Computing Aboard Maringret [Legacy 2001 version]

Note: as this is a legacy page, we are no longer checking the links periodically. The information and links (if they still work) are here for interest only.

Aboard Maringret we have slowly integrated a number of different features of computing afloat into our lifestyle. While our navigation remains totally manual (although we do have a Garmin GPS as a back up) we carry a laptop computer and two PDAs aboard which are used for numerous functions.

Hardware Profile

  • Macintosh PowerBook 3400 laptop, 240 MHz, 144 megabytes memory, 2
    gigabytes disk, with two Lithium batteries
  • Palm Pilot III with 1 megabyte memory
  • Palm Pilot IIIxe with 8 megabytes memory
  • Kodak PalmPix camera attachment for the Palm Pilot
  • QuickLink Pen handheld scanner with memory for up to 1000 pages
    of scanned text

The bedrock of our computing solution is a Macintosh 3400 PowerBook. It has a hot-swappable internal accessory bay where we can alternately place a diskette drive, a CD-ROM drive or a 100 megabyte Zip drive. This facility allows us to receive information on CD (and also play stereo CDs if we wish), read or write diskettes to transfer information with other boats or move email and website pages to and from the internet cafes. The Zip drive allows us to back up the data we seem to accumulate. The 3400 also has a microphone input which will be used to receive weatherfax signals from our Sony 7600D shortwave radio.

Our truly portable computing is via the Palm Pilots. We have moved through about 3 or 4 generations of these devices and they seem to be endless in functionality. The Palm Pilots transfer information to the laptop computer using a cable which is supplied with them.

We have purchased two add-ons for the Palm Pilot. The first is the Kodak PalmPix. Specifically designed for capturing images intended for web sites, this miniature device generates 640 by 480 pixel JPEG or PICT files. The Palm memory is used to store the images until they are copied to the backup device (in our case the PowerBook laptop). Previously we had a different digital camera whose resolution was slightly better than the PalmPix but would completely drain 4 AA batteries in under 6 or 7 pictures. The PalmPix seems to use its two AAA batteries at a similar rate to the Palm Pilot. The second hardware add-on is the QuickLink Quick Pen handheld scanner. This device is designed to scan lines of text (as opposed to pages of text as a flat bed scanner does) and then beam the results to the Palm Pilot. The data is then moved from the Palm Pilot to the laptop using the HotSynch backup cable.

Macintosh Software Profile

  • ClarisWorks (now known as AppleWorks)
  • MultiMode Weatherfax
  • Adobe PageMill

Our laptop software profile is very simple. For 99% of our non-weather computing we use ClarisWorks which offers word processing, spreadsheets and drawing. It has a database function although we have not used it. It’s memory footprint is also small enough at 1 megabyte so that it can run off a RAM disk which saves the laptop battery by avoiding running the disk drive. We found MultiMode for weatherfax reception on the Macintosh and use Adobe PageMill to maintain our ever-growing website. The closely integrated desktop environment on the Macintosh meant we can copy/paste spreadsheets onto the Pilot, PalmPix pictures onto the website, weatherfaxes onto the Pilot and send or receive anything we want as email. As a general reference we carry the Encyclopedia Britannica on CD-ROM which seems to handle most of our everyday, non-nautical queries. At present we don’t have any charting software.

Palm Pilot Product Profile

  • Documents To Go
  • Tide Tool
  • Astronomical Packages
  • PalmPix
  • MultiMail (described below under Email)

For sailing the premium software package we have located is the excellent TideTool. It is available on a freeware basis and generates tide predictions for most of the world . Although not as accurate as locally published tide tables, it is excellent for passage planning. For the east coast of England we found it to be completely accurate. For an excellent explanation of tides look here.

In addition to the standard software we have purchased “Documents To Go” by DataViz. Using this package we can replicate spreadsheets and word processing documents either way between the PowerBook and the Pilot. We can edit or update on either platform and the changes will be replicated to the version of the file on the other platform. This means that we can avoid lugging the relatively large laptop with us and instead simply carry the Palm Pilot (we both carry one). This product is very impressive! The final result is that the only processing limited to the laptop is production of drawings and schematics for our various projects. Obviously editing large documents is much more convenient on the laptop but if necessary it can be done on the Palm Pilot.

The Kodak PalmPix comes with software that allows you to manage the movement of the image files from the Pilot memory to the backup computer. Specifically designed for capturing images intended for web sites, this miniature device generates 640 by 480 pixel JPEG or PICT files. The software also allows you to select a resolution of 320 by 240 as well as a resolution of 320 by 240 for the central portion of the image only which Kodak refers to as a zoom function. The Palm memory is used to store the images until they are copied to the backup device (in our case the PowerBook laptop). Having the camera aboard allows us to record sights and either email them to friends or move them onto the Maringret website. Compared to our previous digital camera, the PalmPix is miserly with batteries, we got 100 pictures from our first set of two AAA batteries where as we figured on getting less than 15 minutes use out of 4 AA batteries with our previous camera. The resolution is not as good as our previous digital camera but for portability and economy of batteries the PalmPix wins hands down. Hopefully within a year or two a higher resolution model will become available without loosing its economy with batteries. In the meantime we have a camera which is so easy to take with you that photographic documentation becomes automatic instead of premeditated. Click here for a look at some of the pictures taken with our PalmPix.

