Monday, March 14, 2016

Charting Electrics

Electronics are wonderful as long as the electrons keep flowing, but they are useless once the power ends — and it always does eventually! The trick on a boat, particularly one in a hot saltwater environment, is to keep those electrons flowing from the boat’s batteries through various connectors, wires, switches, fuses, etc., to the right places and to not get sidetracked or blocked.

Isolate
There are several unique factors to keep in mind with regard to charting electrics. It is not the same as wiring up a new light over the chart table! First, I have found it is important to isolate the electronics circuits from possible major surges caused by things like engine starting or windlass grinding. I have witnessed various electronic devices turning themselves off or on due to power surges, and low voltage is never good for sensitive electronics. Luckily, most modern electronic devices can handle a wide range of input voltages, including low-voltage situations, quite well.

On my boat I have a small fuse panel that resides right in the battery compartment. It is connected directly to the main large battery bank at the opposite end from where alternator and solar charging juice gets brought into the bank. Batteries act as filters for voltage spikes and a large house bank of batteries is fantastic protection. A very short fused lead connects the small electronics fuse panel directly to the battery bank. This panel is “always on,” meaning I only disconnect it for maintenance purposes. An entirely separate battery is used only for engine starting, which is usually the No. 1 routine action that can cause power spikes. Of course, the two battery banks can be combined using switches if required, but in normal operation they are kept separated with only a trickle charger from the main bank keeping the starter battery topped up. Normal starting only uses a tiny bit of capacity from the starting battery and if you are routinely draining that battery for some reason, your engine and/or starting system needs work.

Remain connected
I have learned through hard experience that it is far better to keep your electronics attached to power than to disconnect them. Many devices have small internal batteries that maintain critical memory, and those internal batteries can be difficult or impossible to replace. The job is also expensive and must be done by the factory in many cases. One issue I have right now is that my VHF radio lost its programmed MMSI number one winter when I had it disconnected, and the only way to have it restored is to send it to the factory — the repair charge would be greater than the radio is worth!

Some will argue that a fuse panel should not be in the battery compartment due to corrosion issues from batteries gassing and that the panel can’t be isolated using the main battery switch. All I can say is that I have used this system for decades on several different boats and have never found a serious corrosion issue. Your batteries should not be gassing that much anyway! If they are, it is time to closely examine your charging system.

Safety first
Concerning not being able to isolate this panel using the main battery switch, I don’t consider it a serious safety issue. First, there is an inline fuse in the short wire from the batteries to the panel; second, each individual power line is fused in a position that is very close to the battery. Most of the lines also have fuses close to the electronic device. The wires and fuses are very small, so in the event of a catastrophic short somewhere along the line, either the fuse or the wire will burn out very quickly.

The “always on” electronics fuse panel provides other benefits. When there is an electrical emergency in some other part of the boat, you can safely turn off the main battery switch and know that critical navigation and communication devices will continue to work. Think of the situation in a boat fire. You might quite rightly believe that the electrical system is to blame, so you flip off the main switch as the boat fills with smoke and then you try to call the Coast Guard only to find the VHF radio isn’t working. You then grab a hand-held radio and reach someone who can help, but then you can’t tell them your position because the GPS and chartplotter have been knocked out. You want to keep critical electronics running as long as possible in an emergency situation.

Of course, when it comes to most things on board, it is important to have backup systems that don’t depend at all on the main boat electrical system. I don’t go anywhere without a small, hand-held GPS that runs on regular alkaline flashlight batteries — no rechargeables! I want this GPS to always be available no matter what and, in my experience, small rechargeable batteries are not reliable, have much less capacity than advertised and have relatively short lives. Good old alkaline disposable batteries, on the other hand, last for years on board and it is very easy to carry enough to last years. They are available everywhere in the world too. I have a hand-held VHF radio that can take ordinary alkaline batteries for this very reason, along with a hand-held depthfinder and even an old hand-held RDF! Even in today’s world with few navigational radio beacons, there are almost always commercial radio stations or airport radio beacons that can be homed in on when all else fails. In any case, think through how you would navigate if your main batteries were gone for some reason — it will happen!

