27 March 2016

Satellite System for Sailing: Fleet One Project

Bob Damiano

Cell phones don't work off-shore.  We're going off-shore.  So... this requires some sort of long-distance communication system to get data (such as weather reports, GRIBs, etc).  The two ways to go are with an SSB (Single-Sideband) radio or some sort of satellite system.  For various reasons, we decided to go satellite.  Maybe because I always wanted to be an astronaut. With satellites, you can either buy or rent a Sat Phone, or install a full-on sat receiver system.
After weighing options and considering what we want Argon's future mission to be, we decided on a KVH Fleet One satellite system.  We purchased this system (along with solar panels) from Cay Electronics.


The parts

The big bits are the satellite receiver and the terminal.  The trick is to connect these two things together somehow and mount them so that they work and don't look stupid. The cool thing about the Fleet One is that the antenna gets its power over the coax wire!  There are no power wires to run. Our total run is about 58 feet (40 from the nav station to the base of the radar mast and 18 to the top of the mast).  I like to leave nice big service loops at the disconnects to save my back when I have to work on it. The other major part was to add a dedicated wifi router to the terminal so that any computer (or phone) can connect. 

Initial Testing

We asked for the data plan to go live March 1st.  This way we would have time to debug any issues and get used to using it during the season.  It turned out that there was zero debugging to do. It just worked perfectly out of the box.

I set up the dome in the cockpit and connected it.  Even under the shrinkwrap and down low, it got a very strong tracking signal and I was able to download a GRIB to my android phone (over the wireless LAN).  I also sent texts (both directions) and made a very short phone call (both directions).

The data is very expensive:  $10/MB.  Our rule is that no phones or computers can do the "connect automatically" thing to this.  It will require typing in a password each time we connect to the Lan so there are no accidental big downloads.  This system will only be used off-shore to receive updates from shore support, texts from family/friends and weather info. We will also be able to send messages back to shore as well as our position for anyone interested in tracking us.

The test stand.  Notice it's under the shrinkwrap!

First GRIB download over the Fleet One

How to mount it?

Argon has a transom radar mast.  Last year when we added the Bullet Wifi Router, we purchased an antenna "wing" from Edson to mount that antenna on.  We purchased the Fleet One system at the Newport Boat Show in 2015 where Argon was featured in the Tartan Booth. There, Will Keene (CEO of Edson) actually came out to the boat and drew in a notepad the basic design for a mounting system for the KVH antenna.

A couple days after the show, we had this CAD mockup in our inbox from Edson:

Edson's mockup for the KVH antenna hoop
We liked the looks of this design and Edson went to work building one for us (it is now a regular item in their catalog).  When it arrived, we realized that we still needed to purchase a standard base for the KVH antenna. Here is a shot of the top of the hoop with that base installed.

The Standard Edson Base for the KVH mounted on the hoop

Strength Concerns

The Edson Wing is designed to have whatever antennae mounted by drilling/tapping into a plate of aluminum. I think this is fine for our bullet router or a small GPS antenna or something like that.  But this thing is pretty big (and expensive) and I just didn't like the thought of a few tapped holes in aluminum being the support.

I wanted to Thru-bolt that sucker somehow. Problem is, the top and bottom plates of the wing are not parallel.  This is the problem with wing-shaped things. So, I ordered a couple squares of King Starboard from Boat Outfitters who will very quickly cut any custom sized piece of starboard you need.  My plan was to drill some 1/4" clearance holes at a slant, and then use a wood boring bit to drill a flattened out countersunk area for a screw head.

The Starboard Squares drilled and countersunk

Here are some photos of the antenna hoop thru-bolted with the starboard squares.  This thing is really strong!

Underside of the wing with the 1/4-20 bolts going up through the wing.

The hoop thru-bolted to the wing and very strong


The wiring is fairly straightforward. The RG223 Coax is connected with TNC connectors. I have crimpers that work more or less pretty good for TNCs.  It took a bit of trial/error (and a reorder of TNCs from I-Com, but I got it.

getting ready to crimp some RG-58

While we're at it... AIS GPS Antenna.

Last year when we installed AIS, we took a bit of a shortcut and installed the GPS antenna right inside the nav station inside the boat.  My feeling was that if my crappy little android phone could always get a great GPS signal inside the boat, this thing should too.  And it did - it worked fine.  But since we were taking the mast down anyway and since there would now be a spare place to stick another antenna, Linda convinced me to move the AIS GPS antenna up there.  So another 40' length of RG-58 and a few more TNC connectors is really all it took.

