My name is Steve Mitchell and I write about marine electronics, technology, and internet connectivity. You can join my newsletter and get access to new articles and tidbits, check out my current boat Rendezvous, or just learn more about me and the site.

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Latest Articles

Boarded by the Coast Guard

Yesterday I was out sailing with a friend in Elliott Bay, well I guess we weren’t really sailing because there was no wind….  anyhow, we were trying to figure out what to do next, and hadn’t planned on being out very long. We’d seen one of the smaller Coast Guard boats running around near us for a while, and when it came straight towards us, I figured something was going on. Sure enough, they politely asked if we had been boarded and inspected recently by the Coast Guard, to which I replied that we hadn’t.  They then asked, again very politely, if they could do so.  It didn’t really seem like a question that had an answer other than “sure”, so that’s what I said.  They asked permission to come aboard, and two of them transferred, rather adeftly, to my boat to start the inspection. They looked at life jackets,…

SPOT Satellite Messenger Shared Page

I’ve had a SPOT Satellite Messenger for about 6 months and really like it.  I use it primarily when I sail to keep my friends updated on where I am, and if I’m safe. I have always been a little annoyed that the only ways they could keep track of my course were to save the individual SMS’es or emails that were sent, or I had to give them my password to my private online account at the SPOT home page. Recently, the folks at SPOT came out with the SPOT Shared Page to solve this problem.  It’s still a little rough around the edges, but it’s far better than the previous solutions.  The page contains a list of the last 24 hours worth of messenger check-ins on the left, and a Google Maps layout of the track on the right.  You can click on the track to see more…

EVDO update – Sprint vs Verizon

I’ve had some time to play with the EVDO options out there – I ended up getting a Sprint card in addition to the Verizon one I had as well. The Sprint card is a Novatel Wireless EX720, and I have the usual 5GB monthly plan. Both Verizon and Sprint have similar UI’s for their management applications.  I like Verizon’s statistics graphing capabilities, but I much prefer the Sprint application for everything else – it seems to be better adapted to deal with Windows Vista. The actual service is far better on the Sprint network than Verizon.  Based on my testing thus far, here’s some comparisons: VerizonLatency: 138msDownload: 756KbpsUpload: 182Kbps SprintLatency: 101msDownload: 1094KbpsUpload: 435Kbps This is from the same location, the same night.  The Verizon towers seem to be pretty consistently slower than Sprint.  I’ll do some additional testing over the next week or two to see if things stay…

Everyone is after me….

Above is a screen shot from my chart plotter at the end of the day when I was sailing/motoring back into Elliott Bay here in Seattle. The larger boat icon in the center with the compass wind indicator around it is me, the rest of the smaller boats with red lines emanating out of them are all of the AIS targets my system is warning me about. I had 3 Washington State Ferries closing in on my area – two car ferries and one fast passenger ferry, one tour boat, and eventually 2 tugs, one of which was going faster than I was, and on a similar course. AIS here only showed 2 of the three ferries, the tour boat, and the tug. I couldn’t take any more pictures of the system becaue I had to pay attention at that point, but it was pretty nice to be able to…

Rule iL500 Portable Pump

I’m always looking for a good pump, since the nature of having a boat is having to stave off water being in the boat at some point.  I have a couple of manual bilge pumps, and of course a couple of powered ones permanently installed in the right places.  But you can always use something more portable. While doing some random searches, I stumbled across a great idea from the folks at Rule – the iL500 Portable Pump.  It’s a portable pump that is submersible, can be used in-line, has battery clamps for quick use, comes with hose and a nozzle for spraydowns, and can be used for both water and diesel. I think it’s a great pump to have around when you happen to be away from the dock and need to get water out of somewhere hard to reach, or if you want to use the included nozzle…

I hate heaters

How many heaters have you gone through? I use a West Marine 1500W cabin heater, the ones you can buy for around $70 that sit on the floor, to keep the boat heated in winter.  I leave a door open to the engine compartment, and it also basically heats the rest of the boat without a problem.  However, the last 3 years in a row, I end up having to buy a new heater.  One year, I had to buy two.  The problem is they’re really cheap, and then the other issue I believe is the water and marine environment. I found two major manufacturers out there who make bilge heaters, which is really what I care about.  The best one with the smallest footprint appears to be Xtreme Heaters.  I’m considering the 750W model, even though my boat isn’t that large, I’d prefer that it kept the majority of…

BioSok

My previous engine had a meltdown before I had it removed, and that included dumping a huge quantity of watery oil into my bilge.  Ever since then, oil makes it’s reappearance almost weekly within the bilge.  I suppose I will never get rid of it completely… I’ve tried all sorts of things, from absorbent pads, to simply sucking it out with a high volume pump, and disposing of it appropriately.  Nothing seems to work that well, at least not until I found BioSok. It’s some sort of powdery looking chemical that reacts to oil and fuel, and pulls it into it, then uses some microbes to eat off the oil.  I ended up buying two of the cloth socks, and one small bin of powder.  I used the powder directly throughout the bilge on the surface to get the oil that had been in there for a while since the…

