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A plea for segregation over the helm

Wave factor five, Captain. Setting winches to "fabulous!"

I am currently involved in a mostly civil debate on the merits or lack of merits in integration of the autopilot and the GPS/plotter aboard the modern cruiser. I suppose not supporting integration is to implicitly support segregation. Thus are my views on human society and boat operation different.

For the uninitiated, a modern chain or hydraulic-type autopilot (AP) steers the boat using parameters derived from some sort of compass (usually a fluxgate type capable of sending data). One figures out from a chart or a chartplotter or a visual bearing to a landmark one's desired course, say 270 M or due West (magnetic). Assuming the wind is with you (or the motor works if no wind is for you), the boat goes more or less due West. Eventually, and assuming you are keeping a proper watch, you should be where you intended, realizing of course that you can't likely go on AP straight into your dock; at a prudent distance you will have to hand-steer as traffic increases and land draws near. Land kills more boats, generally, than the sea. Watch out for it, kids.

Now, if you dial in 270 and end up where 260 would have put you, Something's Going On. It could be a tidal effect, a current, leftover sloppy waves pushing the boat off, or maybe your gear isn't precisely calibrated or you are reading True instead of Magnetic or vice-versa. Your job is to find out why. The AP working as it should has revealed an anomaly to you, and Your Brain, Eyes and Hands can rectify this unscheduled detour.

By contrast, slaving the GPS to the AP means the AP steers to a waypoint selected by the skipper (I almost wrote "the operator"). The waypoint (WP) is a designated lat/lon often selected because it's proximate to a nav aid like a big shiny buoy, something even the newest sailor might recognize. The current doesn't matter, the waves on the beam are irrelevant...the AP will auto-correct and will steer unerringly to the designated point. Very nice.

And yet...

If the wind shifts, you could gybe as the GPS instructs the AP to turn "more to starboard!" If the wind dies, the GPS could lose "lock" because they do not do well in the lower half of boat speeds (sub 3 knots SOG, in my experience). This could cause radical steering corrections. Also, one wouldn't wish the MFD (multifunction display) to go wonky, or not to have a separate control panel for the AP. But that is the way some of the newer systems are set up: black boxes and leads going to a display unit or the "master black box".

For the insider's view on how getting gadgets to play together nicely can be a chore and then some, I refer you to The Marine Installer's Rant blog. Aspiring boat rebuilders can learn a lot from this guy.

The systems I am envisioning for Alchemy are stand-alone AIS, RADAR, depthfinder and autopilot, all of which can have their displays or their numerical values going to a PC-based solution. I am encouraged testing out cheapish, low-draw "netbooks" running OpenCPN, although I wouldn't object to running something like Rose Compass or others if they were a better choice.

That is key to understand here: it's not a money issue...well, not entirely. I would buy the best solution if I thought it was the best solution, but to me, that solution is about flexibility and redundancy, not necessarily centralized control and monitoring.

As we have a pilothouse, I intend only to have a cheap weatherproof plotter outside as a sort of slave display/backup; the real setup will be, I hope, largely out of the weather. Because I have easy and immediate access to the engines and tankage, the sort of "command center" console displays found on the flybridges of million-dollar fishing boats is of limited interest to me, as is the ability to know at the tap of a finger the exact RPM of the engine or the internal temperature of the alternators. "Integration", where I set the AP to sail to a GPS-determined waypoint, would be possible, and desirable, if I was in an open ocean current, for instance, and wanted to motor with the least amount of leeway made, but generally I would prefer to "steer to wind" or just trim properly to make the AP work the least.

My contention in the online forum I'm on is that integration, while a boon to, say, the single-hander who is presumably an excellent mariner to begin with, puts the unlearned or inexperienced sailor in the position of having several sources of information appearing in a realistic format, but which itself is only a representation of an idealized chart, and not necessarily what's in front of the boat.

Here's a "clip" from today's discussion:

Poster ColemJ said: Again, seamanship and good practices have NOTHING to do with electronics, autopilots or how they are integrated. Nothing.

I am not meaning to be argumentative or personal with you
Alchemy, it is just that I remain confused and confounded why the seamanship argument keeps being made.

