Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Email Systems for Blue-Water Cruisers

Hi everyone,
For some time we've been considering whether HF is the most cost-effective means of sending and receiving email from Zen Again.  We don't need to browse the internet, but we do need to be able to download weather information in the form of GRIB (or similar) files.  Apart from GRIB files we only need plain text email.

We've used HF email for many years and it has worked well for us.  But it does have some disadvantages:
  • Purchase cost of Pactor-3 modem ($1500) or Pactor-4 modem ($2000+)
  • Purchase cost of modem is on top of cost of the HF transceiver ($1500-$3000)
  • Running cost $250 per annum using SailMail, or $0 for Licensed Amateurs using Winlink
  • Limited number of coast stations in the Australasian area
  • Variable propagation conditions depending on time of day and other factors
  • Non-trivial learning curve to optimise HF system and its use for email
  • Requires planning, effort and sometimes luck to successfully send/receive emails
  • Need to actively connect to a coast station to check for emails - maybe twice a day max - with each connection taking more than 15 minutes in marginal propagation or busy conditions
We've looked at satellite phones several times over the years, but for our email needs they too have disadvantages:
  • Purchase cost $1000-$1500
  • Running costs (voice or data) around $1 per minute
  • Data rate limited to 2400bps
  • Data connections prone to drop-out
  • Often requires external antenna to make data connections workable
  • SMS/texting cheaper but size limit too small, and no GRIBs of course
Recently we found an alternative.  At last!  We discovered the PredictWind Satellite Communicator.

Satellite Communicator (at home)
The Satellite Communicator uses the Iridium Short Burst Data network and integrates a GPS and ZigBee wireless link to a PC or Mac running PredictWind's email software.  The advantages of the unit from our perspective are:
  • Cost-effective (similar or cheaper purchase and running costs to the alternatives)
  • Always on
  • Low power (0.05Amps in standby, 0.2A transmitting)
  • Very simple to install
  • Very simple to use
  • Tracker function transmits position hourly to PredictWind regardless of PC/Mac connection
  • Plain text email transmit & receive
  • Any plain text (weather, news & more) such as from SailDocs is retrievable
  • Weather routing service from PredictWind (requires Professional package)
The Satellite Communicator needs further development to maximise its cost-effectiveness.  The most important is provision of GRIB files (subject to Iridium SBD size limits).  Here are the features we'd like to see:
  • Provision of GRIB forecast and GPX route files instead of current text-based routing
  • Email client very basic (eg can only add/delete contacts but not modify, can't create folders etc)
  • Iridium and GPS signal strengths not available on PC/Mac
  • GPS data not available on the PC/Mac
  • Tracker messages not copied to PC/Mac (would confirm they're really happening)
PredictWind costs may seem a little high at first glance, but it's worth noting you can move between the Basic, Standard and Professional packages as often as desired.  This should make the running costs similar to SailMail for many cruisers since one only needs Professional when on passage.  Normal email works regardless of whether you have a PredictWind subscription or not.

So far we've only been testing the unit at home here in Perth but are very pleased with what we see so far.  The unit is far easier to use than HF email.  In our opinion it's worth a look if you want email aboard your blue-water cruiser.

As soon as GRIB and GPX files can be retrieved the Satellite Communicator will be a far better solution than HF email.  In the mean time I have a workaround which delivers PredictWind GRIBs and GPXs to our unit after a little intermediate processing!

ps - We have no association with PredictWind save being a satisfied customer!

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Relaunch and Refit Week 15

Hi everyone,
She floats!  On Tuesday morning Zen Again returned to her natural element.  Since then Precision has just about completed all refit work items.  A new forestay base fitting was made and fitted, a boom sheaves pin modified to allow fitting of new (dual) mainsheet blocks, and the new mainsheet arch fitted.  The only items still to be fitted are two pushpit-mounted gas bottle holders.

Prior to launch the propellor and shaft were painted with PropGold.  'Twill be interesting to see how it performs.  We also fitted Kleenhull anodes which are very small and should last many years.  Kleenhull is a Western Australian product and it will be very interesting to see how they perform.  These anodes are intended to work well with Coppercoat antifoul.

Propellor and shaft painted with PropGold
New Kleenhull anode - tiny isn't it!
Ready to go!
Forestay fitted
Anchor roller is a big improvement and the stemhead much simpler 
Fully rigged, but with messengers replacing second main & jib halyards
Double-decker organisers to handle added reef tack lines and mainsheets
Below decks we have a new cabin sole.  The oiled teak with sikaflex stripes is much better non-slip than varnished teak and holly, and the new boards latch, rather than screw, down.

New cabin sole - nice but highlights the poor varnish!
Today the new mainsheet arch was fitted.  It has a large base plate with dual backing plates port & starboard, and feels very strong.  It needs to be!  We now have dual mainsheets which lead forward along the boom, down to the deck and aft to clutches.  Exactly what we had on Degrees of Freedom and the system worked very well for us.  Best of all there's no traveller or mainsheet in the cockpit which is a big safety improvement.

Mainsheet arch - note large base plate on coaming
Mainsheet arch - note one sheet each side
Zen Again is now at home in a pen in Boat Lagoon Marina, where she'll stay for at least a month.  We hope to return in late July for sea trials and perhaps to move to Krabi or Rebak.
Zen Again at rest
The refit carried out by Precision Shipwright Services has exceeded our expectations.  We recommend Scott and his team without reservation.  We had expected to need to stay in Phuket to oversee the work but the first couple of weeks showed that simply wasn't necessary.  The work has been carried out to a very high standard.  We're now confident our yacht is better than ever structurally, and looks good as new!

Blogs will be less frequent now our refit is complete, until we go sailing of course!

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Refit Week 14

Hi everyone,
Our refit is now very close to completion.  This week Precision completed the stemhead, anchor roller and windlass on deck, the cabin sole below and the mast was stepped.

New integrated stephead and anchor roller
with our Manson Supreme anchor fitted
Mast ready for restepping, with mobile crane in the background
Lowering the mast into place
Looking like a sailing boat again
Boom and mainsail back in place, and boom tent too
Protecting the transom from the hot tropical sun
While Precision were busy on the mechanical work I was busy on the electrics.  I wired the solar panels and antennas on the new pushpit arch to the navstation.  I also reconnected the house battery bank in the saloon table to the navstation after the cabin sole was installed.  I had several sessions moving gear from Precision's shed back aboard Zen Again.  The Aires vane gear was mounted on the transom.  Countless miscellaneous little tasks done too, such as checking the fuel and water tank breather tubes are clear and working.

Another job done this week was to apply our new sail numbers.  Zen Again is now F88, the same Fremantle Sailing Club number we had on our previous boats Critical Path and Degrees of Freedom.

The last major job Precision is doing is constructing a mainsheet arch.  We'll have a traveller-less dual mainsheet system as we did on Degrees of Freedom.  Work on the arch is well underway and hopefully it will be fitted next week.  On Monday we'll finish setting up the rig, "key" the Coppercoat antifoul and fit the anodes.  On Tuesday morning the boat is booked to be relaunched.  She'll stay in a pen here at Boat Lagoon for at least a month.