Sunday, March 7, 2021

Starlink

We presently use cellular internet on the boat. When we first added the boat Hotspot to our so-called "unlimited" Verizon account for a mere $10 a month, we quickly found out that for a hotspot, the data is throttled back to an unusable speed after 15 GB of use in a month. Working from computers, streaming films to our TV, etc. can use this amount of data in a day. So we then got a SIM card with really unlimited unthrottled data. It is more expensive but great to use when we are staying on the boat. But it is somewhat wasted when it is docked for long periods (Although I do use the boat as a man-cave office when it is docked here near our home). Really high speed satellite data service  requires the large domes you see on mega yachts, and is super expensive.

So I have followed with great interest the development of the Starlink internet service by SpaceX, Elon Musk's plan to launch eventually 42,000 small satellites by 2027. Anyone who has been traveling up or down the east coast of Florida has noted regular launches of rockets from Cape Canaveral carrying 60 satellites up at a time to place into orbit. It is fascinating that the rockets are reusable and land on drone ships when they return to earth. One of these robotic ships is called "Just Read the Instructions" and another is called "Of Course I still Love You". The names were originally used for spaceships in books by sci-fi author Iain M. Banks.

Currently there are around 1,000 satellites in operation and Starlink is offering "Better Than Nothing Beta" service to a limited number of users in some parts of the world, including most of the United States. A kit includes a small dish to be mounted outdoors clear of obstacles, a modem and WiFi router for the house, and a 100-foot cord to connect the two. The cost is around $500 for the kit and $100 a month for internet service. SpaceX said last October that users should expect speeds between 50 and 150 Mbps, with intermittent outages. Some users are getting much higher speeds -- the highest download speed to date was 209.17 Mbps, recorded in New York and one person in Utah recorded a speed test showing 215 Mbps.

So can it work on a boat? The answer for now seems to be no, unless the boat never moves. While the dish will automatically track the overhead satellites, it will not accommodate rocking and rolling on a boat. Some users have had luck with a gyroscopic mount or with the type of gimbal mount used for radar on sailboats, but there are some reports of the system shutting down when it senses motion and requiring a reboot. It is all basically experimental for now. More importantly, the system only broadcasts to the service address you give when ordering the system. As the Starlink website states: 

Starlink satellites are scheduled to send internet down to all users within a designated area on the ground. This designated area is referred to as a cell.

Your Starlink is assigned to a single cell. If you move your Starlink outside of its assigned cell, a satellite will not be scheduled to serve your Starlink and you will not receive internet. This is constrained by geometry and is not arbitrary geofencing.

Starlink has said that they are working on "mobility solutions" that might be accomplished in the future by a software update to the satellites. But at least for now, I don't see any way to use the service on a boat or motor home, or to otherwise move it from place to place. I'm hoping one day it will be useful for people on the go.



Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Finally Enjoying the Boat

 We finally got to enjoy our boat a bit over the weekend. We travelled from Ford to Hilton Head Friday and spent the weekend, returning yesterday. It was only a short trip but a great escape for both of us, and we were blessed with terrific weather after what has seemed like a long cold winter. We saw one of my college roommates and his wife briefly Friday night and for dinner outdoors Saturday. They had rented a house in Hilton Head for February to escape the weather in the DC area. It was good to see them both and catch up.

We went for bike rides Saturday and Sunday. It was a 16-mile ride Saturday out to lunch and back, and a shorter ride Sunday that included a mile or two on the beach. All-in-all a perfect getaway.

Going up and back we went offshore between the Ossabaw Sound and Calibogue Sound behind Hilton Head. Friday it was calm and took seven hours. Yesterday, seas were around three feet and the current was against us up the rivers back to Ford. As a result of bouncy seas and the strong current, the trip took nine hours from 8 am until 5 pm.

After all of the many repairs since our ill-fated Bahamas trip a year ago, it is great to be having fun on the boat again.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Volts, Amps and Other Nerdy Stuff

Friday I had the six "house" batteries replaced on Division Belle.  I've been testing batteries and looking at alternatives for weeks, and my bride has made it abundantly clear that most people have no interest in such things. So you are welcome to skip this post if you'd like.

Heavy Lifting

The batteries that came with the boat in October of 2018 were not marked with the date installed, and were depleted to a fraction of their original capacity. The new batteries are a different brand (Lifeline) but are the same size as the old. They are "8D" batteries that are quite large and weigh about 160 lbs. each. The installation was a 10-hour job for an electrician and a very strong young man who both work for Performance Power Systems nearby in Savannah. They did a great job that was enormously difficult given the location of these batteries in fiberglass boxes in the four-foot tall engine room.

