“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain


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WiFi Antenna on the Cheap(well cheaper)

Two big thanks on making this post happen.  Travis on s/v Party of Five helped me put together the list of components and the basic installation and setup.  Huge thanks to Jay on s/v Doctor’s Orders, fellow C310 sailor, who purchased these components for us.  The support we have gotten from the C310 owners is unbelievable but Jay took it to a new level.  Thanks again. 

The list of components is as follows:

  • Bullet Titanium (2.4 GHz)
  • iCreatin Passive POE Injector or Gigabit POE Injector (B0135STO2S)
  • Trendnet 8dBi Outdoor Omni or Amped Wireless High Powered Outdoor 8dBi (he said 8 dBi is better than the higher powered ones for this use, so don’t go bigger)
  • TPLink AC1200 wireless router (you can just cut off the power cord at the inverter box and wire direct to the 12 volt system on the boat with a fuse in line)
  • ethernet cable (length depends on install but a 100 foot cord would be fine with all the components)

All can be purchased from Amazon for under $250. 

Assembly is fairly straight forward.  For the Bullet, open the box and only remove the Bullet.  There are other components in there but you will not need them for the assembly as a wifi antenna on a boat.  Attach the antenna to the top of the Bullet.  Next attach the ethernet cable to the bottom of the Bullet using the waterproof housing on the Bullet. You could put up the Bullet and antenna assembly as is or you could add some additional weather proofing.  For instance many boaters will use electrical tape or Rescue tape on their VHF antenna connections to make them more weather proof.  You could do the same here. Personally I like Rescue tape because it doesn’t leave an adhesive residue when you remove it.

Now you have a choice to make: do you fix mount the Bullet and antenna or do you have it go up on a halyard?  Fix mounting has the advantage of being always out and ready to use.  But if you put it on a halyard you can adjust the height.  Travis on s/v Party of Five describes wifi signals like a cone.  So as they progress out from the source they have different heights that will offer the best signal strength.  So being able to adjust the height will give you the best possible signal strength.  I went for the halyard style install but I did run a second ethernet cable to the stern so that I could actually have the ability to install it on the stern rail and then take it down to put on a halyard for a better signal when needed.

The next big install question is 12 volt or 120 volt for the power over ethernet (POE) point and router.  Both the POE point and the router in the list above are actually 12 volt units.  There is a converter in the boxy plug that converts the 120 volt wall outlet power to 12 volt.  You can see that by looking at the writing on the plug.  So if you are only going to use the antenna on the dock you could just plug into an outlet.  But if you want to use it at anchor or you just like having everything on 12 volt like me, you simply cut off the plug end and wire the ends into your 12 volt system.  The tricky part of this approach is knowing which side is the positive and which is the negative.  Luckily the manufacturers of these two pieces made it easy. There are white/gray dashes on one of the lines going into the plug.  That is the positive wire.  There are a couple of ways you can test this to find out which is which but thankfully the manufactures made it easy here.  So I cut off the plugs, added ring terminals to each end and then connected them into a Blue Sea System terminal block.  I often use the terminal blocks to put multiple lines together for one power run to the panel. 

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Next I had to find a location to mount the router.  I chose to mount it upside down on the underside of the decks above the port settee.  I used 3M double sided tape to mount the router.  I cleaned the surfaces with isopropanol and let it try for 30-60 minutes before applying the tape.  Then I ran some 12-2 tinned copper wire from the terminal buss to the electrical panel.  The 12-2 wire is actually a bit of an overkill.  The router draws 2 amps and the POE point 1 amp (you can get that info from the plugs that I cut off to make them 12 volt) and the run from the panel is approximately 20 feet so a total of 40 feet of distance there and back.  Using a wire sizing chart, like the Blue Seas Systems one here (large PDF), you only needed 16 gauge wire.  But 12-2 wire is what I had on the boat so I used that.

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Final assembly is to plug the ethernet cable from the Bullet into the POE point, plug the POE point into router and power up the system.  An important thing to note here is that the POE point actually comes with two pieces.  One is for the router end and the other for the Bullet end.  You don’t need the Bullet end, just throw that away. When you plug the POE point into the router, use one of the spots labeled “1-4”.  Don’t use the spot for internet source.  Seems a little wrong but trust me.

Now that you have it assembled, the hard part starts: you need to configure the Bullet and the router.  I am going to give this in the easy way, which involves plugging the Bullet directly into your computer first.  I actually couldn’t do this because we have a MacBook Air and those don’t have ethernet ports.  So I did mine through wifi and the router which is harder.  If anyone needs this breakdown I can give that later, just email or PM me. 

