Thursday, April 12, 2012

Google Earth: A Very Cool Trip Planning Tool

Technology has made cruising a lot easier in recent years.  I remember when we got our first boat (a 20 foot Boston Whaler) when I was only 7 years old or so.  At the time, we got a Garmin chart plotter with about a 5 inch black and white screen, which was top of the line at the time.  Refreshing the screen took forever and the black and white display made it difficult to make out what was what.  But it was really cool to see our position overlaid on a chart rather than having to plot GPS (or LORAN) positions on a paper chart.

Fast forward 16 years and technology has continued to improve dramatically.  Chart plotters are ubiquitous even on the smallest boats and basic handheld units cost less than $100.  When I'm on the boat, I now have at least four different chart plotters (laptop with GPS puck and electronic charts, iPad, iPhone, Raymarine system), each of which is significantly better and easier to use than the old Garmin on the Whaler.  But the really exciting stuff comes when companies integrate multiple features into a single device.

The iPad does this better than any device I've used.

Say, for example, I'm curious what a place looks like before I get there.  I simply open up the route I'll be navigating in iNavX, press a few buttons, and the route opens up in Google Earth.  I can then zoom, pan, and change perspectives on the entire route with just a few swipes of my fingers and see satellite photography of the whole thing.

Virtually entering Punchbowl Cove
I could save a lot of money by cruising Alaska from my computer!
The advantages of this are many.  For one thing, I can look on the computer and compare anchorages by scenery, using my own judgement instead of relying on other peoples observations.  More importantly, however, I can navigate routes virtually, before I ever get to the most hazardous places.  This is a real advantage when entering unfamiliar marinas or navigating narrow and convoluted passages, especially if it is raining heavily or foggy when I arrive in a new place.

And this is just one example of how the iPad specifically makes boating easier.  Add in real time weather buoy data, a wealth of other weather forecasts and information, electronic tide and current tables that are searchable, an easy place to store all boat related equipment manuals, and access to online cruising forums and guidebooks like ActiveCaptain, and the benefits of technology become even clearer.

Unfortunately, Google Earth will only work when I have a good internet connection, so it's best to use it when WiFi or a strong 3G connection is available.  But with the pace of change in the satellite communications field, I doubt (hope!) it will be too many more years before fast, global satellite connections become affordable.

If only there was a way to get radar data and overlays onto an iPad, I would give up the Raymarine system in a heartbeat.  Sure, the iPad isn't ruggedized or marinized, but it would be easy enough to keep a spare aboard and even two iPads would be cheaper than a single mid-range MFD.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Trip Planning

A trip up the Inside Passage in a small boat is a significant undertaking.  Traveling in remote, unforgiving areas requires significant preparation in order to mitigate risks and increase comfort.  Broadly speaking, trip planning takes three forms.  First, a working budget must be created.  Boating can be expensive, and it’s important to figure out early on if a trip is really affordable or not.  Second, the boat itself has to be made ready.  Systems need to be added or upgraded, new equipment must be purchased and installed, and everything needs to be thoroughly inspected.  Third, destinations must be chosen and routes need to be planned.

Preparing the Budget

One of the biggest challenges I’ve had so far is figuring out just how much this adventure will cost.  Like most people, I have limited resources available and must carefully plan how they will be spent in order to safely and comfortably make the trip.  Roughly speaking, costs can be broken into two different categories: boat upgrades and cruising expenses. 

At this point the boat upgrades have been completed.  Some items, like the kicker, were expensive and will probably (hopefully!) be rarely used.  Such is the nature of safety gear; it’s purchased hoping it will never be used.  But if I ever find myself adrift on the lee of a rocky shore, the $1,600 for the kicker will have been a small price to pay for the ability to extricate myself from a potentially deadly situation.  There are certainly other improvements that I’d like to make, but the costs make them difficult to justify.  Balancing wants and needs is critical.  If I had the time and expertise, I could have significantly reduced these costs by installing equipment myself.

