Sunday, April 09, 2017

Anchor Links

I've written a lot about anchors and anchoring over the years, and here is a compendium of some links to take you to some of that stuff along with other great articles on the subject.

Email Two-Step

You’re anchored securely in a tropical lagoon you used to dream about...Then the “real world” drags you back. No matter how magical the anchorage there comes the time when you have to dinghy ashore to seek out Wifi and an Internet cafe so you can pay the bills, find parts, check in with family and friends, and if you are really courageous, read the news.


Today, voyagers enjoy a multitude of Internet benefits that make managing your real-world life much easier, but there are also new concerns to be aware of. Your boating online life will center around email. Almost every bill can be received via email. Many things that formerly were very difficult for voyagers to receive come via email. In addition, an email address is the necessary identifier you are using for everything from online banking to getting access to your online photos and calendar.

Like many of you, I have had a Gmail address since they were only available by invitation. Many years of my online life are referenced in gigabytes of email stored there--along with tons of sensitive information. The dilemma of online and cloud life is that it can be both tremendously useful and tremendously dangerous at the same time. All of that convenience comes with the danger that not only can you access your digital life anywhere, but so can the mythical 400-pound hacker lying in bed in New Jersey.

The 2FA Two-Step


“Ah, Ha!,” you say. “But, I have a password that is so strong even I can’t type it accurately, and I have turned on two-factor authentication!” The idea behind 2FA is great: you not only need something you know (your password) to log in, but you also need something you have (your smartphone) as a second step. A lot of us do this all the time: generate a code via an authenticator app or wait for an SMS text message to arrive, and then away we go looking up last year’s tax returns, grandma’s social security number, or transferring money between bank accounts. Google (and others) highly recommends we all use 2FA wherever possible, and so do I.


Back to the tropical lagoon. You zip ashore in the dink, find a cool Internet cafe with Wifi, fire up the computer, maybe connect via a VPN for extra security, then you try to log into Gmail. The GMaster recognizes you are not logging in from Podunk, Iowa, then promptly prompts you to use your authenticator app. But wait, you lost your phone four weeks ago when you dropped it in the harbor as you were hauling the anchor in the Galapagos. OK, that means no SMS messages either. OK, how about those backup codes you printed out and stored safely someplace on the boat? The question is where did I put those dang (substitute appropriate language here) things!


Luckily, your wife, smart person she is, remembers exactly where those codes are--in the safe deposit box in Podunk. Great, now what? You’ve got backup email addresses and phone numbers set up, right? Well, one is grandma’s and she never checks her email and has forgotten her password. You discover this by making an expensive call home, waking her in the middle of the night, and then waiting ten minutes for her to find and put in her hearing aid. The other backup is your wife’s phone number and she cancelled that when you set sail. You get the picture.


You are a Product, not a Customer


Now comes the fun part. Remember all that great free stuff Google gives you? It isn’t free. In exchange for letting you enjoy the Internet good life Google mines that life for everything you are worth. Many of us put up with this in exchange for Free, Free, Free! Since all of this free stuff costs billions of dollars to create, maintain, and secure Google has cut expensive support to the bone. Good luck trying to reach a human being to explain your problems to: “I’m on a sailboat in the South Pacific in this beautiful tropical lagoon sipping Pina Coladas in a waterfront bar and I need help getting into Gmail.” Luckily, there is no way to reach anyone to tell your embarrassing sob story to. Instead, start filling out online forms that ask you for all those things we just identified as being unavailable to you: your phone number (sunk), your alternate email address (grandma can’t access), your wife’s phone number (cancelled), your codes (in the safety deposit box), etc.


Sound far fetched? Do some Googling around and you will find many horror stories, including some from people who were never able to regain access to their Google accounts. In my own experience you can easily get locked out of your Google account when traveling overseas for even short periods of time. I flew to Australia and was staying in a nice hotel with Internet access, but Google, in its wisdom, determined I was logging in from an unusual location and blocked me. At the time I was using SMS for 2FA and my phone number wouldn’t work in Australia. My backup email and phone were my wife’s and I couldn’t reach her easily because of the time (and day) difference, my printed codes were safely stored at home, and the phone and service I purchased locally was requiring me to click on some activation link they had sent to my Gmail address that I couldn’t access! I eventually sorted out the problem, but was never able to get into my work email account because their security settings were such that all access was blocked from foreign locations.