Boatsense unit failed again

A few evenings ago I went to the boat to check on some things, and decided to test the new Boatsense unit by tripping the bilge sensor. After 5 minutes of waiting, nothing happened. Then, I got a call from the guys at Boatsense. Bad news they said – the unit sent the message for the bilge alarm, but it also sent a battery low message, and then sent an “ominous” message that it was “on it’s last legs”. This was some new code they had added to the unit to detect when the unit was failing. After discussing it for a few minutes, they decided to send me a new unit (unit #3!) and they wanted the dead unit back to do a post mortem. Apparently I’m an early adopter of their technology – in the first 500 customers – and they have had some other issues in the…

Second Boatsense unit installed

Got a replacement Boatsense unit from the manufacturer, and installed it last week. No problems on the swap – took about 10 minutes, and everything tested out correctly. Set up my custom alert messsages and tested each alert by tripping the various sensors. No problems. Took a while for the manufacturer to respond to my queries to get it repaired, and initially it was quite frustrating getting text messages for things that weren’t broken at all hours of the day. The technology is new, so I know there will be some bugs. Hopefully this will be the last of them for this particular piece of technology!

Knocking noise partially solved – PSS Shaft Seal

For a while I’ve had a knocking noise when at low idle after the engine repower.  After a lot of trips to the bilge trying to figure out what’s going on, I found that the PSS Dripless Shaft Seal was dripping.  This has been ongoing now for 6 weeks or so.  The seal is a stainless steel disc attached to the propeller shaft near the transmission, and a matching set of bellows and a carbon disc that pushes up against the steel disc.  The stainless steel disc rotates with the prop shaft, while the carbon disk stays still, and is pressed against the steel disc.  Water lubricates the carbon disc so that it doesn’t heat up, and the whole thing is supposed to provide a dripless solution that is better than a stuffing box because of low maintenance. During the engine repower, this was not replaced.  The shop that did…

Boatsense Problems

I’ve had the new Boatsense Remote Vessel monitoring solution installed for a week or so now, and have had a few problems with it. First, the company that manages it did some sort of firmware update to it, and it now sends me pages at random times (usually at 1-3AM) with gibberish in it. They have looked at it and believe they can repair it. Then, it started paging me that my battery is low. I tested the battery just to be sure with a very accurate multimeter, and found no problems. After repeated emails to the manufacturer, they finally conceded today to sending me a new unit, but not until I expressed my frustration at being paged at random hours, and again reiterating that I expected not to pay for all of the pages beyond the 20/month limit. They theorize that the voltage component in my current device is…

Harrowing sail

I took today off to sail around the bay and continue to test out some of the new systems on Jammy.  It was forecast to be pretty windy later in the day, and even a rare gale warning late in the evening.  The previous day it had been pretty windy (50mph) but had calmed down a lot. I arrived at the marina around 9AM and got everything ready.  Wind was at 10kts, gusting to 15.  Everything checked out OK, so I left the marina and entered Elliott Bay.  I passed the end of the breakwater, and waves were at about 2 feet.  The wind picked up a little, but not too bad. I put the autopilot on “sail directly into the wind” mode and started to get ready for a little sailing.  I left the motor running at about 1500 RPM.  About 5 minutes into the preparation, and about 1/2…

Remote vessel monitoring

For a long time I’ve dreamt of having a system that would send me an email or text message when there’s something wrong. There are a lot of very high priced systems out there that you can purchase and for a monthly fee, have specific things monitored. Many of them are very bulky, require a lot of specialized hardware, and cost an arm and a leg. Recently, I was reading a sailing magazine (forget which one) and saw a write-up on a new system called Boat Sense Solutions. The system seemed really well thought out, and was reasonably priced. The product is a cell phone based text message device that will monitor a number of items on your boat, and send you and your two closest friends text messages when things are awry. After a bit of investigation, and questions to the manufacturer, which were answered very quickly, I bought…

Shipmodul NMEA multiplexer

While redesigning my navigation system, I realized that I wanted several instruments to share information with my chartplotter, while also being able to share information between themselves. In addition, I also wanted a PC to be able to receive information from these instruments. After some investigation, I found a whole product line of NMEA multiplexers from Shipmodul.  I chose the MiniPlex-42BT.  This version allows for 4 “talkers”, compatibility for SeaTalk and AIS, several “listeners” depending on your configuration, and Bluetooth support for your computer. My goal was to connect my Tacktick NMEA interface, autopilot, chartplotter, AIS receiver, VHF radio, and my PC all to the same system.  After a lot of trial and error, and using MPXConfig from Shipmodul which allowed me to see the exact traffic passing through my multiplexer, I ended up with a slightly modified configuration. Most notably, I was unable to connect my AIS receiver to…

AIS receiver

I was going through a major overhaul on my navigation system and decided to install an AIS receiver. There are only a few of them out there, and some of them are way overpriced for the featureset. After reviewing a bunch of online reviews, I choose the Smart Radio SR162 and the Smart Radio VHF Antenna Splitter both sold by Milltech Marine in the U.S. After a few questions to the folks at Milltech, who answered same-day with detailed technical information, and copies of the newest manuals, plus some tips, I ordered it direct.I chose the SR162 over the SR161 since I sail and motor in a congested, busy area, and want the assurance of both A and B channels used for AIS being caught by my systems. The SR161 only listens to the A channel, which limits the amount of boats it “hears” in busy areas. The manual online…