Figuring out cruising costs is a bit more difficult.  I anticipate fuel will be the single largest expense.  I have estimated that I’ll run the boat about 3100 nautical miles.  At 3.7 nautical miles per gallon, I’d burn roughly 840 gallons of gas.  Estimating fuel costs is difficult since they are highly variable, but I’ve tentatively used an average price of $6 per gallon, which results in fuel costs of a bit more than $5000.  Moorage, diesel for cooking and heating, engine maintenance, and miscellaneous repairs are also significant costs that are somewhat difficult to estimate, but will likely total another $2500 or so.  If something major breaks, the costs could be much higher, so there needs to be some cushion in the budget.  Food costs, cell phones, and other living costs are not included here since they should be roughly similar to normal costs at home.

I’ve found most cruisers are reluctant to share the costs for their travels.  This is understandable, but frustrating for others who are trying to figure out if a trip fits in their budget or not.  I’ll try to keep good records of costs as the trip progresses, and provide an update at the end.

This certainly isn’t the cheapest way to travel, but I think I’ll see a side of Alaska and British Columbia that I’d miss entirely if I were on a traditional cruise ship or traveling by car and air.  For me, the challenges and rewards of small boat cruising outweigh the high prices and, given the choice, I much prefer to spend money on experiences than on stuff.  I've yet to go on a trip that I regretted.  

Preparing the Boat

Here is a list of equipment that I have added to the boat in preparation for this trip.

·      Raymarine S1000 Autopilot
·      Lewmar V700 windlass
·      15lb Manson Supreme anchor with 350 feet of rode
·      Tohatsu 6hp kicker
·      Additional house battery and Blue Sea Systems voltage sensitive relay
·      Extra 12v power outlets
·      Shore power and battery charger
·      Mercury 200 (6’7”) inflatable dinghy
·      Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Kayak
·      iPad with backup electronic charting
·      Several 5 gallon gas cans for extra fuel to reach remote areas

There are lots of smaller items that have must be planned and purchased.  Storage spaces must be organized and spare parts must be acquired.  Clothing needs to be selected and bought, and there seems to be an endless list of odds and ends that are needed.

I spent a lot of time determining what I needed and wanted, and this list reflects what I thought were the most important additions to the boat to make this trip successful.

Preparing the Itinerary

Figuring out where to go is the most fun part of the trip planning process.  This process starts by reading tons of material from a variety of sources.  Cruising guides, owner blogs, and online forums all have huge amounts of information on the places to see and not see.  The challenge generally is not the availability of information, but rather sifting through the overwhelming amount of information.  Guidebooks are particularly useful for finding technical details about a place.  If I need to know if some place has fuel available or how deep the water is in an anchorage, a guidebook is the first place I look.  If I’m trying to compare two anchorages that are near each other, guidebooks are great.  But for a more qualitative assessment of places to explore, I’ve found blogs, forums, and personal communication are invaluable resources.  For this trip I’ve put an emphasis on getting away from the crowds and seeing nature at its finest.

The routes I’ve planned out are ambitious.  The west coasts of Vancouver, Prince of Wales, and Chichagof Islands are unforgiving and particularly susceptible to bad weather (every part of this trip is weather dependent).  People regularly get into trouble in these areas in boats much larger and more seaworthy than my 22’ C-Dory.  It’s entirely possible, even probable, that whole sections of the trip will be scrapped due to weather, mechanical problems, learning about new places, or any number of other factors.  This itinerary isn’t like one you’d have on a group tour of Europe.  It’s fluid, constantly subject to additions, subtractions, and reorganizations.

The idea behind the itinerary is to show that this trip is technically possible.  I’ll be able to buy fuel when I need it and complete legs of the trip during daylight hours.  From a budget perspective, it also allows me to more accurately gauge distances and fuel costs.  Trying to follow the day-to-day schedule that I’ve set up is not just foolish, it’s dangerous.

Click here to see my most recent plan, and feel free to offer your advice.

I doubt there’ll be any more posts on here until I get back to Seattle towards the end of May.  I’m tentatively looking at leaving Anacortes on May 27, so check back after that for more interesting posts.