(For another view of trip documenting as one travels see madnomad).

Internet Access

Ideally we would like to have instant access to the Internet from Maringret. But given current pricings this is not practical. Connections can be made using mobile phones but the cost is still high. During our first season cruising we found that most every harbour had an internet cafe or a public library where internet access was available.

Email Communication

Once we started cruising on Maringret, a solution to email was required. We are now on our second generation of email aboard.

Initially we discovered that the most cost effective way to deal with email was to prepare our outgoing emails on the boat using our laptop where we could spend as much time as we wanted composing and updating what we wanted to send out. We then would carry this diskette into the local internet cafe where we would simply copy the files into the email program and send out the previously prepared text. Our incoming email would be downloaded to diskette and taken back to the boat to be digested at leisure. Usually we would scan the email while in the internet cafe in case a timely response was required. Some internet cafes insist on running a virus checking software on our diskette, this has not been a problem so far as we are moving simple text only files. Also some internet cafes use machines running Unix machines rather than Microsoft Windows. This also has not been a problem as text only files seem to be interchangeable between all different configurations. We used this approach while cruising more inhabited regions where population centers with libraries were a frequent occurrence.

In 2001 we started to travel into areas with less population (in fact some areas in the Norwegian fjords had no residents). Keeping touch with the “outside” world became more erratic. We decided to look into the different options for installing email on Maringret. From the various boat shows we knew that although system such as Inmarsat C worked well they were priced above what our email budget could cover. In North America there is a system called Pocket Mail but unfortunately it is not consistently available in Europe. Also in North America toll free phone numbers are used to send emails while the availability in Europe depends on paying for long distance calls. Checking the Palm website (www.palm.com) we learned that Palm had bought a company who had developed a package called MultiMail, luckily we were able to find a salesman who actually used the package on his own Palm and was happy to help us get the package configured and operating. Click here for more details on our search for and selection of our email system.

We should point out that for all intents and purposes email access is a subset of internet access. We were able to justify one but not the other because the act of browsing the internet implies constant connection to the internet which in turn implies a sufficient connection to the internet which is charged for in terms of the period of time connected to the service. Email can be prepared offline (meaning on a computer of some sort without need to be connected to the internet) and then the connection to the internet is arranged only for the amount of time needed to transmit the prepared emails and receive any incoming ones. Although there is a cost associated with this we found it to be
much more manageable than pursuing general internet access.

Website Maintenance and Enhancement

In our first season cruising we recorded various text files on the laptop and at the end of the season moved the text onto our web site. We have hosted the website with two different commercial service providers, neither of which was an optimal service. Both required a proprietary software configuration tied to a specific telephone number for the serving computer. This meant that when Maringret was cruising from country to country long distance phone calls would be needed simply in order to update pages on the website.

As the Maringret website is not a commercial operation this made it hard to justify the cost of updating the website while cruising. In the fall of 2000 we moved the Maringret website to its current home at GeoCities (which is an offshoot of Yahoo). One of the benefits of GeoCities is that the website can be updated from any internet cafe using simple menus. This enabled us to start maintaining the Maringret website on an ongoing basis. Having the PalmPix camera meant that in addition to text we were also able to upload relevant pictures. We can edit the web pages using the laptop on the boat and then upload them to the GeoCities web server, thereby updating our website.

It wasn’t really a lesson in the sense that we knew this when we set out, there is a lot more software and options available for Windows computers. Still we have over 15 years of files invested in Macintosh file formats and tossing this away is not a simple thing. Also the computer market place is constantly moving forward. After 18 years with the same operating system Apple Computers is moving to the next level which will be there form of Unix. This is probably more stable than the an operating system that has gone through 18 years of upgrades although we have not experienced any problems with OS aboard. This choice will probably be forced on us by the time we purchase our next laptop.

The hardware works well. In the day of 20 gigabyte disks, a 100 megabyte Zip Drive is a bit inadequate. The new laptops are offering CD-ROM burners and this is necessary to back up the modern disks.

So far we have only used our weatherfax software for testing.

All other software works well with the exception of Palm’s MultiMail which will not interface with Eudora (as they claim it does on the box it comes in). Their technical support department just doesn’t want to hear about it. They ignore the problem (by
constantly referring it to a new person so you have to start over each time) and then have the audacity to send out a customer satisfaction form by email. It will be no surprise if their market share continues to drop as they seem to be repeating the Apple business model.


© The contents of this site are the copyright property of the authors.  Visitors may read, copy, or print any material for their own use, free of charge.  No material printed or copied from this site, electronically or in any other form, may be sold or included in any work to be sold without explicit permission from the authors.