zCAPN and Tux's Adventure

by Timothy Hedges

zCAPN (zNav Computer Automated Practical Navigator) for Linux is a joint software venture between Nautical Technologies and Barco Software, LLC. It is remote-control software intended to be used with CAPN Voyager Mosiac Version 7.4 navigational software. zCAPN is closed source and written in Java. The cost is $99.00 USD; see www.barcosoft.com for details. I received it in a zip file that contained a package suitable for installation on the Familiar distribution of Linux for PDAs (.ipk). It requires CAPN Voyager Mosaic V7.4 software running on a notebook or server with a GPS (global positioning system) attached. CAPN Voyager is distributed as commercial software and currently is available only for non-UNIX platforms. CAPN Voyager was chosen as the premiere ECS (Electronic Chart System) in 1999 by the USCG (United States Coast Guard) and was adopted to replace the GDOC (Geographic Display Operations Computer) system, after GDOC was determined to be inadequate for the future.

Installation and Configuration

zCAPN installation is straightforward; simply use ipkg install $package_name.ipk to complete the task. Barco Software recommends the Opie window manager. Refer to www.handhelds.org for installation and basic configuration of the familiar distribution and Opie, as those tasks are beyond the scope of this article. zCAPN also requires that you have an ad-hoc wireless connection to the server running CAPN Voyager. The zCAPN software starts with an appearance similar to that of the CAPN voyager, minus a few buttons and menus. The initial settings of zCAPN include a default port and IP address. You may need to change the IP address to the same IP as your wireless network card uses on the server running the zCAPN Voyager server.

Real World Problem

I found myself in a unique situation at age 40. I needed an adventure in my life so my peers would not have to hear the same old stories over and over again until they retired. I began in the spirit of rolling with this mid-life crisis by acquiring a Cross Trimaran (multi-hulled) sailboat. Then, being 31.6 feet in length and 18.6 feet in width, I realized it was not economical to transport the sailboat over land from Guild, Tennessee (22 miles west of Chattanooga) to St. Petersburg, Florida. Did I forget to mention that I live in Bloomington, Indiana? Thus, it was time to back up my boast to my colleagues that I could move this boat to its destination by way of the Tennessee River to the Tombigbee Waterway that connects several rivers to Mobile Bay in Mobile, Alabama. It then would be a leisurely cruise across the Gulf of Mexico or through the ICW (Inter-Coastal Waterway) on the west coast of Florida.

Equipment

I was unable to find a marina in a 60-mile radius of Hales Bar Marina in Guild, where it was berthed, that could pull this boat out of the water. Therefore, it was imperative to have ample safety equipment in case of an emergency during the journey to Florida. Meanwhile, my parents began to forget my current age and used up all the minutes on my cell phone with their flashbacks of previous adventures from my youth. (No, we won't dicuss them here).

I was able to convince my reluctant roommate to take part in this journey with me. He actually began to take me seriously when I installed steps on the 36-foot mast and powered up a halogen steaming light at the top of the mast. The other crew member was against the idea of traveling, so we stuffed him in a box and refused to let him out of the lower galley until we were well under way. Hercules (aka The Idgit) retaliated by hiding in an undiscovered ventilation shaft the day of departure. Also, he often was caught sleeping at his post and kicking kitty litter out of his litter box all over the galley.

We finally set off with all the necessary safety equipment and followed USCG regulations so the boat did not wind up impounded before it reached its final destination. The list of electronic equipment we took included:

  • 1 Garmin GPSMAP 188C (chart plotter) with transducer

  • 1 Dell Inspiron 8200 dual-boot notebook

  • 1 Compaq iPAQ 3670 dual-sleeve PDA

  • 2 Linksys WPC11 PCMCIA wireless network cards

  • 1 Sony CDMavica MVC CD-500, a 5.0 megapixel digital camera

  • 1 Nokia 9340i cell phone

Real World Application

We operated within a small time frame spanning from December 20, 2003 through January 18, 2004. The first three days were lost due to my inability to complete all the items on the last of my many famous lists of things that had to be done. This was categorized as excessive compulsive behavior by a speech pathologist. I promptly added this to my list of shortcomings.

