11 March 2020

WIFI Aboard: The Network that NotWorked, Works Again

One of the earliest projects we did on Argon was to install a Wifi network. It consisted of a Ubiquity Bullet m2 Titanium Radio/Router and a Microtik Wireless Access Point. It was our "ArgonAfloat" Wifi network and served us very well. After six years of baking in the sun and freezing in (some) winters - not to mention operating in a salt-air environment, the Bullet finally bit the dust in February while in Anguilla.

Capt. Bob

We considered several options, but at the time finally decided to just do nothing. On this cruise, we rely primarily on mobile data and that will be especially true for the last leg through the Bahamas before we return to the states.

Red Line is what we've covered. Yellow is still to go!
With a stop in San Juan, Puerto Rico scheduled before our passage to southern Bahamas, we re-considered if we should replace the gear and get something shipped in. Once again we considered a few options:
  • Just get another bullet (about a hundred bucks plus shipping)
  • Get a Halo Redport system (about 400 bucks plus shipping)
  • Get a Rogue Wave Dual-Band Pro and MBR550 Router with SIM card (about two grand)
You can probably tell by the additional details in one of those lines, which one I did. We got the Cadillac system - Wave Wifi stuff from Defender in CT. They shipped it to the Marina a few days ahead of when we arrived and it was all here waiting for us.

Why The Splurge?  

We both work extensively from the boat, so connectivity is very important. The Bullet m2 always worked well, but it is complex to configure and tricky to debug issues with. Also, the old m2 version we had would only see 2.4GHz Wifi. Many times, we could see SSIDs from our laptops down below that the bullet couldn't see up on the radar mast! The Halo system also only works on 2.4GHz systems.

Removing the dead Bullet Radio in Anguilla

Wave Wifi makes high-end turn-key systems which are installed on private and charter yachts of all sizes. They offer the DB (dual band) Pro radio which will work with 2.4 and 5 GHz systems. And they have their own brand of "marine-grade" routers/access points: the MBR500 and MBR550.  The difference between these two (besides about $350) is that the 550 has a SIM slot in it and two high-gain Cellular Antennas. Interesting.

We normally buy two of whatever the local SIM card is and stick them in two different phones. Going forward, we have the option of sticking one in the SIM slot on the router and having that serve our main network. I can remember a few times in the Bahamas a couple of years ago where the BTC mobile signal was a bit weak. Perhaps having the BTC SIM in the router with those fancy Cellular Antennas will give us an edge - we'll see next month. We will have to configure the APN and other parameters for each SIM. I think the trick will be to get them to configure the card in a phone at the store and then use that phone to see which APN to use.  It should work.

The one disadvantage of serving up Mobile Data over our primary network is that we will now need to set the primary network as a Metered network on all of our devices. In the past, it was assumed that if our primary network was working, it was connected to some bar or restaurant near the anchorage. Now, we have to beware that it might be backed by expensive and limited mobile data. Windows10 and Android devices allow setting individual Wifi networks as Metered and as such, will not do super-high-bandwidth nonsense over them.


SIM Included

They do include a T-Mobile SIM and offer several insanely expensive monthly plans. I saw 50GB for $350 and ran screaming. I left it in the SIM slot for now just to prove that it works.  Later, we will be sticking local pre-paid SIMs in here and crossing our fingers.


More Benefits

The MBR550 has a series of ports that can work in a fail-over sequence.  Out of the box it is configured like this and they even name the ports to make it obvious. Previously, we used a separate router (a cheap tp-link) on our Satellite Terminal for offshore passages. Now, the sat terminal will just plug directly into our primary router and it will automatically fail over to it if the Wifi and Cellular data are down. Simple. Additionally, they provide a means to limit the data on each port. I have set the Satellite port limit to 5MB per day. That will avoid a nasty and expensive "accident" when offshore like we've had in the past. The Satellite data is $10/MB and only used for short text emails, GRIBs and to upload our Track underway for those playing along at home.

The Failover config screen. Wifi first, then SIM then Sat


The hard part of the install was actually done years ago when we installed the original Bullet/Microtik system. All the power and ethernet wiring that was done then will work now. Both the old and new radio get power over ethernet (POE). The Wave Pro DB came with a shiny new POE injector (this one with LEDs on it), so I swapped in the new one (because I like shiny things).