The first step is to set you computer to have a Static IP address. This is different than how your computer will be setup for most people.  Here is how to do it on a Mac and here is how to do it on a Windows computer.

Once that is done, connect the POE point to your computer’s ethernet port. Now open up your favorite web browser (I prefer Google Chrome but IE, Firefox, etc. will do).  In the address bar type in “192.168.20.1” and hit enter.  This is the factor address setting for the Bullet.  That will bring you to an address screen that will ask for your username and password.  The factory setting is “ubnt” for both.  Once you enter that in and gain access to the Bullet the first thing you should do is change the username and password.  Click on the “System” tab and change the username and password. 

Program 1

This is the first place you will hit the quirk of working with the Bullet.  After you have changed the username and password you will need to go to bottom of the page and click the “Change” button (bottom arrow above).  Once you hit “Change” a new line will appear at the top of the screen asking if you want to apply the changes. You need to hit “Apply” before moving on to the next step. 

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This will come up often and was a big source of frustration to me when I would forget to hit “Change” then “Apply” after making some programing errors and I couldn’t figure out why my programing wasn’t working.

Next step is to click on the “Network” tab.  There are several changes that need to be made on this tab.

First, under “Network Role” change the “Network Mode” to “Router”.

Second, under “WAN Network Settings” change the IP Address to “DHCP”.  Also, make sure the “NAT” is enabled.

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Now under the “LAN Network Settings” is where things can get a little tricky.  Start by enabling the “DHCP Server” (red box in the middle of the screen shot).  Next go to the “IP Address”.  You need to choose your new IP address for your network.  This could be almost any numbers.  Most networking gear comes with 192.168.1.1, or some small variation on this number, as standard.  I am sure there is a reason for this but I am not a computer guy enough to know why that is.  But you will need to set the number for the Bullet and later the router to similar numbers.  You can see I used 192.168.50.1 while doing this write up.  I did change it after I did all these screen shots.  Someone could conceivably crack into your network if they knew these numbers (not sure how as this is way above my head).  My recommendation is to keep with the 192.168.XX.1 where the “XX” could be any number from 1-99.  This will just make things easier.  The “Netmask” can stay with the default of 255.255.255.0.

Program 4

Next you need to set the “Range Start” and “Range Finish”.  These are the numbers that are available to be assigned to your computer latter when you actually log onto the internet.  It needs to have the same first 3 sets of numbers you used for the IP address above.  Keeping with the numbers I used for this setup that was 192.168.50.  The last sets of numbers actually defines the range.  For ease of programing just use 100 to 200 here.  So the start is 192.168.50.100 and the finish is 192.168.50.200.  Remember to change the 50 to what ever number you choose for the IP address above.

****Now make sure to hit “Change” then “Apply”.

That completes the programing of the Bullet.  Now go back to the beginning and change your computers IP Address from Static back to automatic.

Next step is to program a Static IP address into the router.  You need to give your router a static IP address in the same range as what you gave the Bullet. So using the address of 192.168.50.1 for the Bullet, I used 192.168.50.2 for the router.  For the TP Link here is a link on how to do this programing.

Once you have programmed the router, now you can plug the Bullet into the router.  Remember, you don’t use the “Internet” source ethernet port but any of the ports labeled 1-4.  Doesn’t matter which one. And its the POE point that gets plugged into the router, the Bullet is plugged into the POE point and you have power to the POE Point and the router. Now power up.  Give everything about 5 minutes to startup and get ready for use.

Log into the Bullet by opening a web browser and typing the IP address into the top bar (i.e. 192.168.50.1). Then put in your new username and password. Now click on the “Wireless” tab. This is how you will go to use the WiFi antenna anytime you want to use the internet from your boat.

Operation 1

Click the “Select” button next to “SSID”.  This will bring up a list of available networks. 

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The two columns on this page that I pay the most attention to are the “Encryption” and “SSID”.  If you find “None” under “Encryption” that means this is an open network and you can join without a password.  Unfortunately you can see that there are no open networks near Maho Bay on St. John.  This is one of our favorite spots but unfortunately when we are here I have no communication.  No WiFi and no cell signal.  That means very little ability to check weather or hear if I have a new charter coming in that I have to get back to St. Thomas for. But such is the price to pay to swim with hawksbill turtles and catch lobster for dinner along some iconic beaches.

If there where an open network you simply click on the little circle next to the MAC address for the network and then hit “Select” at the bottom of the screen.  You will then go back to the programing screen and need to hit “Change” and “Apply” again like we discussed above. Give the antenna a few seconds and you should be online.

