Wrangling Distant WiFi Signals

Several years ago I wrote about creating a WiFi extender for our previous boat, the MV LAIKA. For that project, which you can review here, I utilized a Ubiquiti Bullet high-powered WiFi radio to bring distant marina WiFi signals into our boat where they were re-broadcast through a private network.

Things worked fairly well back then. In fact, I had even permanently mounted the antenna for the Ubiquiti radio on top of the boat so it could benefit from the added height and increased signal range. When that boat was sold the antenna and custom wired setup went with it.

New Boat, New Project

Fast forward several years, and with a new boat, I decided to revisit the same challenge after repeatedly visiting marines only to discover that it was often difficult picking up WiFi signals when situated in distant slips.

The problem was most apparent, and most frustrating, when we stayed in Vancouver at Coal Harbor Marina – a premium marina in the heart of downtown Vancouver, B.C. Despite having a first-class facility they’ve neglected to wire the marina with WiFi and force guests to walk over to their front office in order to gain online access. That’s neither convenient nor fun late at night or when it’s raining (or snowing!).

So the extended WiFi project was reborn. Interestingly, and perhaps a testament to the success of Ubiquiti’s products, the Bullet WiFi radio is still a leading choice for building consumer-grade long-distance WiFi networks. So, again, it was selected.

Products selected for this build included:

Those were all the items that went into creating the latest WiFi extender. The purpose of the Ubiquiti Bullet, along with the Engenius antenna, is to communicate with distant WiFi access points.  They could be a mile or more away and it might still be possible to effectively communicate with them.

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The TP-Link Access Point is what communicates with the Ubiquiti Bullet and creates another, private WiFi network inside the boat. If you were just driving a single PC you could connect directly to the Ubiquiti, using a CAT5 cable and POE source, but in our experience there are often several people and multiple devices that need access to the Internet simultaneously.

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Self-Contained Unit

The first time I did a project like this I had separate components and multiple power supplies (at that time I was using an AC-powered POE injector). This time I decided to create a more pleasing and easier-to-manage package.

That’s why I, basically, re-installed the guts of this thing inside of a component case I found at Fry’s. The TP-Link router came in a beautiful, curvy plastic case but after removing two screws it was revealed to be a tiny little board with little more than two antenna connectors. That’s what made inserting it into my own case so easy.

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Designed to Remain “In The Boat”

This project is also different from the first time I built something similar in that I decided that the whole unit would be self-contained – including the antenna. While mounting the extender’s antenna externally, on my vessel’s arch, would provide for greater signal reach (like I did before) I decided that I’d be able to get by with something that could reside inside the cabin.

My thinking was that I could pull the device out of a closet and stick on a shelf while we were in port connected to shore power (or near shore on generator) and then hide it away when not in use. I could also position it in different places in the boat, if necessary – or move it to a friend’s boat just as easily. Currently I’m driving the device with a 9V AC-to-DC adaptor but could easily rig it to run off the boat’s 12V system.

By forgoing an externally mounted antenna I also reduced mounting and wiring complexity and cost.

Want your own?

If you’d to build something similar for your boat feel free to reach out for additional details about configuring the two main components. Additionally, if you’d like me to create one for you, I’m happy to do so for the cost of the components and a coffee! I’m starting to explore the use of 3D printers and I figured I could create an even better case for the next one I assemble.

Alternatives

In case you were wondering, there are several commercially available solutions available that perform the same, basic functionality. Many utilize the Ubiquiti radio internally, since it’s so compact and has such a good track record. Here are some of the products and companies I’ve discovered:

Of all of these systems, the most integrated ones appear to be The Wirie and Global Marine’s Redport. They’re also similarly priced. Still, you could do it yourself for about $100 less.

The other alternative, of course, is to use your cell phone’s data services. Things have  changed quite a bit from when I first built my range extender for the MV LAIKA.

For example, when I’m at Carillon Point, my AT&T LTE service delivers speeds in excess of 30Mb/s down and 12Mb/s up! That’s remarkable, and far, far faster than the BBX WiFi the marina provides. But, it’s a trade-off. With your own WiFi network bridging a marina system you can drive more devices without, potentially, jeopardizing your data plan’s capacity limits.