The Pro DB radio in hand and the MB550 and new POE mounted inside.

Bit of a mess during the install.
The Pro DB with spacers ready to be clamped to the radar mast.
Mounted and wired in. The Fleet One Satellite terminal now feeds a port on our primary router (white wire).

A bit of a stretch and balancing act.

And done!

The Review

Don't you hate those Amazon reviews where someone reviews something after owning it for only a couple days?  Well, I'm about to do the same.

It was incredibly easy to set up. The paper instructions included were not so great but I downloaded the manual (and of course put it in dropbox with all the other ship's manuals). One thing that is buried a bit is that you can configure it by connecting to it wirelessly instead of plugging in an ethernet cable as the instructions say. The trick is that the initial password is MBR550's serial number. That said, there is not much config to do. The router allows you to require logins for your users and can even redirect them to a disclaimer page. This is probably a very popular feature on charter boats and large yachts with lots of guests coming and going.

Product placement.

I've been using it for work for several days. The Pro DB is connected to the Club Nautico Guest Wifi here at the marina in San Juan. As is often the case with marinas, the Wifi is horrible at times and not so bad other times. This marina has a 2.4 and a 5GHz guest Access point. While the 2.4 is a slightly stronger signal, I've been having much better luck on the 5 (lately).  It's nice to have the option now.

The physical mounting of the MBR550 router is much nicer than the old Microtik A/P.  It has tabbed legs with screw holes and the footprint is a bit smaller.  I mounted it inside our nav table pod with the Sim slot facing forward.

The Pro DB radio feels very rugged and heavy. It has a standard antenna mount threaded base, however we are not using that yet. I'm doing the hose-clamps to a stainless rail method of mounting for now. Perhaps a winter project will be to add a threaded base to the Edson wing and run the wire up inside it. A nice touch is that when the Pro DB gets power, it makes a quiet bootup sound - like a rapid series of clicks. It's nice feedback to let you know that your POE is working all the way to it.  Like the bullet, there are no LED indicators of power or signal.

Another advantage over the Bullet is that anything the Pro DB connects to can be saved as a Favorite. Come back next year and it will connect - so long as they haven't changed the password which is often the case. The bullet had no such memory so it required another trip to the bar to harvest a password.

Speaking of harvesting passwords, this brings me to one thing that was nicer in the Bullet. The Site Scan Survey results screen for the Bullet was a nice tight table of SSIDs and signal strength. One could sort by signal strength, take a screenshot of that on your phone and go ashore to harvest passwords. The UI in the Wave Scan screen is modern and pretty, but it spreads the list of Access Points it sees over several pages. It will now require several screenshots to capture it all - especially when there are many access points around (most of which are from other boats).

Boo - a phone screenshot only fits four Access Points in this "pretty" UI. Give me the simple text table from the Bullet please!
Something that I have not figured out how to do (or if it can be done) is to change how the Pro DB appears to the access point it is connected to. In the old Bullet configuration, I had us showing up as "Bill's iPhone". This was mainly done because some restaurants/bars in certain places are very protective of their Wifi passcodes and insist on typing them into your phone instead of telling them to you. We would use our superior technology to thwart that, but then we didn't want to appear as "Bullet m2" in their router connected user list (if they ever look). I have a feeling that we show up as "Wave... something or other" now and I don't yet know how to change that.

There is a Bug (or feature) I've run into with regards to Favorites. I had both the 2.4 and 5GHz SSIDs saved as favorites. I deleted one Favorite and... it deleted both of them. Can I put this in Jira?

Time To Get Back To Work, And Play

We're spending a few more days in San Juan and will wait on a window to make a 460 nautical mile (3+ day) passage to Grand Inagua in the southern Bahamas. Besides this little project, we have gotten several other things done on the boat including some bright work. The Bahamas will be a test for the Cellular Data capabilities of the MBR550. Between that, a second BTC local SIM card in a phone and Google FI, we hope to stay well connected most of the time.

In the meantime, we're enjoying San Juan and even dressing up a bit for nights out!

