a big safety benefit since there have been incidents with the old GO! where users were not able to get voice communications working quickly in an emergency.

Here’s the intro video, not that it’s much use:

And here’s a Q&A that might be more useful.


A Crash Jibe Looking For A Place

I’m in the throes of replacing the autopilot computer on our J/109 (more on that in a full article).

First off, when I opened this box to connect up the drive and clutch I was distressed to see this terminal type.

These things have no place on a boat, at least if they rely on the screws alone rather than contact plates that the screw compresses onto the wire, but, even then, for critical systems I far prefer ring terminal blocks.

That’s bad enough, but my distress turned to horror when I disconnected the clutch wires and found that whoever had set this up—given the history of the boat almost certainly a boatyard “professional”—had jammed the wires so far in that the screws were on the insulation, not the wire—look closely at the photo.

This could have caused a nasty, and likely intermittent, failure at any time over the last 18 years since the autopilot was installed.

Bottom line: you gotta check everything and “boatyard maintained” is often more of a warning than a reassurance.

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