Notes in the Pilothouse

Growler helm-2.jpg

One of the greatest things about doing PassageMaker was the many hours I enjoyed with builders, experienced owners, and folks in the industry who are a wealth of knowledge. Honestly, it was humbling and enlightening to be that fly on the wall when these guys got started with each other. On those occasions where it was just one on one, I would sit back and let him or her talk about whatever was on their mind. The rambling thoughts never made it into articles, although they might have inspired more than one project down the road. But I always tried to capture the thoughts of the moment later in my notes. Looking back, that proved to be a gold mine of information.

One day I spent quality time with Chuck Worst, a very experienced PNW boater, who also owned and operated Northern Marine Electronics in Seattle. His company outfitted the many commercial fishing boats that spend months at a time in Alaskan waters, all the way up to and beyond the Aleutian Islands out of Dutch Harbor. For a time we were lucky to have him as our electronics editor. Instead of a boating writer rotating through the various positions on a masthead, Chuck was the real deal, and his opinions were always taken as gospel, as his knowledge of what works and what didn't had more value to me as many lives depended on his reliable installations of electronics at sea.

We talked of a boat he believed was the perfect Alaskan cruiser, and one he had much input on when it came to keeping her up to date and fully operational. Skookum was (and perhaps still is) a 58-foot Nordlund that has made the trip up to Alaska from Seattle numerous times in comfort and safety. Originally a 53-footer, the cockpit was extended five feet by Delta Marine in Seattle. Carrying 1,200 gallons of fuel, she could handily make the trip from Seattle to Ketchikan without stopping for fuel.

Chuck told me during the latest refit, there were two electronic devices he purposely installed within easy reach of the helm, within sight and touch. The radar and depth sounder were mounted so as to be an easy reach from the helm chair, and for good reason. The two buttons on the radar he insisted be super accessible were the range selection knob, and the gain control. These two controls allow the person at the helm to fine tune and adjust clarify and perspective of the surrounding area as the boat moves on course. Running the Inside Passage, radar is a valuable tool. They mounted the boat's radar antenna centerline on Skookum, so it portrayed a balanced view from side to side, and the operator could use it to its best advantage.

The other unit kept within reach was the video depth sounder. Even if the boat is not intended to fish, a video sounder that shows and records bottom type and contour is an essential tool for the cruising boat owner. Besides the contour and makeup of what's under the boat, the depth information is routinely compared to the chart so one can reasonably maintain an accurate position at all times from multiple sources.

Chuck also included a "jog" or follow-up lever on the autopilot, so the helmsman could make subtle course corrections with this lever, versus steering behind a large wheel. I have seen many larger boat that use this jog stick to augment steering through the autopilot.

Skookum's eyebrow overhang around the pilothouse really cut down the glare on helm instruments, which was intentional and appreciated, and something to consider when looking for a cruising boat. As he spoke of the various ways to install helm electronics, Chuck suggested using non-gloss dark (even black) finish Formica or similar material, glued to sheet aluminum, which can be easily cut to shape and for installing gauges and electronics. (One caution here is about one's cruising area. One PNW builder, based in Gig Harbor, designed and built a new cruising boat that he invited me to come aboard while he sea trialed the boat in the Florida Keys. The flat black Naugahyde helm console covering got so hot in the intense Florida sun, with no overhangs whatsoever to shield the slanted pilothouse windows, that both Simrad MFDs and other electronics quit before we got very far. The displays got so hot they simply went to lines of gray then black over the course of the first day. The heat radiating from this helm console was staggering...another lesson learned!)

As our conversation drifted to cables and antennas, and the importance of keeping communications and electronics cabling away from other ship's electrical wiring, Chuck said that RG-213 coax is the best cable to use, and explained the importance of locating the antennas properly. This is an area where he feels many boat electronics installers mess up, by installing antennas way too close together, or at the wrong level. He said all antennas should be mounted at least four feet away from each other, otherwise they can become directional, which is to be avoided.

 An example of an overall poor installation. The Northstar differential antenna on the right is way too close to the VHF antenna. It should be at least three or four feet away. The small GPS antenna between them is also in the path of the radar beam. On the left side of this photo, the short cellular antenna is mounted too close to the tall outboard VHF antenna. 