Engine Room battery boxes

So what are the house batteries and why are they important? Virtually all of the lighting and electronics on the boat as well as the refrigerator, water and other pumps, and vent fans are powered by these batteries. The batteries are nearly always being charged by a charger powered either by shore power or our generator, or by a large alternator attached to the main engine when we are underway. Since they are nearly always fully-charged, the capacity of the house battery bank is only important if we are not running the engine, connected to shore power, or running the generator.

Anchored out for example, we run our generator when we need hot water or when we need heat or air conditioning, but we do not wish to run it any more than necessary. It consumes fuel, it needs to be serviced and have its oil changed after set periods of use, and most importantly, it is noisy. So for example if we are anchored out in beautiful weather for days at a time, we would run the generator periodically to charge batteries and produce hot water, but there is nothing nicer than shutting it off for a quiet dinner on the aft deck or on the bridge.

Each of these batteries is nominally 12 volts and is rated at 255 amp hours. Each pair of batteries is connected "in series" creating 24 volts rated at 255 amp hours. And then the three pairs are connected "in parallel" to create a bank producing 24 volts rated at 765 amp hours. A bank rated at 765 amp hours means it has a capacity to produce 765 amps over a 20-hour period, or 38.25 amps per hour. 

Amp hour ratings are important for comparing batteries but running batteries all the way down shortens their life considerably. In fact, most battery makers and experts recommend never discharging this type of battery by more than 50% of capacity. In my case that would mean I could use 38.25 amps for about 10 hours or, more likely, around 25 amps per hour for 15 hours. While sophisticated gauges are available to monitor this precisely, I don't have one. In my case a decent estimate of 50% depth of discharge can be made by monitoring the battery voltage and never allowing it to drop below about 24.2 volts while under a load.

When we are asleep, our boat will draw about 8 amps just from things that are always on. When we are up with lights on, the refrigerator opening and closing, the water pump running on occasion, etc. the average amp draw might approach 25 amps. So by my estimates, shutting off the generator to have dinner we should be able to easily leave it off until some time the next day. This can be tried out and monitored to get a good idea of our usage.

The new batteries and the ones they replaced are called Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) batteries. These are maintenance free and have tremendous capacity without worrying about filling water as required with conventional "flooded" batteries. 

Many boats being produced today and many older boats are converting to Lithium Ion batteries, and I looked at a conversion carefully. Lithium batteries have tremendous advantages such as fast charging and being able to use nearly 100% of their rated capacity. Thus, lower amp hour capacities are needed allowing for smaller, lighter batteries. In our case a conversion to Lithium would have had benefits but it would have required more expensive batteries, relocating the batteries to a cooler spot out of the engine room, a new charger, a battery monitoring system, and all of the rewiring to accomplish such a change. For us, it came down to how we use the boat and the fact that almost all of the time our batteries are fully charged and we do not need to go for long periods without recharging.

Installing the new batteries did give me an opportunity to figure out the wiring on the boat and look at our charging systems. I have figured out the mysteries and I now think I understand how the system works.

So all I need to do now is use the boat. It will be nice to anchor out in mild temperatures and just see how these batteries perform. I hope it is soon. In Georgia now it is cold and it has been raining, seemingly forever.


Monday, December 21, 2020

Deck the Deck with Boughs of Holly

 

Division Belle with her wreath and Christmas lights
We are home for the holidays this year and will not be seeing any of our family members because of Covid 19. We will be having dinner outdoors Christmas Eve with four of our friends here at Ford, but the festivities will be subdued. We did put a wreath and some lights on Division Belle and plan to spend this evening with friends at the marina hoping for a glimpse of the "Christmas Star" at around 6:30 pm.

One would think that traveling on a boat like ours would be the perfect way to quarantine and stay safe, but it has turned out to be a very difficult year for boating. It started when we headed south in January, bound for the Bahamas. Our idea was to get the boat into the Exumas in the southern part of the Bahamas, and fly down for several two-week stays during the spring. Given our two beloved dogs and the Lovely Laura Lee's work, we need to be able to travel back and forth to wherever the boat is located. 