To which I replied: Integrated electronics allow stupid people to look smart until they hit something easily avoided, perhaps killing themselves or others in the process.

Integrated electronics are part of the process of turning a skipper into a "passenger".

Integrated electronics also discourage a stupid person, or rather an ignorant person, from educating themselves into competency. A boat with a tiller and a compass and a Windex and maybe a VHF (90% of boats until maybe 15 years ago) is a relatively mute thing. It gives you messages in ways by which you can't help but notice the nuances of wind, waves and weather. The "Star Trek" helm, by contrast, will allow even a near-blind child to steer the boat, but that child will not necessarily learn anything in the process.

So I am not impugning the skilled and seamanlike sailor for whom integration is a convenience only and is merely an extension to the existing and familiar boat operation aids, but I will and do impugn the growing number of boaters who rely on such gadgets because they know very little seamanship.

Those people are trouble for the sport/lifestyle, trouble for the SAR and a bonanza for those who know how to fix boats. We get reports here and elsewhere about sailboats calling MAYDAYs because they've run out of fuel, or going out without doing a weather check, or running into nav aids because waypoints weren't understood, or being unable to dock because the bow thruster's busted and they have a boat with grotesque windage.

Like the stories of people dying in the wilderness because "the GPS told them to go this way", individuals, to paraphrase Franklin, who give up their autonomy in order to secure a little convenience deserve neither.

See, told you I'd gotten ornery! Half the guys who taught me how to break down engines and do CN are already dead of old age, and the number of bozos at the helm continues to be high where I live. These days, it's bozos texting on smart phones as they enter basins. I use the ship's horn more than I used to, just to pry their eyeballs up from the glowing screens.

Sailing should be learned in electronics-free boats, in my view. Once you understand on a visceral and seamanlike level which aspect of boat operation the electronics
mimic ...and the limitations of that mimicry...fine, go nuts, turn the helm into Mission Control. If you know how to sail safely, it's no matter to me. But I find that is not always the case, and guys in driveways seen fixing their own cars have just about vanished from North America. As has in some respects the experiential method of acquiring seamanship via, you know, actually sailing by hand and eye.

Colemj said: Yes! In fact, that's how we use ours 80% of the time (non-integrated - simply steer to compass). I am just having problems with the conflation of lack of seamanship and integrated systems.

I replied : I think we are essentially discussing the same thing from two ends. You are advocating the use of integration as just another tool available to the already skilled seaman, and I am saying that integration aids and abets the presence of underskilled skippers and crew and unseamanlike behaviour in conditions that can turn unpleasant rapidly.

The fact is that I've used integration of the "patch it in as needed" type myself...and liked it. But I have also seen it break, as I've seen windvanes and AP break offshore. Stuff happens:
Seamen know how to get back to basics because they've experienced such basics. It seems of late, however, that people are dying or requiring rescue because their electronics-laden boats break in the real ocean, and they have no knowledge base from which to extract themselves from danger or distress.

I can see everything except the argument for slaving the AP to the GPS.
Now, I could be wrong on all this, and I could be persuaded otherwise, but when you see people, as I do in my car-free lifestyle, literally stepping off curbs into traffic or literally walking into planters and utility poles because they have their noses in their iPhones, it makes me think that it would take a sort of discipline to avoid staring at the screens and instead to stare at the sea, as one should. That's one of the reasons why I would have something quite minimal at the helm, plus a's distracting me from the sensory inputs fuelled by soup. Going below to the pilothouse is fine for bad weather and consultation with the LCD oracles, but really, even when the boat's on auto-pilot, the prudent watch stander should be scanning the horizon, listening for changes in the wind or waves, and sniffing for better sailing weather.
Not seen: Mark I eyeball

I'm not convinced further automation of the sailing experience will encourage that tendency. One might as well take the bus...or become a jet pilot. I'm no Luddite, but if stuff breaks at sea...and it does, without exception...why make life harder by putting all one's nav aid/boat operation eggs in one basket? If I had a little boat going distances, I would probably for reasons of space and power opt for the all-in-one MFD, all-singing and dancing solutions...and it would probably be Furuno with Maretron black boxes...but for the moment, I would rather have stuff I can use when needed and "integrate" on an ad hoc basis.

