Wi-Fi networking and application integration on Sancerre

Its too cold, wet and and windy to go sailing or even to get to the boat to do some maintenance, so a piece documenting networking and software integration on Sancerre that may be of interest and help, if only to the next owner.


All of Sancerre's primary devices and instruments are integrated using NMEA 2000
(and Raymaine's SeaTalk which is essentially the same with different connectors)
Getting that information to other devices generally requires the data to be
converted to the older NMEA 0183 standard that uses serial protocols.
My Quark NMEA 2000 to NMEA 0183 & wi-fi converter failed during the 2023 season, I didn't miss it but it did serve as a back up allowing me to display AIS information if the plotter failed, plus virtual instruments and a few other things. It is not that expensive (c £130) but the last one did not last long so I looked at some alternates, although I was very tempted by the PredictWind data box and a couple of other very functional devices they were £180 - £400 which was more than I wanted to pay.

I therefore took a look at what I already had and especially at functionality that had been added over the last 5 years and decided that although there was a lot to gain by spending the money gains were all just "nice to have", it could make my networking even more complicated and I didn't really need any of it. 

And I certainly didn't want to become dependant on anything associated with radio networking - I had enough of that with the radio link from the wind instruments, now replaced with a wired sensor.

Overview. The USB hub is one designed for home or office use
and is normally plugged into the mains, but like many devices
now available it makes use of a mains to USB converter so that
can be replaced by a boat / car 12 volt USB socket or converter.
The PC uses an off the shelf "car kit" to power it from 12V.
Much in the first part of this explanation is dependant on the SeaPro 3000 navigation software that runs on a PC, other PC navigation systems may have similar and most will display AIS. It is a potential single point of failure, but I do have back ups, firstly an old small hybrid tablet / laptop that is very slow but will do the job. I also have hard wire or other alternates to many of the primary radio links, and I have multiple sets of electronic vector and raster charts; and, of course, paper charts and the traditional tools. 

Part of my ultimate backup 😏
In addition to the plotter and AIS I have 7 devices that give a GPS location readout that can be powered from the boats batteries or their internal rechargeable batteries one of which, the hand held back up DSC VHF, can also take dry cells of which I have a large store, including some in the grab bag with the battery carrier. By switching one on briefly for a fix to transfer to a paper chart I could go for months without power from the boats systems.

Much of the integration described is there for convenience, some is for safety and back up, specifically I want to be able to:

  1. See AIS from the chart table / saloon.
  2. See AIS from the cockpit if the Plotter or the plotter screen fails.
  3. Put together routes on any platform / mapping system and easily transfer them to the plotter and other devices and applications.
  4. Get weather information from PredictWind from multiple devices and over wi-fi, mobile data and, when I know I will be out of range, by Satellite.

Getting AIS info.

AIS information is displayed on the plotter but getting it onto devices not NMEA2000 compliant is not always straightforward. To get the AIS and GPS information to the PC a relatively high speed (38.4K Baud) NMEA2000 to NMEA0183 serial bridge is required and possibly a serial to USB converter if the bridge does not support USB. Smart phones and iPads normally require a NMEA0183 wi-fi link.

But, for the PC there is a very convenient but undocumented work round to get the information from the Garmin AIS unit; it has a USB port for configuration and diagnostics and that includes received data:
One of the diagnostic screens provided by the Garmin software
I guessed and was not surprised to find that Garmin use NMEA 0183 sentences to move this data around via USB; so connect the USB port on the AIS to a lap top, configure an application such as SeaPro or MemoryMap to look at the virtual serial port and you get your GPS location and AIS information for free. 

AIS vessels and their tracks on SeaPro, despite few vessels (this was in April) its rather cluttered because its zoomed way out, if I were using it at this magnification I could either declutter by deleting all tracks or changing the track option to show just the last n minutes rather than many hours worth. Labels are only shown where there is room but clicking on any will give full details or you can get a list. Sancerre was at anchor in Portland harbour when the snap shot was taken, her track from the Hamble is the thicker red line.
A quirk of the AIS unit is that although AIS information is put onto the NMEA2000 network the GPS position isn't (I suspect this is because standards require the AIS unit to have it's own GPS), but it is not a big issue as the plotter provides it to the network. 

