Illywhacker - Computers and Cruising


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Author Peter Aston
Date Feb 2004
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Computers aboard are a major part of our cruising life. I'm embarrassed to say we now have 5 on illywhacker!

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An old laptop sits in the cockpit washboard locker for real-time charting

Illywhacker's New Computer System

Buying computing power in laptop format is the expensive way to go. Sure, they are small and portable but if you compare price vs features then desktop computers win easily. The problem on a boat is finding enough space for the larger case, screen and keyboard. Power requirements for a desktop unit can reach 400W at 240V AC which translates to around 35amps at 12V DC. There are of course smaller, low-power desktop units around but such a unit fed entirely from a 12V supply away from the dock would need to earn its keep. Our justification is based on illywhacker's existing arrangement of networked laptop computers which effectively perform the navigation and system management functions but are insufficient to cope with the needs of a "media centre".

Why do we "need" one? Well, the concept is an interesting challenge for us and computing technology today allows for all of illywhacker's CD, DVD, tape, video and digital photo collection to be stored on hard drive, ready for instant replay. We use this new computer at the dock or at anchor for selected short entertainment such as watching a DVD by using the inverter or when the generator (which is very quiet) is running. To gain access to the enormous range of music and audio entertainment stored on the hard drive while we are at sea or keen to save the batteries, we download to an iPod which is played through a low power 12V computer audio system. An AM/FM tuner playing through the same audio system allows us to listen to radio broadcasts near the coast and we use the AM band on our HF radio for listening at sea. Satellite radio is available in the US and Europe and we look forward to seeing it in Australia.

Mounting a desktop computer in a yacht already full is the first challenge. illywhacker's arrangement employs a separate drive bay which houses CD, floppy and DVD drives and gives external USB, flash and memory card access. The main case is adjacent which allows the use of long IDE cables for interconnection. A 15" flat LCD screen covers the main case and keyboard and mouse are wireless for use anywhere in the saloon. Despite my effort to quieten the fans and provide insulation around the case, the noise level is still too high for our liking, especially when soft music is called for. Like most things on a yacht, this is an ongoing project.

A "micro"ATX case and cut down ATX case for the drives mounted at the Navstation. Rubber insulation is behind the green covering. The LCD screen mounts in front of the green panel, hinged to swing fwd and aft.

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Illywhacker's Second "New Computer System"

The "new " computer system had one major failing. As we discovered, the cooling fans made too much noise. Even by running them at a lower voltage to make them run more quietly we needed more so the net result was a background whirr that spoiled the effect. The project is all about high quality audio and video so this installation went to our grandsons who are gaming enthusiasts. They appreciated the performance and noise wasn't a great concern!

The replacement is based on a "barebones" chassis - a Shuttle SD36G5M. It is super-quiet and is designed to run as a media centre. The screen is a 16:9 configuration making the combination ideal for digital TV and DVD as well as an impressive platform for charts and photos.

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Computers and Cruising

1 Computers are an essential part of our cruising life aboard illywhacker. My notebook pc has for many years been the repository for my life’s details and since moving aboard this time, about 4 years ago, it has been the heart of the boat also. 12 months ago, this obsession became too much for Lyndall so she now has one too! We recently changed my notebook so now we have 2 identical units, a situation which I believe to be advantageous from a backup and support perspective. Both units have about 3 hours battery life but this is rapidly reducing as we mainly operate “plugged in”, either via the power supplies to our on-board inverter or to 12v. When we think of it, we operate unplugged to fully discharge the battery before charging up again. The new units are non-brand name cheapies with 266mhz chipsets, 64mb RAM, and 2 and 3.5 Gb hard disks. They have both resident CD and floppy drives. Very nice units, probably over the top if they were to be used for just cruising programs

2 We have a dry boat (relatively) and have had no problems with dampness in any of our domestic electronics; microwave, VCR, TV, Hi-Fi as well as in our computers and accessories. The price structure of computers makes it hard to justify a rugged, waterproof type vs a standard notebook so we suffer the usual notebook problems associated more with a “cheap” unit rather than because it is in a boat. In our case, a floppy drive replacement was required and one screen is a bit dicky, both common in notebooks. When the price of flat, stand-alone LCD screens comes down, I will be tempted to upgrade to a desktop model dedicated to cruising and boat management programs, putting the case in a locker with just the full-size keyboard on the nav table and the screen on a swing-out bracket. (see proposal)

3 We use the computers all day, in port, at anchor or at sea. They are our personal and cruising record systems and source of great entertainment (and frustration).

