About Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison is electronics editor for Bonnier Marine Group, specifically Yachting and Cruising World. He previously was electronics editor for Power & Motoryacht and SAIL, as well as a writer for Ocean Navigator. His blog posts appear courtesy of his website www.Panbo.com, which has 80,000 monthly readers worldwide.

MFD shootout #1, tide predictions


I may regret that title eventually, though I’ve just been cruising with four premium MFDs for two weeks, often using them seriously for four or five hours a day.  But that doesn’t mean I’ve learned every nuance of these complex beasts, or that I’ve developed strong preferences.  Actually I have (mostly minor) complaints about every one of them!…even if they’re all way better than the electronics I used around this coast 40, 30, 20, 10, even 5 years ago.  I’m going to start with something fairly simple…

I was a little surprised to discover that the Simrad NSE doesn’t offer current predictions {Wrong, see comments below and here), but it seems the quickest at pulling up a tide graph (above).  Hit the “Pages” mode key (Simrad calls them Direct Access Keys, and I’ve come to love them), spin the rotary knob a few clicks to “Tides”, press/click and voila…the nearest tidal station prediction for today.  Up/Down cursor keys get you different days, and the (context) Menu key gets you the list of nearby predictions.  Note the legible fonts and font sizes — something I see and like everywhere on the NSE.
    As for current predictions, here in Maine the official data is fairly useless because the coast is so complicated — we learn to use tide level, geography, and ultimately pot buoys to figure things out — but I’d be a little miffed to learn my NSE can’t tell me, say, which way the four knot +/- current in the Cape Cod Canal is running.  But there are so many sources of that data these days, from smart phone apps to insurance company paper freebies to just about every computer planning or charting program.  That’s also why I can’t get too exercised that the Furuno NavNet 3D MFD12 on Gizmo’s bridge doesn’t have any tide or current predictions at all {Wrong! See comments, and follow up tomorrow}.  But that does make it the odd man out (along with the inability to save screen shots, which is somewhat a personal bugabear, given what I do, though not completely).
   The Garmin 7212 — and this applies to every Garmin I’ve tried — is nearly as quick as the NSE.  Home/Information/Tides is just as quick, in fact, but then when you go Back, you have to again choose which navigation screen you want, whereas the NSE just goes back to where you were.  The Garmin, like the NSE, makes it graphically clear where you are in the tidal cycle, and unlike the NSE, lets you key in any date in the future (that’s where the 7212′s touch screen works especially well).  The Raymarine E140-Wide isn’t too shabby either…

Garmin_tides_example_cPanbo.JPGThough if a tide (or current) icon isn’t in sight on the Raymarine chart, you have to remember that you can hit the OK button to get screen info, than the “Find Nearest” soft key to search tides, currents, and other good stuff.  I don’t really understand why the search box, tide graph, etc. isn’t full screen, but maybe it is on less than 14″ displays.  I also think that the graph and table could be designed for better legibility (see the other two), and ditto for the data bar seen at the right.  It’s attractive looking, for sure, but in my view actual dynamic data should almost always be bolder than labels.  Then again, my E140 Wide is still running the software that came with it last Fall, an issue that will come up again tomorrow when we look at 3D chart screens.


Antenna watch, Furuno gets the big guys


I’m always checking out antenna farms and when I just reviewed shots from the last couple of weeks, it was hard not to notice how Furuno dominated on the big boat end.  Like the 108′ Keewaydin above, sitting in Seal Harbor on Mount Desert Island (the polar opposite of Jonesport, incidentally).  There are good photos of the Keewaydin crossing the Atlantic at this blog.  If you click on the image above you’ll get enough detail that maybe someone can figure out what all those other mizzen and spreader gadgets are?

How about the mast on the Nordhavn 76 Cadenza, seen leaving Camden just ahead of us?  Furuno radars for sure, but what else (is making little Gizmo feel gizmo deprived)?…

Nordhavn_Cadenza_cPanbo.jpgAnd, finally, a tip of the hat to the Coasties who did a safety inspection of Gizmo off the beach at Roque Island.  (We passed with flying colors, and they were gracious to pose, rock album style, for my camera.)  Furuno has long been proud about supplying the USCG boats, and I understand that the original NavNet gear seen on this boat is being replaced with NN3D soon.  Of course I saw a whole lot of other radars during this cruise, including the rare Icom seen in this week’s header photo, and I also used a few.  There will be lot of testing reports coming once I get back home tomorrow.