This article first appeared at Ocean Navigator. Check them out!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Cool stuff for a cool season

OK — I just dated myself with that title, but "cool" is the only appropriate word, in my opinion, for this potpourri of charting goodness.

Dock-to-dock Autorouting
You've no doubt read about the wonders of Google's self-driving cars that will take you from point A to point B safely while you do important things like drinking coffee and using Snapchat. I hope boating never gets to that point, but Navionics has taken a step in that direction with a new component in Navionics+, an optional pay-to-subscribe feature available in their free Boating app, or included with their paid Boating app. Check it out here. It is available for iPhone and iPad at this time.

We all have used chartplotters that let us create straight-line routes between various selected waypoints, but what if your trip is down the Hudson River or the Intracoastal Waterway? Plotting a course mark-to-mark would be totally impractical in many areas due to the tight curvature of the waterway, the lack of navigation aids within sight of one another and the need to travel in non-straight lines. Dock-to-dock Autorouting to the rescue!

This app feature does just what it says — it plots a course for you, based on navigation aids and chart information, down a narrow twisting channel. Having traveled the Intracoastal Waterway more than 25 times, I can appreciate the need for this. I picture myself rising early to catch the sun in a desolate stretch of the Carolina or Georgia waterway, where the channel resembles a series of wriggling snakes. Yes, there are lots of markers to watch for, and you should be using your Mark 1 Eyeballs too, but it would be really cool on that chilly morning to have my day pre-plotted for me.

There are many places in such a snake den where intersecting channels or waterways can take you from instant calm to panicked confusion, often followed by your keel making the determination that your morning coffee-starved brain made the wrong snap decision. Having a plotted route would avoid all that fun of rowing out an anchor to kedge your boat back into deep water.

Not only that, but this app feature also provides you with fuel consumption, distance and ETA estimates, hazard warnings and points of interest. Needless to say, Navionics provides the obvious disclaimer that "a route automatically calculated by Autorouting does not replace safe navigation practices and should never be your only reference." In other words, boating with your mind in gear is still the safe way to get from point A to B, especially when the straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.

Cuba, here we come!
Now that sailing to Cuba seems to be possible for many North Americans, everyone is looking for charts and guides — and NV Charts has delivered. They've recently released four charting regions covering the north coast of Cuba, and they have matching chart apps. If you purchase the paper chartbooks, you can also download digital charts that work with a free charting program for OSX and Windows, and you will receive a free charting app for use on iOS and Android. Learn more here.

I like this approach of encouraging cruisers to have paper and digital products; it means you are not entirely dependent on the flow of electrons in a marine environment. At the same time, how cool is it to have your big chartbook safely below on the chart table, while your hand-held phone or tablet provides the cockpit view you need? Or vice versa, depending on your boat.

NV Charts utilize both government hydrographic information and the company's own surveys conducted in small boats. They utilize symbols and colors somewhat different than those used by U.S. government charting agencies, but I have found them to generally be clear and easy to read. As always, boaters must use caution and those Mark 1 Eyeballs when navigating in less-traveled waters, particularly coral areas.

Office of Coast Survey Chart Catalog
OK, how cool can a chart catalog be? Pretty cool if you are the Coast Survey folks that bring us NOAA paper and electronic charts. Check out their online catalog hereto see what I mean. Choose a tab to see outlines of paper or electronic charts available and, using Google maps, you can zoom right in smoothly and quickly to the area you are interested in and you can highlight chart areas to get more information.

The view includes quick links to navigational products covering the selected area, and lists other charts in the vicinity. This is a fantastic planning tool, and it also helps to give you a big picture of the area.

This article was first published online by Ocean Navigator. Check them out for more cool stuff!

