Learning the dark secrets of marine navigation electronics.

A boat is a very high maintenance item.  A sailboat even more so in my opinion.  The miles and miles of ropes, the numerous pulleys, sidecars, track, the sails, etc all consumable items, albeit with some care they can last a long while.  

I’ve just been describing BooBee’s home.  Hence my living on the boat became working on the boat.  A sailboat can be remarkably high tech, ironically.  Although their principle mean of propulsion is the wind they are equipped with some pretty high tech electronics equipment.  GPS, AIS (automation identification system – which tells you of the surrounding boats as far as a few nautical miles away.  Their name, identification, dimensions, speed, direction are visible on the instrument.  Then you have the radar which allows you to “see” in the dark, if you can decipher the image.  Depth sounder, speedometer, wind instrument for wind speed and wind direction.  A digital compass, and finally the auto pilot and course computer.  The last 2 goes hand in hand.  The course computer takes in all the available data and decides if your course needs correction.  Technically you can program in a destination called a waypoint and say, “take me there!”.

Like all electronics (with few exceptions maybe of military nature that are nuclear electromagnetic radiation proof too) their greatest threat is perhaps lightning!  The electromagnetic pulse generated by lightning strikes can desimate electronic equipment in proximity.  This risk is significantly higher in a sailboat.  The mast, usually made of conductive aluminium, sticks about 5 stories vertically towards the sky.  You can think of the mast as a big lightning rod and you are usually the tallest object around.  That, is a formula for a lightning magnet! 

Marine navigational equipment are expensive.  Not just burning a hole in the wallet expensive, but can actually make whole wallets disappear, credit cards and all.  When a storm hangs around, I would bow low to the God of lightning, for this God can make you go broke in just a single flash lasting a mere split second.

Of course, electronics die of old age too.  The navigational equipment on Micasa are more then a decade old.  One by one they added onto my stack of most concerning worries on the boat.  They would start by acting up, throwing me a screw ball every now and then and finally refused to play ball and gave up the ghost!

There are only a handful of marine navigational equipment makers and all play this game of built in obsolescence.  Anything older than 3 years, they would not carry parts for.  When you bring in a faulty piece of their equipment, hoping dearly that the repair would not be as painful as imagined you’d be told to throw it away and buy a new one!  Consumer protection stops at the shores, I would conclude!

Left with no other choice I had to seek for alternatives.  To get off main stream and to seek for something (heaven knows what) more affordable.  

Electronics frightens me.  They are like black boxes to me.  They produce an outcome, a result and only God will know what goes on inside these black boxes.  

I had to learn more about them, those black boxes!  Dwelling into the dark arts of those black boxes was petrifying. Before hitting the search button for every key catch phrase, I had almost have to cross myself first, the Christian way.  I read the distasteful scriptures for those black boxes which were brain numbing.  I soldiered on through this valley of cerebral death, reading pages after pages of those coma inducing scriptures.  Only God really knows how long I was on this ordious path as a minute on it seemed like days.  Slowly those words of the devil like NMEA with satanic numbers such as 0183 or 2000 started to gain a modicum of grip on my half comatosed brain.

Most boat owners would not have to suffer such ordeals.  They would simply throw money at it which buys them a less painful path towards navigation narvana.  This option is not in my arsenal.  I am out of a job!

Slowly but surely, the darkside prevailed. This dark art took control of my mind and tongue and I started to speak the language of the devil.  Baud rates and all!

Pardon the satirical view on learning navigational equipment.  It wasn’t an easy journey but one that was a necessary evil for me.  From these I started the search for an affordable alternative to main stream navigation equipment.  It exist!  Residing in the grey world of GitHub, the domain of nerds and hidden geniuses.

Poorer sailors, like me.  Yes, they exist although we do not hear much about them.  After all they are not the immediate targets of flashy commercials and advertisements of the multi billion dollar yacht building industry and the satellites of supporting industries surrounding it.  No sun tanned Greek Gods and Goddesses images associated with them.  This underclass and under previleged group of sailors are subconsciously brushed aside as mere irritations by those sailors and boat owners bearing much heftier wallets and digital numerical values which stretches into eternity!

God is fair, however!  He has endowed many of these underdogs and social outcasts with above average IQs.  This under privileged group has their own community.  They share a common hardship and as strong a zest to sail as any.  They have been facing the very same predicaments as I’ve only recently stumbled upon.  The spirit of willingness to help others, which is typical of the sailing community, is very much the philosophy of this group’s existence.  The objective of becoming rich in dollars and cents through the exploitation of the dire needs of others isn’t on the top of the agenda of the members of this community.  Yes, they are rich however, in their nobility and willingness to help others.  God bless them!

This community is linked through online networks and forums and much of the fruit of their toils are open for all in the open source domain of GitHub.  There you will find scripts and coding which utilizes the processing powers of single board computers and microcontrollers.  The Raspberry Pi which evolved from a toy for school projects is one of the favourites.  Using an Arm chip (from mobile phones) and some elegantly designed computer software architectures, these little computers do garner enough processing power to accomplish most computing tasks with relative ease, albeit with very low investment costs and power consumption in their operation.

Navigational equipment such as chartplotters and autopilots can be created from cheap hardwares and free open-source softwares.  One may think that these are mere toys with little relevance in the real world.  I would beg to differ from this view.  Such equipment can and do rival any commercially available equipment out there but at a mere fraction of what it’ll set you back by, if you are to buy one of those proprietary, limited lifespan navigation equipment.  Some well credentialed individuals associated with the industry have made such statements as “superior in their functions to commercially available units!”, with regards to these DIY equipment.  I am not in such an honoured level of existence, and I do find these DIY navigation equipment to be reliable and bountifully adequate for my needs.

Could this be God’s answer to my prayers?  To provide me with the means to navigate the seas safely and to mitigate the likelihood of Micasa and her crew (my Admiral, Sailor dog, and yours truly) getting in harm’s way?  Yes, I do think so and may God bless those unsung heroes (we know who they are!) who have done so much for the sailing community without much material rewards in return.

Thank you for tuning in.  There will be more articles forthcoming, in future.  Do feel free to comment and like my article, and do share them with your friends and loved ones!  In the meantime, do live life as its meant to be lived!

Published by Ben

Semi retired ex-corporate executive. Now a liveaboard on a sailboat with the Admiral and my sailor dog.

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