Of course, even older electronics with life (and the benefits of long familiarity) still left in them exist and are capable of a form of integration.. While I will be getting new instruments before we depart, I have resisted the urge to buy "integrated packages", slick as many seem. I still prefer to have stand-alone instrumentation (particularly radar and depth) that can work alone, OR can "report" to a PC or tablet to exhibit integration when desired and as described. I find the idea of a multi-function display (which, if it "goes down", leaves one staring at a bunch of mute black boxes) a little absurd: I find it akin to telling an orchestra member they have to wear several headphone sets from each section of the pit in order to figure out where they are in the score. Better (from my point of view) to maintain more discrete displays and to integrate them wirelessly or via multiplexed connectors. But realistically, except for the very useful "radar over plotter" display (charting errors immediately manifest!), how often does a skipper do more than glance at depth, course and RADAR indicators before going back to Eyeball Mk. 1? If I had all the bells and whistles going, I might be tempted to stare overlong at some of the "overly comprehensive" displays available at reasonable costs these days...which I find not very seamanlike. I will take "a watch augmented", but disdain "a watch once removed".


Anonymous said...

From Silverheels III Great post Marc and we do agree with you in principle. Our autopilot is not integrated with the chart plotters (GPS). We set a course by eye or GPS and then adjust the autopilot until it lines up with the next leg of our intended route. We keep track of progress along the leg and fine tune "Otto" accordingly. This works well for us on course legs long and short. However, since our Raymarine 4000+ wheel driven pilot is neither smart nor very powerful, there is someone behind the wheel at all times. When we arrive at our desired point on the ocean as determined by GPS or visual conning with landmarks, we set up another leg, line up the autopilot, trim sails and let the ship take care of us.

Our buddy boat Persephone is often single-handed. His GPS/plotter directly controls the autopilot one leg at a time. The plotter waypoint proximity alarm lets him know that he is arriving at the end of that particular leg, also telling him if the boat strays too far from his intended course. In most sea conditions, that allows him to drowse for a few moments, safely tethered behind the wheel. Radar and AIS alarms warn him of traffic along his path. Remember that in both Greater and Lesser Antilles, ship and boat traffic is not congested. Mostly we island hop...up anchoring at first light and arriving either before 4pm or, on longer trips we leave after mid-night. Tropical nights are 12 hours long, so leaving after mid-night makes makes the night fly by in only two 3 hour watches. On multi-day trips; Bahamas to Crooked Atklins, Turks & Caicos,DR to Puerto Rico, Virgins to Sint Maartin, landfall is made mid-morning for good reef visibility. On these longer legs, most sailors take on an extra hand for standing watches, rather than sleeping all night behind the wheel.

One other thing Marc, as we don't have a sheltered conning position inside the boat, we enjoy using our waterproof GPS chartplotter right at the helm. It doesn't mind the weather, never crashes and is invaluable when looking for a spot to anchor in a strange harbour. Paper charts are OK in the cockpit as an overview, but we like to have our dynamic charting and bottom contour info right at the steering position.

Bill Bishop - Parmain said...

Rhys,good subject, and its a yin yang thing. Many years ago, if I was going from Killarney to Parry Sound, the night before I would put on my conical hat emblazoned with stars and moons, get out the chart, find my dividers, parallel ruler and draw and annotate the course line. Then I bought the Micrologic Loran. It was the Christmas miracle. it actually told me how far off course I was port or starboard, range, and bearing to WP. I still did, and still do, the chart thing with all of its assorted runes, but now every half hour or so, I go down and put an "X" at the position on the chart line and the time and speed. This was better than before, especially if bad weather interrupted the sometimes less than zen like flow of dead reckoning events. You and your colleague are both right. Good seamanship is important, but good tools make it better. Seamanship is in large part having good navigational skills. I'm a bit old school, but I don't want to go back to using an astrolabe, and a lode stone compass.
All of that being said, I know people who do sit and stare at the chartplotter constantly, and not outside enough, but after 10 long hours hand steering at the helm, an autopilot is better, and even better is one that will steer straight to your destination. The biggest issue with all integration is reliability of the systems. Bill Gates operating system still make me nervous, and I'm not quite ready to WiFi and Bluetooth integrate my Ipad, and Iphone into a mission critical environment. But no matter what I think, tools, and toys are a personal decision, and I know people who still just use charts and a compass only and do fine. I prefer a higher level of technology, to a point, and those who don't keep a good watch out the metaphorical window will eventually get culled from the herd.

