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.

Datalux Tracer police car computer, good on a boat?


My search for Gizmo’s navigation PC has taken a strange turn — as you can see above, posed around a Furuno MFD12 — and I’m blaming a Panbo commenter who recently crowed about scoring a 12v, fanless all-in-one Datalux iPix on eBay.  I’m close to crowing myself — and maybe a few of you will join me, as there are three left — but I could use some geek help to better understand what’s under the hood of this particular Datalux Tracer police car computer

The nice-seeming lady who bought a bunch of these at some auction in California (or so she tells me) couldn’t figure out exactly what their age or specs are, and the Datalux site is not all that helpful, but I think I have a winner, at least in terms of cheapskate boat computing.  I posed it with the MFD12 to demonstrate that its 12″ LCD touch screen is pretty darn bright, and I like that you can turn it off altogether with one of those upper buttons, and that it dims quite low.  The red backlit keyboard is great, and there’s no doubt it’s built at least for a coffee and donuts level of abuse ;-)
   I also used the MFD12′s amazingly beefy bail mount as a temporary clamp point for the Tracer’s unusual, but also beefy, column mount.  The screen swings about 90 degrees on it, while the keyboard hangs on a double-swivel arm and can also pop off and hang on a steering wheel (or at least an automobile steering wheel).  I think there are some good install possibilities for this thing at Gizmo’s sometimes sunlight-flooded lower helm, but it will take some imagination and fiddling.  And first I need to confirm that the PC inside has the horsepower needed, as I persuaded the seller to grant me return privileges subject to that analysis.
   Below you can see the main screen of Windows SysInfo run on the Tracer and here is the complete file that should open on anyone’s Windows system.  And here’s the verbose text version.  At this point I believe that the unit, labeled a TCU-TX200-028, is a Tracer III model dating from about 2006, and I’m concerned about memory, graphics ability, and so forth. And and all advice will be appreciated.  And here’s the eBay page where three more of these are available at $399 plus shipping.  I will gain nothing from further sales, except perhaps some compadres who are also trying to turn one into a nav machine. Maybe someone can figure out how to make that red button, apparently disfunctional at the moment, turn on Gizmo’s underwater lights, or a siren? 
   But one thing I want to make clear:  I believe that the vast majority of boaters would be better off with a computer that’s truly built for marine navigation, like the Furuno MFD12, even at much higher cost (in dollars).  The Tracer may be an interesting project, if I keep it, but there’s a lot that could go awry.

Datalux Tracer sys info screen.JPG

Maturing iPhone apps, troubled ENC edition


Pardon me if I use an entry on the improving state of marine iPhone apps to illustrate my concerns about NOAA’s local chart screw ups, but it works (I think).  Navimatics Charts&Tides 3.6.2 was the first charting program of any sort I’ve seen that includes NOAA’s first 1:20,000 ENC for Camden Harbor, but it will be confusing fog bound visitors soon!  Those semi-invented channel buoys that I first saw on the raster chart are worse here, given equal graphic weight with real navigation aids, more precise looking wrong locations, and all without the “Priv aids” label that might help a navigator sort things out…