To verify that you are online you can check the “Main” tab.  If you go down near the bottom and click on “DHCP Client” you should have an IP address listed and the status should be connected.  Also there is a “Signal Strength” bar that will tell you how good of a signal you have.  If you opted for the halyard installation you can move the antenna up and down on the halyard and see where you get a getter signal strength.  It will change with height and higher is not always better.

Operation 3.png

Now sometimes you might have a specific network you want to connect to.  This could be your marina or a local bar.  We will sometimes put up the antenna and see what bars have a good signal.  Then we go over to that bar and have a drink and ask them for the network password.  Most of the time they have no problem giving the password to a customer but don’t want an open network.  Some places have caught on to this and will take your phone to put in the password so you can’t log on from a WiFi antenna. Once you have a network name and password you log in a little different.  You go to the “Wireless” tab and hit “Select” next to SSID, but now you are looking for the network name.  Note the security type “WPA” or “WPA2”.  Select the network and connect.  But you have an additional step on the “Wireless” tab before hitting “Change” and “Apply”.  Down at the bottom of the screen you should see a section for “Wireless Security”.

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In the “Wireless Security” section, select the correct security type and put in the password.  Now hit “Change” and “Apply”. You should be connected and can check it the same as described above.

Now I will have to admit, the programing side of this was a little harder than I expected when we started this project.  The very first time we set up everything I had Travis from s/v Party of Five with me.  But the original Bullet I got from Amazon was defective.  So by the time I got the replacement Bullet, we were in St. Thomas and Party of Five had moved on to Grenada. So I had to spend some time researching how to do all the programing. But once you get through it once the operation becomes pretty simple.

Here is another downside, I have had this post in draft for almost two weeks.  But in the USVI finding an open wifi or even a bar’s wifi that can work for posting pictures was nearly impossible.  Everyone is shutting down their networks and a lot of bars are figuring out ways around making their network available to cruisers.  But in the US you will likely have much better luck.


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VHF Radio for Leaving the USA

Sorry the blogging has been a little light lately.  The closer we get to leaving it seems like the less time that is available.  The to-do list seems like I cross off two things and add three.  Anyways, on to the post.

One item that came up in my research is that a US vessel leaving the country will need a Radio Station Authorization from the FCC.  If you only intend to operate your vessel within the waters of the US there is an exemption for recreational boaters.  But if you plan to leave the US then you need the Radio Station Authorization.  The operators also need the FCC Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit.  But in talking to cruisers it appears that you get asked for the boat’s radio station authorization but not the individual operator’s permit.  So we may not bother with the Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit.

There is one significant benefit to the Radio Station Authorization, you can get an international MMSI number  (Maritime Mobile Service Identity).  Most people just get the free MMSI number from Boat US.  Which is fine if you are in US waters.  It allows you to use the Digital Selective Calling (DSC) feature on your radio.  With DSC you can call friends on the VHF and have a private conversation almost like being on a phone.  You can also use the one button SOS that sends your info to the USCG with your GPS position.  However, the free MMSI doesn’t work outside of the US.  An FCC issued MMSI will work internationally.

The process was pretty simple.  You go to the FCC License Manager site.  Click on the “Need an FRN?” link then the “Register” link.  Fill out the info.  You will get an FCC Registration Number.  Return to the FCC License Manager, log in.

Once on the FCC License Manager, click “apply for a new license” on the upper left hand side.  The next screen will have a “Select Service” drop down.  You want the “SA or SB – Ship”.  You then run through a series of questions, we didn’t have a call sign, we are not required to carry a radio but we are traveling to foreign ports, enter all your boat info, enter some emergency contact info, etc.  You end up paying two fees, the PASM for $65 (for the MMSI, IIRC) and the PASR for $150 (for the authorization).   I completed this at 6PM at night.  By the next morning I got an email with the link to my authorization.  You can then print your authorization to keep a copy on the boat.  Other than the fee it was a relatively painless experience.


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Some Cool New Tech for Smitty

Thanks to my uncle I got in contact with the good people at Navionics.  We’ve been using their products to navigate Smitty for the last few years.

Our iPad running the Navionics app is our primary chart plotter.  We love how you can customize the charts and add local knowledge to help out other boaters or get help.  We can also run the app on our iPhones and synchronize information so that we have access to all our previous tracks or planned routes.   I can plot out a weekend cruise at work on my phone and pull it up on the iPad as we head out.  And when they added SonarCharts we didn’t think it could get better.

We were wrong….