Never buy another guide book? No way!


Jeffrey Siegel caused a minor ruckus when he titled an iphonesailing.net thread about ActiveCaptainThere’s no reason to buy another guide book…”  I’m a huge fan of AC, and I’ve watched Jeff’s bold predictions come true one after another, but in this case I’d like to think he was just trying to provoke a constructive argument.  I don’t think AC or any other source of cruising info will ever do a complete job, and my goal is have as many sources as possible on tap.  The snug little harbor I sit in right now is an excellent example…

First of all, compare the inset of the NOAA chart above — as seen in Coastal Explorer 2010 beta with AC, Maptech, and other guide overlays — against the Microsoft satellite image seen on the AC web site (which, cool beans, I can now link to directly).  NOAA doesn’t even show the huge steel and concrete breakwater that was built here in the 80′s!  Meanwhile, AC only shows rudimentary data about the facilities here, and it’s misplaced.  The Maptech data is somewhat better, though older in my case, and less likely for many cruisers to have since Maptech Navigation and Coastal Explorer stopped being partners. 
   The best coverage of this harbor can be found in the Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast, a dog eared copy of which is probably aboard every cruising boat that gets this far Downeast.  But, darn it, that beautifully designed and thoroughly researched guide doesn’t do Sawyer Cove justice either.  Specifically, it understates the Jonesport Shipyard, which has four transient moorings, neat-as-a-pin showers and laundry, repair expertise, and a friendly attitude.  It may be tiny in terms of “marina” but given that there’s no other marina for at least 30 miles in either direction, this is information every passing boat should have.  It’s great that I can update ActiveCaptain about this stuff, but many cruisers won’t be aware of what a respite the Shipyard offers until the major print guide makes a point of it.
   That’s because printed guides are still often the most thorough and easy to use sources.  I could give hundreds of examples where that Maine Coast Guide, now in its fifth edition, is more useful than AC or anything else I have, digital or paper.  Another good example is the new Great Loop guide just announced by Managing the Waterway.  The Doyles have already published some really well designed guides, but check out their latest ideas on how to organize all the info they’ve collected.  Sure it would be great to have it on, say, an iPad — with automatic updating — but it’s really hard to imagine how a mostly-user-generated source like AC could put together data like this.  I think the well equipped cruiser has all available sources in all available mediums.


SiMON2, for iPad & "smaller" yachts


The press release calls SiMON2 “the first alarm monitoring system for the new Apple iPad,” which seems odd given what we’ve already seen from InteliSea.  I think what Palladium Technologies was trying to say is that SiMON2 is the first such app designed exclusively for the iPad.  It is not just an extension of a full bore PC-based megayacht system, like iSiMON or InteliSea, but rather a new iPad-centered monitoring system designed for “smaller” yachts…

Given the world Palladium generally works in, what it thinks of as “smaller” may not meet your definition, as suggested by the screen below.  And unfortunately the SiMON2 product page is not specific about the sort of sensor system used or the pricing.  But, dang, doesn’t it look like a beautiful tap and swipe iPad app?  I haven’t seen screen shot illustrations, but apparently you can use it not only to see what’s going on around the boat, but also to control lighting and cameras.  There is a $4 demo now at the iTunes store, and maybe one of you will try it and report back.
   I’m sorry to add that Maretron’s appealing efforts to adopt N2KView to iThings (see bottom of this entry) got badly set back when Apple extended its war against Adobe with new OS4 development restrictions.  Oy!  But surely some great Android and maybe even Windows tablets are in our future, and I’ve got to believe that forward-looking marine electronics companies are trying to figure out how they’re going to make use of them.  At the moment I guess the big issue for us “smaller” yachts is how to easily and efficiently get NMEA 0183 or — better yet — NMEA 2000 boat data onto WiFi and hence to pads, phones, etc.  Tom MacNeil, who enthused here about iNavX, has made a video about how to make its TCP/IP connection, Grahame Shannon is working in the same area with both iNavX and Coastal Explorer…what else is going on?


