Saturday, May 30, 2009

Testing, Testing...

Above: C. gets to grips with Arabella

Saturday dawned bright and clear. And warm - could it really be that we were going to have a nice, hot summer after the previous two appalling years? I spun by the lock-up early, and picked up a couple of bits that would be needed to sail with, then headed for the marina for a full English while waiting for my brother, C. to turn up. There would be slack water until about 10.15, and I was keen to get away before the flood tide arrived.

My obligatory gadget fix for the week...

Yesterday, before leaving home, I had set up (yet another) bit of technology.

Jon Fewtrell, the author of the PassagePlus software that I used on my MacBook Pro, had alerted me to a rather nifty VNC application, discovered by one of his other users, that allowed the use of iPhone or an iPod Touch as a wireless handheld repeater for a Mac laptop.

If it worked, this would be a Godsend. Each year, on the Round The Island Race, I would find myself perched miserably out on the side deck while our lunatic racing skipper called on me to provide him with real-time tactical information as he hurled Arabella suicidally into the shallows, in an attempt to cheat the tide. Which would be fine, if I wasn't out on the side deck and therefore completely unable to see the chartplotter screen displayed on the laptop. I did have a Garmin 60Csx handheld, which lived in my pocket. I like the Garmin very much, but it only displays vector charts - and as noted elsewhere on this blog, I'm not a fan of them when they are zoomed in on a small screen. It's too difficult to make out the contours and hazards. For close-quarters navigation, I want to see an actual Admiralty chart and that means using raster charts.

My natural propensity for cowardice is matched only by my tendency to worry obsessively at whatever happens to be frightening me at any given time. The need to feel in control of the necessary information while up there on the side deck had driven me to distraction. I'd spent hours, usually in the middle of the night, researching all sorts of ideas, but had only encountered expensive PC-based solutions such as a Toughbook tablet with GPS.

I was of course aware of the traditional way of doing things, involving a board with the requisite chart tacked to it under a film cover, with a shoulder-strap and little hooks to trap onto the lifelines. It was a nice theory to try on an ocean racer, where on each tack you'd simply slide over the coachroof and under the boom as it swung across, with all the time in the world. Racing Arabella bore absolutely no relation to that. Tacking was a frantic, bumpy affair. There was no room to slide under the boom and with the cockpit full of two manic racers doing their thing on the helm and sheet winches, going via that madhouse was not an option. Which left sliding round the front of the mast, dodging the wildly flapping genoa and clinging grimly on as Arabella slid over onto a new, dangerous angle of heel that left no room for errors - and all without the benefit of a harness because the jackstays ran along each side deck, not across the coachroof.

That was not an environment, under any circumstances, in which I would contemplate carrying either a tablet PC or a chartboard slung over my shoulder. Whatever I used either went securely into my jacket pocket or it didn't come out onto the side-deck at all.

All of which made this potential trick with the iPod Touch very attractive, and I wasted no time in giving it a go.

Above: My iPod Touch (resting on the keyboard of my MacBook Pro, lower right) wirelessly screen shares whatever appears on the laptop display. Below: If you find that you have to squint to read the iPod Touch screen, you just zoom in, using the touchscreen.

The VNC software - available for US$24.99 from the Apple iTunes Apps Store or via the link on the software developer's own website at - did something that was really nifty. It didn't merely enable my iPod Touch to screen share what was on the laptop display, like a dumb repeater. It also permitted me to control the laptop, by using the touchscreen controls on the iPod Touch, like a remote mouse.

So PassagePlus charts could be selected, scrolled and zoomed just as they could be on the laptop itself. The laptop could be tucked away under cover, and everything necessary could be done from the side deck using the iPod Touch (protected in a waterproof Aquapac case). All that I now needed to check was that it worked onboard, with the USB GPS and the AIS-2-USB hooked up to the laptop in live navigation mode, such that the yacht's GPS plot and the surrounding AIS targets would also display satisfactorily.

Another useful application for the iPod Touch (or the iPhone), that I had downloaded from the iTunes Apps Store, was AyeTides. This clever little App enabled the iPod Touch to display tidal data and real-time tidal curves for 10,000 locations worldwide. It had two important features from my point of view:

(1) It was a stand-alone application - it didn't require internet access to function, because everything was preloaded into a database stored on the iPod Touch, so tidal data and curves were available any time, all the time.

(2) It carried the tidal data and real-time curves for (among the thousands of other places) Ventnor, Sandown and (crucially) Bembridge and Ryde. Those last two locations were exactly where I had previously encountered the most difficulty in promptly providing tactical information to the helmsman on the Round The Island Race - like when to tack before running aground on Ryde Sands. Armed with the current height of tide on AyeTides and decent, clear, Admiralty charts on the PassagePlus chartplotter (via VNC) on the iPod Touch, I now had all I needed right there to hand on the side deck (remembering of course to double-check the AyeTides predictions for that date and location in the traditional way before the race).