Our SonarPhone T-BOX arrived today.  I can’t wait to get this hooked up and try it out.

Thanks Navionics!


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Two Electrical Projects Knocked Out this Weekend (bigger project found)

Boy, have we been neglecting this blog.  Over a month since my last post.  I have six posts in draft that I have to proof and add photos.  But work has been crazy and keeping me from this blog and other things.

This weekend I had a chance to jump on a couple of quicker electrical projects.

The first was installing the Smart Plug system.  After reading about several boat fires caused by running high loads (i.e. heaters) on the old twist and lock plugs and the typically well done article from Maine Sail/Compass Marine I was terrified.  It was time for this upgrade.  I ordered the refit kit from Amazon Prime for about $170.

The project was barely a cup of coffee long.

Here are the videos on the Smart Plug website that are very easy to follow.  And the written direction they provided were very easy to follow.  They even had one of the coolest things I have seen integrated into directions.  To scale wires so you could get the sizing perfect without using a ruler.

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The boat side of the project took about 25 minutes.  Could have been shorter but I found some corrosion on the leads that were hooked up to the old plug so I cut about an inch off and restriped the wires to get rid of it.

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The plug side took a little more time but the total project was finished in an hour and a half.

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You can definitely see and feel the upgrades to this system over the standard twist and lock.

The other project I worked on was something that has been on the list for 4 years.  Smitty came with a mast head TV antenna.  It’s a nice powered, HD antenna but it has never worked right.  A couple of weeks ago we were in Gloucester and the weather wasn’t looking great.  I tried to catch the weather but the cheap rabbit ears we have been using couldn’t get any local channels.  So I decided to tackle this project plus installing a 12 volt outlet for the TV so we could use it at anchor if we wanted.  As usual with boat wiring it came down to bad connections done by the previous owner.

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I cut those out and replaced all the power and antenna connections and the system now works great.  We have about 40 channels, most of them in HD.  We were able to watch the Patriots game on the boat yesterday in a nice, clear picture.

While doing this work I decided to check out the wiring for the wind instrument and radar.  Looks like I have another project to add to the list.

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iPad Navigation and Other Boat Uses

Smitty came with a decent Raymarine chart plotter/radar. There are two problems with using it though; its only in grey scale and you need to buy expensive chips to cover each area you sail. So we had decided to not use the chart plotter function and continue to use our Garmin 76 Cx as our primary chart plotter/GPS. (We still use the Raymarine unit to supply GPS coordinates to our VHF radio and for the radar. Plus it’s always there as a backup if needed.)

Garmin 76 Cx & Autopilot Remote

I would plot courses on our laptop and then download them to the Garmin. This system worked good but did have some limitations. For instance, on our relocation cruise we had loaded more charts onto the data card then it could handle. Instead of giving me an error message alerting me of this problem it just overrode other charts. We found this out while navigating into Plymouth Harbor in thick fog. As we passed Green Can #5, we lost all our charts. The Garmin just showed the boat position in a field a blue. Luckily my Bride is a trusty navigator and we were able to continue in to the harbor with less than 100 foot visibility using dead reckoning.

Plymouth harbor

Plymouth Harbor NOAA Chart

After that we started paying more attention to what files we were transferring and the space available. However, after having to reformat our laptop, I couldn’t reinstall the charts and routing software because it was no longer supported by Garmin. They have updated charts and software but those cost about $160 and $30, respectively. So this ment that I could only put in routes through the time-consuming act of adding waypoints at each location of a course change then setting up a custom route going waypoint to waypoint. This takes about 10 times the amount of time and it doesn’t let me see the route until complete. So if I make a mistake and plot a course through a rock or miss a waypoint, I have to start over. And all of it has to be done on the small three-inch screen of the handheld instead of the computer screen.

iPhone Navionics of our home port

iPhone Navionics of our home port

My friend Chris, a.k.a. Big C, suggested I check out the Navionics app on my iPhone. Great suggestion. I love this app. For $9.99 my iPhone was now a handheld chart plotter. Not only that, but when connected to wifi or via cellular I can get realtime information on weather, tides and currents. This is a very good product.

For 2012 I used a combination of the Garmin and my iPhone. It worked ok. One of the biggest issues with the iPhone is that to save power it goes black when not actively in use. Each time you bring it back up, it takes about a minute to find the location. And, as with the Garmin, I am doing my route planning on a small screen. This definitely has some down sides. I started researching options on what we should do to upgrade our system before we leave.

