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Crew, Cooks and Creative Technology

Posted by Keith on April 30, 2007 at 4:34 pm  

OK, so as John Baker, Chief Technician at our Phoenix radio station, KFYI, reminded me, being “stuck in Hawaii” is an oxymoron.

But, well, we are stuck in Hawaii for another 48 hours. However, we’re leaving Wednesday if I have to swim! (Did I already promise this when I wrote in an earlier blog that we’d leave today?)

Anyway, here is what’s happening:

Crew News

1. Our intrepid First Mate and Technician, Rip Knot, is going to be leaving the crew, at least for now. He will return to Seattle to attend to pressing business matters either from Honolulu immediately after the ship departs for Marjuro, or from Marjuro if he is able to stay with us for an extra ten days. I will REALLY miss Rip. He is a great guy, and has worked hard to decipher the interface of our broadcast technology with our Sat-Com system. This is no simple matter in a marine environment (more on this in a moment). He hopes to rejoin the crew at a later time. We hope so too!

2. Dennis Brunsen, a fine technician who actually installed most of our radio broadcast gear, has arrived from Phoenix today. He has volunteered to work with Rip — while I watch and take notes — for the next day or two, in order to resolve all lingering equipment-interface issues. Dennis will then return to Phoenix. I really appreciate Dennis’ complete willingness to interrupt his vacation to join us here.

3. A young woman, Alida Christiensen, will be flying in from Seattle tomorrow to join the crew. She is an experienced seaman with a 100-ton Coastal Masters License — and she can cook! We’ve already provisioned the boat with plenty of food for the trip. But we are all losing weight because none of us really likes to cook! Alida has worked with our Captain, Wolf, before, and comes highly recommended. Yahoo! Food!

What follows is a summary of the technical issues we have addressed since arriving in Hawaii. Tech Heads should find themselves in hog heaven, below:

Sending Photos and Videos From the Ship

We are equipped with a Fleet 77 satellite communications unit. For the uninitiated, the system starts with a big dome on top of our stack that tracks to the nearest satellite. It then reports what it sends or receives to or from our below-deck companion unit. That unit in turn sends signals to or from our router, and to or from our computers. Currently we are on the Pacific Ocean Region (POR) satellite.

If you look at a picture of our ship you will see two matching domes. Actually, the second dome houses our SeaTel system, to receive television signals when we are near coastal areas. It does not provide a TV signal at sea. The SeaTel actually comes with a smaller dome, but for aesthetics, we installed a larger dome over the SeaTel unit to match the Fleet 77 dome.

The Fleet 77 is a terrific unit. While we also have an Iridium Sat-Com phone aboard, and while it provides mobile flexibility, I prefer using the Fleet 77 system for phone calls. The Fleet system is much clearer and the connections rarely fail. However, airtime on a Fleet 77 system can be very expensive.

Our Fleet 77 system offers three satellite connection options: ISDN (integrated services digital network) connections at either 64 kps, or at 128 kps, or an MPDS (mobile packet data system) connection. The ISDN connections are billed according to time spent on the system. The MPDS connection is billed according to the amount of data sent or received.

The retail cost for Fleet 77 64-kps ISDN service is nearly $7.00 per minute at peak hours. Their 128 kps connection is twice that, and may not always be literally twice as fast as the 64. Again, these are time-sensitive charges. Reduced charges are available for larger users. The meter is running once you are up on the satellite and connected to wherever you want to go — to a website while using a laptop for example, or to our radio station using our Comrex broadcasting unit, or to a telephone using any of our on-board telephones.

The MPDS connection is much less expensive and only incurs charges when you are sending or receiving data.

MPDS, therefore, is much more appropriate for sending and receiving small amounts of data — emails and small documents, for example. However, for sending larger amounts of data such as photos or videos it does not work nearly as well. The problem is with the connection. Especially at sea, and during busy usage hours, it can take quite a long time to send, for example, a 500 KB photo, and forever to send, say, a 77 MB video. And because of the time it takes, especially at sea, the signal is often interrupted, and the transmission lost.

We learned this during the 12-day trip from San Diego. KVH’s chief technical guru, Steve Buckingham, advised us by phone and email during the trip that it ultimately is more cost efficient to send large packets of data (translation photos and videos) via ISDN.

We also learned from our Phoenix website technician, Gary Verhoff, that we should make every effort to “step down” these photo and video data-packs. This means translating, for example, a 77 MB video to, say, a lower quality 2.4 MB video by using various software. This must be done before we ever go online with the satellite. Gary reminded us that for website purposes there is no need to maintain the HD quality of our videos. However, we save all our videos in HD on our local computer. This will provide us with an HD video archive should we elect to produce a documentary of our trip.

Meanwhile, we have a wireless router on the ship so that we can send and receive MPDS data on our laptops from anywhere aboard. However, I have elected to require a fire wire connection here in the pilot house for ISDN usage. This provides a beneficial cost-control point, and ensures that we will not lose an expensive ISDN connection mid-stream due to local wireless interference.

Unfortuntately, on the way over we just didn’t know how to use ISDN to send larger packets of data. This prevented us from sending more photos and videos. We also learned that we needed to practice our video and photographic editing skills. We’ve been working on all this and more since arriving in Honolulu.