01 March 2020

Back in the US, Sort Of

Argon has been been easing her way out of the deep Caribbean in to more American-feeling territory ever since about St. Martin with its commerce and infrastructure as well as Anguilla accepting US dollars and completely English-speaking. We were welcomed back home with the ease of clearing customs in US territory upon arriving in St. Croix as well as the plethora of Americans inhabiting St. John (both US Virgin Islands). It feels as though we may have swapped exotic adventure for comfortable familiarity at these latitudes. But it's still grand.

Captain Linda Perry Riera

Argon sailed and explored about 160nm in total over the past two plus weeks from Anguilla to St. Croix (USVI) then on to and around St. John (also USVI).

A difficult downwind overnight passage from Anguilla to St. Croix USVI was followed by a grand daysail due north to St. John (also USVI, just southwest of British VI).

Overnight Sail from Anguilla to St. Croix, With Crew

Anguilla is a narrow island a mere 5 miles north of St. Martin. Its topography is nondescript but with gorgeous waters. Locals seem happy to be largely overlooked by their bustling neighboring island with just enough high end tourism to keep the economy healthy. Anguilla seems to have the most mixing of races we've seen in the Caribbean perhaps due to what appears to be an overall higher standard of living for locals compared to other islands where there is a clear divide between locals and ex-pats. The locals were among the friendliest we have encountered in our travels.

After a week at anchor working day jobs, tending to boat logistics and a bit of land exploration we welcomed our dear friends, Lori and Colonel Todd, to Anguilla to celebrate their impending retirement from nearly 30 years in the Marine Corps. Lori and Todd started sailing in Newport a few years ago and were keen to get some experience in big waters, on a larger boat, and to experience the cruising lifestyle.

An overnight westward passage would be a downwind sail in 15-18kt winds. Seas proved to be the most challenging factor with confused 4-8 foot waves bashing our stern quarter requiring constant helm attention and resulting in uncomfortable motion of the boat the majority of the 100nm sixteen hour overnight passage. We had to stay off the wind more than we would have if the seas were calm requiring us to jib a few times and add some miles to the rhumb line. The sea state finally became more rhythmic and comfortable around daybreak as we welcomed the view of St. Croix.

After a week of work and boat logistics, we welcomed dear friends to Anguilla.

Preparing for the 100nm overnight sail from Road Bay, Anguilla to Christensted, St. Croix.

Ready for an evening departure from the windy anchorage at Road Bay, Anguilla.

Lori practicing helming and getting used to the feel of Argon in the lee of Anguilla before dark sets in and seas roughen. (They were both happier than they appear in this photo.) We were mostly double-reefed with just the 90% jib which enabled us to maintain 6.5-7.5kts.

The morning after... A challenging, successful night sail was celebrated with strong coffee as seas calm on the approach to St. Croix.

Christiansted, St. Croix - USVI

Americans clearing in to customs upon returning to the US have the option of using the new Roam App. A bit of time was spent a week prior setting up the account and profiles for about a $30 fee. When in St. Croix, I simply logged our arrival when anchored and waited about 30 minutes to receive an acknowledgement from Customs and Boarder Patrol (CBP) and permission to be back in the US. So convenient! I will try using this again when we leave US territory and return again.

We quickly loved the town of Christiansted with a myriad of beautiful buildings and interesting side streets and art galleries. However, it is not an ideal cruiser's destinantion. The anchoring options are limited and we had an extremely rolly night (but with good holding) after being asked to leave our first anchoring spot. After making our way to an antiquated fuel dock in high winds the next morning to top off diesel and water, we were introduced to the pervasive friendliness of Christiansted. Miracle was a joy to chat with and one of the boat yard workers kindly offered us his mooring in a much more protected and comfortable part of the harbor. Thus after a rough initial introduction, Argon and crew were able to settle in and enjoy the pearls of Christiansted.

Very uncomfortable and rolly anchorage a long dinghy ride from town.

Mircacle, from St. Croix Marina, was a gem. She got us connected with a co-worker who offered up his mooring to us.

On day 2 we were able to get a great mooring behind a tiny island in crystal clear water and a very easy dinghy ride to town. There are ample tie ups for dinghies along the boardwalk but a stern anchor is advisable to prevent the tender from constantly bashing in to or under the docks.

Bob installed this cleat to the transom of the dinghy which facilitated securing the stern anchor rode.