An example of an overall poor installation. The Northstar differential antenna on the right is way too close to the VHF antenna. It should be at least three or four feet away. The small GPS antenna between them is also in the path of the radar beam.
On the left side of this photo, the short cellular antenna is mounted too close to the tall outboard VHF antenna. 

He also stressed how important it is make sure each antenna doesn't interfere with other antennas mounted nearby. This is not always easy to do as there is usually limited real estate on which to place these antennas. But if you prioritize which antennas are most important, you approach it so that the most important antennas get the clearest air and space around them. HF SSB radio antennas should be kept separate from other antennas, and radar antennas must be located as high as possible to ensure the best range of the radar beam. But while figuring this out, it is also good thing to locate all satellite antennas out of the path of the radar beam. For satellite antennas, a good view of the sky above the radar beam is best.

 Great separation and height of the two 9dB VHF antennas, using solid Rupp mounts, on this Nordhavn 62. The two GPS antennas, however, are mounted atop the spreaders, directly in the beam path of the lower, open-array radar antenna. Not good.

Great separation and height of the two 9dB VHF antennas, using solid Rupp mounts, on this Nordhavn 62. The two GPS antennas, however, are mounted atop the spreaders, directly in the beam path of the lower, open-array radar antenna. Not good.

All receiving antennas, such as for GPS, also should be out of the radiating beam of the radar, while also out of the path of any satellite antenna(s). Transmitting antennas, such as AIS and VHF radios, should be four feet apart from each other and kept away from fixed stainless steel handrails and other hardware. The idea is to maximize separation in all planes of the various antennas, not always easy to do on a small space, but worth spending time to do as good a job as is possible.

 Outstanding antenna installation on this Legacy cruiser. Solid mounts on the VHF antennas mounted high with great separation. The radar is high and in the clear, and the GPS is mounted well clear of the radar.  

Outstanding antenna installation on this Legacy cruiser. Solid mounts on the VHF antennas mounted high with great separation. The radar is high and in the clear, and the GPS is mounted well clear of the radar.  

We also hit on the quality and size of these transmitting antennas. On Spitfire, my PDQ 41 power catamaran, I installed a 10dB super antenna I purchased when Bob Lane and I visited Morad Electronics in Ballard, Washington, just outside Seattle. I bought the antenna based on Chuck's recommendation, but it sat in my garage until I had the right boat and location for it. Once we installed this antenna and attached it to a dedicated VHF radio on the flybridge, I had terrific redundancy when it came to VHF communications. We used RG-213 coax cable to tie the antenna and flybridge radio together, as its superior shielding delivers more signal energy to the radio with much lower dB loss. We followed Chuck's suggestions to the letter.

Later in the fall I took Spitfire south on the ICW, a trip I wanted to do solo, something on my bucket list. It was a great experience, although I did travel in company of another boat which made evening dinner much more engaging. When we were in the Carolinas, we both picked up chatter on the VHF radio that was oddly clear yet unintelligible. It sounded like Klingon. It went on for miles.

 The tall Morad VHF antenna can be clearly seen on  Spitfire , well clear of other antennas. This is a most impressive antenna. 

The tall Morad VHF antenna can be clearly seen on Spitfire, well clear of other antennas. This is a most impressive antenna. 

An hour later we were well south on the waterway where we'd first heard the odd sounding conversations between at least two, possibly three individuals. The other boat could no longer hear the chatter, but it stayed with me alone on the flybridge throughout the day. When we docked for the night I sort of forgot about it, yet the next morning it came back on at first light as I headed back out onto the waterway. Sometime later that morning I passed an inlet coming in from the sea, and three shrimpers were headed in from the Atlantic. Looking at the names of the fishing vessels clearly marked on their bows, I immediately understood the language issue. All three fishing boats had Vietnamese names, and clearly I had been hearing offshore chitchat of the crews in their native tongue. It was very funny to see the source of this Klingon-sounding language, which, of course, now made perfect sense. This Morad 10dB antenna picked these transmissions up from quite a distance away. It is a very impressive antenna although it was also way more expensive than the radio.  https://www.morad.com/collections/antennas/products/vhf-156-10db-ups

I guess it's time to start planning my next big boat, as all this talk has me itching to do it all over again. Let the journey continue!