Update

I’ve discovered 3D Printing! Waited a few years – and I guess that’s a good thing. The current set of tools that are available are quite remarkable, and more refined than those that were available a few years ago. For example, I designed a new case for this project using TinkerCad – a free, browser-based application from Autocad. It’s super easy to learn and use. After about a week I was able to construct a brand new case to hold the TP-Link router, the Ubiquiti Bullet, a POE adapter and a 12-to-9V power regulator I designed and soldered to a tiny PCB.

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With TinkerCad I was able to print using a network of hobbyist-owned printers, finding one in Redmond, not far from where I live. Version 1.0 of the case turned out extremely well and I’m looking to make a few refinements for the next one. I also found an online tool that could take any 2D drawing and convert it into a 3D .stl file which could be imported into TinkerCad.

If you want to see some of the objects I made with TinkerCad just search their gallery for my user name – davidgeller. When this project is completed I’ll likely release the full set of components so you can create your own case.

I haven’t had this much fun since…well… Boating!

Locking Through Alone

Transiting The Hiram M. Chittenden (Ballard) Locks can be a challenging exercise for recreational boaters. It requires patience, good boating skills, a sense of community and willingness to help others (especially in the busy summer months), and a constant awareness of safety.

With the winter months being less busy than during the Spring and Summer, they’re an excellent opportunity to practice your locking skills by moving between the Ship Canal and Puget Sound.

Recently my wife and I planned to spend a few days in Port Townsend and La Conner. Due to some scheduling challenges I would have to take our boat through the locks myself, and meet her at Shilshole.

While my wife and I have probably gone through the locks several dozen times, I’ve only had to go through alone a few times before. The first time was two summers ago and I was apprehensive. I was worried about handling the lines. Could I do it alone? What if I were in the large lock and had to maintain control of two 50′ lines?

Prior to going it solo the first time I visited the locks, on foot, to speak to some of the people working there. The advice and guidance I received was simple. They convinced me that I could it do and that their job was to make sure I did it well, and safely. They even suggested I call ahead to the lock master and ask any specific questions I might have and, if I felt it necessary, call the day I was planning to go through.

Recreational boaters should be aware, though, that communicating with the locks via VHF radio is not permitted. Only commercial vessels can do that. In fact, signs suggest that recreational boaters should turn off their radios. However, that doesn’t prevent you from stopping by in person and chatting, or calling on the phone.

With regard to radios, I tend to leave two of my radios on. One is set to channel 16 and, when preparing to head through the locks, I like to have a portable set to channel 13. I turn them completely off or silence them when I begin going through, but while waiting it’s useful to hear which commercial vessels are planning an approach.

My most recent solo locking experience happened February 12, 2016 (see video above) and I was treated to a spectacularly beautiful day.  It was so gorgeous that I decided to mount a GoPRO and capture the experience.

I was pleased with the results, though the video did reveal some poor line handling toward the end when I was trying to release the bow line. In retrospect I should have had a utility pole up on the bow with me. Still, the locking was a success. I managed to get through safely – without damaging the boat (or anyone else’s).

Key steps I think any recreational boater can benefit from knowing when going through the locks, whether alone or with a crew, include:

  • Prepare by having all your fenders and lines ready.
  • Don’t assume a port or starboard tie – be prepared for both!
  • Remember slow is smooth and smooth is fast! Don’t rush.
  • Wear your PFD! The water is cold and people slip and fall often.
  • Don’t assume the small or large locks – be prepared for both (and have the proper lines ready).
  • Be willing to help other boaters making their way in with you, but don’t interfere with the lock personnel. They’re very skilled at helping boaters get through the locks. Listen to their instructions and follow them precisely.
  • Beside turning off your radio(s), be sure to turn off your radar! The lock personnel don’t enjoy the extra radiation.
  • Don’t get hyper excited by position. Most boaters know and respect the order they arrive in and also know that for the large locks it’s expected that larger vessels enter first, even if they have just arrived. So, while it may look like some boats are cutting in front of everyone, bigger boats are expected into the large locks first and will likely assume positions along the wall.

Another tip we can share after having done it for about five years – bring Girl Scout cookies. It’s a nice gesture and the crews working during the busy summer months will be grateful – and cut you a little extra slack as you’re working to refine your locking skills!

Olympia’s Harbor Days

The Port and City of Olympia recently held its annual Harbor Days and Maritime Festival & Tugboat Races event. It was located at Percival Landing and was open to the public. Visitors were able to tour classic tugboats and ride along on some of them during races held the last day of the event.

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View looking South toward Percival Landing and the State Capitol Building

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Tug GALENE is one of 61 originally built for the Department of Transportation in 1943 at the Northeast Ship Building Co. in Quincy, Mass.

