Computers and Boaters: Survival of the Fittest

By Tom Neale, 5/15/2008


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Tom and Desktop

When I started cruising I hadn’t even heard of computers. It was in the early 50’s and, for all I know, they hadn’t even been invented. Or maybe they had, but the things were so big they would fill buildings and sink boats. These days we use computers aboard “Chez Nous” every day and none of them has sunk my boat—yet. But it hasn’t come easy. It’s been an evolution of adaptations.

When I bought my first computer in a Sears store, the lady asked, “And where are you going to use this?”

“On my boat,” I proudly said.

“Oh, but you can’t do that,” she said with alarm. “Computers don’t like water.”

I told her I wasn’t planning to sink and that I was going to keep it dry, but she said just the salty moisture in the air would quickly kill the precious darling.

A few computers later (all of which led full lives), I had my first experience with computer help technicians on the telephone. It was a warranty problem. The “technician” listened for a few minutes to my description of my computer’s problems and said, “I need to take some information.” I should have seen it coming. Eventually he got to the question, “where are you?” When I told him, “Virginia,” he said, “Where’s that?” My confidence in his expertise rapidly waning, I said, “well, it’s on the east coast. You know—next to the Atlantic.”

“What’s the Atlantic,” the expert asked?

Trying to be patient so that I could get some help, I said, “Well its one of those Oceans, you know.”

“Oh, then, this isn’t a warranty problem. You can’t take a computer close to the ocean. That voids the warranty.”

I explained to him that hundreds of thousands of people had computers close to the ocean, (no I didn’t tell him I’d committed the ultimate sin and taken it onto a boat) but that didn’t impress him. I quickly learned that you often need to lie when you need warranty help from computer technicians. But things have changed. Now the “on-site” warranty people even come to the boat. It doesn’t bother them a bit. One lady, who was particularly knowledgeable, told me, “Oh that’s ridiculous. I know computers work well on boats. I was an IT person in the Navy!” We’ve come a long way, but it hasn’t been easy.

A few years later I began seeing the bullet-proof submersible computers at the boat shows. The creators spent more money on cases and other shock proofing/waterproofing prophylactics than on the basic computer. Not being one of the rich types who go to boat shows (I could barely afford the ticket to get in, much less to buy the stuff they sold there), I never bought one of those. It was just as well, because by then I was onto the fact that there was a growing number of wierdos like me who had computers aboard—and we all liked to talk about it—in secret.

We whispered the little known fact that computers did just as well on boats as they did in houses, as long as you didn’t do anything really stupid, like take them swimming. (OK, I have to admit that there have been many times when this sounded like a good idea.)

We had to continue to make a series of adaptations in order to use off-the-shelf computers onboard. However, adapting is a normal part of cruising life that we learned long before learning how to help computers survive. We’d already cut our teeth in the adaptation field doing things like getting mail forwarded before the bills reach the post office and pulling up anchor and moving a hundred feet when a local Officer of the Law said we could only anchor 3 days and dealing with the non-adaptive dog who has to go ashore for nature calls when we’re anchored in alligator country.

One of my early adaptations involved getting my new computer aboard while I was at anchor. Computer packing boxes aren’t exactly waterproof and dinghy rides across the harbor are prone to moisture. Large black Glad garbage bags take care of that problem, as long as you can adapt to having to explain to the gendarmes that you really aren’t smuggling or planning other nefarious activities, despite the fact that you’re taking the garbage TO your boat instead of FROM it.

Another thing that you have to do to adapt is put both the computer and your head under a tent if you want to look at the screen in the cockpit or on the flying bridge. This makes for a great opportunity if you and your mate are still in the dating stage of life—or if you’re in the drinking stage of life and don’t want your guests to see your eyes in the morning.

The next adaptation is perhaps the most extreme of all; at least for me. You’ve got to have at least ONE place on the boat that truly IS going to be dry. This is akin to finding a dog without fleas. I looked and looked on my boat and finally found what I thought was the perfect place. That’s where I built my office and computer station. It’s a nice office and computer station. It’s right under a hatch that opens and lets in sunlight and fresh air but which doesn’t leak. It’s also right under a porthole, which didn’t leak at the time. It began to leak just a few days after I’d made all the modifications and settled in.

There’s nothing like getting up in the morning before you’ve had that first cup of coffee, turning on the computer to check for navigational information, and touching your fingers to a soggy keyboard. There’s nothing like noticing that the paper in your printer has water stains. There’s nothing like seeing a teardrop rolling down the face of your monitor and knowing that you haven’t cried—yet. I sealed the porthole forever shut. I figure that if I ever want to open it, I can turn on my dry computer, go on the internet and find out how to undo 5200.

Boat Computers

1. Don’t rule out a desktop if you’re going to keep it on the boat. They’re much cheaper and, in many boats, will fit better because you can hide the CPU and have only the monitor and keyboard on your small desk.

2. If you get a desktop, be sure to give it a secure power source, such as what I described above.

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Another adaption you have to make is to create an onboard power supply that won’t wreck your computer. Being plugged into a marina is death to computers. All it takes is one drunk to stumble over the cord on the dock to create spikes and surges to make your computer think it’s going through a major earthquake. And even if all your dock denizens are sober (you kidding?), all it takes is one dock person to start to unplug your cord by accident and then try to jiggle it back in before you notice. You may not notice, but your computer does. And when you’re not tied to a dock, there are probably times when you need to run your generator. Those things burp and hiccup and do all sorts of funny things with their output. With a laptop this isn’t so critical. With desktops, power source is very critical. I adapted to this situation by getting a Xantrex pure sine wave inverter and wiring it only to my two Rolls 8D batteries. I did NOT wire it to AC, because these are designed to pass through AC when they sense it coming from the dock or generator. The system is like a huge UPS and feeds my CPU better than any power grid ashore.

Another adaption has been to keep the thing in one piece during rough seas. Many times I write this column and magazine articles while at sea, holding onto the monitor with one hand and typing with the other. The fancy boatyards will tell you to build it in with expensive woodwork. But as soon as you do that you’ve got to call for warranty help and the first thing they want to know is what the label on the back says and how the lights back there are blinking. Besides, it’s harder to check the water level around your CPU when it’s inside a cabinet.

Mel Neale Living With Her Laptop

But the best adaptations have to do with the fact that I can still handle the boat as I get older. I no longer have to remember where I stored all my parts. I can type it in and my computer will tell me where it is, how much I last paid for it, where I got it, its part number and pointers on how to install it. I now know exactly what I did to my engine and when. I type in a key word for the job, such as “raw water impeller” and right before my eyes appears a painful description of all the mistakes I made in the past while doing the job and how to do better this time—hopefully.

Oh, and one more thing. It makes it much harder for the warranty techies to cover their backsides when they can’t figure out my problem (which has nothing to do with the fact that I’m sitting on a boat). I can read the notes that I typed while making the last call and know just what the techie said, his name or employee ID number and the time of day he said it. Which means they’d better not lie to me.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale