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Energy Saving Devices

Two solar devices on the back of my boat.

The solar mat trickle charges the batteries when the boat's at anchor. I rarely use the engine for anything but getting on or off the mooring or dock (unless the crew is impatient and the wind recalcitrant). If you use the battery to start the engine and then turn it off five minutes later, you haven't replaced the electricity used to start. Moreover, I use electricity while sailing to power the instruments. And, somewhere there's a small leak letting in either lake or rain water so the automatic bilge pump runs from time to time. All of those factors led to a dead starter battery a couple of times last year and forced me to run the engine an extra ten or fifteen minutes after mooring or on a long sail just to charge the battery. Now the batteries stay topped off with sunlight. Since I only used five gallons of diesel last year, I don't expect great savings, however.

There's a solar light with its own collector in the flagpole holder when I'm on my mooring. A real anchor light would be on the top of the mast and, technically, I don't need a light on my mooring; but the boat is moored close to the path boats take back from some popular bars on the New York side of the Lake so seemed prudent to make it more noticeable at night.

Bruiser, sitting on top of Mt. Mansfield, is wearing my Father's Day present from Mary: a pack so he can carry his own water and supplies. At 100 lbs, he can carry some of his own load.


Kindle Travel Test

Img095_2 I could read books on my Amazon Kindle even when the bright sun was over my shoulder, not just when it was in front of me making me squint as in the very posed picture above. Like a book, Kindle isn’t backlit; it has crisp black type on a grayish surface. At night the gray is slightly less reflective than pulp paper so I couldn’t read Kindle quite as far into the evening as Mary could read her traditional books; had to give up and turn on the light slightly sooner which mattered on our vacation because we were either draining the house battery of a boat or using the last few watts of solar-generated electricity in a rain-swept cabin on land.

Although I did have an opportunity to recharge, Kindle’s own battery – since it’s not providing light and since I wasn’t using the radio – seems as if it would have easily lasted through two weeks and the two books I read on it.

Kindle was more than worth its 10.3 ounces in books I didn’t have to carry. Running out of things to read is not acceptable on a vacation and outdoor adventure-type vacations both make it difficult to predict how much involuntary down (reading) time you’ll have and make it undesirable to carry a lot of extra weight.

I needed to bring one book to read during takeoffs and landings when airlines don’t allow “anything with an on-off switch” to be on. That was Vito Dumas’ Alone Through the Roaring Forties, a good read for someone doing a little tame sailing in the Sea of Cortez. He went around the world single handled in the “wrong direction” (West to East) around all three fearsome southern capes, usually at forty degrees south latitude.

While still in the US, I loaded Kindle with The Immaculate Deception by Iain Pears, The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin, and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.  Only read the first two so Kite Runner was backup.

The reading experience was very similar to reading a paperback: better in some ways because, if you leave Kindle next to your plate and use your hands to eat, it doesn’t spring closed like a paperback wants to. The pages (at a typesize I can read) have less words on them than a book and there’s a slight pause and flicker at page turn which takes a little getting used to, not much though. The design is flawed in having active controls three-quarters of the way down both sides of the case: it’s almost impossible to avoid accidental page turn in one direction or the other – especially when using the cursor or trying to turn Kindle off. BTW, when you turn Kindle back on, it knows what page you were reading.

My crew was in to word games and Kindle’s onboard copy of The New Oxford American Dictionary was invaluable in solving disputes which would have been tough otherwise with no way to access wiktionary.

Other Kindle posts on FOC:

Kindle – Web Browsing Reviewed

Kindle – Book Reader’s Review

Kindle – Free Internet Browsing for Just $400

Kindle – Shape of the Web to Come?

Kindle – Reader Questions and Comments

tSolar Use and Disuse

On the Island of San Francisco in the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) there are salt pits, an ancient marvel of solar engineering. The pits are rectangles of about fifty feet by twenty five and dug two or three feet into sand which is slightly below sea level. Salt water percolates up into the pits (not a good place to drill a well which is why no one lives here). The water evaporates and leaves the salt behind. This keeps happening until the pit is crusted over with a foot or so of salt. The subsistence fisherman from nearby Coyote Island scoop up the salt and use it to preserve their catch. The pit is ready to make the next batch.