This is not Navimatics’ fault at all; a chart update to Coastal Explorer gave me another view of the new ENC, and it looks essentially the same.  Yes, they are labeled “Camden Harbor Buoys…” but that’s not the same as “Priv aids.”  Of course a saving grace for both CE and C&T is that they can both also display Active Captain info, so someone like me can warn others about the confusion.  Tapping for more data info is much improved in this latest version of Charts&Tides, by the way, and the ability to turn the chart seems easier and hence more useful.
   But before I get into a few more marine apps improvements I’m seeing, I have more to say about ENCs.  In this new one of Camden, for instance, NOAA has added a lot of detail about the piers and float systems in the Inner Harbor, which would be neat except that they made many mistakes.  Then there’s my further research into those those “cribs” on the Kennebec River, a danger pretty well charted on paper and RNC, but de-emphasized in the ENC format, a de-emphasis often copied by the private chart makers.  I’m really beginning to wonder about the ENC process, and hope you all will be on the lookout for dangers that aren’t well displayed on them, or other oddities (and please take screen shots).  All of which is rather ironic today as I stumbled onto a newsgroup thread in which several boaters are ranting about the danger of using anything but “official” navigation data.
   Well, balderdash; I’m sure NOAA and other HO’s are very well intentioned, but I’ll use every bit of data I can find to better understand where I am and what I’m getting into with my vessel.  That’s why inexpensive smart phone apps that can show the most updated charts, perhaps in a format you don’t have otherwise, and optional data, are great.  And also why I’m delighted to report that the new new Navionics Mobile beta app includes the panoramic port photos normally only seen on their high end card packages, like the Camden Harbor aerial shot below left.  I hesitate to even mention a new all-in-one Navionics app, as the first take I previewed never made it out of beta, but the latest design is even better, and I’m told it will be real soon.
   I was also pleased to see how quickly Memory Map picked up the latest local raster chart, below right, and how easy its waypoint/route making tools have gotten.  And, yee-ha, note that there’s a new Anchors Away iPhone anchor alarm program out and thanks to its OS4 awareness, it can do its thing in the background.  I’m hoping that all the iPhone charting apps will be able to track in the background eventually (like Android apps can ;-), and there are several interesting new non-charting iPhone apps I’ve been meaning to write about.  More soon.
iPhone_40_misc_marine1_cPanbo.JPGPS  In response to my chart issue request, “Sherri & Nick & Sweet Time” sent this radar overlay screen shot of the ICW between Charleston and Georgetown, SC. They said it looked the same on a PC with ENC and RNC charts. Of course their observations about where the land is, and where the water isn’t, are not official (see comments).


Good gear: Moonlite rail cleats & V-Lock mount system


Today I added a new Panbo category for gear I try which is not electronics related, but which is good enough that you might want to know about it.  Like the Moonlite Marine rail cleat above.  I’d never seen one in the aluminum and stainless flesh before taking a $20 chance online, but now I think they’re well-designed and built, and darn effective…

As you can somewhat make out in the photo, two machine screws hold the black anodized cleat to the stainless band, and then two set screws tension the cleat against the rail or post…clean and solid.  Gizmo now has three starboard fender cleats placed where they’ll minimize strain on the rail bases but also keep line wear off the already abused teak toe rail, and a couple more Moonlite’s handling dinghy boom vang lines on the bridge.  (Isn’t it funny how ex-sailors like me find ways to expand and improve string handling on power boats.)

Now check out the neat new V-Lock
mount system
below, which I first noticed in a Panbo ad, of all places (thanks to my deal with Mad Mariner, the ads are as much a surprise to me as to you all).  The photo shows a blank insert in the V-Lock, but I drilled
and bolted another one to a
“economy” grill

(another piece of good gear, so far), and the combination is, again, clean and solid.  In fact, a vise mounted on this blank insert would take all sorts of work strain (especially if
I reinstalled the stainless lock pin V-Lock includes and found the extra-long bolt I need to finish the fastening job). 
   Meanwhile, I’ve installed another V-Lock in a cockpit locker, so I can stow the grill securely, and I’m thinking of putting a couple on the flying bridge because it would be nice to have some fire up there sometimes, and this system is so strong it might serve for testing a sizable multifunction display.  Lots of boat objects seem V-Lockable.  And while $49 for a single insert/lock pair seems a tad high, the quantity breaks are good, and there’s also a 15% discount with the code “MadMariner”, at least while the ad runs, I guess.  Now, if I can just find a magic product that would make Gizmo’s exterior woodwork less embarrassing without manual labor, I’ll be all set.


Furuno supports whale slaughter? Or Sea Shepherd BS?


