Thursday, February 20, 2014

Active Captains

This could be a postcard photo of happy cruisers on any boat anywhere. Appearances can be deceptive. The boat is named aCappella, and the couple are Jeff and Karen Siegel. They are the entire cast and crew of ActiveCaptain accompanied by Dylan (left), and the young and infinitely curious Dee Dee. "Say that camera strap tastes good, can I have it? Do you want to see my ball?  Your glasses taste great. I wish I had thumbs like you."

This was a social visit. Jeff had emailed me and invited me over. I was more than pleased to say yes. For me this was a most enlightening and engaging hour and a half of conversation. 

The many topics were varied, free wheeling, and all started with dogs. When the sniffing was over Jeff launched off with, "When you set an anchor watch, your GPS position fix isn't where you actually dropped your anchor." My epiphany takes a moment. The GPS could easily be thirty feet or further away on some boats from the anchor pulpit, and the fix error adds to this. Then double the error when you swing. This fact was already buried down deep in my head somewhere. What I always did was add both extra rode and alarm distance whenever possible to compensate and not trigger unnecessary dead of night alarms. This is much tougher when the anchorage is crowded.

In my drawing the blue star is the anchor position, and the red dot is the GPS position. What you would like to end up with is the blue anchor watch circle. What you actually get is the red circle.

Jeff's musing goes on to say, "If you know the boats heading, and the distance from the GPS to the anchor pulpit...." My immediate thought was it certainly can be easily done, but why haven't I seen this feature on a chart plotter? On some mobile apps yes, including ActiveCaptain's free "DragQueen" anchor alarm app but not on a mainstream chart plotter. This is where the afternoon began.

I asked about the voice warning for hazards Jeff mentioned to me in a comment he made on the Rant. A phone is pulled out of his pocket. A few seconds later Suri, my fictitious mobile device girl friend says, out loud, "Hazard in one nautical mile." Jeff hands me the phone, and I can see where the hazard is. It's one I wasn't aware of, and I spend a lot of time on boats in this exact area.

I circled the two hazards being shown in the area. The one on the left I knew about. The one to the right I didn't. This is the power of crowd sourcing navigation information. I suspect some hapless boater took a short cut, and unfortunately located it. It was uploaded to AC to let the rest of us know it's lurking for your boat. It was the ease and effectiveness of the voice interaction I was fascinated with.

Much of the conversation was spent dealing with WiFi, and cable television in marinas. I have done a lot of work dealing with both television and WiFi on boats of all types.

I was startled to learn from Jeff that somewhere in the neighborhood of half of all marinas have some limits on internet bandwidth. One of the things AC does when they pull into a marina is to measure upload, and download WiFi speeds. If the speed is constant, then the WiFi system is imposing limits. Many also block high bandwidth sites such as Netflix, and YouTube.

Jeff explained that this occurs for a variety of reasons. Many systems are older and their design didn't anticipate guests streaming movies. The end result could be the boat next door can't access their email now that the bandwidth has been all sucked up by a kid watching the Transformers movie. Marinas don't want complaining guests, so the compromise is everyone gets slower and often limited access.

But high bandwidth costs money, and how can a marina pay for it, and give it away for free? This is what AC is advocating with their WiFi Bill of Rights. To them, the answer is simple. Throw the dockside cable into the metaphorical dumpster, and use the savings to provide free virtually unlimited bandwidth for the boaters. This makes huge sense to me, and look for more news about this from ActiveCaptain shortly.

At an abstract level I've been dealing with marina cable TV systems for quite a while. The switch to digital cable TV service has put many marinas in an awkward place. The problem is that every digital cable TV system needs a proprietary interface box, and every vendor's box is different. TV's on boats are most often built in, making access to the back difficult, if not impossible for many boaters. As a result I have installed many KVH systems, and done lots upgrading of on air antennas, and amplifiers.

So lets go one step further. If you have high bandwidth you can add devices like a Slingbox to your home TV system, and stream it directly to your boat. You will have your all of your home's local programming available no matter where you are, if you have the bandwidth to access it.

But the most impressive thing about all of this is the programming, site maintenance, tech support, answering emails, and the myriad of other activities involved in this growing enterprise is done by Jeff and Karen alone. I don't know how they do it. There are zero employees, not counting Dylan, and the irrepressible Dee Dee who is working hard to solve the "Doorknob Principle." She has however figured out the "Door Lever Principle" much to her parents chagrin.

If there is such a position available as "Chief Boating Industry Futurist," Jeff and Karen would be my top candidates, and I've met a lot of people in the business. 

Their grasp of the possibilities that could exist for the overall boating community was both lucid and comprehensive. It covers both the technical side of boating, and just as importantly the social aspects with projects like their new eBoatCards. This allows you to find and communicate with boating friends, join groups, find out about events and much more. All of this is fueled by their daily interactions with marine electronic manufacturers, marinas, and boaters. This provides them with a perspective few have the privileged of acquiring.

Just a heads ups so to speak the ActiveCaptains may be wearing Google Glass in the near future. They are already android developers with three products in Google Play, and their concept lends itself well to these types of devices.

Many thanks Jeff and Karen for inviting me over to your beautiful floating home for the afternoon. It was both a pleasure, and an extraordinary learning experience for me. Give me call if you get back in town and we will introduce you the greyhound girls. They sniffed on me endlessly when I got home along with the inevitable reproachful looks about not being invited to meet Dylan and Dee Dee.

ActiveCaptain's website
Taking Paws Blog


  1. If the Comcast/Time Warner merger goes through, that will drastically reduce the diversity of set-top boxes needed to receive marina cable TV, at least near major US population centers. The merger would give them about 80% of the market and there's runors that they will be porting Netflix through their new boxes, as well as some limited a-la-carte options...most marinas could delete 200 chanels without anyone ever even noticing, in my opinion.

  2. I had the great pleasure of meeting Jeff and Karen and the D's while cruising the Hudson last summer. I have been a staunch supporter and active user of AC for years and it was wonderful to shake their hands and say "thank you." Of course, despite our mutual passion for boats and cruising and marine electronics, Jeff and I spent the majority of our time talking about our children (dogs). It is heartening to have such strong advocates and innovators moving the needle in important ways for enhancing our enjoyment on the water.

    Oh - and you and I shook hands as well Bill when my boat was in SRQ. You're alright too : )

  3. Interesting, Bill. It's little fixes like the anchor watch feature that make something like AC more appealing. I'm in the babysteps portion of screwing around with SeaClear, which I quit because it's a little crude, and OpenCPN, which I'm enjoying and which seems to have a very active developer community.

    But I have by no means ruled out AC as I am a big fan of netbook or laptop navigation solutions. Thanks for the backgrounder.


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