Wilson cell booster testing, on Sun Dancer

Wilson amp install.jpg

Panbo reader Pat Harmon is cruising Alaska aboard M/V Sun Dancer and he kindly agreed to write about some gear, seen above, that’s helping him stay in touch:

I recently installed a cell phone booster on my 43′ North Pacific trawler, and although I am not an expert, my hands-on experience may be helpful to my fellow boaters. I am computer literate and had Navy electronics training back in the 60′s…

Cell phone amplifiers/boosters are bi-directional amplifiers which boost both the signal from and to your cell phone and also boost the signal to and from the cell tower. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this. There are systems that work with only one cell phone at a time and systems that work with multiple cell phones. The ones that work with multiple cell phones essentially create a local hot spot. Each system has the following in common: an external antenna to communicate with the cell tower, a bi-directional amplifier, and an interior antenna or a direct connection to communicate with your cell phone.

There are several issues that the manufacturer’s design engineers must deal with. First, the unit must be able to vary the amount of gain needed to be useful but not overpower the cell tower. Second, they must deal with potential feedback with signals broadcast by the interior antenna being fed directly into the exterior antenna. Then, the power supply needs to match the power available to the power requirements of the system. (All this has to be done in order to get FCC certification.) Lastly, there are many different approaches that the individual cell phone companies use to provide service; there are no universal standards.

With the advent of the “smart phone” with practical applications, the expense of a cell phone booster is becoming a lot more worth considering. For a simple but effective solution Wilson Electronics has recently introduced a model that works with a single cell phone called the “Sleek”. The Sleek has a MSRP of $130, with the street price significantly less.

My system has a Wilson 801245 50dB dual band amplifier. It connects to an external cell phone 3dB omni-antenna mounted high on the radar arch (seen way below). Inside is a patch antenna supplied by Wilson (seen below). My unit is powered by 6VDC which requires a DC-DC converter also supplied by Wilson. The booster is a bi-directional amplifier which creates a local “hot spot” in and around my boat. The unit works with multiple cell phones simultaneously from most service providers (Nextel is an exception). It works with both voice and data, it boosts the signal strength in marginal situations and makes communications possible where poor or no service would otherwise exist, and it works with both 3G and Edge networks. It would cost less than $500 to duplicate my installation.

pat patch antenna.jpg

With the booster I seem to get an additional two bars on my iPhone. Without the booster I have had no service, but turned on the booster and had two bars. I have had 3 bars in the marina parking lot and 5 bars on my boat with the booster. It is not unusual to see people using their cell phones standing on the dock near my boat taking advantage of the better reception in my “hot spot.”

My wife and I are presently cruising in Alaska. NOAA weather radio and the USCG radio have large holes in their coverage in Southeast Alaska. The cell phone coverage with my iPhone and its apps allows me to get weather information over a wider area and with virtually no static. Mostly over the Edge network, with 2 bars I can get the text forecasts I am interested in, plus the latest surface analysis and fax forecast charts. The weather radar doing a one hour loop is a stretch.

Out in the wilderness of very remote Alaska the Edge network service is much faster than the 3G network in Juneau. Essentially I had more bandwidth in remote areas, probably due to being one of the few people using the network in the area.

Wilson Electronics seems to be the dominant company in the field of Cell Phone Boosters. They make units for buildings, office, home, vehicles, and marine use. They offer many options and variations. Call their tech support (1-866-294-1660) and let them assist you in selecting the components you need for your particular situation. Just in the area of antenna adapters there is a long list of options. Units are powered by both AC and DC at various voltages. Antenna selection can be difficult. This is not rocket science, but the sheer variety to select from does require knowledgeable assistance. Had I called tech support first I would have selected a different interior antenna.

For some reason the boating public is not generally aware of cell phone boosters. I think they have a definite place in the suite of electronics we choose from to equip our boats. Although the need for a cell phone booster is a matter of personal preference, for me, cruising in Alaska, it has proven to be essential equipment.

{Many thanks and smooth cruising to Pat Harmon}

pat antenna setup.jpg

Gizmo bridge 2010, a shout out to Garmin ID


While Panbo’s logo is still a work in progress, check out the sharp name plate Gizmo is sporting, thanks to Garmin’s industrial design department.  Gander too at how much electronic goodness I managed to squeeze onto the boat’s latest flying bridge dash, and note that a wider view would also show a Furuno MFD12 and a Raymarine E140 Wide with room for more!  It’s quite the testing platform and you’ll be seeing lots of pictures and screen shots taken here, but today let’s tour that cool design shop in Kansas…