Searching for Holy Grails


There is no (metaphor alert!) Holy Grail full of magic bullets to solve the security vs. availability paradox, but there are some options that can help. First, it is important to turn on and use 2FA on whatever important accounts you have: email, banking, investments, taxes, Amazon, PayPal, etc. Personally, I’m not so worried about many other logins: forums, clubs, memberships, etc. Social media accounts can be very dangerous, especially if you’ve used that convenient option to login to other accounts using your Facebook or other profile. Just the life details that can be mined from social media can make you very vulnerable to online attacks. For example, your Facebook account may very well contain the answers to some of those annoying security questions you have answered: the name of your first pet, your mother’s maiden name, etc.


Hopefully you agree that strong passwords and 2FA are important. Use a password manager too, so you don’t have to remember those strong passwords and also so you can use unique ones on every site. Those steps are just basic Internet hygiene.


There are ways to mitigate the Gmail problem. First, consider using an alternate email address that you control, not one that might be out of your control (like grandma’s). Keep in mind the possibility that it might also be very hard to get into this alternate email address due to the same factors that are blocking your access to the main account. For example, your alternate address for Gmail should not be another similarly secured Gmail account! You may want to consider using a relatively insecure email address with no 2FA turned on for that alternate address. Just be careful to never use that insecure email address for anything important. Make sure you keep the password to the alternate somewhere you will always have with you, or make it one you can never forget. Have all messages from the insecure account forwarded to your secure account too, just in case someone is trying to reach you that way and to alert you if for some reason the insecure account is hacked.


The insecure account can be very useful for general communication purposes if you have the discipline to never use it for anything that would be of interest to the 400-lb hacker. Most of us aren’t that careful and don’t have the spy’s ability to maintain two online personalities. At home I have an old phone plugged in and logged into an old email address I stopped using year’s ago. I am frequently surprised, not in a good way, at the important emails that show up from the old address. For example, one utility company still sends my bills to that address in addition to my current email address. I have tried to get the old address removed numerous times and it never works. Which brings up an important point--any email address you use must be secured to a level appropriate to what vulnerable information might be collected there. Consider closing old accounts that you no longer use--they create chinks in your online armor.


Think really carefully about backup phone numbers. For example, in the past I have caught myself using a work number that unfortunately couldn’t receive text messages--whoops! Similarly, don’t forget to check the numbers securing your account periodically. People move, change numbers, die and then you’re sunk. Another problem that should be obvious is the difficulty in reaching someone back home, in a different time zone, who is possibly not able to access the phone or email you have provided. Many cell phones are unable to receive calls from areas outside the home country, or sometimes calls from certain countries are blocked. Other times you can’t get call backs from someone using only a mobile phone because they don’t have the ability to call out of the country. Anyone who has voyaged knows the situation well. I tell loved ones and friends, “Don’t worry unless you hear from me.”


The Code


Google’s backup codes could be a good answer, and storing them in printed form somewhere onboard is probably a good idea if you will never forget and the location is reasonably secure. I wouldn’t put them anywhere near anything with my email address on it--just in case you happen to be pickpocketed or your boat is ransacked. Here’s what Google says about backup code use from here: https://support.google.com/accounts/answer/1187538?hl=en