I don’t like what some Japanese companies, supported by their government, are doing to whales, but I’m smart enough to know that a reasonable alternative to Sea Shepherd’s nasty headline above might be: “Furuno won’t give (or sell) Sea Shepherd a new radar because its government asked it not to.”  Or: “Furuno won’t support protesters who ram Japanese ships.”  Or maybe: “Furuno wants nothing to do with an arrogant jerk like Captain Paul Watson!”…

At some point last winter — absent my spouse, who wouldn’t have tolerated it — I watched a whole season or more of Whale Wars in a few nights, and was probably yelling at the TV by the end.  I developed a deep dislike for Paul Watson, founder and unapologetic potentate of the Sea Shepard Conservation Society, particularly the way he treats the endless stream of bright-eyed, well-meaning volunteers who cycle rapidly through his vessels.  One thing for sure:  If you cross Watson in any way, then by definition you support, probably even enjoy, the slaughter of whales.  Watson’s enemy list, incidentally, includes Greenpeace and many other more law abiding conservation organizations.
   So I don’t think the Australian who wrote me yesterday, or anyone else, should cross Furuno off their nautical shopping list just because of Sea Shepherd’s accusation, no matter how much it rattles around the blogosphere.  But here’s the weird thing:  As obnoxious as Watson is, I do think he has a point.  As I understand it, Japanese whalers are violating the consensus of nations as expressed by the ongoing International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium, killing many whales under the guise of research when the actual goal is to sell the meat.  It also makes sense to me for this planet of carnivores to give whales a pass, as I believe they are special.
   And I have some real experience with whales, having spent large chunks of 1980 and ’81 on a vessel researching humpbacks off the Dominican Republic. The remarkable intelligence and gentleness of these animals is not something imagined by do-gooders; it’s a fact.  In the mid 90′s I also happened on the scene below, a humpback being butchered on Petit Nevis, with half the residents of Bequia (in the background) joyously attending.  And though I knew that everywhere else in the North Atlantic these poor whales just get ogled at by humans, I got into what I thought was a legitimate indigenous fishery (exempt from the moratorium) carried out in an open boat powered only by sail and oars.  I even enjoyed some meat cooked over an open fire.
   In fact, a year or so later when Save the Whales asked to use my photographs for a presentation to the IWC, I was at first reluctant.  But then I learned that they helped to prove that the Bequians had indeed harpooned a baby first, and then the mother who came to its rescue.  That’s illegal even for the indigenous fishery, and pretty gross, as a baby humpback is as innocently curious as human child.  I also learned that Japan gives more foreign aid than any other country to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which in turn always votes with Japan at the IWC, like several other small but well aided Caribbean nations.  The oddly large fishing facility next to the airport in Bequia also came to make sense after my schooling.  If and when the IWC lets the fishermen below export their catch, maybe even take more humpbacks using modern equipment, the parties on Petit Nevis will end and instead the whales will be hauled up the big ramp, butchered quickly, and iced for air travel half way around the world.
   Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd have a point, but they push it in a way that just seems to inflame the conflict between those countries that want to continue whaling and those that don’t.  What could break the current impasse in the right direction, I think, is if more citizens of the pro-whaling nations could ignore the war a bit and really look at the issue.  It’s not black and white, as you can read here, and here.  Altogether, then, I strongly defend the right of Furuno Inc. management to show respect for their government, and hope they can ignore the howling of Paul Watson, but I also hope they will exercise their individual rights to study the state of whales and whaling and come to their own conclusions.


Ella’s Pink Lady vs Silver Yang, DBE! #1


DBE! is my new shorthand for “Don’t Blame Electronics!”  And the collision of Ella’s Pink Lady with the Silver Yang off Queensland, Australia, last September is a terrific example (especially as no one got hurt).  I first heard about it in a Panbo comment focused on the “limits in detectability of Class B AIS” that the Australian Safety Board uncovered, which I’ll discuss after the break.  But I sure hope that the Class B naysayers who may jump on this news actually download and read the full report first.  Then they’ll know that the AIS data collected by a shore station and shown on the above chartlets (click for full size) was available on both vessels, and could have easily been used to prevent the accident…