Things did not go as planned. Weather was uncooperative for ocean travel on the way south and we were mostly confined to the Intracoastal Waterway. The boat was left at a boatyard in Jacksonville for about two weeks for some minor repairs, and at a marina in Stuart for most of a month we needed to be at home. We finally reached Fort Lauderdale near the end of February. Without good weather to cross to Bimini, my bride came home and I finally got an acceptable but rough crossing day to Bimini with a hired mate on March 4. I left the boat at Brown's Marina in Bimini, took a small seaplane back to Fort Lauderdale, and drove home in a rental car. In those days, it was all about wiping things down and using hand sanitizer. Covid 19 was not thought to be transmitted through the air.

As March progressed, lockdowns and travel restrictions began to be implemented. Everyone recommended no unnecessary travel, and by the end of March the Bahamas had closed their borders, meaning I could not get there to return the boat to the US. It was July first when we were finally allowed to re-enter the country and depart on our boat the next day. By mid-July the borders were closed again, so we were fortunate to get out of there. The boat was a little worse for wear, but we have gradually been getting her back in good shape.

We had a good trip back up the east coast in July, and in September we took the boat up to the Oriental, NC area where we spent some time before heading back home with her. But some things have changed for us about cruising because of the pandemic. For one, we always enjoyed stops where we could walk around and go out to dinner. Now we only dine at restaurants with spacious outdoor dining where the staff wears masks, or we get takeout food and eat on the boat. Second, because of our need to get home and back to the boat, we will now only venture as far as we can go and rent a car back home in some sort of reasonable driving time. River Dunes near Oriental was about the northern limit and was a 6 1/2 hour drive from home. In the coming year we are considering a cruise up the St. Johns River from Jacksonville, and perhaps taking the boat to the west coast of Florida within some kind of reasonable driving distance. Thoughts of the Chesapeake Bay or New England in summer or the Bahamas in winter are banished for now.

As the year comes to a close and the holiday season is upon us, we are mindful of how fortunate we are and how many individuals have lost their lives, their loved ones, or have suffered medical or economic distress from this pandemic. We are doing what we can and we urge everyone to support the organizations of your choice that are assisting the most vulnerable among us.

Our best wishes to you all for a joyous holiday season and a happier new year than this one has been.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Messing About on the Way Home

Grove River Ogeechee River Connector

 When I first brought a boat to The Ford Plantation in 2000, there was only one winding route from the mouth of the Ogeechee River approximately 17 miles to the marina basin here. There was a spot, shown above, where the Ogeechee flowed very close to the much smaller Grove River. Sometimes, when tides were especially high, water flowed over this low-lying bridge of land, temporarily connecting the two rivers. One weekend, about 15 years ago, a group of kids with boats went to the spot with shovels and sped up what Mother Nature already had in mind by digging a small trench connecting the two rivers. Because of uneven tide levels between the two rivers, water poured through the trench as the tide came in and out twice every 24 hours. Soon, the rivers were totally connected, and the cut had grown to a depth that small boats could pass between them. The cut continued to grow and the mud bottom continued to wash away. Today, as I passed through this cut at high tide, it was 55 feet deep and perhaps 50 yards wide. The cut has not only opened a navigation route, it has changed tides and currents throughout the network of rivers here.

This new cut created a shortcut for me if I am moving the boat north from Ford or south to Ford. Coming from the north, miles are cut off as I turn up the Little Ogeechee River north of Hell Gate, turn up the Grove River, and cut over to the Ogeechee. From Thunderbolt, what could be a two-day trip to catch the tides right has turned into an easy five hours timed to arrive at Ford close to high tide.

Today it took about a half hour longer than usual because I had two tasks to accomplish along the way. First, my autopilot compass had been acting up on my last trip and I asked Mike King of Coastal Marine Electronics to see if he could find where the compass is remotely located and determine what was wrong with it. Mike tracked the wire and found the compass mounted low in a cabinet under a shelf in the pilothouse. Since you can't see the compass without lying down on the floor and looking up under the shelf, I had no idea where it was. Stored low in that cabinet right beside the compass was a set of headphones I use with my sideband radio. Speakers, including headphones, contain magnets. So it was no wonder the compass was not acting right. Since the autopilot heading was stable but different from the regular compass heading after moving the headset, Mike suggested I go through the sea trial setup procedure which involves "swinging the compass" by putting the autopilot into sea trial mode and turning in a few circles slowly until it figures out its deviation by itself. I went through the procedure today and, presto, the autopilot is working great. In calm waters it is aligned with the course unless the boat is "crabbing" because of wind or current.

