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Always sail on the bright side of life

Monitors readable in full tropical sunlight at my helm? It's more likely than you think.

As I begin to tackle the helm wiring and consider actually restoring the insulation to the pilothouse roof (thus burying the wiring under layers of pink insulation boards and masonite and cherry battens, oh, my), I must consider The Question of Instrumentation. I have, as long-time readers may already guess, mixed feelings on the topic. The irony of this is that I have, in general, the technical experience, the house bank, and the room in the pilothouse to have a flippin' arcade of displays to make me think our cutter's capable of space flight, and at a far sexier SOG than seven knots.

That little compass doesn't stand a chance. Might as well be a cup holder.

Today's well-heeled (pun implied) skipper gravitates toward the Multi-Function Display, which, in both touch-screen and button/knob-equipped forms, can rely not only the fab plotting functions that have become familiar in recent years, but other displays, either in tile form or semi-transparent overlay, such as AIS, speed, depth sounding displays, even engine revolutions and how much poop is in the holding tank.

Like really expensive Lego...wait, Lego is already expensive.

Thanks to the more-or-less adequate implementation of NMEA 2000 or Ethernet (with which I am more familiar) or wireless device networking standards and, in the case of NMEA 2000, a sort of snap-together cabling, one can plop little black boxes all over the boat and have, literally at one's fingertips, graphical representations of the vessel's various systemsm sensors and whirring bits.

This is just for the motors. You'd need a second one to replace looking out the window.

Now, a considerable cost and complexity put to one side here,  I question the premises on which MFDs are sold to recreational sailors to a certain degree. A 40-foot sailboat is not, after all, an aircraft carrier; it is not only not difficult to physically monitor (open the engine compartment, record bilge strokes, keep a paper log of oil pressure and weather info) one's immediate boaty enviroment, I think it's good procedure to let the AP or vane do the steering in appropriate conditions and actually for the crew to move about the boat, with, naturally, the occasional scan of the horizon or ear cocked for relevant radio comms.

Forty-footers generally sink faster than aircraft carriers: if your first hint of a failed pump or hose is that you note, thanks to the MFD data, that the speed is dropping because the boat's motor in a calm sea is labouring to shift extra tons of water in your bilges, I submit you have not been keeping a proper watch. You have been focused on a partial and incomplete representation of passagemaking, not actually the real, whole thing. This demands senses beyond viewing a screen, and yet we jumped-up saltwater simians just love looking at screens. They are a sort of shiny, after all, just as are the smartphones on which young folk are texting as they jaywalk in Cathari-like oblivion to my onrushing and still-hulking presence in the bicycle lane. Empirically, just as rock trumps boat, elbow trumps hipster. The teat always falls from the mouth, but if one is not careful, the teeth follow.

I also question the utility of MFDs in exposed spots, and the power demands of "sunlight displays".
Are they reallyneeded at the helm in the sunny daytime? Perhaps if one setst up guard rings on radar or AIS at the nav station, or even on a swing-out modest monitor in the companionway. If it's under 20 NM away... *BEEEEPPP!*: "Dear, go below and check the bearing of that cargo ship and its closest approach...thanks..." This, of course, leaves the helmsman where he or she should be, on deck and peering in the general bearing of anticipated traffic, not at the screen in front of the wheel.
Even if I reject the deluxe package as discouraging of proper watch-keeping, this little thing would be handy.

If you need an active and continuous radar/AIS overlay at night, and I would think that's the best time to have it, whatever monitor you have is going to be dialled right back to 1 so you can make out the kerosene lanterns the fishermen in the radar-absorbent wooden pangas may or may not have. I can't speak for other sailors, but at night I use my ears while sailing. Minute changes in wave trains or weird splashes can inform, if at first almost at the subconscious level, of objects, landforms or approaching weather or currents. The MFD tricked out with the usual depth, RADAR, AIS, and GPS is not really rigged to report on "distant sound of surf" or "smell of hauled in fish". That's the human's job, unless the human abrogates that task to the machine, which, after all, doesn't care about drowning.

This gives you the full "Space Commander" feel of a typical high-end, small boat MFD. Note the utter absence of actual ocean in the video. I'm just saying...

A daylight-visible monitor at the helm is a nice thing to have. I can't debate it. A touch screen is convenient, even if I have doubts about its ability to take a pooping sea. I like MFDs. I like gadgets. I just don't think of them as essential, and I find the integration they require to be fully utilized a touch suspicious. One thing I've thought of in the MFD realm that I have yet to see (or hear) is an "audio navigator" of the type that shouts "PULL UP" on passenger jets if you're too close to the unscheduled ground. I wrote about audio alarms in a previous post, and I still think it's a nice adjunct for watch-standers. Sure, have a plotter to relay lat/lon, distance to waypoint, bearing/heading, cross-track...hell, this is old hat now, but a plotter that has a little triangle of boat in a 25 x 25 NM square of blue empty ocean is a waste of amps in my book. Not, you'll notice, e-book. I have netbooks with virtual reams of PDFs documenting my boat's systems, layouts, manuals and various technical articles I want to keep. But I still keep a paper log. The physicality of it appeals to me, and keeps me thinking by doing. It's less like watching a particularly dull reality TV episode.