In fact, the AIS data was apparently so good that it documented the exact moment of contact!  In fact, either watch keeper could also have avoided the collision by using their radar, or just their god given eye sight!  Sorry…I get agitated…but this accident is not about failed electronics; it’s about piss poor seamanship of nearly mythical proportions.  Talk about negative stereotypes!
   On the one hand is everyone’s worst case of a single-handed offshore sailor. The skipper of Ella’s Pink Lady was apparently cat napping at the time of the collision, in a fair amount of ship traffic, and for reasons unexplained had neither her AIS alarm nor her EchoMax active radar responder turned on.  She was also in the habit of confusing herself by running her perfectly competent MFD with the chart north up and the radar head up.  (Charlie Doane, incidentally, has been doing some great blogging about the teenage circumnavigation follies, as well as fantastic coverage of the Reid Stowe’s 1,152 day whatever-it-was…voyage doesn’t seem to apply.)
   I feel a little sympathy for Jessica Watson just because she was 16 years old, but as for the second mate of the bulk carrier Silver Yang, not so much.  The SOB did absolutely everything that gives ship drivers a bad reputation, which most of them don’t deserve.  He pretty much ignored the third mate’s log entry about sighting Pink Lady just before the midnight watch change, as well as his electronic tools.  He also seemed to have a poor understanding of core anti-collision viligence — i.e. watch out for anything with a constant bearing and decreasing range — and, even worse, he did virtually nothing to help Jessica after the collision.  The only slightly reassuring character in this story is the master, who was on the bridge a minute after finally being called, and was apparently beside himself about the mate’s failure to avoid the accident and failure to stop and help afterward.
   Now what about the “Class B detectability” issues that will probably become the most talked about aspect of the just-released report?  Well, in truth, they are darn vague, mostly involving well known issues like the fact that many older Class A transponders can’t yet decipher a Class B boat’s name and other static data, though they do see its MMSI, position, COG, & SOG.  But the report does reference a 2008 study of Class B performance which found that “17% of vessels fitted with Class A AIS units did not report Class B AIS detections.”  Which doesn’t sound that bad to me, as I’ve never expected perfection and take comfort in the 83% of vessels that did see the Class Bs.  And get this line:  “The report also noted that the lack of detection issue was, to some extent, caused by vessel masters not recognising the detection on their AIS unit display.”  In other words, the electronics worked, but the humans didn’t.
   At any rate, the report is a good read for any boater.  We learn by the mistakes of others.  But I especially hope it’s read by those who want to blame Class B AIS for accidents, or even consider relying on it or any other single tool to stay safe at sea.


Simrad BR24PC, Free Range BroadBand Radar #2

Expedition with Navico Broadband Radar.GIF

We had a false start in December when we first saw the PC charting program Expedition interfaced to a Navico BR24 radar, but as of last night this interesting possibility, and many like it, seem to be official.  Read the full press release here.  I think this means that Expedition and some other charting programs may soon be able to run a Broadband Radar, with or without a Simrad (or Lowrance?) multifunction display involved, but there are a few details of the plan and implementation that I’d like to know more about…

The BR24PC will not be an open source SDK (software development kit), for instance, but instead only licensed to “approved third parties”.  This is understandable, I think, but I do wonder which parties Navico might not approve of?  Like MaxSea and Nobeltec, nearly half owned by Furuno?  (Would they be interested anyway?)  I also wonder what the line about how the “BR24PC SDK is available with two levels of
functionality and requires unique unlock codes…
” means.  Will free range Broadband radars cost significantly more than they do when bought as part of Simrad system (about $1,600-$1,900 street)?  If there is a premium, will it still apply if you also have a Simrad NSE in the system (a nice combination on two-helm-boats like Gizmo methinks)?  {Please see comments for update on pricing.}
   There are also two hardware interface issues, surmountable no doubt, but to be noted.  You can see below that the BR24 cable ends in a standard, though waterproofed, Ethernet connector at the R11 (or R10) interface box.  But the Ethernet output on that box uses Navico’s own connector.  You can simply skip the interface box altogether, but not if you want MARPA.  The BR24 needs to have fast heading data injected into that Comms port (even when the same data is present in an NSE connected to the box via Ethernet!) to do the MARPA processing, which is unusual and not well documented in the manual.  Maybe Simrad will produce a patch cable with their Ethernet plug on one end and a standard RJ-45 on the other, and, besides, our man Kees has already figured out how to make one yourself.
   But these are probably all just little quibbles. Overall this is an exciting development in marine electronics, I think — and hopefully not the last Ethernet marine sensor to go free range — and I know a lot of you agree.  Let’s discuss.