(For the sake of completeness, I should point out that if you already own an iPhone, you do have the option of using the built-in GPS receiver and going for a self-contained solution with iNavX, or simply using iNavX as a repeater for GPSNavX or MacEnc running on your Mac below decks. These programs are the competitors to PassagePlus, and by all accounts are very good. For the reasons stated elsewhere, however, I prefer using Admiralty raster charts (ARCS) in PassagePlus, which dictated my choices here.)

Anyway, with luck, that all seemed sorted, subject to testing it today, and I was now free to obsess about something else - like the fact that my brother, bless him, is the kind of bluewater sailor who is an absolute queen about boats and I hadn't had the opportunity to clean Arabella yet...

And now for a spot of actual sailing...

The anticipated breeze (SE F4-5) hadn't filled in when C. arrived, and there was no current at all in the marina, which made for perfect conditions for testing the new morse-style control for the 6HP Tohatsu outboard. I was really, really hoping that this would solve my previous problems with manoeuvring under power. C. and I rigged the mooring lines as slips, and I stepped aboard and gingerly pushed the control lever into reverse and increased the revs. Obediently, Arabella moved astern. For the first time, from this new position, I noticed that there was a fair amount of propwash coming out to starboard, meaning Arabella would kick to port. That wasn't ideal for the way I wanted to turn. Now that Arabella had some way on, I throttled down and, sure enough, the stern came back into line and then, in response to the tiller, swung nicely round to starboard. Reversing the tiller, I put the control into forward gear and gave it a burst of throttle. Sure enough, Arabella's bow swung round to the right course, and she lay, virtually motionless in the still water, waiting to be told what to do next. Fantastic!

We turned upriver for a change, waiting for the breeze to fill in, and raised the new mainsail. First surprise - the new sail was loose footed. Crikey. That was a bit controversial. I hadn't specified it, I'd just asked Peter Sanders to "give me something a bit racier than the average cruising sail". Not that I was averse to giving it a try, and exploiting the benefits of being to adjust the outhaul easily sounded like fun. I like tinkering with sails. On the downside, it would put the outhaul itself under greater strain and I wasn't too sure of the efficacy of the brake - to be on the safe side, after setting the outhaul not too tight, to give the foot of the sail some belly in these light winds, I made the bitter end of the outhaul off on one of the mast cleats. I'd have to see what the RTIR race crew made of that.

Above: Just about the least flattering shot of the main possible, reefed down and running downwind. (Sorry, too busy sailing to take many shots). I see I've been promoted by the sailmaker from K535 to "GBR535". That's posh.

As the promised breeze started to fill in and reached F3, we unfurled the new genoa. That was a bit more traditional, but I notice the leech shape was more curved than on its predecessor. Interesting.

Next, I switched on the iPod Touch to test whether the VNC software would still work with the laptop hooked up to the GPS and AIS receivers in live navigation mode. Nothing doing. The iPod wouldn't connect to the laptop at all. I smothered a curse and - given the choice between sailing and playing with IT below decks - chucked the iPod back in my bag and went sailing.

Off we went down river, into Southampton Water. Having chosen to set off at low water, we would be stemming the incoming tide, and with the wind now from the ESE, we'd be close-hauled. This was a deliberate choice on my part (well, not the wind direction, obviously) - I was looking to replicate as closely as possible the conditions experienced on a number of occasions last year when Arabella suffered badly from leeway, to see what if anything these new sails were going to do about that.

The answer, in short, was: a lot. In fact the results were little short of spectacular. Arabella was sailing upwind, against the tide, in a rapidly rising breeze that soon filled in to a steady F5. The most obvious gain was in our boatspeed. The newly-calibrated log regularly showed over 5 knots on this trip (our SOG, obviously, was lower) - last year, in similar conditions, we often struggled to beat 4 knots. My hypothesis was that the faster we went, the more we could point upwind without suffering leeway, because we would increase the stall angle on the keels. All the indications were that it worked. Between 50 and 60 degrees off the wind, there was no discernible leeway. There was some really, of course - you can't beat the laws of physics - but it was so small as to be undetectible by the naked eye, using reference points on the shore. Trying to luff up beyond that point did introduce some modest leeway - it was a little hard to tell how much of it was due to the tide, now in full flood, and how much was due to the wind, but it was there, nevertheless.