Basics of backup codes
If you lose your phones or otherwise can't receive codes via SMS, voice call, or Google Authenticator, you can use backup codes to sign in. Follow the instructions below to generate backup codes. You can also use these codes to sign in if you don’t have your Security Key.
The codes come in sets of 10, and you can generate a new set at any point, automatically making the old set inactive. In addition, after you’ve used a backup code to sign in, it will become inactive.
We recommend you store your codes wherever you keep your other valuable items. Like the codes on your phone, backup codes are only valuable to someone if they manage to also steal your password.
Despite what Google recommends, I don’t think backup codes should be stored where “you keep your other valuable items.” Imagine what life would be like if your boat was ransacked. You would need to quickly go online to change passwords, secure bank accounts, possibly transfer money to replenish stolen funds, etc. With your backup codes stolen life might become even more difficult. Instead, consider the “plain sight” method of security. There are many great ideas out there such as storing codes on a card in the middle of a deck of cards. With this type of trick you have to be careful not to accidentally give away the pack of cards, or forget where you put it. I bought a boat once that had foreign currency (not much) stored behind some ceiling panels. I found it when I was rebedding some deck fittings. Obviously, the previous owner had forgotten about the hiding place--don’t let that happen to your codes! For some things like this I put them in a location that I know I periodically access, reminding me at intervals where the secrets are hidden. Your secret location is worthless if it is so obscure that even you forget about it--just like a password that is so strong even you can’t type it in accurately!


One Size Fits Nobody


Like most things in life, Internet security is not a one-size-fits-all situation. You need to explore your own security vulnerabilities to find a solution that works for you, but you do need to think carefully about these things before you leave the real world behind with its ubiquitous connectivity that can be both convenient and a trap.

This article first appeared in Ocean Navigator magazine. Check it out.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

No, You Don't Get What You Pay For

I have resisted publishing this post for purely selfish reasons--I get paid for writing articles for boating magazines. Unfortunately, the dominate theme in almost every current publication, whether paper or digital, is how you can throw money at a problem (or a perceived problem) in order to make it go away. You know the shtick: 10 Ways to Make Some Simple Problem Go Away (each one costing $1000-$10,000); The Boat of the Year (how to spend $250K and up); or my favorite, The Latest Styles to Make You Look Like a Catalog Model!

I understand the problem. The Internet destroyed the advertising model that supported magazines for years, meaning all of them are chasing a vastly smaller pool of revenue that is determined solely by clicks. Plus, the boating industry was simply destroyed in the economic crash of 2007-2008 and has not recovered, meaning that advertising revenue has declined by 50-100% for most publications. However, I would argue that does not mean that the only route to survival is to suck up to your advertisers while insulting your readers.

OK, I am old and old school. I come from when people started small, learned how to fix up old boats, gradually worked their way up to coastal sailing and maybe local cruising, and then maybe purchased a bigger (but usually older) boat to sail off over the horizon. However, we all read books by the Pardeys ("go small, go now"), the Hiscock's (sail around the world on $5000), Bernard Moitessier (just do it), or the Roths (fix your small boat yourself on the beach in Patagonia). That stuff isn't even mentioned today and most of those books are out of print.

Today, you read about how to purchase your first 45-foot yacht for "only" $500k, but be sure not to leave harbor until you have installed $50K in electronics and $50K in safety equipment and $50K in gew gaws to make life afloat just like living in Trump Tower. Gold plated seacocks are the best!

I am reminded of a super catamaran I got to inspect at the dock--brand new, from a top designer, with nothing but the best equipment with no expense spared. I marveled at the quality of everything, but the boat wasn't going anywhere until the networked systems were fixed. I spoke to the technician who was totally baffled by why nothing was working properly. Yes, he had all the wiring diagrams. Yes, all the equipment was installed per spec. Yes, the owner was spending $1000 or so per day to have technicians crawl all over the boat.

I instead went off sailing on my old boat, cruising the coast of Maine, only to read later about this boat's ongoing problems that prevented its departure on the planned world cruise. Sure, my boat didn't have wind instruments networked with the depthsounder and the holding tank monitor, but I was enjoying the boat and off Downeast instead of tied to a dock with invoice writers crawling all around.