Compass heading perfectly aligned with GPS course over ground

My other task was to adjust the readout from a new speed transducer that has been installed on the boat. This is a little paddlewheel that measures the boat's speed through the water as opposed to GPS speed over ground. I knew it was off because at my normal cruise setting, it showed I was doing only 5 knots through the water. With the current behind me, my GPS speed over ground was around 8.5 knots so I turned around and went the opposite direction where I had a speed over ground of 6.5 knots. This meant that the speed through the water was actually the average of these two readings, or 7.5 knots. I made the adjustment and all is well now.

Departing Thunderbolt single-handed at 7:30 this morning, I arrived back home at Ford at 1:00 pm. The boat will be resting here for awhile where it serves as my man cave. It is docked here (just trying this out).

Our cruising choices are limited right now by our need to get back and forth from the boat to home and our unwillingness to fly during the Covid 19 pandemic. Thinking this through, we have a few ideas for interesting trips all within a few hours drive from home. We'll keep you posted when we head out in the new year.

If I don't post again, best wishes to everyone for a happy holiday season and a wonderful new year. It won't take much for 2021 to be better than 2020.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Lesson Learned

I generally avoid talking much on this blog about boat maintenance, but in this case I thought I would share an incident that could have been much worse, and what I learned from it. It could be helpful to someone.

Before purchasing Division Belle two years ago I had it inspected by Steve D'Antonio. Steve is widely respected in the marine industry and his pre-buy inspections more than pay for themselves in safety and in negotiating the purchase price. He's extremely thorough. You can see Steve's website here. 

One of Steve's recommendations for my boat read as follows: “Junction box above batteries, a loose connection is arcing and has caused heat damage.” The dealer/broker where I bought the boat has electricians, carpenters, etc. for commissioning and maintaining customer boats, so I gave them an initial repair list including this item to be done before I used the boat. They checked it off the list as complete. Shame on me I never opened the junction box to check. It couldn't possibly have been done at all with the result that happened to me.

So last week the main engine large alternator quit charging the house batteries when underway. On my stop in Georgetown I did some basic troubleshooting at the alternator and regulator but could not find an issue. So when I arrived at the Hinckley yard in Thunderbolt I asked them to check it out. When the electrician came up from the engine room he said “Your alternator is working fine but your problem could be the melted junction box on the aft bulkhead of the engine room.” "Wait", I asked, "Did you say melted junction box?" 



The junction box is where the wires from the alternator connect to the house batteries. You can see above that the wiring had remained loose and the entire connection burned up and melted the junction box. I'm lucky it didn't start a real fire. Wiring needs to be very tightly connected, on a boat or in your house.

All is fixed now, but I have learned the hard way to inspect work I am told was done. Lesson learned.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Home Again

Log 22234

Hinckley Yacht Services -- Thunderbolt, GA

I was delayed leaving Beaufort yesterday by strong current and 30-knot winds at 7 am. No one was stirring until the marina opened at 8:30. Single-handed and parked with boats close to me forward and aft, I could not easily get away without someone handling the lines for me on the dock.

While winds were strong and cold heading down the Beaufort River, I was snug in my pilothouse with no problems at all. Planning to be in the ICW all day, I did not think to batten down as I would going to sea. So I was somewhat shocked at the severity of the wind and seas when I entered Port Royal Sound. The seas were only about three feet, but with a short period and mostly right on my nose. I heard cabinets and drawers flapping around and the sounds of everything falling off the counters in the galley and saloon, but there was little I could do single-handed, especially since my autopilot has not been functioning well.

Nothing was harmed, but it was a long bashing ride across the sound until I reached the calm behind Hilton Head. From the south end of Hilton Head I normally go out a ways into the ocean and then turn into the Savannah River ship channel to come in and rejoin the ICW. Given the wind and seas, I opted to stay in the waterway route that goes behind Daufuskee Island and through Walls Cut and Fields Cut. Following Bob423's tracks (discussed in my 11/29/20 entry), I had no trouble, but it was nearing low tide and I found a couple of areas with just seven feet of depth. It was a little close with my six-foot draft boat, but I never touched bottom.

I arrived in Thunderbolt at 2:45 pm, where the boat will stay for a few days for finishing up some of the recent electronics work and fixing a few other squawks. There's always something.

It's good to be home with my bride and dogs. I should get the boat back up to The Ford Plantation sometime next week. Thanks for following along.