And another while we're at it...

There is a cockpit light at the top of the radar mast.  It was a big honkin current sucking halogen light.  Since I've been on a quest to rid Argon of every non-LED bulb there is, and since the mast was down anyway, we replaced it with a new 4w LED fixture.

The Fleet One base unit and the Linksys router that will be the Lan for it.

A small wiring project

The included IP phone

Ready to put it all together

The night before, here is everything wired up and mounted including the bullet, and the AIS GPS antenna
Getting ready to attach wing to mast

Putting the wing on the mast and re-mounting the radar dome

Notice the sexy new cockpit light

Up she goes

A crew of always-helpful marina neighbors came by for the lifting procedure. We really try to do this without dropping the mast overboard. 

Final Installation and testing

The best part about these projects is when they are done and not only does the new thing work, but you haven't broken anything that already worked. Radar, Wifi, GPS, and of course Satellite are all working perfectly.  And I don't think it looks very stupid at all.

27 February 2016

Sailboat Water Pump Repair

Captain Bob Damiano

Water, water everywhere.  But I can't flush!

Back when I owned a house, I would often proudly state "I don't plumb".  Every time I would get involved in plumbing, it would be a disaster.

Then I got a boat and as the saying goes "You can't call the plumber out at sea"

Argon has a ShurFlo Fresh water pump.  These pumps all work more or less the same: They have an impeller and and some sort of pressure switch that makes the pump only come on when the pressure falls below a certain point.

In our first season, we were anchored overnight in Dutch Harbor, Rhode Island and had a suddenly silent water pump.  This is a bit of a thing for us because our head flushes with fresh water! No pump - no flush. Makes for a very unromantic cruise in a hurry.

I took apart the pump and figured out generally how this pressure switch works. I flipped it a few times and put it back together and it was great - for about ten minutes. With a meter, I verified that the little microswitch itself is what failed. It was making very intermittent contact. We called Jamestown Distributors and fortunately they had a replacement pump in stock. The next day, we were back in business with what I figured would be a spare water pump. 

What are the odds of that happening again?

Pretty good actually if you fast forward two years.  Now, we're living on the boat and in the middle of washing my lunch dishes, the pump died.  Having seen this movie before, I took apart the pressure switch, flipped it a few times, put it back together and it was fine - (all together now...) for about ten minutes!

This time I called tech support at ShurFlo and explained as calmly as possible that this is the second microswitch that has failed in as many years (the first after just a few months of use). I got a part number for an "upper assembly" (which is on the bottom) for this pump that includes a new switch. I found it in stock at west marine and ordered it overnight.  (So now, we also have an upper assembly spare - sans switch).  This time, I also found the actual switch online.  It's a little Omron microswitch that I've used millions of in my past life as an electronics tech at Universal Instruments.  These things are supposed to be good for millions of actuations.  I ordered 5 spares from Mouser Electronics.

Why do they fail then?

Below is my rough child's crayon rendering of how this pump is wired in.  As you can see, the pump's 12VDC supply is interrupted by this little microswitch in the pressure sensor.  This is a spectacularly bad design -but common with these pumps. These switches are not designed to switch motors on and off directly. I can see now why they offer this "upper assembly" maintenance kit. The only thing in that kit that looks like it could fail is the switch. The kit is fifty bucks. The switch is $0.75.  No profit in that.

Forensic evidence

I did autopsy on the switch by drilling out the fastener that holds it together. Sure enough, there is lots of evidence of arcing on the contacts.  It's hard to photograph but here is my best shot:

Improving the System

This is why god created relays (the eighth day I think).  In your car, when you flip on your lights, the little cheap switch in the dashboard does not switch all that current to the lights. Instead, it energizes a relay coil which draws very little current. The relay's contacts actually switch on your lights.  I intend to do the same thing here:

Notice the addition of the Automotive Relay.  Our little microswitch will now only switch 133mA for that coil. The Relay will switch the 15 to 20 Amps in the motor circuit.  I would have much preferred to use a Solid State Relay for this, however DC Output SSRs are sort of rare and I have never seen one that can switch more than 10A.  I'd want something with a capacity of at least 30A for this to have some reserve capacity.  This relay's contacts are rated for 50A.