By now, we should really be reefing down, as Arabella was starting to become overpressed. We were having so much fun, however, that we delayed for a while longer, while I played with the set of the sails. It soon became apparent that hauling in on the outhaul (to flatten the loose foot of the mainsail) was not possible beyond a certain point, at least not by hand. I suspect we could have squeezed just a few more degrees upwind if I could have sorted that, and it did make me wonder if it wasn't worth fitting a small winch to the mast base to assist - it would help with the main halyard too.

Eventually, we had to accept that we couldn't put off reefing anymore, not with the occasional F6 gust coming through. The only other boats out on this moderately busy day that were not reefed were the big racers, and they were starting to look horribly overpressed. Putting in the first reef was straightforward, and we turned onto a broad reach to calm things down and have some lunch.

Above: a spot of calm on the broad reach

On impulse, we ran up into the River Test, through the docks as far as the upper swinging ground. It was being used to swing, as it happened, by Houston Express - a 330-metre Hapag-LLoyd container ship - with the assistance of two tugs. Discretion being the better part of valour, we turned back upwind and began to beat back down to Dock Head.

We were now in the exact same spot where my long-suffering teacher Roger and I had suffered leeway to die for last year. Roger and I had had two reefs in the main that day. This time around, we had only one reef in. There was leeway, but it was noticeably less than on the previous occasion and before long we were back out of the River Test and round into the Itchen for the run home.

The breeze began to fall off, and we sailed calmly upriver, in almost slack water. The perfect opportunity, while C. helmed and worked on his sun tan, to work out why the hell the iPod touch wasn't talking to the laptop. There followed a short period in which the peace of the river was shattered by bursts of cursing from below decks. None the wiser, and bereft of results, I emerged muttering to myself, and we started the engine and dropped the sails.

A spot of carelessness on my part gave us an excuse to practice our shoe overboard procedure and we rounded off the day with half-an-hour's pontoon bashing, playing with the new morse-style control for the outboard. We found that we could reverse into and out of the berth without complications, and use the full width of the lane between the two rows of berths secure in the knowledge that Arabella would stop and spin in her own length.

Above: where we went today

Everything put away, and C. departed, I took a deep breath and got back to grips with the damn iPod. I must be doing something wrong, but I just couldn't figure it out.

Then, like a light going on, I realised what a fool I'd been. In testing at home, the iPod Touch had been connecting to the laptop via my home's wifi network. Of course it couldn't do that here, away from home. It needed a network with which to connect, and I needed to create one, using the Airport card in the laptop as the host. I quickly set up a network called "Arabella", adjusted the iPod's wifi settings to join that network, re-started the VNC server software and sure enough...

I'm slow, but I usually get there in the end.

Above: It works! !
Below: How it looks on the iPod Touch screen.

Conditions: ESE F4-5, mainly sunny. Sea state: slight.
Distance covered (GPS over ground): 23.3 NM
Total distance covered to date (2009): 23.3 NM
Engine hours: 1.9 (total for 2009: 1.9 hours)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Basically Ready

That was the best description for Arabella when I arrived to rescue her from the tender mercies of the marine trades specialists one bright, sunny Friday evening at the end of May.

Above: Arabella, ready(ish) to go.

Will of Blue Yacht Management had finally got the b*ggers to do their jobs - no mean feat - but my plans for a midweek shakedown sail had been given, quite literally, a rain check when a system swept briefly through, breaking a spell of fine weather with heavy rain and force 7 winds. But that had moved on now, leaving beautiful sunshine and breezy conditions in its wake. On the plus side, the marine tradesmen had won an extra few days to (not quite) finish their work and (almost) put everything back where it was meant to be.

I abandoned the train for a change and took the car down to the coast. Not the ridiculously flash (not to mention obscenely big) new SUV with all the V6 go-faster bits, acquired for a massive discount back in the depths of the motor industry's recessionary despair in February, using some of my ill-gotten earnings from the banking crisis. SWMBO and the bambini had hijacked that and taken it to Italy for the half-term holiday. It seemed to be quite expensive to keep fueled up, if my wife's ever more frequently-texted demands for internet cash transfers was anything to go by. Clearly it was eating into her clothes shopping budget. Instead, I got SWMBO's geriatric VW Golf. As it wheezed down the A3, I could feel the tension of the last few weeks falling away as London fell behind and the rolling countryside of Surrey and Hampshire slipped by in a myriad hues of incandescent green under the glorious sunshine.

