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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".


The great levelling, or six degrees of remediation

"A certain sinking feeling" is something no sailor wants to experience, and yet during Alchemy's extended stay on land, that has been a increasingly common perception. Perhaps it was the rainwater pooling in the self-draining cockpit, or flowing past the scuppers to leave grubby puddles by the gunwhales, but it was clear that the good ship's attitude was getting low, specifically down by the bow.

I attributed this to a combination of soft ground (it's just backfill, really, as the whole club property is entirely artifical and not particularly well-draining) and to a slight, but critical, misplacement of the boat when laid to rest, making it a tad heavier than needed on the forepart of the cradle.

The result can be clearly seen even from the spring: The whole operation is trying to make like a lawn quoit and sink into the gravel. I had to lash things, including the new engine, to the rails and bollards to keep them from rolling or shifting forward. While this was annoying from the view of painting and walking near open hatches, it wasn't likely critical or dangerous...until the time approached for putting in the engine. "Zeroing" an engine on its stringers and mounts so that it is very, very close to having its rear coupling mating firmly and evenly with a similar coupler on the non-propped end of the shaft is the key to avoiding wear on the transmission, shaft, prop and important, moving and expensive bits of the diesel...and it makes the boat considerably quieter. The tolerances involved are near those found in getting a new crown for a tooth...hundredths of a inch. Now, the use of a CV coupler joint mitigates this need for exactitude somewhat...but you still have to be close. Having measured the pitch angle of Alchemy at sixdegrees and likely advancing, I thought that trying to line up a seven-hundred pound engine and a five-foot steel shaft would be I thought I'd move the boat by hand.

Don't giggle now: this actually worked for a bit. It's a 20-tonne hydraulic bottle jack (due to the shape), and it moves a sturdy piston up by tiny amounts with each manly crank of its inadequate handle. The problem was that the boat's at least 15 tonnes, and wants to get closer to the core of the Earth when out of the water. Cranking on the handle basically drove the jack into the yielding ground and especially into the various planks and boards I shoved under it to spread the load. I was able to get in a few steel shims, but even after I started to have better results after lobbing a sack of marble-sized gravel under the boards, I didn't like the alarming noises everything made, nor the extreme leisure with which things actually happened due to the ratio of arm-pumping to real-world lifting. Note that the theory was sound but the execution lacking, and let that be a lesson to all sailors.

Eventually, this past weekend, I prevailed upon my club's "Haulout" committee to fix the problem properly by hoisting Alchemy upwards a few feet and pulling the whole cradle out of the hole it had dug for itself, forward a couple of feet to improve the balance of the boat over its pads, and onto some strategically placed lengths of lumber.

The difference was immediate and gratifying. Water long trapped on deck gushed profusely out the stern scuppers and off the side decks. The "lifts" on the front of the cradle did not immediately sink into the ground, probably because the cradle move rolled a lot of my gravel forward in a helpful fashion.

While the whole operation took a crew of volunteers and plenty of semi-learned discussion before and during the cradle repositioning (which took place on a cold and damp day at dawn as the first hoist of a busy day for the club), it was executed perfectly. Nothing inside the boat budged, although I had made attempts to brace toolboxes and paint drums adequately.

This shows how far forward the cradle moved. The boat went up and down largely in the same position.

Evidence of success. The boat is now about one degree high at the bow...but I fully expect it to sink a few millimeters, which will put me where I want to be.

The new attitude: Up, up and aweigh anchors.

So here again is another learning opportunity. What I know about levers stopped at the see-saw I last rode as a tyke. But basic principles properly understood gave me a workable, if tedious, answer (the bottle jack, which I will use in the engine installation and elsewhere to lift really heavy things small distances), but also showed that the lift was a safer and much, much faster option, once I had worked out, in consultation with other amateur engineers among my club friends, the best way to shift 15 tonnes of beached boat.