The Automotive Relay wired in and successfully energizing the pump

ShurFlo suggested we add an Accumulator Tank to our system.  Think of this as a water balloon which the pump inflates.  The idea is that with the tank's elasticity, the pump will cycle on and off much less often.  Okay, that sounds good too so I ordered a small Jabsco 1Liter Accumulator.  It won't offer very much elasticity but it will definitely smooth out the pump on/off cycles.  Now that the switch is being treated so kindly, I don't expect to have more problems. Anyway, I ordered spare relays and switches just to be sure.

So here is a shot of the whole finished project including the relay and the accumulator.  The accumulator alone would have certainly lengthened the lifetime of the switch because it would actuate much less often. But abusing this switch less often is still not such a great solution to me.  The addition of the relay treats this switch very gently and well within its design spec.

The whole system put together with the Automotive Relay and Accumulator

And......... Flush!

19 February 2016

True Virgins: DIY Compass Deviation

Captain Bob Damiano

Most boats have a compass on board.  Most boaters never use them. That's sad.  There is some confusion about exactly what that compass is pointing at and why it doesn't agree exactly with the chart or the COG displayed on your fancy GPS or Autopilot.

As the world turns:  True North
This is simple.  The world is a spinning thing and things that spin have an axis of rotation.  It's that axis that defines True North (and south).  Polaris (the north star) is exactly above the north pole of this axis - hence the name.

(Magnetic) Compasses don't care about rotation
The magnetic compass on your boat is aligned to Earth's magnetic field. Unfortunately the magnetic north pole didn't align conveniently to True North. Ask your geologist friend for the full explanation for this or read the wiki article below.  That magnetic axis is not stable either. It wobbles and so the difference between True and Magnetic north varies slightly every year.  Variation is also affected locally by the magnetic composition of the crust in different places.

Here is a WIKI page that explains in some detail why variation (declination) occurs.  It even has a cool animation showing how it changes over time.

So wherever you are, there is some difference between what your compass says is north and what your chart or chartplotter says is north.

The difference between True and Magnetic North is called Variation.
Take a look at any nautical chart and look at one of the compass roses. It will show a Magnetic and a True ring.  In the center will be some text like:

VAR 15.00 (2012)
Annual Decrease 4'

Because it's different everywhere and because it changes over time, it's not possible to just offset a compass to make it display True North.

So, just add or subtract Local Variation to my compass reading
Well... sort of.  And in fact for coastal cruising, that's just fine.  The problem is that your compass and it's installation are not perfect.  Your compass has inaccuracies and these inaccuracies are different at each direction you point. This inaccuracy is known as Deviation (and that is what we aim to measure). Some of the deviation is due to the compass itself but more of it is probably due to how and where it is installed on your boat and what other magnetic junk is installed around it. Entertainment speakers are a good culprit but so is that big honkin' diesel engine.

True Virgins Make Dull Company (Add Whiskey)
This is the mnemonic (well, one of them) to remember how to convert fully from True Degrees to what your compass says.  Linda and I were introduced to this topic in the ASA105 class we took at Black Rock Sailing School in Boston.  Later, this same topic was covered - although not as comprehensively - by the Coast Guard Merchant Mariner (Captain's) License class and exam.

TVMDC  (Add West)

T = True
V = Variation
M = Magnetic
D = Deviation
C = Compass.

From True, add Variation (add for west, subtract for east), this gets you to Magnetic.

Coastal cruisers can more or less stop here. Anyone who is using a compass to do really critical offshore navigation can definitely not stop here.  They must account for deviation to get that last few degrees of conversion done.  Missing Bermuda by 3 degrees from the mainland is... missing Bermuda!

Add Deviation (add for west, subtract for east) and this finally gets you to the Compass reading.

Determining the D
Deviation for a ship's compass is usually shown on a table or a graph. The deviation is different for every direction you point, so the number you plug in for D depends on your heading.  There's lots of ways to measure this and there are professional services you can hire that will give you a nice deviation chart. I'm enough of a cheap geek to want to do it myself.  You can also hire a service to correct your compass by adding compensating magnets to it. That all goes out the window when you install those new cockpit speakers.

Because Deviation changes with direction, it's important to measure it at many different points.  Here's my very low-tech way of doing that with some off-the-shelf software and a spreadsheet.

  1. While Underway in smooth water or very still at anchor, point the boat at some distant fixed landmark. 
  2. Using some GPS application (see below), measure the TRUE angle from your current position to that landmark on the chart
  3. At the same time (as soon as possible) read the ship's compass.