Posting Videos to the Website

For videos we have two portable cameras: A massive commercial-quality shoulder-mounted Cannon XL-H1 with image stabilization, and a small Cannon HV20. I have not yet learned how to work the big camera, but will on this upcoming leg. Meanwhile, I’m getting danerous on the HV20. We also have about 10 on-board permanent installation cameras on board, with a wireless microphone system that we have not used yet. Again, on this leg, we will experiment with this more sophisticated arrangement. Dennis Brunsen will be particularly helpful here since he installed the wireless microphone system, and has worked with the onboard cameras.

When sending videos I first import the video from the camera to IMovie on the Apple, and edit the various clips until I am satisfied with the finished product. this is a real art, and I must say, Apple’s IMovie is incredible. It just takes time to learn it. For my latest Academy Award Winning effort please see the video, “A Day at Ala Moana Park”, posted on the home page.

I then enter Quicktime from IMovie and format the movie in Quicktime. Then — a third step — I pull up Flash Encoder, transfer the movie from Quicktime to Flash, and step down the quality (and thus the file size) as in the above example: From, say 77MB to as little as 2.4 MB. Since it costs us about $15 per MB using the KVH ISDN connection, this represents a HUGE savings.

Finally, I pull up a program on the Apple called “Fetch”. I give Fetch the secure website “FTP address” to which I wish to send the video. This is one of the “back rooms” of our website. Then, using Fetch, I, well, fetch the stepped-down video file I wish to send. Then a little dog runs back and forth across the software until the download is complete. No, I’m not kidding.

Once the video is on the FTP site, I go into that “back office”, push a few more buttons in our “back office” software, give the video a title, and poof, the video is posted to the front page of our website.

Nothing to it!

Posting Photos to the Website

For still photos, I use my Cannon Rebel XTI digital camera. If I know I am shooting for the website, I set the photo quality on the camera itself low, at “S” (1936×1288). This is the easiest way to “step down” the quality for transmission to the website. The disadvantage is that we then do not have a super-high quality image stored anywhere because, at the lower setting we never took one.

I then import the photos I’ve taken to either my laptop PC — an HP Pavillion — or to our wide-screen Apple, whichever is handy, using the down-loadable software that comes with the camera. Certainly, the Apple provides more photo editing capabilities.

We then use another “backroom” program to upload the photos to the website. I get the photos I wish to send ready on the local computer, and then go online using the ISDN satellite conection, to our secure web address. Much like Fetch or FileZilla , the program permits me to select the photo I wish to post, to the exact collection of photos I desire as posted on the website.

Broadcasting the Radio Show

The key technology involved in broadcasting our radio show, in addition to the KVH satellite connection, is something called a Comrex rack-mounted Access unit. This unit digitizes my voice and sends it as data through the satellite, through the internet, to another Comrex rack-mounted “always on” terminal installed at the radio station. The technician there just prompts it up on his monitor, and plays the show. Clarity is incredible. It honestly sounds as if I am broadcasting from KFYI’s Phoenix studios.

Contributing to this clarity is the quietness of the Nordhavn 55 pilot house. We do all our broadcasting from here. When I was first considering a Nordhavn I saw a video they made where you could hear a clock ticking in the pilot house despite 40 knot winds and heavy seas outside. I didn’t believe it.

I do now. It is just a great ship.

To broadcast our radio show we connect my microphone and headset to our rack-mounted Comrex unit in the pilot house. We route the Comrex signal through our rack-mounted communications computer to the KVH satellite system. We have the option of using a mixer, but this is really not necessary unless we have two microphones going at the same time. We then turn on our Comrex system, and establish the KVH ISDN connection to begin our broadcast. (Yes, an ISDN connection — and yes, it is costs about $1,000+ to broadcast a three-hour show from at sea!). Using the computer, we run the the entire system with software provided by Comrex.

Interestingly, we have just received one of Comrex’s brand new portable Comrex Access units. It works like a charm! When on land, I can use this unit, with a small microphone, and a pair of cheap headsets, to broadcast our radio show — for free — from any internet connection in the world! Amazing!

It will also serve as a backup for our rack mounted on-board Comrex unit . In other words, a little box, no larger than half a loaf of bread, can provide us with broadcast-quality sound from land or sea anywhere in the world!

And in Conclusion…

The technicians at Comrex, KVH, and at KFYI have been wonderfully patient as we learn all this. Fellow boaters have also been most helpful.

I must say I now know more about this stuff than I ever wanted to. But I now realize I simply should learn it. For the past ten years, as President of DeGreen Wealth Management, which I sold last fall, I’ve “had people” for things like this; and while even on board I hope to always have someone here more conversant at all this than am I, I fully realize now that under these circumstances the end user — that’s me — must have a solid working knowledge of the technology.

So here we are “stuck in Hawaii” refining our communications interfaces, and honing our editing and data packaging skills. Pretty darned exciting, eh?

Meanwhile, I’m not saying I’m much of a technician yet; but, hey, the trip has just begun!



1 Comment so far

  1. Morey Sherman on May 8, 2007 1:57 pm


    Looks like you’re living the good life! Why not travel, work and receive a paycheck at the same time. Life is full of experiences and you’re racking them up on a daily basis. Your mom told me about this site. Have you also earned your open water dive instructors license yet? Then you’d have the whole package. My brother was a co-captain and dive instructor for the Agressor Fleet. He sure has some great pictures of his experiences. I’ll forward this website to Morgan and Tori.

    Morey Sherman


    It’s nice to know that my Mom, rest her soul, although in the final days of life, thought enough of her son to pitch the website to you! No, I haven’t been scuba certified yet. Hope to get that done in Pohnpei. But I do have all the gear! My best to your family.


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