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CruisingWiki

WiFi Devices for Boats – Part 1 of 5

Jeff Seigel, founder of ActiveCaptain, writes…

This is part 1 of a series we'll run through the summer with a segment every few weeks talking about WiFi devices that make sense on boats. We think that some of the segments will be about devices you've never heard about (like the SlingBox in a few weeks). Other segments, like this one, will have parts that are a little more basic so we can all be at the same level about capabilities, terminology, and basic WiFi use.

Today there are thousands of WiFi devices. The ones we describe are not the only ones in their class. Nor are they necessarily the best ones for you. We'll talk about devices we have direct experience with. We know that every class of device has alternatives. We're not trying to present a buyer's guide. We're trying to spark your imagination about the types of devices you might want and the capabilities possible that you might not know about.

The first, most basic WiFi device that every boat should have in 2014 is a router. When we're at a marina or in an anchorage, we notice that only about 20% of the boats have routers. You really need one to take part in the incredible devices available these days.

A router for your boat is just like one for your house. They are pretty inexpensive as stand-alone boxes. One of the things they do is allow a single incoming Internet connection to be distributed to all devices on your boat. Connect that Internet connection to a single hotspot and now you have your own hotspot on your boat. If you have iPads, tablets, phones, and other devices, especially below deck, they don't have to reach the marina hotspot. They only have to reach your router which is probably just a few dozen feet away.

But a router on your boat does more than that. A router also creates a local network on your boat itself. As we'll see in upcoming weeks, there are some fantastic devices that can add new capabilities to your boat by producing data and putting it out over your local WiFi network.

Having a router allows those devices to distribute their data to multiple displays, all wirelessly. The key to all of it is having that central router.

Selecting a router for your boat is not a simple decision. It depends a lot on how you'll connect to cellular providers when there is no Internet WiFi available to you. There are many confusing points. For example, isn't your MiFi device a router? Probably not.

MiFi is a cellular internet device that allows multiple devices to connect to the internet over a cellular provider. By doing that, it feels like a router since multiple devices are connected together at the same time. But many MiFi's (all?) do not actually provide the routing capability that allows different devices to communicate with each other. This limitation is likely to change in future years and there are probably some MiFi devices (apart from CradlePoint and Pepwave – for another week) that do full routing also. For now, just remember that the routing capability between devices on your boat is important for being able to use the other devices that you might not even know about yet.

When we were considering a central WiFi router for our boat, an important feature for us was 12 volt DC powering. Routers are generally very inexpensive because they are used in houses, offices, and are sold by the millions. However, because they are general devices, they almost always expect to be plugged into AC power with some type of brick power adapter. This creates power inefficiencies that we are not happy with.

It requires 1) starting with DC power from our house bank batteries;

2) converting to AC with an inverter; and 3) using the brick to convert back to DC. At a marina with shore power, it wouldn't typically matter.

But it is a double inefficiency at anchor and there is loss and waste with every inefficiency.

So we looked for a router that runs on 12 volts. But even that isn't good enough. Your battery voltage is rarely at 12 volts. In fact, a measurement of 12 volts means your batteries are quite discharged.

Typically your house bank is between 12.2 and 14 volts. If the router needs a regulated 12 volt supply, your alternators and battery chargers could easily fry it if you directly connected the house bank (through a

fuse) to the router. What you need instead is a router that can handle about 11-16 volts. A DC-DC converter will also do the trick but if you knew that, you probably don't even need to be reading this. Still, a DC-DC converter here would be a waste – just choose the right router instead. Here are three examples:

First, the D-Link N300Click on Specifications and scroll down to Power Input. It says, 5 V DC.

Nope, that one won't work without other boxes or converters. 5 volts isn't impossible and when we talk about video cameras, we'll come back to that. But for a router? Let this one go.

Next, the Linksys WRT54GL: Under Environmental/Power it says, 12VDC. That's closer but it's not giving a range so it's not going to work and might be dangerous to plug into your house bank. Let this one go too.