Alliance for Safe Navigation, & chart reality questions


The photo is from a BoatUS press release discussing how it, NOAA, and several other organizations are concerned that many boaters are using outdated charts.  They’ve even got a survey going (quick and easy), and I bet the results will confirm their worry.  But while the new Alliance for Safe Navigation they’ve formed leads to a neat Notice to Mariners tool I hadn’t seen before, I worry about more than keeping up with NOAA’s chart changes…

No offense meant to NOAA, but I question its ability to manage the data it’s already amassed and to keep up with ground truth.  When I look up my local chart 13307 at the nifty NTM site, I notice the odd new private channel buoys — the real ones aren’t cans or nuns, aren’t numbered, and most aren’t where charted — along with the special anchorage boundary that somehow got an extra corner on the ENC version, a confusion that’s now being copied by some of the commercial chart makers. (As illustrated here and here.)  Admittedly these are fairly trivial matters, but if they can get screwed up en route to your chart plotter or charting program, what else has?

NOAA_chart_updates_tool.JPGI also worry about electronic chart presentations.  Remember my friend who hit a slightly submerged crib on the Kennebec river and wanted to blame his Garmin charts?  Well, check out the BlueCharts seen on that entry versus the RNC and ENC views of the same area below.  I don’t think the ENC, though zoomed in, warns folks about those cribs nearly as well as the RNC/paper chart, or the Garmin chart.
   So how do you all deal with these issues?  Do you keep your charts updated?  Have you seen errors?  Where else do you look for info?  Do you still use paper charts sometimes (honest answer, please)?  Which electronic charts do you favor, and why?  Do you have tricks to get the presentation optimal?


Vesper WatchMate, hand’s on #1


It’s good to get some solid hand’s on time with the Vesper WatchMate AIS plotter, which I admired when it first appeared, then as it got a built-in receiver option, and finally as seen live in Miami.  And, yes, that is the 750 foot deep water drill ship Stena Forth now anchored in Penobscot Bay for an amazing warranty repair, mentioned in comments this week and to be explored further.  But for a really vivid example of why Vesper’s sophisticated AIS alarming is valuable, consider the Bermuda Race fleet crossing the shipping lanes last night…

Bermuda_Race_Class_B_AIS_cPanbo.JPGYou may recall that the Siitech Pro AIS Web viewer shows Class A’s as classic triangles and B’s as boat shaped targets, and that a year ago we pondered about how they’re seeing 2 watt B’s over 40 miles from any possible shore station.  At any rate, I watched a Buzzard’s Bay bound ship run right through the fleet last night and I’m guessing a lot of navigators learned how many controls you need to make AIS alarms effective rather than annoying.
  Which is what the WatchMate is so talented at. Its many alarm parameters, and also the profiles you can customize for different situations are discussed in those earlier entries, and of course at the Vesper Marine web site.  I can tell you that they are all pretty easy to manage on the little screen, which is also notably power efficient.  I also cabled (NMEA 0183) the WatchMate to a PC running the latest version of Kagstrom’s AIS Simulator, and while it didn’t seem to understand SAR aircraft, it did pop up a special alarm for an AIS SART, which will become much more common once SRT’s new little module rolls out.

Vesper_WatchMate_SART_alarm_cPanbo.JPGAt any rate, good luck to the Bermuda racers and also to the crews working 24/7 to replace three of the Stena Forth’s six 80-ton thrusters, a feat I hope to witness.