My point is that you can be anchored in a gorgeous spot in Maine, the Bahamas, Tonga, or the Mediterranean, enjoying the sunset after a fascinating day ashore, or you can be tied up in a marina paying bills for technicians to try and figure out why the chartplotter thinks your boat is in Kansas. Don't be that boater anchored in Kansas!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Charting Electrics

Electronics are wonderful as long as the electrons keep flowing, but they are useless once the power ends — and it always does eventually! The trick on a boat, particularly one in a hot saltwater environment, is to keep those electrons flowing from the boat’s batteries through various connectors, wires, switches, fuses, etc., to the right places and to not get sidetracked or blocked.

Isolate
There are several unique factors to keep in mind with regard to charting electrics. It is not the same as wiring up a new light over the chart table! First, I have found it is important to isolate the electronics circuits from possible major surges caused by things like engine starting or windlass grinding. I have witnessed various electronic devices turning themselves off or on due to power surges, and low voltage is never good for sensitive electronics. Luckily, most modern electronic devices can handle a wide range of input voltages, including low-voltage situations, quite well.

On my boat I have a small fuse panel that resides right in the battery compartment. It is connected directly to the main large battery bank at the opposite end from where alternator and solar charging juice gets brought into the bank. Batteries act as filters for voltage spikes and a large house bank of batteries is fantastic protection. A very short fused lead connects the small electronics fuse panel directly to the battery bank. This panel is “always on,” meaning I only disconnect it for maintenance purposes. An entirely separate battery is used only for engine starting, which is usually the No. 1 routine action that can cause power spikes. Of course, the two battery banks can be combined using switches if required, but in normal operation they are kept separated with only a trickle charger from the main bank keeping the starter battery topped up. Normal starting only uses a tiny bit of capacity from the starting battery and if you are routinely draining that battery for some reason, your engine and/or starting system needs work.

Remain connected
I have learned through hard experience that it is far better to keep your electronics attached to power than to disconnect them. Many devices have small internal batteries that maintain critical memory, and those internal batteries can be difficult or impossible to replace. The job is also expensive and must be done by the factory in many cases. One issue I have right now is that my VHF radio lost its programmed MMSI number one winter when I had it disconnected, and the only way to have it restored is to send it to the factory — the repair charge would be greater than the radio is worth!

Some will argue that a fuse panel should not be in the battery compartment due to corrosion issues from batteries gassing and that the panel can’t be isolated using the main battery switch. All I can say is that I have used this system for decades on several different boats and have never found a serious corrosion issue. Your batteries should not be gassing that much anyway! If they are, it is time to closely examine your charging system.

Safety first
Concerning not being able to isolate this panel using the main battery switch, I don’t consider it a serious safety issue. First, there is an inline fuse in the short wire from the batteries to the panel; second, each individual power line is fused in a position that is very close to the battery. Most of the lines also have fuses close to the electronic device. The wires and fuses are very small, so in the event of a catastrophic short somewhere along the line, either the fuse or the wire will burn out very quickly.

The “always on” electronics fuse panel provides other benefits. When there is an electrical emergency in some other part of the boat, you can safely turn off the main battery switch and know that critical navigation and communication devices will continue to work. Think of the situation in a boat fire. You might quite rightly believe that the electrical system is to blame, so you flip off the main switch as the boat fills with smoke and then you try to call the Coast Guard only to find the VHF radio isn’t working. You then grab a hand-held radio and reach someone who can help, but then you can’t tell them your position because the GPS and chartplotter have been knocked out. You want to keep critical electronics running as long as possible in an emergency situation.

Of course, when it comes to most things on board, it is important to have backup systems that don’t depend at all on the main boat electrical system. I don’t go anywhere without a small, hand-held GPS that runs on regular alkaline flashlight batteries — no rechargeables! I want this GPS to always be available no matter what and, in my experience, small rechargeable batteries are not reliable, have much less capacity than advertised and have relatively short lives. Good old alkaline disposable batteries, on the other hand, last for years on board and it is very easy to carry enough to last years. They are available everywhere in the world too. I have a hand-held VHF radio that can take ordinary alkaline batteries for this very reason, along with a hand-held depthfinder and even an old hand-held RDF! Even in today’s world with few navigational radio beacons, there are almost always commercial radio stations or airport radio beacons that can be homed in on when all else fails. In any case, think through how you would navigate if your main batteries were gone for some reason — it will happen!