In the spreadsheet, I note what landmark I'm using, the TRUE angle and the MAGNETIC heading from the compas.  The spreadsheet computes the Deviation at that heading (using TVMDC + w)

I used the Navionics Phone App but you could use something like OPEN CPN or anything else that can plot your GPS position and display angles to landmarks on nautical charts. If you have a chartplotter that lets you measure ranges and bearings, you can use that as well.  Honestly, the phone app is faster and if you measure ranges to distant objects, it really doesn't matter if the GPS is 5 meters off.

Take measurements at as many directions as possible and plot them.  It doesn't hurt to retake them at the same headings later as a check.

Here is what our spreadsheet looks like in Google Drive.  Since I'm using the phone to take the measurements, I also enter the data directly into the Google Drive app in the phone.  No pencil/paper involved.

Using Navionics, measure the TRUE angle from your current position to a fixed landmark.  That is entered in Column B.  Column C (Degrees Magnetic) is determined by adding (remember Add West) our local 15 degrees of Variation (from Column H).  In the screenshot below, we're measuring 046T from our position to a water tower that we can see.(The boat really is pointing at that tower despite what our little arrow looks like)

Measuring a 046T bearing from our anchor in Provincetown Harbor to a water tank we could see visually and on the chart.

Now,  Read your magnetic compass (as accurately as possible) and enter that value into the PSC (per ship's compass) column.  Argon has two compasses so we enter the reading for each in Columns F and G.

The Deviation then magically appears in the Deviation Column(s). It is found by subtracting the Ship's Compass reading(s) from the Degrees Magnetic.  If you had a perfect compass and no metal objects anywhere near it, these two would be equal and your deviation would theoretically be 0.  That's a big IF and lots of theory. In reality, you are most likely to see several degrees of deviation at many points of your compass.  

What did we come up with?
Below is shown our actual table as measured in 2015. The Red and Green lines show the Port and Staboard compasses. We will certainly collect more points (especially around that spot at 150).  Reading a magnetic compass on a bouncing boat is not that easy so it's a good idea to do the readings several times. It's possible that that anomaly at 150 will smooth out as we take more readings.

22 September 2015

Tartan 4000 Newport Boat Show

Captain Bob Damiano

Putting Argon in the Newport International Boat Show

"I know this is a lot to ask since you live on the boat" the email began.  It ended with being asked to let Argon be featured in the Tartan Booth at the 2015 Newport International Boat Show.

How could we say no?

Getting her there

Although the show didn't start until Thu-17-Sept, we were asked to have the boat ready to be positioned by the afternoon of Sunday the 13th.  So I found two hardy sailing buddies and we sailed (and motored) Argon to Newport departing Boston after work on Friday at about 17:00. The crew consisted of my buddy from the old country (Binghamton), Greg and former marina neighbor Dan.  Greg has an O'day 23 in Marion and look - here is is blog.  Dan has just returned from a ten month sailing adventure on his Cape Dory 30.  And yes, he has a blog too.

Dan and Greg
The wind was supposed to be moderate and from the north. This would have been a nice broad reach all the way to the canal.  The wind lied - by about 90 degrees. Mass bay is not a lot of fun in Easterly or Northeasterly winds. This was pretty much ENE the whole time.

As we left the channel between Boston Light and Hull, we were in some very big waves and swells.  I took two Meclizine.  The waves were broadside at first but started to come around to our port quarter.  Ugh.  At this point, even though there was enough wind to sail, we were getting rolled so badly that it was impossible to keep the sails full.  Finally, we motored from about Scituate to the canal. Dan took a nap during all this rolling. I was amazed he didn't end up on the floor (we don't have lee cloths yet).

As much fun as I was having, Linda was about to embark on a week of couch surfing while her house is being sailed to another state. The plan was that Linda would stay around Boston to work and I  would work from the boat in Newport.

We made it through the canal by about midnight and found ourselves in a relatively smooth Buzzards Bay. At one point, there was actually enough breeze (out of the north finally) to sail a little bit.  Ultimately, we ended up motoring most of the way to Newport.  I didn't sleep so much.

We arrived in Newport at about 0600 and dropped the hook in Brenton Cove behind Fort Adams. Then we all took a nice nap. I waited until 0800 to call my contact at Newport Yachting Center and by 10:00, we were pulling into our temporary slip.

After a lovely brunch at Diegos, Greg's wife LeAnne joined us and took our weary crew home. I returned to Argon and became fairly unconscious. Linda joined later that day and we had a nice weekend in Newport.