Finally, the MikroTik RB951Uu-2HnD (nice name, eh?): Under the specifications is PoE which specified 8-30V DC. Now that's looking good. PoE is "Power over Ethernet" which works well too and will be the topic of another segment.

There are hundreds of routers including others which will meet this requirement. This article isn't telling you which one to get, it's simply providing you with information about what to look for.

The important point is that if you don't have a router on board, you're going to need one to take advantage of all the other devices we'll be talking about next.

Next week we'll talk about strategies to combine cellular with WiFi as well as reasons to keep them apart. This will get you closer to figuring out which router is right for you.

 

By Jeff Seigel

Guest Author & Founder of ActiveCaptain

ActiveCaptain

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Weather Underground New Marine Service Plus ActiveCaptain!

WUN_1WeatherUnderground has created a new sailing and boating section on their website.

Live and historic weather radar is displayed over maps, satellite images, and nautical charts (NOAA vector and raster).

Integrated with the charts and weather radar is every ActiveCaptain marker with all the details, reviews, and hazard comments you've come to depend on.

We've been working with wunderground.com for a while. They asked us how we made our own cruising weather decisions and we showed them the handful of websites that we use – buoyweather, windfinder, passageweather, swellinfo, magicseaweed, etc.

What WeatherUnderground wanted to do was create a single place where all of this data could be integrated together along with ActiveCaptain to provide the information in context for the places boaters were going.

This capability was just announced by WeatherUnderground.

 

  • Weather Underground and ActiveCaptain

WUN_3

WeatherUnderground serves a lot of people every day. Alexa rates them as the 151st largest website in the entire United States. They don't have a server like ActiveCaptain has. They have a farm of them. We can handle about 5,000 users every day. They handle upwards of 1 million users during that same period. So integrating with them had to be done in a special way because they could easily swamp our server in the first hour of availability.

ActiveCaptain worked out the technology needed to replicate our data on-the-fly to use a small amount of resources on our server while making the full ActiveCaptain data available to millions of people simultaneously. It's been working for the last couple of months and you haven't even noticed it.

Having such a large site, always available, and adding new types of data is a huge advantage to the boating community. There is the obvious advantage of many more boaters contributing to the ActiveCaptain data and the slick new capability of integrating our data with the WeatherUnderground data. But in addition, this relationship brings their massive data and computing capabilities to bear providing an unparalleled additional free source for the ActiveCaptain knowledgebase. You now have complete access to every review and every detail on either our website or WeatherUnderground.

Providing ways that the entire boating community can access and contribute to the knowledgebase has been what has made ActiveCaptain successful. It is what has given ActiveCaptain the critical mass of data and reviews that makes the knowledgebase useful. It's having the community, you, with easy access in a variety of environments that wins. And we've learned that there is no better community than the boaters who are using ActiveCaptain today. And now that data will remain free and always available.

To try the new section on WeatherUnderground you'll have to enter your ActiveCaptain email and password to log on in order to access the ActiveCaptain part – you'll see.

  •   Weather Underground and Marinas

If you're a marina, the WeatherUnderground announcement effects you too.

With the ActiveCaptain data available on such a large site with so many new users, other non-cruising boaters will now start to see your information as they make their travel plans. Whether it's an afternoon out on the bay, a weekend off to a new place, or a cruise for an entire season, every boater will use this new weather section to access your facility's data. Make sure it is correct. Keep your fuel price current because dayboaters, especially, use that information. We have some important changes coming in 2013 with fuel pricing and some new capabilities that boaters will use. Start keeping your price information correct or it will cost you business.

We have an entire guide to help marinas get the most out of ActiveCaptain.

If you want to attract more boaters, you need to read the guide to learn how to take advantage of all the services available. It's easy and now is the time to get involved:

http://activecaptain.com/sponsors/marinasGuide.pdf

  • Weather Underground and other services

WUN_2

The WeatherUnderground marine service also displays current wind, wave, and tide information along with predictions.

The wave predictions are quite nice putting height, direction, and period all together on a scrollable display.