This article first appeared at Ocean Navigator. Check them out!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Cool stuff for a cool season

OK — I just dated myself with that title, but "cool" is the only appropriate word, in my opinion, for this potpourri of charting goodness.

Dock-to-dock Autorouting
You've no doubt read about the wonders of Google's self-driving cars that will take you from point A to point B safely while you do important things like drinking coffee and using Snapchat. I hope boating never gets to that point, but Navionics has taken a step in that direction with a new component in Navionics+, an optional pay-to-subscribe feature available in their free Boating app, or included with their paid Boating app. Check it out here. It is available for iPhone and iPad at this time.

We all have used chartplotters that let us create straight-line routes between various selected waypoints, but what if your trip is down the Hudson River or the Intracoastal Waterway? Plotting a course mark-to-mark would be totally impractical in many areas due to the tight curvature of the waterway, the lack of navigation aids within sight of one another and the need to travel in non-straight lines. Dock-to-dock Autorouting to the rescue!

This app feature does just what it says — it plots a course for you, based on navigation aids and chart information, down a narrow twisting channel. Having traveled the Intracoastal Waterway more than 25 times, I can appreciate the need for this. I picture myself rising early to catch the sun in a desolate stretch of the Carolina or Georgia waterway, where the channel resembles a series of wriggling snakes. Yes, there are lots of markers to watch for, and you should be using your Mark 1 Eyeballs too, but it would be really cool on that chilly morning to have my day pre-plotted for me.

There are many places in such a snake den where intersecting channels or waterways can take you from instant calm to panicked confusion, often followed by your keel making the determination that your morning coffee-starved brain made the wrong snap decision. Having a plotted route would avoid all that fun of rowing out an anchor to kedge your boat back into deep water.

Not only that, but this app feature also provides you with fuel consumption, distance and ETA estimates, hazard warnings and points of interest. Needless to say, Navionics provides the obvious disclaimer that "a route automatically calculated by Autorouting does not replace safe navigation practices and should never be your only reference." In other words, boating with your mind in gear is still the safe way to get from point A to B, especially when the straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.

Cuba, here we come!
Now that sailing to Cuba seems to be possible for many North Americans, everyone is looking for charts and guides — and NV Charts has delivered. They've recently released four charting regions covering the north coast of Cuba, and they have matching chart apps. If you purchase the paper chartbooks, you can also download digital charts that work with a free charting program for OSX and Windows, and you will receive a free charting app for use on iOS and Android. Learn more here.

I like this approach of encouraging cruisers to have paper and digital products; it means you are not entirely dependent on the flow of electrons in a marine environment. At the same time, how cool is it to have your big chartbook safely below on the chart table, while your hand-held phone or tablet provides the cockpit view you need? Or vice versa, depending on your boat.

NV Charts utilize both government hydrographic information and the company's own surveys conducted in small boats. They utilize symbols and colors somewhat different than those used by U.S. government charting agencies, but I have found them to generally be clear and easy to read. As always, boaters must use caution and those Mark 1 Eyeballs when navigating in less-traveled waters, particularly coral areas.

Office of Coast Survey Chart Catalog
OK, how cool can a chart catalog be? Pretty cool if you are the Coast Survey folks that bring us NOAA paper and electronic charts. Check out their online catalog hereto see what I mean. Choose a tab to see outlines of paper or electronic charts available and, using Google maps, you can zoom right in smoothly and quickly to the area you are interested in and you can highlight chart areas to get more information.

The view includes quick links to navigational products covering the selected area, and lists other charts in the vicinity. This is a fantastic planning tool, and it also helps to give you a big picture of the area.

This article was first published online by Ocean Navigator. Check them out for more cool stuff!