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A massive CAT diesel engine onboard one of the vintage tugs.

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Location of the Harbor Days event

Location of the Harbor Days event

 

A Rode Well Traveled: Marking Your Ground Tackle

Anchoring is almost always fun and often challenging (we recently had an anchoring adventure in Desolation Sound). Beside learning key techniques related to placement and holding capabilities, it’s critically important for boaters to understand the ratios (scope) of anchor rode (chain or line) to water depth.

There are lots of online resources and videos to guide boaters and teach them some of the best techniques for the various types of anchoring that can be performed. Anchor manufacturers also provide useful resources. A small list of some of these guides will appear at the end of this post.

Instead of discussing holding capabilities and scope, this post, instead, will share our experience painting our anchor line. While there are electromechanical chain counting systems, a simpler visual system sometimes works just as well and is certainly more affordable.

Bring Out Your Chain

The first step was to pull out all the chain from the chain locker. I used two tarps to protect the bow deck and the side of the boat. The weight of the chain would serve to keep both of them in place. I recommend using work glove while handling your chain. As a practice, I wear them whenever dealing with ground tackle and, especially, the windlass.

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While I was pulling out chain I had someone on the dock, next to the boat, start collecting the chain.

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A dock line was used to secure the anchor end of the chain, which would remain on the bow. I used a tape measure to determine the first 30 feet of the chain, starting with the anchor swivel connected to the anchor.

Measuring and Marking

One we had some chain on the dock some painter’s tape was used to mark the first 30 foot position. You can decide to mark your chain in whatever lengths you feel are appropriate. A vast majority of our anchoring is in Cozy Cove near Carillon Point or in Andrews Bay next to Seward Park. For whatever reason, we’re always calculating our scope and chain length in 30 foot sections – so that’s how we measured things out.

IMG_4178Our dock has ten foot sections which makes measuring our 30 foot sections super easy. After three dock sections we’d turn our chain, wrap it around and pull back to our starting point.

Once our chain was laid out it became a relatively simple matter of protecting the dock and boat and then, simply, applying some marine paint. We selected red because we thought it would be the easiest to see.

IMG_4181Almost any paint brand will work. We selected a can of red Moeller spray paint that we purchased at Fisheries Supply. It was designed for marine applications. It’s likely that you’ll have to refresh your markings every few years depending upon how often your chain is exposed to the windlass and water.

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The whole marking job took about 90 minutes, which included time for the paint to dry. We definitely measured multiple times before applying paint. Our marks ended up being at the 30′, 60′ 90′, 120′, 150′ and 180′ positions. For all chain rode in the Pacific NW the scope is typically 3:1 allowing us to, conceivably, anchor in depths up to 60 feet.

While some people use different patterns to designate the different length segments, all our markings were the same – big red areas about a foot or so in length designed to be easily seen as anchor chain is let out. We were confident that we could keep track of our six marks instead of trying to decipher some dash-dot or varying color pattern.

Anchoring Resources

Technology and Tools for Anchoring

 

 

Shackle Pins Voyage

First Trip to Desolation Sound

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton was the great Antartic explorer who famously battled severe weather conditions and ice (that destroyed his ship The Endurance) in 1917. David’s Shackle Pin Voyage took place in August, 2015 in Desolation Sound. No ships or sailors were lost. Only pride.

Our story begins the first day of August as the crew of the MV KAYLA set out for waters and lands North of Seattle. The journey took the crew from populated areas in the San Juan and Gulf Islands that included Friday Harbor, Nainamo, Ganges, Vancouver and, the prize, Desolation Sound.

It was in Desolation Sound, Laura Cove to be precise, that the crew first encountered the inviting waters of the protected inlets East of The Straight of Georgia. There were dozens of beautiful sail and power boats with families and pets thoroughly enjoying the natural surroundings and the superb August weather.

Our first night on anchor was uneventful and the crew slept well. We stern tied near a few power boats. We had arrived close to midday and enjoyed lunch before setting out in our tender to explore the cove as well as to cross over and into Prideaux Haven and Malanie Cove.

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First night’s location: Laura Cove

Fearing Desolation Sound wasn’t so desolated (you could almost walk between the boats – and cell service was superb!), the crew decided to seek a second anchorage location for the next evening. After reviewing lots of information and weighing the positives and minuses of numerous locations it was decided to travel about 13nm to Teakerne Arm and the famously warm freshwater Cassel Lake.

