Software Science Project

Sailboat mysteries are bad. Knowing how everything works is sort of the point. And knowing how everything works may also be life-or-death.

The electronics on Red Ranger can be split into two groups:

  • Portable. This includes phones, iPad, computers, watches. A hand-held VHF radio.
  • Fixed. This includes the two chart plotters, the instrument repeaters, the AIS transponder, the two VHF base stations, the entertainment system.

The two lists are (intentionally) short. It’s essential to be sure of each item, and where it is. The classic “I think there’s one in the forward hanging locker. Or. Maybe I gave it away to someone” isn’t really a good policy.

The Commodore is pretty sure we should be able to list all the things we own. Off the top of our heads. In an emergency. This is either a consequence of minimalism or one of the reasons we've adopted a minimalist life-style. 

There are two other ways to partition the electronics.

  • Updatable Software. The phones, iPad, computers, watches. The nav station Zeus2 chart plotter. The instruments, for the most part, all have updates available. This is a worrisome thing.
  • Firmware only. The Standard Horizon chart plotter, all three VHF radios, the entertainment system. This is a “yay”. Turn them on and they work.

There’s some overlap between items in the Portable and Updatable categories. That means a few hours of WiFi and many of our things are all patched and ready for use.

The lack of overlap is notable. The Zeus2 chart plotter and the instruments need an update, but we’re not dragging Red Ranger into the marina lounge for some quality WiFi. 

Shout-out to Herrington Harbour North for having fabulous WiFi on the docks. Shout-out to B&G for making it possible to connect to WiFi and download patches and updates.

At this point, we’re several updates behind. Each time I turn on the nav system, there’s this kind of thing.

We’ll be applying as many updates as we can through WiFi. It’s easy and nearly painless. (Not completely painless. Each reboot involves silencing a warning that we’re moving too slowly. It’s the “adrift” alarm, and I think I need to disable it.)

We have at least one known problem. And one mystery.

The Zeus2 can’t update the Simrad AP44 Autopilot Control; it needs its software on a USB drive. (Formatted FAT32, which can be challenging enough.)

There’s a list of updates on the chart plotter that can’t be applied. I’m not sure precisely what this means. A mystery is a potentially bad situation arising at sea. I’d like to have no mysteries.

This coming weekend, I’m going to make a careful list of what needs to be updated and how the updates are performed. I have a theory that I need to download the files and put them into a MicroSD card that the Zeus2 can read and propagate. I’m not sure how this is going to work, so stay tuned.

I’ve also got to update the charts. For the US, this is a download from NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. Outside the US (i.e., the Bahamas) I need to buy charts. 

The sidebar task is to actually write down the steps required for software and chart updates. The software update *should* be as accessible as bending on the stays’l with a halyard and two sheets. Emphasis on should. There should be no science project software or mysteries on a boat. 

ty  © Steven Lott 2020