Ironically, electricity for La Paz, Mexico, which has over 300 days of sunshine/year and is only 24 degrees north of the equator comes from a sprawling 600 megawatt natural-gas fired generating plant proudly opened in 2002. The plant is on a shore surrounded by desert and bare hills, great place for solar collectors. Oil and gas prices were low when the plant was planned and built and Pemex may have been looking for markets for its natural gas. But I suspect that gas would now find a ready market to the north if solar power displaced it here during sunny days as an energy source. Fortunately, the world is full of such opportunities.

Remote communities off the electric grid here are beginning to use solar desalinization and also harvest commercial quantities of salt as a byproduct.

BTW, I realize that people who fly in jets to sail in plastic boats and motor for four out of seven days are scarcely in a position to lecture anyone on energy use. These are meant as observations and not as rants.

Small World at Sea

Resource conservation and tactical tradeoffs were a sub-theme of our sailing week on the Sea of Cortez. Unlike the Caribbean and other places we’ve rented boats, there are no restaurants or stores to stop at where we were cruising. Knowing this and thinking through the implications are two different things!

A day into our trip we noticed that we’d used a quarter of our fresh water. Whoops! And nobody had even showered yet. We hypothesized that profligate rinsing of dishes and pots was the culprit. We’re used to having dinner on shore and easy breakfasts and lunches aboard. Good luck is that friend Marc turns out to be a great chef. Bad luck is that, even though Marc used the grill for the main course every night, there were still pots, pans, and dishes to be washed.

There was also a zip lock bag problem. We hadn’t brought enough of them onboard somehow so they needed to be rinsed to be reused for leftovers. But rinsing takes water. Tough decision; don’t save what isn’t worth saving. Better yet, save the rinse water to use as presoak for the pots from the next meal.

I’ve read from different sources that both Chinese and British captains could tell when women had been smuggled aboard by the sudden alarming increase in fresh water usage. Apparently, although men’s hair can be washed in salt water, women’s hair can’t. Four of our crew of seven are women – less chauvinistically, four of our crew have significantly longer hair than the other three.

I tried to set a good example by using the slightly warm water spurting out the side after it cooled the engine to wash my hair while paddling around in the surprisingly cold water but couldn’t convince anyone, male or female, that this was a good idea. Finally, after explaining that this water didn’t actually touch any greasy engine parts, I got permission to use it for dishes presoak so long as I leaned over and gathered it in a pot. (warning: on some boats this water is really hot; be careful.)

The harbors were remarkably empty. In the one crowded harbor (by Sea of Cortez standards), we didn’t use sea water because we knew none of the boats were equipped with holding tanks; heads flush into the sea. Yuk!

Back to ocean-bathing, two hints: 1) jump in the water and get wet, then climb onto the swim platform and soap up, then jump back in to rinse; soaping up while swimming doesn’t work well; 2) dish soap (environmentally friendly, of course) suds much better than bar soap in salt water.

OK. Women do get to shower; boat shower which means you don’t leave the water running. But what about running the water so that the tap turns warm before using the water. Lots of waste; I had visions of running dry. Someone’s smart suggestion: save that pre-hot water for drinking or cooking or dishes. Problem solved.

The boat was supposed to be equipped with garbage bags. It was – one! That was good for about two days. Fortunately Mary has a habit of saving the little plastic bags groceries come in. We bought lots of groceries before we left so we had lots of little bags. Now, at the end of the cruise, I’m about to haul the tied but leaky and smelly things out of the spare anchor locker and throw them away. Good thing we never had to use the spare anchor in a hurry; we would’ve drowned in garbage.

You know what? It was all part of the fun.