One more wee point, are unskilled boaters better off with no tools, poor tools, or good tools?

Rhys said...

Ken/Lynn, thanks for your comment. I agree with the logic of "hopping" to arrive in the morning, even to the point of hoving to a few miles out if you arrive too soon.

As for your cockpit, it's only marginally less prone to green water than is my Viking 33, so I entirely understand and would also adapt your use of a waterproof plotter. The fact is that I am liable to come into a new situation from the pilothouse anyway, and station Becky (or vice-versa) well forward for visibility and extra input, like "something smells dead/burning", or another good reason to rethink the anchorage.

The pilothouse allows me the liberty to have discrete devices to consult or not as needed. The real estate at my sailing helm is probably as limited as your own, so I would have something basic there for reference, or even just a weatehrproof repeater station. We'll see.

Rhys said...

BB-P: Thanks for the comment. Been there, done that, although merely as practice, never in earnest. I do coastal pilotage on Lake Ontario and rarely turn on the GPS unless it's to figure out if the ETA to the waypoint is getting sooner or later.

I do, however, make a DR mark or cross a couple of LOPs based on land features (if available) on a hourly basis when travelling more than a dozen or so miles away, because I find keeping a log keeps me honest about SOG and my sail trimming abilities and also, while motoring, gives me a reason to check my fuel consumption and record engine temps, oil pressure, etc. It's kept me from grief a few times.

I agree that the AP makes short-handing not only more pleasant, but in some cases possible at all. I don't mind the AP. I do mind some of the assumptions presumed when AP is connected to GPS without the habit of keeping a watch or reading a chart to figure out how far away sharp, hard, awash objects may be.

As for your rhetorical question, definitely, unskilled boaters are better off with no tools, because they have to improve or else, not having an LCD-lit little god to convince them they are in fact skilled.

I say this, of course, having once been embarrassingly unskilled at sailing!

Anonymous said...

Silverheels III Southern cruising grounds are filled with folks who would have never left their docks without GPS/plotters.

It really depends on where you are going. There really isn't a lot to hit in Lake Ontario, and there are many landmarks to use, including urban glow at night to get an idea of where you are. In the Caribbean, it isn't hard to island hop, once you get far enough down and past the passages. Crossing an ocean has other considerations.

Regardless of where you are, any one who doesn't use their eyes to enter a harbour is a fool. We had a boat run aground just two nights ago while entering a bay that is surrounded by reefs... at 2 am. The local yard is happily taking his money now.

Just like anything, good tools can make a difference. No carpenter is going to say "no thanks, I'm skilled enough" when offered quality tools. Neither should cruisers. Sure, the Pardey's use a sextant, but they are also regularly towed into anchorages by those with diesels (you don't see THAT in their books).

Bill Bishop - Parmain said...

Rhys, I was also that most inexperience boater, and trial by fire is a most effective, if also a somewhat harsh instructor at times. I looked at your stand alone equipment list, and I had a couple of thoughts, no I'm prevaricating, I have endless thoughts. Let's say you have one display at the helm, and what would you need to see on it? I would think in bad weather, radar would be handy, and depth is always a good thing to know, along with seeing AIS targets. So already you now need to integrate and communicate with multiple devices to get important data to the the helm where you can see it, unless you can mount everything at the helm. In today's world, chart plotters are really MFD's (Multi Function Displays). These displays are networked to a variety of stand along devices such as AIS receivers, sounder modules, GPS engines et al. The plus of integrating all of this equipment together, especially from a single vendor, is you get you very smooth integration, with features that are difficult to achieve if you have a hodge podge of stand alone systems. Examples of this is all alarms now appear in one place, and the radar overlays on the charts. So my point is that same manufacturer integration gives the skilled user the very best control over data presentation, by design.
Integration also reduces helm clutter. So you don't need to have a wind, depth AP head, speed instruments, etc at the helm station. One MFD, and one N2K data display can manage all of the systems including the autopilot. Same manufacturer integration, is now mostly done with stand alone N2k devices. The MFD goes down, position data will appear on data displays, wind data still displays, or the first GPS fails, you can switch to a second one, and you still have depth.