A little bit of partying and celebrating in St. Croix at BES Craft Cocktail Lounge.

Downtown Christiansted, St. Croix.

St. John - USVI

After three nights in St. Croix we released the mooring lines at 0900 for a 35nm close reach sail in 14kts, reasonable seas, with full main and jib landing in a lovely southern bay of St. John by early afternoon. It was great to arrive to a new island and not have to bother with customs (since we were already cleared in to US via St. Croix).

St. John is on my list of top 5 favorite Caribbean places to sail. The numerous gorgeous bays and concise circumference of the island enable one to find a lovely cove to tuck in regardless of the conditions. With a majority of its 20 square miles national park there are numerous hiking options. We enjoyed the following harbors on this trip:
  • Little Lameshur
  • Rendezvous Bay
  • Waterlemon Bay
  • Francis and Maho Bays
  • Lindt Point, Caneel Bay and Cruz Bay
The National Park Service (NPS) maintains moorings requesting $26/night in park waters comprising much of the south and north coasts. While this can add up and impact ones cruising budget, it is well worth it as the moorings are excellent quality and the prohibition of anchoring contribute significantly to the quality of the harbors by protecting the sea beds. Recently slashed NPS funding  in addition to recovery from the devastating hurricane Irma in fall of 2017 is negatively impacting NPS activties including enforcement of fee collection (which will eventually lead to less funds for mooring and trail maintenance). Let's hope that funding and associated activities are restored soon.

More than a week was spent jumping from one harbor to the next around St. John. Favorites are the coves on the less traveled south coast especially Little Lameshur and Rendezvous Bays.

Lori and Todd sailing with us on a close reach from St. Croix to St. John - much more favorable conditions compared to the overnight passage a few days prior.

Argon spent several days in Little Lameshur, sometimes alone. This view is from Yawzi Point, one of the several hiking trails surrounding this cove.

St. John was ideal for regular exercise swims. One morning in Little Lameshur a large barracuda was hanging out around the boat (they seem to enjoy the shadow of the hull). It took me a while to muster up the nerve to gently slide in the water and start my swim. Barracuda are common and not overtly aggressive but they have enormous sharp teeth and one does not want to inadvertently startle a barrack in to attack mode.

Fun impromptu meet up at Francis Bay with a former sailing instructor (Brenton of Blackrock Sailing School) and his current class on their Foutaine Pajot 40 catamaran. A big surprise was that one of the students is a work colleague of Bob's - small world.

Johnny Horn Trail.

Argon moored in Waterlemon Bay.

Eating Aboard

With all the secluded harbors, we were happily eating aboard quite a bit. Although the last provisioning run was only about a week ago in St. Croix, our stores were getting lean. We were still able to muster up some satisfying meals as the cabinet and refrigerator became sparse. Finding fresh vegetables and good quality meats is a challenge along many of the Caribbean islands. Cooking with various types of legumes has become commonplace. Canned mushrooms are a regular in my cooking as good quality fresh mushrooms are non-existent. Cabbage is wonderful for its shelf life and versatility including using in place of lettuce which is difficult to find fresh and does not keep for long. Weak fishing skills prohibit us from relying on fresh fish but we keep going at it.

Crispy tofu with spice Thai noodles.

Braised beef with polenta.

Beef and bean burritos made with Impossible Beef (plant based meat product).

Scrambled eggs and sauteed potatoes with paprika and brie cheese.

What About St. Thomas? And the BVI?

We have enjoyed the lovely profiles of the lively and bustling British Virgin Islands and St. Thomas in the near distance of St. John but have decided to by-pass these popluar island in exchange for more time in the quiet coves of St. John. We will soon set sail westward for the Spanish Virgin Islands (also US territory) first stopping at the secluded island of Vieques.

View from one of the many spectacular hikes on St. John. This one from atop Lienster Point with Tortola and Little Thatch (part of the BVI) in the background.

21 February 2020

More Rigging Tweaks - The Topingliftectomy

The boom on a sailboat, while attached rigidly (hopefully) to the mast at one end, is balanced with various up and down forces at the other. There are plenty of down forces: The vang, the mainsheet and the weight of the whole thing.  One of the up forces that most boats have is a topping lift. Some boats also have a rigid vang which pushes the boom up. While sailing, the sail itself is holding the boom up, and during this time, the topping lift is superfluous - or worse.