The options I consider were replacing the whole system with a new one (radar, chart plotter, the display), adding a second chart plotter like a Garmin 546, just upgrading my Raymarine screen to color with used equipment, getting a second Garmin handheld, a new laptop with GPS puck running OpenCPN and using an iPad or iPad Mini. Most of these options included spending $1,000 or more on dedicated equipment that was only single purpose use. Pacific Sailors, a cruising blog I follow, put up a post a couple of months ago on iPad on board. It was a very good post and was timed perfect for me. That post pointed out a number of other good uses for an iPad on board. Also, there was real world information about using the iPad to navigate. While continuing to do my research and check out all the options, a new product became commonly known: the Lifeproof Case. From all reviews and from friends that already have these cases on their iPhones, it is the best waterproof case on the market. It also gives tons of protection to the iPad. I was sold. This gave the perfect amount of flexibility, durability and dependability we were looking for. I could use this to plan our routes, navigate and a bunch of other things like update this blog, check the forums, get weather updates, you name it.

So we broke down and order the iPad 4 with Retna display and Verizon LTE.  We went with the 32 GB model in black.  We also got the Lifeproof Case, a blue tooth keyboard, stylus (I want to try to draw on the iPad) and two extra lightening wire cords.  In all, this set us back just under $1,000.

While I was waiting for the iPad and other parts to come in Road Trip, another blog I follow, did a post on using the iPad to navigate and what apps they use.

When I got the iPad, I downloaded a lot of various apps.  Some I had on my iPhone; others were new to me.  Most of the apps were either focused on weather, blogs and forums, or navigation.  But I did download some apps for entertainment including games, streaming TV shows and downloading movies.  I’ll give updates on these apps as I decide if I like them or not.  The only app we have paid for thus far is the Navionics for the iPad.  That cost $49.99 to cover all of North America.

When I downloaded the Navionics app, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my Navionics account would carry over between my iPhone and the iPad.  The routes I had already planned on my iPhone were archived to the iPad and vice versa.  The iPad definitely offers a better view for planning trips.  Here is the same route as I had above on my iPhone on the iPad at approximately the same scale.

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iPad Navionics for our home port

I really like this option based on my first week with the iPad.  We will see if I continue to feel this way.


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Two Comfort/Entertainment Upgrades

We completed two quick upgrades this weekend.

First, was putting on the Lewmar folding steering wheel we got at the Defender annual sale.  They are normally about $750 but we got it for $450 on a closeout sale.

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This is a great comfort upgrade and makes the cockpit feel even bigger.  I still have to re-install the autopilot. The OEM wheel had 12mm spokes and the new wheel has 16mm spokes.  So I have to order new clamps for the autopilot ($20 from Defender) and possibly drill and tap the drive wheel.

The other upgrade was we added a new stereo.  I had been pining over our friend Stu’s new stereo last year because he had wired remotes at the helm and in the cockpit (he has a power boat with a raised helm deck).  Our stereo had a remote, but it was infra-red and you had to be within sight of the stereo for it to work.

I was looking at the Fusion with the iPod/iPhone dock.  But that’s a $500 unit plus about a $100 for the remote.  Not exactly a budget friendly item.  I was looking at this unit during the boat show and a salesman from West Marine told me I should check out their new radio.  It comes with two remotes; one is infra-red but the other is radio frequency.  That means it doesn’t need line of sight and it was supposed to have a 30 foot range.  I watched West Marine for it to go on sale and picked up the radio for $169.

Here are the installed pictures.

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RF module.

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Wiring bus for speakers and power.

The first unit had a broken LCD screen.  The cell in the middle of the screen didn’t display correctly.  So I brought just the face plate back to West Marine and we tried it on their display unit. Same thing.  So they swapped out the face plate and when I put that on it worked perfect.

It is iPhone/iPod compatible.  Using the USB cord you can charge and control your iPhone.  You can even play Pandora and podcasts over the system from your iPhone.  The RF remote only does source, fast forward, rewind, volume and mute.  The IR remote can actually search your iPhone and display on the LCD screen.  So your playlists are fully playable, as is selecting by artist, genera, album, etc.

The RF remote is great.  It easily worked at the helm and even worked about 10-15 feet up the dock.  It’s water proof and based on the range, I could be swimming or hanging on a float behind the boat and be able to work the remote.

The installation is a little over kill as far as the bus bar.  I suppose I could have just used butt connectors like the PO did, but after all of the electrical system work it just didn’t feel right.  So that was about another $20 on the installation.

Last night we did have a little problem.  While watching TV every now and then there is a cross over in signals.  The radio would turn on while trying to change the TV channel.  I will have to do some more reasearch on this.