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Outfitting the Nordhavn 55 with Computers – Part 2

John Marshall's Nordhavn 55 Serendipity - Photo Credit: CJ Walker

This is Part 2 of our new series on outfitting the Nordhavn 55 with computers instead of, or in addition to dedicated marine electronics such as chartplotters.  In the first installment we covered the boat itself, along with some comments about the boat from an actual owner, John Marshall.  In this article, John gives us his thoughts on the subject of computers aboard. John has some definite opinions, but they’re grounded in hard experience and are worth listening to.  Particularly note John’s views on keeping his computers isolated from potential outside infections and instability-causing “updates.”

Q&A with N55 Serendipity owner John Marshall

1.    Do you use any PCs or Macs onboard Serendipity?

We have five computers on Serendipity, with four in active use and one as backup.

2.    What are their roles?

-Two Macbooks, my wife’s and mine, are for personal use, email, web browsing, etc. We mostly use cellular data cards for internet connection as its more reliable than Wifi (and we have one of those Syrens bridges and internal AP).

– Primary Navigation: One desktop-style PC (120v) with Win/XP is dedicated to running Nobeltec.

– Backup Navigation: One notebook PC with Win/XP is my “hot backup” Nav system (also with Nobeltec). It can be plugged into the main instruments and GPS via a USB cable, but also has its own hockey-puck GPS. This is also my satellite communication PC (Inmarsat Fleet 55 running MPDS and Ocens email) as the OS needs to be stripped down to avoid to much background traffic. (*More on that later).

– One backup desktop PC that runs on 24v that’s configured with Nobeltec and can be used to replace the Primary Nav computer if it dies. This computer is stored, disconnected, in a metal case down below waterline.

3.    How did you select them?

PCs were selected given that’s what Nobeltec and my comm software ran on. So basically, the application software drove the selection.

Macs because we love the OS and Apps… we’re Mac people who suffer Windows because we have to. Unfortunately, none of the Mac-based navigation software is up the Nobeltec standard, at least IMHO.

 4.    Would you be comfortable with a computer-based nav system as your primary system?

Absolutely and I am. But… the caveat here is that I have two Furuno NavNet2 BB systems with chart plotters, and backup PC’s. I use the Furuno’s as read-only displays, but I know I can navigate the boat from them if needed, but I don’t like the interface for routes, etc. But the Furunos and their networked sounder, radar, plotters are wonderful as read-only instruments.

I also like having more than one chart source running, and I tend to keep one Furuno chartplotter zoomed down to 2 mile range so it shows great detail, and sometimes overlay radar on the chart, and then use Nobeltec for big picture and route planning as well as my autopilot interface for route following. 

A PC (running any of the available Nav applications) is infinitely superior to any chartplotter I’ve ever seen for route planning and route management.

 5.    If you have a PC aboard, does it serve any other roles, such as entertainment, ship management, etc.?

No, unless you count my iPod that’s hooked into the Bose system.

One thing I am a big believer in is minimizing the single points of failure. For instance, I would never consider putting my nav computer on a network or have it running background tasks. I don’t trust Windows that much. So I’m not a fan of a “wired, networked” boat, and prefer simple computers with an inactive backup computer. If lightning or viruses kill or disable my Nav computer, or the hardware just dies, I know I have a clean, backup machine kept in a Farraday-shielded box that I can quickly plug in and get running.

Also, I’ve only been able to gain confidence in Windows-based computers by stripping them down. No auto-updates, no antivirus, etc. Stripped down to just the base OS and Nobeltec. Then they are very reliable. But of course, in that mode, I can’t expose them to the internet, except to access Nobeltec or  Jeppeson sites for software and chart updates, in which case I use a USB cellular card.

*Background traffic: I’ve found the Windows OS and its applications (anti-virus being the worst) generate a lot of background traffic looking for updates or whatever, even when the user-configurable auto-update features are turned off. When I pay dearly for bandwidth, not connect time, as I do with Inmarsat and MPDS, that background traffic can be 10x or even 100x my actual email traffic. Even if I was paying for connect time, but had severely limited bandwidth as is the case with Iridium, the same issue applies. So stripping as much of that junk out as possible is key. I’m also experimenting with a third-party firewall that should let me block the OS from looking for updates. The built-in firewalls always trust the OS to communicate with its own trusted sites so you can’t keep them from talking.)

In the next installment in this series, we’ll publish the “Request for Proposals” detailing what we’re asking the computer companies to address with their suggested installations for an N55.  We’ll also have an extensive set of documents and drawings to share with you and we’ll start to get into the details of computer installations aboard.  Follow-on articles will each have the response from an individual computer company.  Stay tuned.

Copyright © 2010 by OceanLines LLC

Posted by Tom in Boats, Cruising Under Power, Electronics, Passagemaking News, People, People & Profiles, Technology