This location proved far more desolate (though our junior crew member’s iPhone 5S was still able to get a cell signal!). There were only a few boats when we arrived, including a beautiful and very large yacht belonging to a famous Seattle tech entrepreneur.

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Soundings indicated a steep / rapid change in the under water terrain. Ideal for anchoring with a stern line.

Anchoring in Teakerne Arm proved fairly easy. While the water is very deep there are steep walls toward the shore. Within feet your depth can change from hundreds of feet to 60 feet – which is where we dropped anchor. A recent chain painting exercise proved very useful and we dropped a total of around 200 feet of chain as we slowly backed the KAYLA toward its temporary resting spot close to shore. A landing party was assembled in the tender and took our stern line to shore where it was attached around a willing tree and returned to the boat where it was made fast.

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With anchor and stern line set, the vessel was positioned securely, where it would remain, as planned, for the next 20 or so hours. During that time we enjoyed a short hike to Cassel Lake where we swam in what were probably close to 80 degree waters. The short hike to the lake was fun and, at times, challenging. In two locations along the way ropes were in-place to help climb and swing around obstacles and steep rock faces. We all did fine but imagined it would have been difficult for Kayla, had she made the trip with us.

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View from above the falls, which were just at a trickle

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Cassel Lake

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Swimming in Cassel Lake

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Navigating one of two spots where rope lines came in very handy

Dinner onboard after our hike and swim

Dinner onboard after our hike and swim

Pulling Up Anchor

We planned to leave the following day, and woke up early specifically to meet our schedule and get a jump on our anticipated 95nm journey to Vancouver. Well-placed stern lines are great because they’re so easy to detach. We were able to pull ours from the tree line easily, and started stacking a big bundle of bright yellow polypropelyne line on the aft deck.

Cathia took up the job of retrieving our anchor. I could hear the chain making its way up and into the boat. Everything seemed to be going perfectly until, during a quick washing dunk (to clean off some of the debris that had collected), the windlass decided to, essentially, “raise it’s hands” and allow the chain to fall freely back into the water. By this time we had pulled ourselves into deeper water and I was afraid the chain would all but completely run out into the deep. While we didn’t make the rookie mistake of having a chain whose end isn’t attached to the boat, I wasn’t looking forward to having 200+ feet of chain yank violently on a fixture inside the chain locker attached to the boat’s hull at the very end. I was able to run up to the bow and, with my foot, flip over the mechanical brake, halting the chains travel.

It took a moment to discover that the catch that prevents the windlass from freely releasing its load had been pulled out, or came out. How or why that happened is still a mystery. But we realized that our first order of business was to retrieve the chain and anchor.

We had one before. Now we have two!

This time, though, things moved more slowly. Had we damaged the windlass? Was there an electrical problem? It wasn’t until about 170 feet of chain had been retrieved that we discovered the problem. We had captured another anchor (and chain)! No wonder our little windlass was working so hard. In fact, at one point we tripped the breaker for the windlass. On our boat it’s located in the 240V cabinet in the engine room. Not sure why since it runs off the 12v service. Personally, I prefer not to be playing around in the high voltage cabinet.

We were tired and were now faced with having to separate a fairly heavy object and its supporting chain from our own ground tackle. At about this point in time we could have used Superman. He wasn’t available so we made a series of movements, up and down, to see if the visiting anchor and chain would separate. They didn’t.

After what seemed like a really long time (but, in reality, was only about 5 minutes) we decided the best course of action would be to separate our anchor from our chain and allow the captured equipment to drop freely. The only problem – our anchor is close to 70 pounds and was also carrying someone else’s anchor and its chain.

We grabbed two dock lines and fastened them to our anchor. One of them went into the anchor’s emergency release and pull hole, giving us a secure, positive way of securing it from loss (provided we tied our line properly). The second line was wrapped around the anchor using a simple half-hitch.

The next task was to remove one of the shackle pins that connects our chain to our Jaw / Jaw swivel that’s also connected to the anchor. It was under heavy load. With the anchor I always use work gloves, and I was glad I had them on this time as well. I used wire snips to cut the safety line that secures the pin. Then I began turning the pin, slowly. It took a while and was awkward with the angle I was forced to work. Finally I was able to pull it from the swivel and our anchor fell away, only to be secured by our lines. There was still a “clump” of foreign chain stuck to our chain but a careful whack released that as well. We were free!