I even got to choose the music for a change - normally I have to suffer through High School Musical 23 (or, like, wha'ever) or Barbie Girl - and lost myself in Cat Stevens' Foreigner Suite, part of the soundtrack of my youth. Not that it's aged any better than I have. Cat still sounds like he can't quite make "Cos you taste to me as good as God made honey taste, babe" scan properly. The last five-and-a-half minutes still make me want to cry, though. Back in the 1970s, I thought Foreigner was the dog's proverbials and used to drive my brother nuts by nicking it from his LP collection and playing it on my decrepit mono record player - do you remember those really crappy boxes, with a lift-up lid and a sort of mesh speaker across the front? I read in the paper just recently that Cat, or Yusuf to give him the moniker he prefers nowadays, was claiming that Coldplay's Viva La Vida sounded suspiciously like the closing section of Foreigner Suite. Viva La Vida is easily one the most-played tracks on my iPod - ever since I saw one of the contestants on the Italian version of X Factor (we're a highbrow household, you see) do a cover version live that kicked Coldplay right out into the long grass - and I can kind of see what Yusuf is on about, but honestly I think he's stretching a point.

The last few weeks had been a little nerve-wracking, as work on Arabella seemed to lurch from one period of inactivity to the next, punctuated by occasional attempts by the contractors to meet their (broken) deadlines. Now she was ready to sail, if not quite finished in the everyday sense of that word - anyone who has ever used a boatyard will have learned that marine tradesmen have a less demanding definition of 'finished' than the rest of the world - and I had also got a couple of small jobs done on her myself - in particular re-bedding the forehatch gasket with a fresh layer of sealant in the hope of keeping Arabella's interior dry if we took green water over the foredeck, as we had done in the Round The Island Race last year. My handiwork had passed the hosepipe test - we'd see what happened if conditions this year were like last year's.

Above: My Round The Island race crew weren't going to like this - remote, morse-style controls for the Tohatsu 6HP outboard would make dismounting the engine more tricky. I was hoping this would be the solution that finally enabled me to manoeuvre with confidence under power in marinas - no more fiddling with the outboard's gear lever and throttle while desperately tryng to prevent it from stalling on me? I'd find out on tomorrow's test-sail...

With only three weeks now remaining until this year's RTIR, I'd opted not to fit-out Arabella's interior with all of her normal cruising comforts. I would only have to strip her bare again before the race, or else suffer the annual round of complaints from my once-annual race crew that she was "too heavy with all this crap on board". Arabella might as well stay light for the race. Her cruising kit stayed safely in my lock-up.

Meanwhile, I made sure that everything was ready for tomorrow's test sail. My older brother, C., an experienced blue water cruising yachtsman, had "volunteered" to come out with me and check everything on board Arabella was functional. You might have thought that was a given, but much of Arabella's cabling had been re-routed at the same time as the new locker dividers had been glassed in, as part of my ongoing campaign to ensure we didn't lose all the electrics to an early bath.

At the same time, all the mast cabling connections had been tidied up and simplified so that a master's degree in electronics was no longer required to disconnect and re-connect the masthead cables every time the mast was unstepped. In the circumstances, I'd have been surprised if everything did work first time out.

Above: One item that didn't work out quite the way it was meant to - what I asked for a removable shelf on which the fuel tank would sit, vented overboard, to limit the flow of petrol fumes into the bilges. What I got was a little different. There was in fact an exterior vent, which can't be seen here, but there was also a very large void, as you can see, leading down to - yes, you've guessed it - the bilges. Perhaps I should have tried harder to explain that petrol fumes are heavier than air. Ah well, there's always next year's fitting-out...

Above: Just in case some water does still get in, the battery now lives in a nice deep battery box...

Above: ...and the lifejackets and other essential items live in Overboard waterproof sacks, with windows to enable quick identification of the contents.

As it would turn out, the electronics all worked just fine. But the most important thing of all that C. and I would test the following day had nothing to do with electronics or cabling. After some dithering over the price, I had splashed out on a new mainsail and genoa from Sanders Sails. These would, I hoped, go some way towards curing Arabella's reluctance to point well upwind without giving away a huge amount of leeway. I couldn't do much about her hull shape and keel configuration, but a decent set of sails, properly set, should generate some decent lift and increase boatspeed, which in turn would bring the apparent wind further forward and counteract the tendency of the keels to stall. That was the theory anyway.

I had two more little tricks up my sleeve. One of them was technological and would be unveiled and tested tomorrow. The other one involved some new deck hardware, which I had fallen in love with when sailing OnDeck's First 40.7 the other week, and which I had asked the yard to fit in advance of the Round The Island Race. I wasn't going to hold my breath on that happening, however.

I ran my hand one last time over Arabella's newly-varnished brightwork, and headed off in seach of food, leaving her behind in the cool twilight.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Grand Day Out

Those wacky marine tradesmen. They were at it again, the scamps. Arabella wouldn't be ready for yet another week.

Lucky for me therefore that those nice people from OnDeck Sailing laid on a very nice corporate day today. There wasn't a huge amount of wind, which was no fault of theirs, but there are worse ways of spending a working day bobbing around in one of their Beneteau 40.7s

It was tough. But someone had to do it.