Capt. Bob

Argon was rigged from the factory with a covered stainless wire topping lift. She was also rigged with a Forespar rigid vang which can push the boom up. When Argon was first commissioned, the boom always hung on the topping lift while the sail was down. The Forespar vang didn't have quite enough push to balance it.

The Forespar Rigid Vang - properly adjusted

One day, I was going through the boat manuals and came upon the Forespar manual. In there, they clearly say that you should  adjust it so it does fully support the boom. Ours had two positions of adjustment left so I moved the pin up to the next set of holes and ever since then, our boom balances perfectly without any tension on the topping lift.

So why have a topping lift at all?

With our rigid vang, the lift still comes in handy when the sail is down and we're motoring (or sailing with headsails only) in rolling conditions. In these circumstances, you really need to stabilize the boom and the only way to do that is to apply a bunch of opposing forces to it - typically by pulling down hard on the sheets against the topping lift pulling up. This was about the only situation where there would ever be any tension on our topping lift.

The New Sail

One of the things we did in Grenada over the summer was have a new Doyle Mainsail made. It was a moderately frustrating experience with needing to have it re-cut three times (each time requiring the sail be removed, taken to the loft and re-installed and tested).  The new sail performed much better and was slightly different from the original in a few ways:
  1. It has slightly more roach (at first, it had way too much roach to tack without hitting the backstay - hence one of the trips back to the loft).
  2. It has two sets of Antal Low-friction rings for the slab reefing line to run through. 
  3. It has really heavy duty batten pockets for the round full battens.
Not related to the topping lift, but here was one of the reasons we had the new sail re-cut three times.  The top three battens were sticking out past the backstay!

These are all great improvements from a performance and sail handling standpoint; but a new problem emerged.

The Topping Lift Cries Foul!

During one of the first sails with the new sail, the topping lift got fouled and wedged in one of the leech line cleats.  It was brute force alternately raising and pulling down on the reefing line to finally break it free - but not without shredding the vinyl coating over the stainless wire.
The shredded coating on the topping lift wire caused by getting caught in the leech line cleat.

My clever fix for that was to put some whipping line around the cleat to prevent anything from entering it.

Whipping line around the leech line cleat to try and keep the topping lift out. You can see it still tries to get in there.

That worked for that particular foul point and we were fairly trouble free... for a while. During a few subsequent sails, we noticed the topping lift was getting hung up on the batten pockets on the sail. While this never prevented the sail coming down, it made us nervous to see it caught on anything up there.

Approaching Barbuda

"Not a lot of time before the reefs."
"Okay, I know".
"Let's get the sail down"
"Working on it"
"Really not much time!"
"I know!"
"We really need the sail down now!"
"I'm really trying!"

On our passage to Barbuda, we made a final approach into the wind outside of the more hazardous shallows. I went forward to lower the sail and flake it and noticed that the Topping Lift was very seriously fouled - this time on one of the Antal reefing line rings.  Not only that, but it had gotten caught on the block for our split backstay! So, not only would the sail not come down, but we couldn't really turn off the wind without putting a lateral load on the back stay... and those shallows were not far ahead!

The topping lift caught in front of one of the Antal reefing line rings

Once again, it was extreme brute force and some back and forth tacks that got things to finally shake loose.  We dropped the sail in a heap and navigated in through the coral heads.  Phew!

Having just struggled with lowering the sail (again), I assume my duties as eyeball navigator lookout.

This Thing Has To Go

I made the executive decision right then to get rid of the topping lift. For the few downsides I could think of with not having one, I now had a bigger downside with having it: Sooner or later, we would have a serious problem and not be able to get this huge sail down - and it would probably be offshore, at 2AM in driving rain and 40kts of wind.

The worst thing that will happen if the boom comes too low is we will damage the canvas on the top of the bimini. This is a brand new expensive bimini so that actually is a pretty bad thing that I would like to avoid.  Having a properly adjusted topping lift prevents that from happening for sure.