The best example of this date being animated is currently the MagicSeaweed site – but WeatherUnderground are a force to be reckoned with. It will be interesting to see how their offering develops over time

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We'll write more about WeatherUnderground in the future. There's a lot of new things there. For now, try it out. Send them feedback (not us) about their site.

They want to hear from you and are dedicated to making their new boating section incredible.

They want to provide the information you need and have the weather and meteorologists on staff to help.

 

By Jeff Seigel

Guest Author & Founder of ActiveCaptain

ActiveCaptain

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Why is AIS important..

Almost every cruising boater knows about AIS – the Automatic Identification System. Released in the last 10 years, AIS-A became standard on large ships. Today it is a required piece of equipment on most large commercial vessels. However, AIS-A was fairly expensive and complex, so few recreational boats installed it.

AIS works through VHF radio. Packets of data are sent out providing live navigation data – position, speed, course, heading – along with other very useful information – vessel name, vessel dimensions, MMSI, age of data, etc.

Early devices for cruising boats were only receivers. They'd allow your chartplotter or PC navigation software to view the position of ships broadcasting AIS packets. For offshore, busy harbors, or twisty rivers, it gave a view of the ships that were coming in many cases when radar didn't give enough information. It also provided automatic collision detection and warnings.

In 2007 AIS-B was released with a lower-cost set of specifications to work alongside AIS-A. Still, early AIS-B transponders were over $1,000.

A transponder not only receives all AIS traffic for display but also sends out information about your boat for others with AIS including ships. Over time transponder prices dropped and capabilities increased to the point where today you can purchase a full AIS-B transponder for far less. Between these new prices, the ease of integration, and the support of AIS in almost every chartplotter and navigation software, we think that if you don't have an AIS transponder, now is the time to get one.

We've had AIS integrated into our electronics since February. It didn't take long before we saw how useful it was.

Here are some examples of how we really use it:

  • AIS targets show a ship's or boat's name. That is very useful when you want to communicate with them especially at night.
  • When a boat is coming from behind, the AIS target and track line generally gets our attention. Our 7.5 kt speed means we're passed a lot. It's very nice to see the speed and closest approach calculation as a faster boat is approaching.
  • In a specific situation involving a barge, an American Cruise Lines ship, and narrow cuts, we were able to see them miles in advance on the ICW. This allowed us to hail them by name and arrange for a safe passing location. Time to closest point of approach is one of the standard AIS displays presented allowing you to see approximately how long it will be before you meet oncoming traffic.
  • Finding friends nearby by seeing their boat name is a great social tool. It's also nice to see the names of boats you're traveling with on your display.
  • Transmission of a ship's MMSI allows for VHF DSC radio calls to boats that are unknown to you. This is quite valuable for offshore communication with ships especially at night.

When looking for an AIS-B transponder, make sure it has an integrated GPS, has low power requirements (2-5 watts), and has connectivity to the displays you need. Typical devices will have NMEA 183, NMEA 2000, or USB. A device that has all will provide the greatest use no matter what other navigation products you use now or might switch to later.

If you're using PC navigation software, a USB capability is very nice since no adapters will be needed – just plug the USB cable into the PC.

There are some AIS devices with WiFi. We think these devices are too limited and create difficult situations. They limit connectivity to a single display and often make it difficult to use other WiFi systems in your boat at the same time. There are better ways to integrate NMEA 2000 with WiFi that we'll write about in another newsletter.

Suffice it to say, NMEA 2000 on any AIS device you purchase should be a requirement because it'll give you many future options.

If you don't currently have an AIS transponder, you've probably been thinking about getting one. It's time. Get it now and use it over this next cruising season. You'll love it and wonder how you got along without it.

AIS – Complexities and Issues

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when planning an AIS installation:

  • The transponder needs a VHF antenna. There are two ways to install this.