How would you do with a fully integrated MFD in the following situation? Imagine you set a waypoint you need to reach, but you are in an opposing tidal set of unknown strength. There is no buoy to see, or it is night or it's foggy. The waypoint gives you a clear offing from a reef or shelf or pointy rock or whatever. Why not set that waypoint, and the desired heading, and have "instructions" actually spoken on deck? Like "5 degrees to port...on course". Your eyes are on the sea, as is proper, but you are getting a running plot, so to speak, and if you have to steer 15 to port by compass to get on course, you have useful current or tidal information. Now, clearly, this is dependent on the waypoint as per the GPS being accurately charted and not 200 metres downrange from the real, hard obstacle, but that's when the RADAR overlay, or even a standalone RADAR with accurate ranging, comes into play.

The spell of the numbers on the MFD is broken, because having a voice read off closing ranges would, I suspect, lead to more than average, or even necessary, prudence and a proper offing. Being free of the spell of the pixels, the prudent mariner would err on the side of caution, and would be a little suspicious of the electronic chart, particularly if it was in dispute with the RADAR or the eyeball or even the FLIR or the laser ranger. One would not have all the info on one screen, and the effect would become that of a slightly dissonant chorus, rather than a single sycophant saying "Proceed, all is well!".

At this point in our hypothetical "approach to Flinders Island" scenario, the MFD's friendly (and probably British and female, for some reason) voice gargles and dies. The screen goes blank. The radar's OK, but its display is below, out of sight. Have you noted the last "good" bearing to avoid danger? Do you still have a goddamn compass?

We design devices like MFDs to extend our senses and to help us integrate data that aids our decisions as sailors. We do not always grasp that by such means we ourselves are redesigned, a process by which some useful and time-tested habits of seamanship may be neglected or forgotten.


John said...

Your new pilothouse set up looks very spiffy. OK the compass is small, but with all these screens, you probably won't need it.

Rhys said...

C'mon, John...I would *never* have that much wood. Or that many screens.

Horatio Marteleira said...

You almost had me thinking it was your boat until I saw the dual-engine panel.
I look at all those gadgets and feel like I'm still driving a donkey cart (boat) on an ocean highway.
Can't live without my 5" charplotter at the helm, better than a 20" one down below.

Rhys said...

Better a donkey cart you can control than a coach where you aren't even in the driver's seat!

And no, that is not my pilothouse, nor is it ever likely to be. I like the huge Ritchie compass too much. Unlike a lot of boats, mine comes with great big balls.

Silverheels III said...

Smallish 5 inch plotter at the helm will give you the big/small picture between landfalls, tracking your progress to a waypoint against wind and current and also enable you to see DSC position reports from friends as well as co-ordinates of vessels who transmit DSC Distress calls. This together with AIS targets with their closest approach data can be easily seen and digested, all without ever leaving the helm or disturbing off watch crew.

Silverheels III said...

Touch screen tech IMO is not going to withstand salt and spray because your finger will scraping across the screen will quickly abrade the very surface that you're viewing images through in difficult bright sunlit conditions.

Rhys said...

Good points both, Ken and/or Lynn. I know from how my glasses fared in the Atlantic that salt...even in droplet quite abrasive.

So many nav apps are being developed these days for the "touch-driven" iPhone or iPad...and yet we don't hear much of this issue. I wonder why?

A five-inch plotter at the helm of the button or knob type would suffice at the outside helm, with the main viewer in the pilothouse. I have a graphic designer's horror of poking a grubby finger at a screen, however. It's the same reason I would own a BlackBerry over any other phone...I can type faster and more accurately than I can point.

Silverheels III said...

Ken here. IMO touchscreen tech is for urbanites. Many folks are using i-whatever tech for cell or other apps as well as downloading charts to use with the integral GPS in these smartphone devices. It's basically another way to do and view things as you travel, but most cruisers use smartphones as an adjunct to their purpose-built GPS chartplotters.
They can see their course while in the bunk while off watch. Troubleshooting several touchscreen i-devices I've discovered that once the touch sensor or display craps out there is no recourse but to scrap the device. Our two BlackBerries can be easily disassembled and the trackball and keyboard cleaned or replaced. New/refurbished BB keyboards, pointing devices and keyboards are available in a downtown kiosk here in St Georges Grenada. I'm certain that these repair resources are not unique to Grenada.

Rhys said...

Good to know, Ken, and thank you. I don't object to adjuncts or backups; hell, I wear a recording baro and a fluxgate compass on my wrist...but some of these rather unrugged gadgets are being sold as primary devices, which is fine for sailing around Toronto Island, perhaps, but not a functional or lasting choice.

I have heard that Blackberries were fairly hackable and easy to fix, or at least easier than the Apple phones. Good to know. We'll see if they are still looking viable when we leave as we will want a couple of "boat phones" for which we can buy local SIM cards and minutes as needed.