Putting the Show Together

Whoops - overnight we got up against this ring on the show float. Touch-up kit is coming

Detailing crew making us look good

Tartan flags flying

The Tent

Getting Stuff Done

We were on a mission this year to get Argon ready for Offshore Adventures next year.  This mainly involves setting fire to large piles of cash in exchange for more gear.  The show turned out to be an ideal place to shop for two reasons:  1. show prices - not insignificant discounts on some things and 2. The vendors can walk right over to our boat to consult, measure, ruminate, etc.  By the end of the show, we were significantly more cash-poor and gear-rich. I think that's a good trade-off.


We had a perfectly fine Plastimo 6-person offshore liferaft. We've had it since Fujin. This raft is packed in a Valise (a bag) and sat in our sail locker. It was time to have it serviced so we figured we would bring it to LRSE's booth and let them take it back to the shop. The LRSE guys got a kick out of seeing how long it took me to wrestle it out of the locker. Definitely not the 20 seconds that Offshore racing rules require.

On Sunday (last day of show), we went to LRSE to talk about having the raft re-packed in a canister that could be mounted on the cabin house.  After talking with them, it turned out to be smarter to just go with a new Viking raft that has a Rail-mounted canister.  So we did.  Cha-ching!

The nice thing is that this will open up a ton of room in our sail locker with the side benefit of keeping us a little safer.  The new raft will be easily deployable within a few seconds and it will not take up any room on the boat.

So, we planned on selling our Plastimo un-serviced for a few hundred bucks (.3 boat dollars) and moving on. The only problem with this plan is that LRSE is so efficient, that they had already begun servicing our Plastimo.  So now, we're selling a freshly serviced liferaft!

Our Plastimo raft on the shop floor at LRSE.  For $ale

Solar / Satellite / Sails

We visited Cay Electronics for Flexible Solar panels and a KVH Satellite Voice/Data system.  Argon will be getting a Fleet One Satellite dome from KVH. Matt McKenzie from Cay walked over to Argon with us and took a look. We were able to discuss options for wiring, placement, etc.  Cha-ching!  Cha-ching!

We needed to figure out a way to mount this thing above our Radar antenna.  Well, Edson Marine's booth is right down the aisle from Cay's and we ended up getting help from none other than Will Keene, the President.  Will came out to Argon and did some engineering drawings on a notepad. While there, we also discussed replacing the cheesy Whale manual bilge pump with an Edson High Capacity one.  Edson is one of our very favorite companies to deal with. They have absolutely world-class customer service. It was turning out to be really good to have the boat there. This kind of attention from vendors would never happen otherwise (or would take weeks to schedule).

Tech talk with Bob and Will Keene, Edson President.
edit: And look what just came from Edson
Did I mention that Edson is awesome.  They cooked up an engineering drawing of their proposal for a mount for the KVH Dome.

We will also finally be adding some Solar. We're going with Solbian high-output flexible panels (the sp series).  One flexible panel on the dodger and probably two on the bimini.  This should give us about 110A-H on a sunny day.  And yes... cha-ching!

Storm Sails

Next to the North Sails booth to talk about getting a Storm Jib and Storm Trisail made. This always requires lots of customization. Once again, we had a North rep on Argon, measuring, talking, drawing, and consulting.  Wow (and Cha-ching!)

We were very happy to see so many people boarding Argon and hearing all the nice things being said. We heard over and over something like "all the other boats look the same.  these are really classic". I tend to agree.  Did they trash the boat?  Not at all.  We did find one little bit of trash in one of our cabinets.  Big deal.

Mr. Jackett
One of the cooler aspects of the whole thing is that Tim Jackett himself was manning the booth. He is back with Tartan as COO and chief designer. He designed Argon and he is brilliant.

Us with Tim Jackett

Speaking of Fujin

On Saturday, we actually got a chance to go sailing on Fujin again.  She's now named Starbird and moored in Tiverton, RI.  We've become friends with her new owners and still keep in touch.  We had a lovely low-wind sail in the Sakonnet.

Starbird on her mooring

Bob getting hands dirty

Bob with Melinda (new owner)

Linda and Melinda

Update 24-Sep-2015: Argon Back Home
Argon is finally back in her home slip in Boston. Our broker Bill and his buddy Richard sailed (motored actually) home overnight from Newport.

Stalking them on AIS an hour after they departed

Argon entering our fairway

Bill's Groovy Boots