Simrad Insight HD charts, & 2.0 firmware


The Simrad NSE12 prototype is back in the lab, and will soon be back on Gizmo at the heart of an extensive SimNet/Ethernet test system. Only now it’s running recently released 2.0 firmware and it’s loaded with the HD version of Navico’s Insight charts that was missing in prototype mode. I was particularly interested in checking out the latter as I’m working on a charting piece for Cruising World, and I like what I’ve seen so far…

For starters, with Insight HD you can zoom the 2D relief mode all the way in without losing the bathy/topo shading I find quite useful to an easy understanding of what’s what.  There’s also some data I’ve rarely or never seen on other electronic charts, especially the pre-loaded variety.  That “Note” icon, for instance, leads (with one button press) to the complete description of that Special Anchorage.  And that fish icon near the harbor entrance leads to specific local information (below) on a subject I know just enough about to feel confident that it was well sourced (and excited that the similar icons I’m finding around the coast might just help me hook some cruising dinners). Nice.

Simrad_NSE2_Insight_HD_chart_2_cPanbo.JPGNow I rarely see an electronic chart presentation I don’t want to tweak a bit, and at first I was annoyed to see those long “Anchorage Area 33:CFR…etc.” labels seen on the smaller chart window at top, especially as they don’t click to any further info and in fact one obscures the note icon that does.  But I was pleased to discover how detailed the presentation control is when I went to Chart Categories, and extra pleased that the changes only applied to the chart window selected.  Thus I’ve turned off Nautical Chart/Names on the larger relief chart view while keeping them on the regular 2D chart, in case Names are important somewhere else.
   There are also easy high/medium/low detail settings for less detail-oriented users, but the latter sure will be impressed with how many categories are switchable.  In the collage below the inset shows the main categories, with Nautical Chart dimmed to indicate that not all subcategories are enabled.  I opened all those main categories just so that scroll indicator (green arrow) shows how few of the total subcategories are shown on the list at left. A tweaker’s dream, and very easy to manage with the NSE’s knob.  At any rate, Insight HD looks good so far, and it seems like Navico is expending some resources on improving them even though the NSE and Lowrance HDS series also do a good job of displaying optional Navionics chart cards, including 3D.

Simrad_NSE2_Insight_HD_chart_3_cPanbo.JPGOne last note on the opening screen shot:  Notice how Navico has copied the mistaken upper anchorage boundary NOAA drew on its ENCs, discussed and illustrated in this entry. No blame there, as I’m pretty sure all the chart makers copied it (and at least Insight shows it clearly).  But that’s why the detailed note might help someone — the correct lines define the sometimes hard to find channel — and another example of how chart perfection is hard to find.

RailLight Mini, another winner from SolLight


One good sign: Recently, a friend who’d eaten at a waterfront restaurant called to ask if I knew “that there was a bright white light shining on Gizmo’s flying bridge?”  Now, in truth, Gizmo’s float is just a few hundred feet from the deck of that restaurant and the SolLight RailLight Mini  isn’t all that bright, but it sure is easy to install and use…

A mini solar panel, a replaceable NiMH battery, twin LEDs, an automatic light sensor switch (along with a waterproof manual one), plus a versatile and detachable rail mount are the winning recipe.  And the lightweight stainless and nylon construction look to be long lasting.  In fact, test samples of the company’s cute Lightship and shimmering LightCap lantern-in-a-bottle are still working after years of use, and still appreciated.  SolLight also offers a Premium RailLight that’s almost twice as bright, includes several more mounting options, and might also serve as a dinghy running light.
   At any rate, below is an attempt at illustrating how the Mini illuminates the steps up to Gizmo’s flying bridge.  Photos like this are dodgy, but I can tell you that it works, and at about $30 is appealing little cruising accessory.  I just wish that installing some serious solar panels on the cabin top aft of those stairs wasn’t a 100 times more complex a project.  I will be seeking your advice on the details, and if any of you have had good experience with an online (or Maine-based) solar panel/controller distributor, please let me know in the comments.