Visiting Ecuador

Boat Chores For One And All

David and Marcie painting markings on the anchor chain. When you drop the anchor and pay out chain, you watch the markings to figure how much chain is deployed.  

David and Marcie heading down the marina's driveway to go shopping in town (notice the security command post at the entrance gate). Actually, I'm going shopping with them, too, but I stopped to take the picture. I have about a million pictures of Marcie and David walking away from me. Marcie is wearing her very classy "Panama hat"—it's a little known fact that "Panama hats" are actually made in Ecuador!  

Here we are walking through town on a shopping trip. La Bamba, the plastics shop, is the second building from the right.  

By the time I arrived in Ecuador, Nine of Cups looked beautiful. It really showed off the results of David and Marcie's hard work (and the money they paid the boatyard to have work done). However, there's always "one more thing", then another thing, then another. It takes a huge amount of concentrated effort to finally get all the items crossed off the to-do list. And as every boat owner knows, the work is never done. By the time you complete all the original to-do items, there's a whole batch of new items on the list.

David has been working very hard (Marcie, too, but especially David) on difficult and physically demanding jobs. He gets up early (6:30 or so), works hard all day, then drops into bed in the mid-evening (9 to 10'ish). David does the vast majority of his work alone, and he probably likes it that way (I like working that way, too). It's the typical last-minute rush. After being on the hard for five months, they are now down to the last several days in the boatyard. All the numerous tasks that have been in-progress now have to be completed, everything on the boat has to be re-rigged and prepared for sea, and all in a few days time.

Once I got settled in, I was assigned a list of boat chores: figure out why the starboard wind generator doesn't produce electricity, figure out why the SSB radio has poor reception and work on some antenna problems, upgrade the communications system with the next version of the Pactor software (which allows us to send/receive email while at sea), help fix the windspeed indicator (which has corroded wires), and fix the speed transducer cable.

I got started on the wind generator problem and spent an hour or two troubleshooting. It was fun being a technician again. There were enough complexities and contrary details that I actually had to use my brain to figure things out. The problem turned out to be corroded slip ring commutators on the wind generator pole. David fixed the problem by climbing on the pulpit frame, lifting off the top of the wind generator (basically, all the parts that move) thus exposing the slip rings. He then lightly sanded the rings, restoring the electrical connection.

The SSB radio problems were more complicated, and I spent quite a few hours experimenting over the course of a couple of days. The basic problem is that David is not satisfied with the performance of either receive or transmit—he can't hear stations and they can't hear him. I measured the antenna performance while moving the main antenna wire around: higher, lower, left, right, loose, taut, etc. I also tried moving around the antenna lead-in wire. Then I tried using temporary random-length antennas made from hookup wire, one 15 feet long, another 25 feet long.

Most of the experiments seemed to cause changes in the radio performance, which I dutifully logged in my notebook. Then to my chagrin, I discovered that the weatherfax station I had been monitoring (which had a good, steady signal) had gone off the air. For a lot of the tests, I had just been measuring the background noise on the station's frequency. All the tests would have to be repeated.

Anyhow, to make a long story short, the only real signal improvement was when the lead-in wire was allowed to hang loose from where it connected to the antenna, rather than routing the lead-in wire along the metal pulpit frame. We decided that while at sea, we would normally keep the lead-in wire secured to the metal frame to protect the wire from breakage. When we needed to use the radio, we would temporarily allow the wire to hang free of the frame, then re-secure it when done using the radio.

Both David and Marcie have amateur radio licenses (I do, too!) so we can use the SSB radio on the amateur radio frequency bands to send and receive messages over long distances. The old-fashioned way of communicating was via the dit's and dah's of Morse code. Nowadays, most people communicate via voice, speaking into a microphone and listening on a speaker. The high-tech way of communicating is to use advanced digital communications, basically sending/receiving digital data over the airwaves using a sophisticated modem. The most popular digital communications technique for amateur radio is based on a communications standard called Pactor. Several companies manufacture modems that adhere to this standard, and all such equipment is interoperable over the air. Using a Pactor modem and the SSB radio (plus a laptop computer), David and Marcie can send/receive email while at sea, thousands of miles from the nearest Internet cafe. It's a pretty slick system, and a great credit to the cleverness and perseverance of the amateur radio enthusiasts who developed it.

So much for background material. There is now a new Pactor standard that can send/receive data many times faster than the old standard. It's my job to investigate what we need to do to use the new standard. I spent quite a while over several days browsing around on the Internet, downloading software, reading manuals, playing around with the SSB radio, the Pactor modem, and the laptop computer that controls the whole shebang.

I finally figured out how everything worked and got the system to copy some traffic in monitor mode using the old Pactor standard. Unfortunately, the stations I found were difficult to receive (weak signals and unknown center frequencies), so I had trouble getting the system to work reliably. David suggested sending a position report, which requires transmitting and receiving. I had trouble with that, too, but most of the problems were due to poor signal propagation due to our location and the time of day (different frequency bands work better or worse depending on the time of day).

I had downloaded the new Pactor software and user manuals at an Internet cafe and burned them to a CD-ROM. The idea was to put the CD-ROM in David's laptop computer and upgrade the software on the laptop, then download the new Pactor software into the modem. However, since we're having trouble getting the system to work even with the old software, we decided to hold off upgrading the software until we can get the system to work reliably. Once we have better propagation conditions, we'll verify that the system still works properly using the old Pactor software. Then we'll install the new software and verify that the Pactor system works at the much faster data rate. Finally, as a last step, we have to go online at an Internet cafe (wherever we happen to be at the time) and visit the modem company's web site to purchase a license for the new software. The deal is, anybody can use the new software for free, but it only works at the new high speed for a limited time (20 messages). After that, you can only use slow speed unless you pay a one-time license fee. So, all that is TBD, sometime in the future.

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