I’ve already written one entry about the design capabilities I saw during my Garmin visit, but I didn’t mention how the ID team showed off their chops, and their collection of rapid prototyping machinery, by whipping up Gizmo plates in several different medium.  The semi-transparent ones below at left, for instance, are fairly quick to make — via a 3D printing process — but not very sturdy, while it took some serious computer driven cutting heads a while to cut the silver/gray beauty (now on my dash) out of solid aluminum stock.  And ideally you’d want such a variety of prototyping techniques as you went from modeling numerous possible designs to refining the finished one…

Gizmo_logo_courtesy_Garmin_ID_cPanbo.JPGIn fact, it makes sense that an industrial design department hoping to get things done as quickly and creatively as possible would want about every tool imaginable, along with folks skilled at their use.  And Garmin being Garmin — a large engineer founded and run company determined to do every step of the electronics design and manufacturing process itself — it’s got one heck of an ID shop.  Many shops, actually, including fully outfitted wood and metal working spaces, several paint booths with mix-any-color set ups, and even a big garage for customizing vehicles and small boats.  I can’t remember the brand of the bow rider seen below (anyone?), but I know for sure that its stock dash is not designed to fit a Garmin 700 series so neatly.  (I also know that this custom dash makes my efforts with PVC board at top and here seem a little pathetic ;-)…

Garmin_ID_custom_bowrider_dash_cPanbo.JPGAnyone who likes to make things with their hands would drool at Garmin’s facility, and there were some signs that many of the ID personnel are happy to be there, and may even hang out there during off hours.  There were, for instance, some impressive personal radio control plane models on display at some work stations, and I heard rumors of a legendary electric car track.  And consider the grin on this gentleman, who is just completing a model of a Garmin avionics suite that will be gifted to certain corporation that just fitted a new fleet of real planes with the real gear

Garmin_ID_avionics_model_cPanbo.JPGWhen Garmin was small, not that long ago, it was probably possible for someone from another department to wheedle their way into the ID shops for a weekend project — I’d sure try — but those days are past (short history here).  Which may account for the ID department’s playful “Area 51″ theme shown a bit below, carried out with skill and style.  Like Gizmo’s name plate, for which I’m very grateful.


Genasun & Victron, power to spare?


That’s a pair of Genasun LFP Lithium batteries that weigh a small fraction of what similar sized regular marine batteries would and offer a lot more usable power than even their 760 amp hour rating would indicate, because they can endure truly deep discharges and accept massive recharges.  Combine these with no less than four Victron MultiPlus inverter/chargers, which can automatically kick in extra AC when shore power or the generator can’t carry the load, and you’ve got power to spare.  Yes, this is a high end project, but note the gray diagonal planking seen behind the lithium batteries…

This refit, master minded by the multi-talented Yachting Solutions, is taking place on a gorgeous 45′ Huckins built in the 50′s (some Hutchins history here).  And the elaborate electrical system is minor compared to the engine upgrade; this boat marks the first time Volvo Penta has allowed its IPS drives to be used in a refit as opposed to a new build designed for them.  Maybe I can finagle a chance to see how they work, as this is all happening in my area.
   In fact, it was long time acquaintance Alden Cole, seen below, who gave me a peek at the project.  He’s the guy who installed the Victrons and battery system.  Alden says he’s loved electricity since he was a kid, but it took a few decades to realize he should make a career out of it (the silly boy did a lot of professional sailing in the intervening years ;-)  And it was racing sailor Bruce Schwab who represented Genasun in this project.  Bruce represents and consults on a variety of high performance marine batteries these days, as he explains well at his site.  I like to think that what these guys are up to will be cost effective, and very useful, for us regular cruisers one day.  In the meantime, thanks to much help from Panbo commenters, I’m feeling good about Gizmo’s  existing power systems, though we’re being a lot more careful than the folks on the Huckins will have to be.


DY AIS200N2K, even better than it looks!


The picture tells a lot: Digital Yacht’s new AIS200N2K is the first AIS receiver I know of with NMEA 0183, NMEA 2000, and USB outputs. But get this: it can also multiplex 0183 input and gateway it to N2K, “so that traditional data such as depth, position, speed and wind, which is available in NMEA 0183 format, can be converted to N2K within the unit.”  All for $519!  The press release doesn’t say what’s coming out of the USB port, but I suspect it’s an 0183 mix of AIS target data and 0183 inputs.  Maybe someone from Digital Yacht or its US and EU retail arm Cactus Marine can elaborate in comments, because I may lose my Internet connection any moment now…