One More Idea

Before we did it, I wanted to try one more thing. I put a loop of shock cord from the end of the boom up to the shackle at the end of the wire topping lift and put a lot of tension on it.  The idea being that when the sail is up and lifts the boom, that shock cord will still have some tension on it and at least keep the topping lift a little bit tight so it's not as apt to fling around and get caught on stuff.
It didn't work.  I tried a few different adjustments and never got it to apply very much tension to the topping lift at all. Certainly not enough to guarantee we wouldn't have a problem.

Last chance for the Topping Lift.  Will this shock cord keep it taught enough to stay out of trouble while sailing?

Apparently not (and it looks ugly too). You can see it's caught on the antal ring again even though the shock cord is applying some tension to it

Not So Lazy Jacks

So, it's decided for sure - the thing really has to go.  One thing we wanted to double check on was the condition of the main Lazy Jack line. We replaced it with dyneema in Bermuda on the way down but this all made us realize that the lazy jacks might end up with some more tension on them than they used to have (in hindsight, they actually don't) so we wanted to make sure they were in good shape.  Just for fun, we replaced the main line with a new piece of dyneema (44 ft long to be exact).

Proof Of Concept

During those times motoring or sailing without a main in rough conditions, how are we going to stabilize the boom?  Since we can't pull up anymore, we need to think lateral.  We already have a Wichard Boom Brake installed. Part of the solution could be just snugging that up.  When we're at anchor, we typically tie the boom over (to port in the Caribbean) with a dock line to maximize the sun on our solar panels. We decided to make a dedicated line with a snap shackle to be the special line for this purpose.  I made it out of 8mm three strand nylon so it's got a nice amount of elasticity. We figured we would alter our sail dropping protocol slightly by having whoever goes forward to flake, clip this thing to the boom and run it around our midships cleat on the way.  Then as the sail comes down, the traveler is pulled to the opposite side. Between this new line going one way, and the mainsheet going the other, we have some nice lateral stability.

It worked!

We tried this out by completely loosening the topping lift one day (a particularly rolly day actually) and it worked perfectly.  The Boom was quiet and still and in no danger of coming down low enough to touch the bimini.

Getting It Done

We had reserved a week in Simpson Bay Marina in St Maarten coming up, so this was the perfect time to get this and many other pent up boat projects done.

The first job was to replace the lazy jack line.  Unfortunately, I never wrote down the measurement when we replaced it in Bermuda (I had a few other things on my mind at the time) so we had to first pull the existing one through and leave a messenger line in the mast so that we could measure it.  Note to future Bob: it's 44 feet.

Linda ready to go aloft to replace the lazy jack line (new one is coiled in the chair)
The mast sheaves for the lazy jack line. There was no chafing to be seen but we replaced it anyway

I get the easy job of doing a quick Brummel Splice in the new lazy jack line

Running the new lazyjack line

Linda's view from aloft just above the first spreader.
Next, Linda had to go all the way to the top to actually remove the topping lift from the mast crane.

Closeup of the topping lift 65 feet up at the crane.

Successful extraction.

Free At Last

The topping lift is gone.  We kept it just in case, although if I ever did replace it, it would be with dyneema. The old one will make a nice memento along with our old broken headstay.

Will there be times we wish we had it?  Maybe.  But for all the rest of the time, it is one huge thing to not have to worry about anymore.

The rig looks cleaner and more streamlined and as you can see below, there is plenty of safe distance between the bottom of the boom and the top of the bimini when the sail is down. I left a soft shackle on the end of the boom that we can always clip our main halyard to. Between that and the former spin halyard, we can take the boom off the mast to work on it.

After dropping the sail, the boom is quiet with plenty of clearance above the bimini
At rest in an anchorage (even a rolly one which we are very good at finding), the boom is quiet. Between the Wichard Brake, the new line and the mainsheet, there is a nice triangle which applies plenty of lateral support without pulling down enough to compress the vang spring.

The new line on padeye behind the vang. The Wichard Brake and the mainsheet make a nice triangle which stabilizes the boom in the rolliest anchorage.

Under sail, things look so much cleaner up there! No more chance of fouling in the leech line cleat, batten pockets or reefing rings.

No more flailing topping lift banging into the sail and getting caught on stuff.

This is all new.  When I told folks we were going to do this, a few tried to talk me out of it. Others said they had done something similar and had no regrets. To me any downside of not having this lift is outweighed by removing the dangerous situation of not being able to drop this sail. Time will tell...