1) Get a small, inexpensive VHF antenna and install it, or

2) use a VHF splitter which will allow you to share an existing VHF antenna with the AIS radio. A good splitter will cost a couple of hundred dollars and requires power but often makes the installation simpler. The decision for a splitter isn't simple – you probably have multiple VHF antennas already. If you don't, consider an inexpensive VHF whip antenna. We used a splitter with our secondary flybridge VHF antenna.

  • The transponder is supposed to have its own GPS. For maximum quality of signal, make sure the AIS unit is placed in a location that will have a good, reliable signal. If you must buy an AIS with an integrated GPS, make sure to get an external antenna for the GPS part and put that antenna someplace higher. The GPS for our AIS is in our pilothouse ceiling with fiberglass above it. We do not have a GPS antenna outside but the inside location works perfectly. We made sure to test the GPS signal strength before finishing the installation and were prepared to modify the location if needed.

There are also a few complaints and issues we've heard about AIS. Below are our opinions on these:

Issue 1. If everyone has AIS, it's going to get too crowded, and the AIS alarms will go off continuously.

We believe that people who experience alarms going off all the time aren't using their AIS capabilities properly. When inshore and in high traffic areas, there is little need to have alarms enabled for AIS. In most cases, you're watching the navigation system carefully and will have visual AIS warnings of approaching vessels. Most systems allow AIS targets to be removed from targeting as well. Only when you're offshore or in a non-crowded area should AIS alarms be turned on. Electronic navigation means using your electronics – you can't expect to set it once for all types of travel and forget about it.

Issue 2. I don't want others to see who I am.

We believe this is compromising your own safety. It is much safer to receive a VHF call with your boat's name rather than a lat/lon estimate.

If you do feel a need for secrecy, most AIS devices have a switch that will turn off the transmission of your data. We didn't even install the switch on our AIS because we believe it's a bad idea to turn off data transmission.

Issue 3. Ships just turn off AIS-B traffic so having a transponder is worthless.

First, we don't believe it is true that ships can turn off AIS-B traffic.

We'd love to know from ship pilots out there and we'll get the info out.

In our experience, every ship we've called said they could see our boat on AIS and our name on their displays. That's good enough for us. But we'll keep asking.

There are many other capabilities possible and coming with AIS. There are already inexpensive wearable AIS transmitters for crew. Fall overboard and the person in distress becomes an AIS target on all chartplotters in the area.

Virtual buoys are being experimented with by the Coast Guard. If there's shoaling or a missing buoy in the future, it's likely to be a radio signal with a lat/lon that will show up at the proper position on your AIS display.

 

By Jeff Seigel

Guest Author & Founder of ActiveCaptain

ActiveCaptain

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MaxSea TZ Trials on Biscay 2012

TimeZero_Explorer_PDI thought I would just post a final word on my experiences using the MaxSea TZ software this year.

My wife and I sailed over 1300nm as a couple from the UK to Portugal and then on the return trip I was accompanied by 2 family members and one professional crew. All in all 2600nm and 13 ports of entry and departure to plan for during a summer that was at best “changeable”.

I used MaxSea TZ software in “Home Planning” mode rather than “Navigation” mode since I relied on my brand new Raymarine e125 hybrid touch for real time navigation. My experience with the Raymarine e125 hybrid touch will be subject of future posts. Just so readers get my comments in context, please note that my critique contained in the previous posts – is simply that – it is not a condemnation of MaxSea TZ – far from it. I first reviewed the weather routing module of MaxSea TZ over 2 years ago, and I was interested to see if they have come on in their design and functionality.

On board I had a number of chart plotting devices – probably far more than most cruising sailors.

Navigation/routing aids:

1 – Dedicated Plotter : A brand new Raymarine e125 Hybrid Touch plotter with Navionics Platinum charts

2 – Dedicated Plotter : The old Raymarine RL80C Plus with CMap NT charts

3 – Laptop (Windows7) software: MaxSea TZ v1.9.7 with MM3D charts

4 – Laptop (Windows7) software: Neptune v5.0.5 with CMap NT charts

So I have quite a number of opportunities to compare what these systems have to offer.