Hurricane Chartwork

During and before hurricane season you will read and hear lots of information on what to do when a storm approaches, and how to escape and remain safe. However, the most important thing is to pay attention, so that whatever happens you have days of warning. With a longer warning period you might very well be able to move your boat to a more sheltered harbor, or possibly even far enough from the storm to avoid the worst of it. 

The primary early warning tool is the National Hurricane Center's (NHC) website (http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/). Keep the site bookmarked on your cellphone, your home computer or wherever you'll be able to check it every day. The NHC is previewing a new website (http://www.nhcpara.noaa.gov/) with responsive design that will work better on phones and tablets. 

The NHC provides a downloadable and printable PDF Atlantic Basin Hurricane Tracking Chart that I find very handy. The paper chartlet is gridded so it is easy to plot latitude/longitude coordinates. I print out several blank ones and keep them on board so that I can plot out the course of a storm and have a ready reference to its progress, without having to fire up a computer or a phone. 

I have found that cellphones and the Internet are generally reliable and faster to get back up and running during a hurricane event. In many areas trees quickly take down power lines, along with phone service and cable TV, but cell towers have backup power and by the nature of the system there is a lot of redundancy. Even if you lose a signal from one tower, you may be able to move around a bit and pick up another tower. 

In recent years the NHC has become less useful to mariners when a hurricane makes a close approach. Critical information on storm location, progress, potential tracks, etc., is replaced by endless repetitions of warnings to "complete preparations" and "seek shelter." Strangely, this is when local television weather becomes a mariner's best friend. Local weather announcers are struggling to fill endless airtime so they microreport every detail and nuance of the approaching storm just about when the NHC becomes useless. Unfortunately, you do have to be patient during the inevitable reports from reporters trying to stand in the wind and rain to show everyone how terrible the weather is. 

I'm not a fan of TV on board a boat, but if you have one, use it! As an alternative, I have found many stations offer a live stream on the Internet, or it makes a good excuse to hang out in the marina lounge or a local bar! Unfortunately, in most places broadcast radio is much less useful — it is hard to find a station broadcasting detailed, accurate weather. 

When prepping for a storm your chartplotter, paper charts and cruising guides become critical. If I don't have paper charts of the area, I print out a very detailed chart of my surroundings and I keep it in a plastic zipper bag. You never know when the electronics or your power supply will fail, and things are likely to get very wet — even down below!

Many boaters have their main plotter at the steering station, which is not where you want to be located during a hurricane or a close approach. Make sure you have some sort of plotting device that can be used down below. As a storm's track relative to your location becomes defined, there is often time to readjust lines, move anchors to better locations or even move the boat a short distance to get better shelter. A chartplotter down below will tell you if there is enough water to get in behind that protective point, or whether you are now going to be downwind of that large marina with boats and docks breaking loose! 

Assuming you've got your boat well secured and in good shelter, often the biggest problem is debris or other boats floating down on you. I spent a good portion of Hurricane Bob lying on the bow of my boat fending off floating junk including an upside-down ATV, a large old Christmas tree and numerous 100-pound propane tanks. Often the biggest danger is other boats breaking loose and taking you with them, so use those charts to not only determine what will be immediately upwind of you but what might be floating down the river, bay or harbor from an unseen marina around the bend or an abandoned wharf falling apart. 

Needless to say, with that early warning you have had (you've been monitoring the NHC, right!?), you've explored the territory around your boat in the dinghy and have plotted out all possible hazards. I have a portable depth sounder that I use in the dinghy to give me an accurate idea of depths and hazards all around the boat for some distance — in case I drag, or in case I have to move the boat deliberately for some reason. In Maine I once found that the mooring the harbormaster had put me on allowed my boat to swing over a large boulder that would have been very close to my keel depth at an extreme low tide. I moved. Take those depth readings and write them down on that big-scale, small area paper chart you have printed out. This chart can be useful later if you find your boat has dragged into a shoaler area. 

Think ahead, use your charts to plot out every detail of your sheltered spot, and be prepared with backups for the backups when everything is soaked and broken! Stay safe this hurricane season.

This article was first published online by Ocean Navigator. Check them out for other great content!