A process of recovery

One of the things I've noticed about the boating game is that the prospective voyager has to possess, if not expertise, then a passing familiarity with various trades. This is not only so that one may perform the endless and varied tasks to keep the vessel afloat and in good repair and reasonable comfort, but so that one can recognize when outside help is doing a decent job fixing what is beyond one's own abilities.

So I've had to become handy in ways I've never had to be handy before. I may have mentioned in older posts that I never took "shop", as "Industrial Arts" was once known (is there still Industrial Arts? Given the dire prevalence of TV fix-it shows and the cultish admiration of hammer-wielding tradesmen, I suspect not.). Instead of lathing a newel post (would be nice for a binoculars bin), or dovetailing a lovely map chest (for a map chest), I was in theatre class, trying to impress high-breasted, long-legged and usually disinterested-in-me females.

Well, at least I learned blocking, which sounds vaguely woody.

After school, I continued in the arts field with a series of wordy or word-friendly jobs involving fast typing and smart-assery, but very little call for wielding of hand tools. Problems in the rental units in which I lived much beyond changing a light bulb were referred to the landlord, as was good and proper. My hands were soft and my head empty of all things mechanical, electrical, motorized or fabricated. I didn't even own a car. I had a moped when I was 16, but that mostly involved a level of engineering only slightly above servicing a bicycle.

Then in short order, I bought a creaky old house and a creaky old sailboat. Fear of Having to Call Someone This Time caused my wallet to seize shut. I had to get skills, and I had to get them quickly. Particularly, it must be said, when I blew up my first Atomic 4 by neglecting to open the cooling water intake.

It hasn't been easy, and the process is continuing. Thirteen years after buying an 1890-built house and 12 years after acquiring a 1973 sailboat, I no longer consider myself absolutely feeble. My screw-ups and ignorance have been (and in some fields continue to be) the foundation on which I've built a Temple of Near Competency. I even seem to have a knack for small motor maintenance and minor fabrication, and can glass, shape aluminum, make a crude but functional cabinet and can grind, router, wire, hoist, chisel, sand, mount, drill, unseize, hammer, wedge, bolt, saw and buff without threat to maintaining an even number of fingers. Yes, I now sport some minor, if lurid, scars and my fingernails are rarely entirely free of some industrial-strength goo, but it appears at an embarrasingly advanced age that I have become Officially Handy.

Just as well, because I couldn't bloody well afford to pay people. I will, however, recognize when I can't do the job properly (like welding...yet) and will hire when needed.

More often, however, I will simply try out the task myself on something innocuous...a practice run, so to speak, in order to see if I can combine a (usually) economically-oriented idea with non-idiotic execution. Such was the case with the breakfast nook chairs.

Dire, isn't it? I bought these shave-above-IKEA chairs about 25 years ago in a quest to uplift my station in life by not eating off furniture salvaged from either my parents' basement and/or the 1960s. That tatty blue rag is covering the original shredded seat cover and its crumbling foam filling.

The table top I had sanded and coated with unused Cetol, a marine-style wood varnish-type liquid that goes on exterior teak bits. The chairs remained nasty and increasingly brutish. Cabin Boy is seen applying small but keen arms to the task of removing the nasty and likely Swedish buttock buffer.

I replaced this with 3/4 inch thick closed-cell insulation I purchased for about ten dollars. Cut into sized rectangles, it provided a firm, if somewhat Calvinist, bedrock for bums, and would logically wear better than the dusty, nasty stuff it replaced. Covering that and carefully using little galvanized tacks gave a pleasing, if neutrally coloured, result.

The bonus is that the insulation will go nicely in the pilothouse roof. The second bonus is that I learned a little bit about recovering furniture, which will come in handy when I redo the aft cabin sleeping arrangements. The third bonus is that the fabric covering was free to me as it is burlap carefully cut from large sacks for roasted coffee, kindly rendered for the asking from the nearby cafe where I buy my beans.

I think it's cute and "urban", but then I would, wouldn't I? Worn-out chairs are suddenly "found design". Would that boat stuff was so cheap to fix.

Anyway, that's another minor skill of which I can claim I'm not completely ignorant...and I didn't cut myself this time.