Recovery

We moved the boat a couple of hundreds yards off shore to continue work. The first task was to pull up the anchor onto the bow. That was much harder than we imagined. Since we were both mentally and physically exhausted the anchor’s 70lbs seemed much heavier. Still, we managed to lift it up and over the bow rail. I thought it would make sense to leave it on the bow for our voyage South to Vancouver but Cathia, smartly, suggested it would be more secure aft. She was right. We hit some rough water that morning and I can only imagine the anchor doing some major fiberglass damage had it been allowed to remain on the bow. Heck, it might have even threatened the front windshield.

Our anchor secured aft

Our anchor secured aft

Jaw / Jaw swivel with shackle pin and securing line

Jaw / Jaw swivel with shackle pin and securing line

Who’s anchor and chain did we pull up? We weren’t sure. There was another power boat anchored next to us, and it might have been theirs. During our struggle to free the anchor and line their boat didn’t appear to move at all, despite a strong wind. We suspect we discovered an abandoned anchor and chain. Even if it did belong to the other boat we managed to free it and there appeared to be sufficient mass in the chain alone to secure the boat’s position.

Heading back to civilization

We made it to Vancouver after a few hours of traveling through heavy fog with, at times, only 1-2nm visibility. Our radar allowed us to travel safely at a fast cruising speed, but keeping a lookout for crafts and debris left us exhausted.

After two days in Vancouver we spent two days on Salt Spring Island at Ganges and then traveled home. It took a few days to find a new Jaw / Jaw swivel for our anchor. We needed a 1/2″ size, which is pretty beefy – and not as common as the smaller sizes.

Our first trip to Desolation Sound was fantastic. Some of the things we’ll remember include:

  • Beautiful scenery in both of the locations we visited
  • Exploring Laura Cove and Prideaux Haven
  • Traveling to Teakerne Arm
  • Hiking to and swimming in Cassel Lake, which was delightfully warm
  • Becoming really good at stern ties
  • Getting to check off one of the big “oh-ohs” in boating – fouling your anchor

Seaplane capsizes in Lake Union

An otherwise uneventful landing of a small seaplane ended poorly after the craft started listing dramatically to one side shortly after landing this past Saturday in Lake Union. The MV KAYLA was tied up in front of MOHAI picking up passengers for a planned weekend in Poulsbo when radio calls for an overturned seaplane were heard on channel 16.

Within minutes a Police boat was seen speeding toward the scene and arrived shortly thereafter. Minutes after their arrival it was announced that the two passengers had been safely rescued. Water temperature in Lake Union, at the time of the incident, were approximately 52F degrees.

There was a fair bit of radio traffic between Seattle Police and the US Coast Guard, which monitors radio traffic on channel 16. Beside a concern for safety, officials were also interested in knowing how much fuel was aboard and whether it had been contained.

While we weren’t able (or required) to render aid, we did manage to cruise nearby after the incident and captured some photos which later appeared on KING5 News.

Photo Feb 28, 1 20 22 PM (2) Photo Feb 28, 1 21 14 PM Photo Feb 28, 1 21 50 PM (1) Photo Feb 28, 1 22 03 PM

There’s always lots of seaplane traffic in Lake Union, though, most of the traffic is from Kenmore Air which has an outstanding safety record. We believe that the accident we were near involved a private, non-commercial craft.


Would you be prepared to haul a person out of the lake and into your boat, if needed? Have you practiced MOB (man overboard) rescue scenarios? With boating season fast (though not fast enough) approaching it’s worth studying up on water rescue and survival techniques. I know we need to on board MV KAYLA. We also need to obtain a 5:1 lifting tackle.

Imagine you or your spouse having to lift a 200+ lb adult out of the water? Now add in some weight for water soaked clothing. And, consider that they might be unconscious! Plan. Train. Practice. Repeat. Here are some links to posts other’s have done on rescuing people in the water as well as a link to a 5:1 ratio lifting tackle harness.

On a related note, the Seattle Sail & Power Squadron organizes a Sea Skills event every Spring and will be demonstrating MOB rescue techniques this year. If you’ve never heard of the Sail & Power Squadron, it’s a great organization to join and become involved with. Beside hosting social events and boating rendezvous, they offer classes in a wide variety of topics including navigation, weather, engine maintenance, seamanship, and more. This year’s Sea Skills event, taking place at Shilshole Marina, will be held May 9th through May 10th.