Weather services being used:

1 – MaxSea TZ – built in weather download (by internet download or by email)

2 – UGrib

3 – zyGrib

4 – Magic Seaweed (using WifI or 3G on my Apple iPhone)

It has been very interesting to see how software helps or frustrates the task of routing. But because the weather was so frustrating and caused us to really plan carefully for both Biscay crossings I had to re-route and re-plan over and over again.

I can honestly say that there is very little software I have used in the past few years – for any purpose – that is as slick and well designed as MaxSea TZ.

Now that I have a good laptop running this type of software is a breeze. But I would advise that lesser laptops may well struggle to keep up with what the software is trying to do.

  • Acer Aspire 5750
  • CPU Intel i5 3.1Ghz
  • RAM 4Gb
  • HDD 500Gb

 

Once you have a good laptop, and the MaxSea TZ software you enter a whole new world of navigation software that makes dedicated plotters like Raymarine or old PC software like Neptune look very sad indeed.

Being able to zoom in and out through the various vector layers of chart being able to turn windows of information on and off at will having the weather download and isochrone based routing module built in – not to mention satellite photography and Active Captain integration. This is still the best PC/laptop based chart plotting software on the market.

Having to enter and leave 13 ports in 8 weeks meant that many nights I was downloading Grib files and trying to plan routes and re-plan routes to see if I could avoid bad weather. We had two 4 plus days voyages and two 3 day voyages so weather routing was important. It is at these times when clumsy user interfaces and unreliable software would really kill the spirit as well as increase the danger to a cruising sailor. But if you don't feel the effort of re-planning a route is that great – then you tend to do it again , and again until you are happy and it feels right. This makes life easier and safer.

Getting the routes generated by MaxSea TZ into the Raymarine plotter is not one click, but is easily achieved. I don't know how many times I had to do this over the two months of sailing but I guarantee that it does work.

My advice is buy a good laptop and buy MaxSea TZ. I will continue to do all my planning using this software.

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More support for Active Captain…

ActiveCaptainTo my knowledge ActiveCaptain was the first to build a UGC (User Generated Content) product independently of any mainstream supplier of maritime chart plotters or related product. Using this platform you can record local data like Rocks, Wrecks, Obstructions, Buoys, Beacons & Signs, Lights, Shops & Repairs, Ports & Marinas and Anchorages, Moorings and even upload your recommended routing and waypoint data.

 

I believe that ActiveCaptain is also the most successful. Although there is a preponderance of Stateside data, I and many other UK sailors have been uploading data for our local marinas, routes and other useful info about sailing in UK waters. I encourage you all to participate in this platform – it is cheap and you can only gain from the wealth of local knowledge that is already, and will continue to be, stored on this platform.

Obviously to make it easy to benefit from the UGC layer, it is essential that you can easily integrate access to ActiveCaptain from within your chosen chart plotting software and that the data remains accessible when you are offline or unable to connect to the internet.

One of the most important products to do include such integration to ActiveCaptain was the MaxSea TZ product that I reviewed extensively here.

Many chart plotting software products have followed suit and included integration to ActiveCaptain. The list of products includes software for PC, Mac, Linux, iPhone and Android  – here is the list so far…

I jumped in and bought the iPhone app from Navionics pretty early on because it was the brand I used on my fixed Raymarine chart plotter and because they had a UK chart version available for only GBP14.95.  The chart plotting software is  Navionics Gold UK/Holland and it works perfectly well on my iPhone, but unfortunately for me it has its own UGC layer (User Generated Content). Strangely you have to submit additions to their UGC layer using an online form on the Navionics website and it is not integrated with another product other than Navionics own chart plotting software  – so why bother with their own, limited, UGC community!

If you are interested in the UGC concept … which one should you use? – well surely its a a case of the biggest UGC community combined with good integration with a wide range of chart plotting software wins. I would put my money on ActiveCaptain – so sign up if you have not done so already, and start exploring the user content stored there – more importantly if you have UK or European local knowledge – be community minded and type it in !…

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