The time for departure came late in the afternoon of Tuesday, December 22. My first mate (not the cat) promptly fell in 51 degree Fahrenheit water while wearing full make-shift foul weather gear, including sweatpants, pants, coveralls, jacket and rain suit. He spent most of the next two days in the galley literally chilling.

After a brief stop in Smithville, Mississippi, to fix a blown head gasket--which cost us yet another three days--we finally arrived in Mobile Bay, only to find that the bay was fogged in. I was unable to use anything other than the chart plotter, compass and markers prior to reaching Mobile Bay due to my lack of SoftChart maps for the inland waterway systems. Furthermore, the demands of traveling on the river were far more taxing than I originally had anticipated. We found it to be narrow, shallow and strewn with floating debris. Nevertheless, we temporarily placed Tux upon the mast on several occasions throughout the journey for good luck.

When we arrived in Mobile Bay and saw the fog, we powered up the notebook and attached the RS-232 cable to the GPS. The chart came up as expected and promptly located my position. The iPAQ then loaded, and I proceeded to insert the proper IP address for the CAPN Voyager server running the notebook. The PDA slowly brought up an exact duplicate of the display on the notebook. The iPAQ was the controller from that point forward and offered the ability to change the zoom level on the notebook simultaneously. I found it exciting that I could walk around the boat and monitor my location on exact duplicates of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) charts produced by SoftChart International.

We moved slowly through the fog looking for the first of several buoys that would lead us to Dog River Marina. My first mate soon became upset, stating that he knew we were in the ocean and lost at sea. He also was concerned that we would get hit by another vessel. I assured him we were not in the ocean and could follow the buoys to stay outside the channel and avoid a collision. He almost was convinced when a very large ship appeared out of the mist off the port side of the boat. It did not calm him when the buoy that showed on the iPAQ appeared in view within a few feet our vessel. I took over the helm, and he headed below deck exclaiming that he could not handle any more of this. I did not have the nerve to tell him later that I had not taken into consideration the fact that we had to cross an intersecting shipping lane that made us a potential target for approximately 180 feet.

Real World Solution

We decided to pull the boat in Pensacola, Florida. It was cold and the boat needed additional upgrades to deal with fog, waves and comfort. We had traveled 750 sm (statute miles) beyond the originally planned 1134 sm. It was agreed that we could come back soon to enjoy the beautiful west coast of Florida during warmer weather.

zCAPN for Linux proved to be a useful tool for remotely controlling and monitoring our vessel without the need to sit right at the controls. I was unable to test the Steer to function due to the lack of an autohelm used to complete this function. Nevertheless, it was especially useful when I had to stand at the bow to look for buoys in the fog without radar. It gave me a piece of mind knowing that if I wound up in the dinghy, the iPAQ would have a snapshot of the area from the last known position and location of the boat until the notebook failed. With a GPS in my notebook, I would be able to navigate until I ran out of battery power. I was new to sailing at the start of this trip--did I mention I had only three hours of lessons--yet, I felt confident that Linux would come through if all else failed. I look forward to sitting this system up with a tiller pilot and radar collision avoidance system for future adventures.

Conclusion

The software lacks the ability to run as a standalone application. The ad-hoc mode may be essential. Yet, it limits the device for peer-to-peer network capabilities. I like the fact that it does respond rather quickly loading the maps, despite the blocking mode that it uses to poll for the PCMCIA network device. This may be a limitation of the PCMCIA subsystem. The author would like to thank the associates at Nautical Technologies, Barco Software, the Greesons, the Goodsons, and the barge captains along the Tombigbee waterway that helped make this a safe journey.

Timothy Hedges is an Indiana native who currently is a production associate for General Electric Corp. His hobbies include flying, sailing, golfing and open-source software. He can be reached at thedge@comp-secure.com.

Load Disqus comments