Out of Touch

As faithful readers can tell from my lack of posts, there really are no Internet connections available north of La Paz in the southern Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) – or at least I haven’t found any yet. We haven’t been to any villages which might have Internet cafes; but, of the only two possible villages on our itinerary, one is famous for its single satellite phone for rent by the minute and has no electricity and the other is perched on a rock and is known in the cruising guide for its enterprising fishermen’s wives who supplement diminishing fishing income (blamed on Japanese and Korean factory ships) with sales of shell-based home-made jewelry. With twenty-two kids in school, the latter is the second largest settlement on an island in this Sea so maybe, maybe… Tomorrow we’ll find out unless the wind is blowing too hard and the seas are too high.

[update at posting time. No Internet access there; no kids or shopping either. Kids and women are on the mainland during the week. Three fishermen live there alone other wise and sold us some very fresh fish. They live on the rock because there are no mosquitoes there, they say.]

Which brings me to the weather and communications. Wise sailors in this region get their weather forecasts daily at 8am on VHF channel 22 where a local net links liveaboards together. But the forecast is broadcast from La Paz and we’re now forty miles north under the horizon even for our masthead mounted antenna. Didn’t get the forecast yesterday either because we were in a cove with high blocking walls. But the weather’s not supposed to be very interesting this time of year anyway; one of the reasons we booked now. The wind blows from the north or northeast between ten and twenty five knots, can get a little blustery and uncomfortable when a dry cold front trails through hanging from a low in southern California.

That’s why we were surprised at the 10 knot wind from the southwest this bright and clear afternoon. Also a little disconcerted to see the anchorage we’d shared with four other boats last night deserted when we came back to it late this afternoon. It’s known to have great protection against northerly winds and swells; not recommended in the summer because it’s open to the southwest.

We anchored in the spot we’d coveted yesterday but come to late to claim, nestled up against a cliff to the north and with a salt flat protecting us from waves if not wind from the east. Just as it was getting dark, the gentle rollers from the southwest steepened and sometimes even broke under us where the water shelved rapidly to fifteen feet. The wind accelerated to 20 knots with higher gusts. Uncomfortable.

Brother Billy used the dingy to discover that the southern part of the bay was smoother but just as gusty.  Should we pull anchor and move in the near dark? Risk is we don’t get it set well or make some other mistake. Now the lack of weather information makes a good decision tough. Why’s there a southwest wind anyway?

We try calling other boats on both channels 16 and 22 to see if anyone else has the weather forecast. Not a peep back. Have I mentioned that we don’t have Internet access?

Sister Pam calls her super Internet literate son on our satellite phone (see picture in last week’s post). As we knew he would be, he’s back with us in five minutes with the morning forecasts for both northern and southern Sea of Cortez. We’re south middle but an interpolation makes sense.

Two lows moving through the north will cause very strong northerlies there starting tomorrow and moderate northerlies in the south. Today mild south to southwest winds were forecast for the south. The barometer (analog) has been dropping. With interpolation it all makes sense.

A cold front is approaching. It’s strong enough to induce southerlies ahead of it even against the prevailing northerly flow. We’re north of the moderate southerlies so we have mildly immoderate southwesterlies. Answer: don’t move the boat!

Why? Because the anchor is holding (we did let out some more chain). It’s almost a certainty that the northerlies which trail the front will be stronger than the southerlies that proceed it – especially since they’ll be reinforced by the seasonal flow rather than diminished by it. If that happens, our anchor has to hold against much more force if we go to the currently calm the southern bay and leave the protection of the cliff to the north of us. Didn’t want to move anyway and now it’s truly dark although there’s a half moon illuminating some mares tails high in the sky.

Both the depth gauge and GPS say the anchor is holding. Almost on cue, the wind starts to drop: 20 knots, 16, 14, 15, 12, 14, 12, 10, 13, 8… until the wind direction indicator is spinning directionless around its dial. The barometer is now steady.

Now can we go to sleep?

Some of us can but we’ve got to take turns standing anchor watch. The northerlies are certainly coming. We should have good shelter but  we’ll be pulling the anchor in the opposite direction from the way which it was initially set. If we pull hard enough it’ll flip over and no longer be dug in. It SHOULD reset in the sand but there’s some slippery grass below us as well.