4 They are used for:

· Relaxation – games, Lyndall is hooked on Freecell, Scrabble and Bridge, I like chess and we are trying to learn others

· Communication – e-mail and letter writing to friends, preparing entries to visitor’s books, hope to set up a web page (at least that's underway) and keep it up to date

· Cruising business – crew lists, entry and visa requests

· Voyage planning – optimising where we will be when

· Tide - much easier with one program for the whole world

· Navigation – hoping to get pc chart software soon (couldn't live without it now)

· Weather – by HF radio fax, an important part of the pc use at sea

· Boat management – I am writing an Operations and Repair Manual for the boat. It is ongoing and aims to fully document illywhacker's construction in all it’s aspects, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, refrigeration, sailing etc and to provide background and repair advice for others on board. It is a way of both recording the documentation needed to manage the yacht and to attempt to explain it all to someone seeing it for the first time. Since this project was started, new web-page software has enabled me to rewrite this as a hypertext document, so more fun ahead!

· Photography – the purchase of a digital camera has opened up a whole new world. We take many more pictures, can modify them and include them in letters and the log. We are still discovering new ways of cataloguing, producing slide shows and so on. Due to the radio e-mail limitations we are obliged to send the results of these creations by disk or over internet if we can find an internet café.

· Learning – we have a number of teach-yourself CD’s, including Japanese which I’m sure normal cruisers would have no difficulty with at all. For me however….

· Encyclopaedias and Atlases – often used to settle arguments and to dream of distant places.

5 E-mail aboard illywhacker is primarily via Ham radio. It has the advantage of being free though sometimes slow, probably the same performance as commercial HF SSB services. Until Iridium becomes cheaper with data capability I will stick with my Ham radio. I also have a Hotmail address which I can use from the local café for the occasional surf or to send or receive heavy files.

6 At this stage in Japan, we have yet to find a friend ashore with an ISP connection to allow us to connect directly from this computer, so forays ashore are without the computer but with a disk in my pocket. Thus I either send my large files or photos over Hotmail or post them. I am not convinced that the monthly charges of a world-wide ISP such as Compuserve or AOL is warranted for us, requiring connection via a public telephone using either an analogue or ISDN connection. The use of older acoustic couplers for this task seem to negate the advantage of finding a faster landline over using HF aboard.

7 Any surfing we do is during our stints at home or when staying with friends and family. Our computers are with us as cabin baggage on the flights home, they never leave our sides! During bath times for the grandchildren when grannies are best out of the way, we do a little surfing and collect as much stuff as we can for later reading aboard.

8 I have my notebook in it’s carry case which has large velcro straps stuck on to hold it to matching straps buckled to the nav table when at sea. It is permanently set up for weather fax reception or e-mail via a serial data transfer switch, one connection to the computer and connections to the various modems from there. If I had a flat screen display and desktop computer in a locker below (as suggested above) the nav table would be cleaner. I would have all my electronic charts and cruising software loaded on this unit which would be NMEA interfaced to the nav instruments and keep the notebook for personal stuff.

9 The benefits of having 2 computers on board are twofold; a backup is essential when your whole life is recorded on disk and secondly it saves countless arguments as to who has the computer!

10 I have read articles describing successful long term cruisers and these usually are people who have combined other interests with life aboard. In the same way you learn that the more you cruise, the less of the world you seem to know, computing offers an endless challenge. Combining the two might seem against the spirit of independence valued by cruisers but our view is that even if you are short on space but have the inclination, a small computer with a hard disk and a cd drive can bring you the world, then you can sail there! Sounds like a sailing ad for Microsoft doesn’t it?


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