But if the real issue is redundancy, that is best achieved by having secondary stand alone systems by design, ie two sounders, two radars.

My thought is that the benefits of good integration are sometimes confused with the desire for good redundancy, and I see these as two completely different problems. Good true redundancy design is more difficult if you want to reduce the chance of a single point failure (spelled 50 cent fuse) disabling you. What fun, thanks.

Rhys said...

Ken, I agree with you on the Pardeys. For all their good points and advocacy of "simple sailing", I very much doubt their lifevests are cork rings or even 1960s-style kapok.

The cameras they take aboard get charged somehow, right? They don't run on paraffin.

While I would never reject a well-found tool (sensing that the prudent seaman avails himself of *all* navigation aids, if only to average out an answer!), I think the case of the fully equipped cruiser smacking a reef at 2 AM is aided and abetted by tools that give the crew the impression that this is remotely a good idea.

Even on Lake Ontario, you can see boats round up all standing right smack by a nav aid, because some bright spark decided to make it the waypoint, and not 100-300 m. off it for safety and range. They are people who have tools, but no sense in using them. It's like sailmakers supporting race boats: knowing some skippers will carry a full hoist in ANY weather is like spending ten cents to make back ten bucks.

Rhys said...

B B-P: I would have a simple plotter display on a small monitor I can push back to horizontal on a hinge from the underside of the pilothouse roof. I would have a standalone plotter at the outside helm (you have to see the boat to grasp that I have two helms). I would want an overview with about one to two-miles of resolution. In a crowded harbour, I would want an AIS overlay and a smaller resolution of 1/2 mile or so. I would want a "safe" waypoint offset from, say, a reef entrance, with ideally a range to a daymark/palm tree that is known to be good (assuming it's daylight. Then I would send my kid up the mast to look for coral heads!

At night, I would use the radar to establish where the reef was, and if my charts were wrong on paper or plotter, and/or I couldn't get a radar return (the display of which is also hinged to fold away), I would establish a safe offing having noted set and drift/currents, assuming I couldn't anchor off.

You are right in that I would want different displays for different situations, but if I'm in a large commercial harbour in daylight with assured depths and no reefs, I need ONLY consult the AIS. I don't even need a plotter. In other situations, I ONLY need the radar. I have used my sounder to locate 10m contours and navigated in full fog (with no radar) that way to keep clear of obstacles. I use the sounder more than anything, I think. It's a 100 buck fishfinder. I have an ancient, still-functional cathode-ring backup, even!

The eye (and brain) must take precedence, in my judgement, and these tools are extensions of the senses. They have no real means to avoid errors: that's the skipper's task.

I don't reject your argument, but I have a pilothouse, meaning I have a more or less weatherproof spot to keep gear, including things like a fluxgate for the AP...and a big old Ritchie for hand steering.

My outside helm remains open to suggestion, but seeing as the need to actually steer from there is limited to a desire for fresh air, I can go "bulletproof and simple", and have the stand-alones in the pilothouse feeding to a PC -based plotter. Redundancy there will be simply to vac-pack a bunch of identical old laptops or netbooks with identical drives.

So my circumstances play into my preferences here: if I didn't have essentially an 8 x 8 foot little glassed in steel box to put this gear, I'd probably have an MFD outside, because that's where I'd conn from. But I don't, so I don't have to.

I do support and agree with your contention that good integration and good redundancy are easily confused and aren't really the same thing.

Thanks, guys, for your thought-provoking comments.