At 0200 the wind out of the northwest, even in our sheltered location, is over 10 knots. No big deal but it does hold us sideways to the persistent swell so our rocking becomes a more unpleasant rolling (we’re in a catamaran). My watch, obviously, or I’d be sleeping instead of writing.

Tomorrow morning we WILL get the new forecast even if we have to call the place we rented the boat from on sat phone.

Out of Touch

If you see this post (and there's a good chance that you will), it means that I really couldn't find a good Internet connection in the Sea of Cortez north of La Paz and resisted the temptation to sail to connectivity.

In fact, posts have been on autopilot all week.

Going Sailing


Going be in the Sea of Cortez where cell coverage is rumored to be sparse. Can’t quite go cold turkey on communications so I rented an Iridium satellite phone that should work almost everywhere outside. DIDN’T get the data attachment, though. Too slow and too expensive so I’m gonna have to live offline – scary.

Even a phone needs peripherals. Pictured above are an AC charger, a DC (cigarette lighter) charger, a remote mounted antenna so we can talk from below decks, an extra battery, a carrying case for all of this, and a soft folding solar charger. Of course should be able to charge from DC on the boat but always need a plan B. Besides, running down the batteries on a sailboat gets me nervous and running the engine seems contrary.

The solar charger puts out .6 amps at 15.4 volts so should be able to charge any cell phones that do work, cameras, iPods etc. assuming we have DC adapters for them. Don’t think there’s enough amps here for my PC and I’m pretty sure it won’t be able to drive the inverter I use for devices that we don’t have DC adapters for (will try, though).

Sat phone is NOT a low cost way to communicate. The phone itself is only $24.95/week to rent but airtime minutes (in and out) are $1.59 each even in prepaid nonrefundable bundles of sixty. Voice mail is extra. People can call you for a cost of a call to Arizona (cost to them – you’re still going to pay the airtime).

Good news is that inbound text messages are free and outbound “only” $.59 for 160 characters or less.

Got it all from satellitephonestore.com who called to correct the mistakes I made in ordering and delivered on time as promised.

The Home of the Prime Meridian

PrimemeridianIn the accompanying picture, Mary and I are spanning the Prime Meridian, Longitude Zero.  We’re at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich in London – a must-see for visiting nerds. The observatory is all about navigation and not at all about astronomy for its own sake. The main task of the Astronomer Royals who worked (and lived) here was to catalog celestial passages to enable mariners to know where in the world they were.

The history of the Observatory is linked with Britain’s becoming a great naval power and the importance of maritime commerce to an island nation.  If you’re going to sail around a lot, it really helps to know where you are. [note to younger readers:  there actually was a time before GPS.]

Finding your latitude (distance from the equator) is relatively easy.  You can find it, for example, by measuring the height of the sun above the horizon at its zenith (local noon). If you know what day it is, you then know how far north or south you are.

The problem of longitude is far tougher and baffled sailors for centuries.  The theory is simple and was well understood: you can tell when the sun comes up or goes down if you can see the horizon; you can find local noon by observing when the sun reaches its zenith. If you knew how many hours before or after sunrise or sunset or noon at home, local events were occurring, you’d know your longitude. For example, if noon comes four hours late, you must be sixty degrees west of home. Since the earth turns 360 degrees in a day, it turns fifteen degrees every hour.

The problem was knowing what time it was at home.  How do you bring home time with you?  The only accurate clocks of the day were pendulum clocks and they weren’t accurate on a rocking ship. Watches had to be reset at least daily so they were no help. All clocks of the day were affected by temperature changes as their metal parts expanded and contracted. Moreover, a clock that was going to go to sea would need to be sealed against salt water; how do you oil it?

