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June 17, 2005

Three Nerds in a Tub

It wasn’t a tub, actually; it was a very well-equipped 47 foot sailboat which we delivered from the mouth of Chesapeake Bay to New York Harbor this week.   I was the (chronologically) senior nerd although certainly junior (in experience) sailor.

On the drive down to Virginia, we discovered that we all use VoIP for our primary home phones and that, including both those installed on the boat and that we had bought with is, there would be four global positioning systems aboard.  We each use different cellular carriers so we compared reception frequently on the drive.  I occasionally managed an uncertain connection to Verizon 1xEVDO from my computer in the backseat.

On the way out of Chesapeake Bay, the owner built our route to New York on his computer which was now plugged in at the navigation station and integrated with most of the rest of the electronics onboard.   At six or seven knots, it’s approximately a forty hour trip.  Naturally, the software updated our predicted time of arrival every few seconds.

The autopilot was at the helm for most of the trip.  It not only can steer a preset magnetic course but also can follow a track between GPS waypoints.  It makes the turn onto a new track automatically when you pass a waypoint after beeping politely and giving you a chance to override, presumably so the turn won’t be into a boat next to you.  The precision of the navigation and automatic steering together can be a problem: if you place a waypoint on a buoy and leave all the steering to the robots, there’s liable to be a bump at the end as the boat slams into the buoy.

My Verizon data connection was spotty at ten miles offshore even if I held the computer above my head.  Another of the sailors was using his cellphone to get a data connection to his provider and then bluetooth from the cellular handset to his computer.  Took him a little time to set up but I was jealous of this good piece of nerding.  Also jealous of the fact that both Cingular and AT&T Wireless provided better voice and data service offshore than Verizon.  Now that I think back, the pretend nerd in the Verizon ad who walks around asking “Can you hear me?” is always on land.

Rhyme of the Modern Mariner:

Signal, signal everywhere

But none that I can synch.

Just after we left the lights of Atlantic City behind us, fog blanketed the New Jersey Coast.  Now all the technology came together in a big way.  With so many GPSes onboard and electronic charts, we always knew where we were and where we were supposed to be.  That alone is a big change since the last time I cruised in the fog; then we relied on dead reckoning (perhaps so-called because if you reckon wrong, you’re dead).  The autopilot held its course despite of the vertigo induced in us by the wave motion and our lights on the swirling mist.

I don’t think the radar on board is the latest model but it impressed me.  You can tell it to lockon to a target and, thanks to the radar’s integration with the onboard GPS, it will then give you a continually updated estimated closest approach between your vessel and the target, time of closest approach, and the target’s estimated course and speed.  It’s slightly disconcerting that these estimates keep changing (wait for version 2.0 which reads the minds of the various skippers!)  but the data quickly helps separate threats from non-threats and tells you how much time you have to react.

The scariest threats for me on my nightly watches were the tugs with long strings of barges in tow.  The first night was clear and so, if you remember your sailing instruction, you can tell by the number of vertical lights on the mast of a tug that it has barges in tow.  Then you can look for and see the faintly lit barges far behind.  This is important because you don’t want to cross between the tug and its barges, particularly in a keel boat which could easily snag the drooping tow line.

But the second night is the foggy one.  Now you can’t see the lights of anything unless it is about to run you over.  Instead, you guess from the fact that a number of radar images are arranged in a more or less straight line and are moving in the same direction at the same speed that they may be connected.  You very much DON’T want one to pass on your left and the other on your right if this is the case!

I overheard commercial fisherman and other professionals using VHF radio to simulate what I’m sure will be the next technology advance.  “Boat at 39 degrees, 39.456 minutes North, 74 degrees, 04.890 minutes West, this is the Anna Banana,”  is a typical call.  The caller knows the exact latitude and longitude of the callee because he has placed the cursor of his radar on the target and gotten the readout.  The callee knows where she is because her GPS display has even greater precision.  Once the two blips in the fog are in communication, they can discuss what kind of vessels they are and arrange not to go bump in the night.

Already emergency locator beacons can broadcast a GPS-derived position.  Airplanes with encoding altimeters return their altitude when strobed by radar.  So it’s a pretty safe bet that the next generation of navigation technology will include each boat broadcasting its position, course, and type in a way that can be incorporated in every other boat’s radar displays.  My guess of user interface is that the tug with tow on radar display will somehow have the same configuration of lights it has on a clear night.

Even with all of the electronics and a strong diesel engine when the wind dies or is from the wrong direction, it’s still eerie to stand a watch alone in the fog.  The electronic charts clearly show icons of the bones of the many ships that didn’t succeed in transiting the Jersey Coast.  There are few miles when you’re not passing over the wreck of someone not so well-equipped or who just plain made a mistake.

It’s strange to be an ex-CEO and NOT be captain of the boat you’re on.  Being crew has its advantages, though.  I slept very soundly on my off-watch as we entered the traffic of New York Harbor, still enveloped in fog but with the two much more experienced sailors on deck.  Woke up in time to see the Verrazano Narrows Bridge with the fog now lifted two-thirds of the way up its towers and to discuss catenary curves with my new friends.

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