I’m aboard Gizmo just off beautiful Isle au Haute island on the outer edge of the Maine Coast.  A lot of systems have been working great, a credit somewhat to months of learning and updating, but cell and WiFi connectivity not so much.  Though maybe I shouldn’t complain as right now I’m online with speed thanks to the Wave Comet and some kind person with an open AP named “linksys” (got to love it).  At any rate, I will be back at HQ briefly during this week but then out again until about August 8th.  Entries may be quite erratic, but product research will be intense ;-).
   Digital Yacht, incidentally, introduced a second AIS receiver today, the “value” oriented $229 AIS 100.  It’s true dual channel — not a single receiver trying to switch AIS frequencies and always missing some messages — and I suspect it contains a circuit board made by SRT.  I recently tried out an SRT reference receiver that’s about this tiny size and can tell you that it seemed quite sensitive and used under .1 amps of 12v.  Small can be beautiful.  Now to hike a long, high island.


Good gear: Gemini Marine, the strapless bimini & more


Did “strapless bimini” get your attention?  Well, it does involve some sexy hardware, and the finished strapless product, as seen on this local sloop, has a certain elegant attraction.  The trick is that those 1″ strut tubes seen under the port and starboard edges of the canvas each contains an internal hinge that lets the whole deal fold aft, but they also have a 10″ section of 1 1/8″ tube that slides and locks over the hinge, rendering them rock stiff.  (But maybe enough with the double entendres?)  I have not tried this hardware myself, yet, but have been watching the manufacturer, Gemini Marine Products, perfecting it for years…

For a long time Gemini seemed like a classic marine canvas shop, though of particularly excellent quality, but it seems that proprietor John Lemole has a fair bit of inventor in him.  He holds a patent on the hinge seen below (and now made in both 316 stainless and ABS plastic), and he also designed two styles of the side mounts needed to let a folding strut rotate at its ends, not to mention a neat tool for drilling tubing even when you can’t slide a guide over it.
   And having your bimini go strapless is not the only attractive way Gemini hardware can dress up your boat.  The same concept means that a dodger can also lose its straps, while you get a handy grab rail and the ability to tension the dodger with virile leverage (sorry).  Lemole also has an interesting “drop-top” dodger design based on his years of building and repairing them, along with some good explanations of how to use his hardware.  Yup, I am plugging a local business with national ambitions (heck, the Gemini marketing guy is the neighbor who occasionally brings over eggs just laid by his own chickens).  But who can’t like an inventive company that will sell direct but advises that you can “save a few dollars by ordering from one of our partners, Sailrite.”


Si-Tex SP36 autopilot, like ComNav’s but different


My first reaction to a press release about the new Si-Tex SP36 autopilot — sure to be posted at the Si-Tex site soon — was that its nifty-looking color control head above looks exactly like one ComNav has offered for a while.   Not that rebranding the ComNav gear, which has a good reputation (I think), is a bad thing.  But what’s actually going on here is that Si-Tex has contracted ComNav to manufacture an autopilot to its own specifications, and at least one difference looks like a smart idea to me…

Si-Tex has also gotten Airmar to build it a custom version of the H2183 compass that Dan Corcoran has become so fond of.  It’s called the Si-Tex HDK-11 and the SP36 autopilot is designed to work with it.  In fact, according to Si-Tex, this is the only autopilot that can calibrate Airmar’s high performance sensor directly, which means that an owner or installer won’t have to mess with Airmar’s Weather Caster software (unless they want to).  And while Si-Tex and ComNav use the sensor’s NMEA 0183 port for their autopilots, its NMEA 2000 port will be available for other uses. Si-Tex will even offer an optional NMEA 0183 to 2000 adapter so that the SP36 can further integrate with a mostly N2K vessel.  I’ll guess that it’s an Actisense NGW-1, and an owner or installer could get one to work on their own, but when a single supplier offers all the interface bits and pieces, and supports them, that’s a good thing.
   I’ve had a look at the manual for the Si-Tex pilot, along with a similar one from ComNav, but I haven’t figured out what else is different about the SP36.  They both look like pretty advanced systems, with virtual rudder feedback (if needed), ongoing performance improvement intelligence, the ability to perform maneuvers like the MOB turn below, and many more features.  I understand that Si-Tex — which went through a big management change last year — has SP36 units in stock, at $3,300 with Virtual Feedback and HDK-11 compass, but without pump.  Hopefully more info, manuals, etc. will be up on their site soon.