Galileo worked on this problem but didn’t solve it. He wanted to use the moons he’d discovered around Jupiter as a clock that would be visible on a voyage. Trouble was that Jupiter and its moons are only sometimes visible AND that accurate observation of their positions from a moving ship was practically impossible – even with a clever sighting helmet Galileo invented. His method did, however, become the standard for measuring position on land and contributed greatly to accurate map making.

In 1707 four British warships foundered on rocks off the Scilly Isles with a loss of 2000 lives. The boats has misjudged their longitude.  In 1714 Parliament (working swiftly) announced the Longitude Prize - £20,000 pounds to anyone who could solve the problem of determining longitude at sea. This was a few million of today’s pounds so it did attract attention.

There were two main approaches.  Watch and clockmakers concentrated on making a better clock. Astronomers tried to perfect the “lunar method” which involved measuring the angle between the moon and either the sun or some other star – essentially using the moon as a watch hand. In order for this method to work, you’d need three things: an instrument to measure this angle that could be used aboard ship (solution: the sextant), accurate predictions of the path of the moon which turned out to be very hard to predict and is variable from year to year, and voluminous tables of the expected angle between the moon and many other objects for every hour of the day and every day of every year your ship would be at sea.

In the end, both methods were perfected.  The Observatory had a key role in predicting the moon’s erratic movement and charting the stars. It has a somewhat less savory role in trying to deny the prize to clockmaker John Harrison who worked from 1727 to 1759 on a series of clocks designed to keep good time at sea. Along the way he invented the caged ball bearing to solve the friction problem and the technique of using two metals with different expansion rates to compensate for temperature changes. His fourth clock, H-4, grandfather of all chronometers, clearly qualified for the prize.

But the committee which awarded the prize was dominated by astronomers. The Astronomer Royal was a statutory member.  They kept setting new tests an applicant would have to pass as they worked frantically on their own solutions. In the end, it took royal intervention to get Harrison the money he was due – although most of it was a separate appropriation and not the actual prize and prestige that would’ve entailed. No one ever did meet the tightened qualifications for that.

All four of his experimental clocks are at the Observatory as is a version of the story which is a little kinder to astronomers than they deserve.  There is also a great collection of the instruments used by the astronomers to make their observations.

Interesting note: when a new a new telescope was installed in the 1800s, the prime meridian was moved about ten feet to align with the new instrument (the actual location of the meridian is arbitrary but affects everything).  British Admiralty charts are still based on the old location of the prime meridian. This small difference is now within the accuracy of some GPSes. Be careful how close you go to rocks if you’re using an Admiralty chart:-}

A very good book on all this and my source for most of the story above is Dava Sobel’s Longitude.

Life Rafts Today

Practical Sailor says it concisely:  “Today, the life raft’s primary mission is no longer to serve as means of navigating to safety, but rather a platform from which to signal for help.”

Used to be that, if your sailboat sunk, you wanted a life raft packed with food, water, fishing gear, desalinization gear, nav gear, a sail, oars, everything you’d need to stay at sea for possibly months on end until you could sail or drift to land somewhere.  Today you want to make sure you have enough electronics and spare batteries.  If you can survive the storm that sunk you, chances are very good that you’ll get rescued very soon – if you have the right electronics and they’re working.

Here’s the stuff you need:

EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon – Don’t leave shore without it!) This gizmo hooks up with a GPS and broadcasts your ship identification and location on the 406MHz band which is monitored by a worldwide satellite system.  This is the biggest advance in SAR (search and rescue) technology since radio was invented.  You register your boat and your beacon so false alarms can quickly be eliminated.

While you’re at it, there is a personal version of the EPIRB called the PLB (Personal Locater Beacon) you carry in case it’s just you overboard in the middle of the ocean.

It’s good to have a VHF radio.  Emergency frequency 121.5 is still monitored although not as much as it used to be. Most important, rescue craft can use the VHF signal to home in on when they get close to you and you can talk with them to make sure you get rescued rather than run down.

A satellite phone is well worth its outrageous per minute cost in this situation.  Nice to send out a rescue signal and even nicer to know that someone got it and is on the way.