Hurricane Chartwork

During and before hurricane season you will read and hear lots of information on what to do when a storm approaches, and how to escape and remain safe. However, the most important thing is to pay attention, so that whatever happens you have days of warning. With a longer warning period you might very well be able to move your boat to a more sheltered harbor, or possibly even far enough from the storm to avoid the worst of it. 

The primary early warning tool is the National Hurricane Center's (NHC) website (http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/). Keep the site bookmarked on your cellphone, your home computer or wherever you'll be able to check it every day. The NHC is previewing a new website (http://www.nhcpara.noaa.gov/) with responsive design that will work better on phones and tablets. 

The NHC provides a downloadable and printable PDF Atlantic Basin Hurricane Tracking Chart that I find very handy. The paper chartlet is gridded so it is easy to plot latitude/longitude coordinates. I print out several blank ones and keep them on board so that I can plot out the course of a storm and have a ready reference to its progress, without having to fire up a computer or a phone. 

I have found that cellphones and the Internet are generally reliable and faster to get back up and running during a hurricane event. In many areas trees quickly take down power lines, along with phone service and cable TV, but cell towers have backup power and by the nature of the system there is a lot of redundancy. Even if you lose a signal from one tower, you may be able to move around a bit and pick up another tower. 

In recent years the NHC has become less useful to mariners when a hurricane makes a close approach. Critical information on storm location, progress, potential tracks, etc., is replaced by endless repetitions of warnings to "complete preparations" and "seek shelter." Strangely, this is when local television weather becomes a mariner's best friend. Local weather announcers are struggling to fill endless airtime so they microreport every detail and nuance of the approaching storm just about when the NHC becomes useless. Unfortunately, you do have to be patient during the inevitable reports from reporters trying to stand in the wind and rain to show everyone how terrible the weather is. 

I'm not a fan of TV on board a boat, but if you have one, use it! As an alternative, I have found many stations offer a live stream on the Internet, or it makes a good excuse to hang out in the marina lounge or a local bar! Unfortunately, in most places broadcast radio is much less useful — it is hard to find a station broadcasting detailed, accurate weather. 

When prepping for a storm your chartplotter, paper charts and cruising guides become critical. If I don't have paper charts of the area, I print out a very detailed chart of my surroundings and I keep it in a plastic zipper bag. You never know when the electronics or your power supply will fail, and things are likely to get very wet — even down below!

Many boaters have their main plotter at the steering station, which is not where you want to be located during a hurricane or a close approach. Make sure you have some sort of plotting device that can be used down below. As a storm's track relative to your location becomes defined, there is often time to readjust lines, move anchors to better locations or even move the boat a short distance to get better shelter. A chartplotter down below will tell you if there is enough water to get in behind that protective point, or whether you are now going to be downwind of that large marina with boats and docks breaking loose! 

Assuming you've got your boat well secured and in good shelter, often the biggest problem is debris or other boats floating down on you. I spent a good portion of Hurricane Bob lying on the bow of my boat fending off floating junk including an upside-down ATV, a large old Christmas tree and numerous 100-pound propane tanks. Often the biggest danger is other boats breaking loose and taking you with them, so use those charts to not only determine what will be immediately upwind of you but what might be floating down the river, bay or harbor from an unseen marina around the bend or an abandoned wharf falling apart. 

Needless to say, with that early warning you have had (you've been monitoring the NHC, right!?), you've explored the territory around your boat in the dinghy and have plotted out all possible hazards. I have a portable depth sounder that I use in the dinghy to give me an accurate idea of depths and hazards all around the boat for some distance — in case I drag, or in case I have to move the boat deliberately for some reason. In Maine I once found that the mooring the harbormaster had put me on allowed my boat to swing over a large boulder that would have been very close to my keel depth at an extreme low tide. I moved. Take those depth readings and write them down on that big-scale, small area paper chart you have printed out. This chart can be useful later if you find your boat has dragged into a shoaler area. 

Think ahead, use your charts to plot out every detail of your sheltered spot, and be prepared with backups for the backups when everything is soaked and broken! Stay safe this hurricane season.

This article was first published online by Ocean Navigator. Check them out for other great content!