February 27, 2011

In the dark of the night

THE BIRDS OUT BACK are fluffed up to about twice their normal size as they feed from the seed bowl. The cat sits inside, jaws quivering but resigned, as she watches the jaunty little juncos and the handsome towhees digging their tiny toes into the wooden deck rail to avoid being blown away in the howling wind.

It has been snowing on and off for four days, and we inside the house are not pleased. We are quite fed up, in fact. This is unusual weather for us. Just 50 miles inland, up at the Mt. Baker ski resort, they get about 100 feet of snow a year. We’re supposed to get only about 1 foot a year, but this winter has been the coldest I can remember in the 10 years I’ve lived here in Bellingham.

Only the arrival of the indomitable U.S. Mailman, in his little square truck, all chained up for the icy roads, has prevented a serious outbreak of cabin fever at our house. The Defender catalogue has arrived from Waterford, Connecticut.

It’s the Sears-Roebuck calendar for the nautically minded, 320 pages of glorious stuff we’d like to have, tomorrow if possible. Lovely pictures of self-tailing winches, lightweight blocks, imported tung varnishes, and shining brass kerosene lamps imported from Holland.

Oh, and in case you missed it, a new thermal night-vision camera on page 258, the T-series, introduced to the catalogue for the first time. It looks remarkably like a robot Cyclops, a stubby one-eyed pod, and I learn with fascination that it is “the first thermal imaging system to be fully integrated with Raymarine multifunction displays.”

Now I don’t really know what this means. Neither do I understand the function of a thermal night-vision camera on a small boat. It sounds as though it’s meant to take pictures of warm objects in the dark, doesn’t it? But it seems that the objects don’t need to be warm after all:

“The T300 and T400 series cameras allow captains to navigate safely and confidently in total darkness.”

Well, I am stunned. Not being a captain myself — I have never claimed that fancy title – I can’t imagine navigating safely and confidently in total darkness. In fact I can remember only one occasion when I have been sailing in truly total darkness and that was one murky night in the tropics when I was on watch and someone came up to join me in the cockpit.

I didn’t know who it was at first. It was as dark as the inside of a cow. I couldn’t see anyone, I could only sense their presence. It had to be either my son Kevin or my wife June because they were the only other people on board. But just in case it was a visiting mermaid, I extended an exploratory hand and encountered a bare leg which, from its smooth texture, lack of hairiness and generally pleasing shape, I recognized as June’s.

She said: “Hello, how are you doing?”

“OK, I guess,” I said, “we’re doing 5 knots on a northwesterly course and it’s like driving blindfolded down the main street of a busy city.”

“Except this isn’t a busy city.”

“Yeah, well, it might as well be,” I said, “because if there’s a shipping container floating half-submerged 50 yards ahead of us we’re going to hit it.”

We sat, blind, silent, and thoughtful, while the boat surged ahead in the trade-wind swells.

“Is it 50 yards yet?” June asked eventually.

“I guess so. We were lucky that time,” I said.

But that didn’t alleviate my edgy nervousness. I literally couldn’t see my wife sitting right beside me. And I mean literally in the true meaning of the word — not as mere corroborative detail, intended only to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

Now, getting back to the Defender catalogue, I honestly can’t see how they can make a claim that their stubby Cyclops will allow you to navigate safely and confidently in total darkness, even if you are a captain. I wonder if they even know what total darkness is. I think it’s very rare, because the light of the stars alone will cast a faint shadow on a light-colored deck.

However, there must be some truth to the claim, I suppose. After all, they wouldn’t dare charge $12,899.99 for a one-eyed electronic monster that didn’t live up to their claims, would they? Would they?

Today’s Thought
It is an immutable law in business that words are words, explanations are explanations, promises are promises — but only performance is reality.
— Harold S. Geenen, former chairman, International Telephone and Telegraph.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #165
A single mast spreader should be positioned between 50 and 52 percent of the way up the mast from the deck. In a double-spreader rig, the lower spreader should be 37 to 39 percent of the way up the mast, and the upper spreader should be 68 to 70 percent of the way up.

Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.
— Julius Henry (“Groucho”) Marx.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Roger John Jones said...

As both a Captain and a "Gentleman" by Act of Congress (Technically I think it is appointed by the President and consented by Congress) I can agree that no Captain or sober person in charge of anything that floats is ever able to navigate "confidently" in total darkness. Or partial darkness. Or in broad daylight. I have used night vision scopes on Reboot for a while and find them one of the least useful If you are in the US and have a high end Raymarine (or other) chart plotter you don't need night vision to figure out where you are. If you are where the charts are at best questionable (e.g. Belize, my currently location) seeing the shoreline isn't much help either.

I think the reality of all this is that someone convinced FLIR to purchase the ever financially troubled Raymarine and since they make night vision stuff it was an easy decision for expanding their product lines.

Matt Marsh said...

It does sound like the marketing guys might be getting ahead of the engineering (and legal) teams, given their choice of words.

Having said that, FLIR cameras are seriously impressive, much more so than night-vision goggles. They work in the far infrared bands, where (thanks to the black-body radiation of anything that isn't near absolute zero temperature) there are always plenty of photons to go around- even though it may be truly pitch black to the naked eye. People, who are warmer than the surroundings (or the water) light up like giant fireflies in FLIR pictures. Logs, rocks and steel, with different thermal emissivity values than water or each other, show up as contrasting shapes.

I'd get one, if I had fifteen or twenty grand to spend on one boat gadget. But I don't....

John Vigor said...

Someone called Thomas wants to know if he can use some of the information in my blogs if he includes a link back to this blog.

Well yes, that's fine, Thomas. Everything I write is copyright, of course, but if you attribute it to me and link back to me, I'm happy.

And thanks for asking. The Internet is full of literary pirates these days and there seems to be nothing I can do to prevent my stuff being republished without permission or payment. So, once again, thanks for asking.


John V.

andre said...

RE : Small boat to Freedom .Just called Waterstones,Canterbury.They do not know when(if)they will get this edition in.
Do you know any UK retailer who will have it in stock in forseeable future? Online or shop premises?
Small Boat to Freedom by John Vigor pub. Sheridan House 2011 ISBN 978 1 57409 303 2

Aaron Headly said...

For $100-200, any boat owner can add 'night vision' to their kit. Monoculars like these might provide a little affordable peace of mind.

I cannot recommend the binocular versions, what as the displays are kinda' bright and would ruin both of your eye's night adaptation.