Low tech signaling equipment is important as rescuers get close and to avoid getting hit if you’re in a sea lane.  This includes a signaling mirror or two, flares, smoke dye and sea rescue ribbon – even a whistle.

The raft still has to be tough.  If a storm sunk your primary boat, it’s going to challenge your raft, too.  Chances are you’re NOT going to get rescued until the storm is over so you have to survive it.  Practical Sailor puts a lot of emphasis on the boardability of a raft.  Remember, it has to be designed to let you clamber in or help an injured person board during a storm without getting swamped itself.  You also need a way to bail it out and patch it.

The whole assemblage can’t weigh too much because you have to be able to throw it overboard in the worst of circumstances.  So, if you have to choose between an extra week of food and more batteries, take the batteries – chances are, if you can communicate, you won’t spend the extra week lost at sea.

Dollars or Cents – WiFi to the Rescue

Bvimapbrad32 Calling home from the Caribbean can be very expensive.  Somehow Cable & Wireless has managed to keep their monopoly from colonial days in many of the former British possessions.  Rates to call the US from pay phones two years ago – if you could find one working – were close to $2.00/minute (I don’t know current rates but wouldn’t bet on their being reasonable).

By prearrangement, your Verizon cellphone’ll work in the British Virgin Islands where I’m headed for some sailing.  Those rates are only $1.29/minute but apply whether you’re making or receiving calls – after all, you’re roaming.


Last time I sailed in Sir Francis Drake Channel (if the old pirate were alive today he’d have a phone monopoly), I saved on phone calls by renting a CDPD card (cellular wireless) for my PC for “just” $180 for the week.  I could do email – slowly – and surf sometimes even more slowly.  But the card did work almost everywhere in BVI.

There was a CDPD card on the list of optional equipment for the boat we’re renting this trip so I ordered it.  Unfortunately, the company wrote back, they no longer offer this. Hmm..  “Do you have a list of WiFi hotsposts?” I asked with mild desperation.

The next email had this very encouraging link http://angelinacat.com/Internetaccess.htm.  Seem to be hotspots in almost every anchorage and harbor.  Maybe WiFi, which is better and cheaper although with a smaller coverage area, is driving out CDPD. 

One of the sponsors of the hotspot lists is BVI Marine WiFi who offer service in many of the locations under one agreement - $69/week after ten dollar rebate for preordering.  Most interesting is what they say the service is used for “All locations are high bandwidth allowing for good signals for use with email, browsing and Skype, the service that lets you call the USA or anywhere else for less than 5 cents a minute.”  The cost per minute to call the US on Skype is €.021/minute.  Just an hour of calling on this hookup rather than Verizon saves me enough to pay for the week of WiFi and buy one drink.  Preordered, of course.

However, being a nerd, I already spent the savings and more.  The BVI Marine site had a nice primer on having enough transmit power to make WiFi work in an anchorage or a little way out to sea.  Seems that the WiFi built into out laptops transmits at 20 or 30 milliwatts; moreover, the antenna is built into the laptop so easily blocked and not very useful below decks.  Your laptop may see the hotspot but not be able to reach it with a transmission.  Not to worry, they recommend the 300 milliwatt card from Ubiquity (more powerful than most hotspots) and an external antenna.  Sold!  Now I have to talk for three hours to break even.

If this stuff doesn’t work, you’ll know it from an embarrassing lack of posts of Fractals of Change next week.

Now on Kindle!

hackoff.com: An historic murder mystery set in the Internet bubble and rubble

CEO Tom Evslin's insider account of the Internet bubble and its aftermath. "This novel is a surveillance video of the seeds of the current economic collapse."

The Interpreter's Tale

Hacker Dom Montain is in Barcelona in Evslin's Kindle-edition long short story. Why? and why are the pickpockets stealing mobile phones?

Need A Kindle?

Kindle: Amazon's Wireless Reading Device

Not quite as good as a real book IMHO but a lot lighter than a trip worth of books. Also better than a cell phone for mobile web access - and that's free!

Recent Reads - Click title to order from Amazon


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