In theory the AIS unit with it's external antenna on the aft gantry is more reliable than the GPS internal to the plotter and is more likely to get a good Differential WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) / EGNOS (European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service) fix so the PC gets the most reliable and accurate fix available. 

Just in case the boat electrics go down, perhaps after a lightning strike, I also have USB GPS dongles with WAAS for position information for as long as the batteries on the two laptops last. 

Some of the many re-sizable windows available
on a connected PC with Nexus.
A downside of not having the Quark bridge is that SeaPro (Std versions and above) does not have access to the rest of the NMEA2000 info, water depth, STW, etc. but  that is rarely if ever needed below and would put a further load on the PC also it can be taken from Garmin Helm on an iPad or by running the free Nexus Race instrument display software on the PC that uses the GND10 as a NX2 server. 

So, as things stood AIS was easily displayed:
  1. On the plotter.
  2. On a PC connected to the AIS unit through USB using the SeaPro, MemoryMap and other applications.
  3. On an iPad or iPhone running Garmin's Active Captain or Helm applications when linked to the plotter via wi-fi. 
Options 1 and 3 both require the plotter to be working and in practical terms option 2 is only usable at the chart table, not in the cockpit. I did some research and the solution was to use SeaPro's "Remote Display"  facility (not available on SeaPro Lite). This enables the current SeaPro display window on the PC (you can have more than one) to be displayed in a browser on any one device connected on a network, and there is limited control from the device such as zoom and pan so you can look at any SeaPro chart. 

SeaPro Integration.

SeaPro access from a web browser is normally though a router or switched network but by enabling a windows Mobile Hotspot  (even though the PC may not be connected to the internet) you can connect other devices by wi-fi, Bluetooth or Ethernet and they can access some services on the PC; enable the web server in SeaPro and off you go. With my old 15.5" laptop it's slow but it works.
SeaPro with two windows open, the right hand one active when I
connected the iPad and is shown below on an iPad.
The screen shown on a 10.5" iPad browser (with other tabs),
current position, current track and AIS contacts would be
shown if the PC was connected to AIS.
Another approach would be to use the Windows remote desktop functionality but that is not available on my Home edition of Windows 10. 

Route creation and transfer

Routes created in SeaPro or MemoryMap can be transferred to the plotter a number of ways but the most flexible is to export the route as a .GPX file, if it is on the PC save it to an iPad (directly or via a Cloud), share it to Garmin's "Active Captain" App (and any other that needs it) and it is automatically loaded into the plotter once connected.

Routes created in Garmin's "ActiveCaptain" App or on the plotter are automatically synchronised (see next section) and can be exported from "ActiveCaptain" on the iPad as a GPX file and imported into other applications.

 ActiveCaptain routes transferred from SeaPro to the iPad (and plotter)

Plotter Integration.

This part is Garmin specific but other premium brands have similar.

The Garmin plotter offers integration with a number of devices connecting by:

  • Wi-fi to its smart phone apps, covered below.
  • Bluetooth to receive, alert and display "Smart Notifications" from a phone or iPad, including SMS and social network notifications.
  • ANT® for smart watches, remote controls, Fusion audio etc.
  • Ethernet (called Garmin marine network) for certain high bandwidth requirements such as Radar.
  • NMEA 2000, the preferred network for marine devices.
  • NMEA 0183, An older network standard using serial point to point connections.
The key (free) smart phone application is ActiveCaptain that runs on iPhone, iPad and Android, (I use an iPad so will refer to that throughout, I assume its the same under Android). This provides functionality to:
  • Load charts, downloaded from the internet, from the iPad to the unit (instead of using an app to load them onto a memory card).
  • Download software updates for all connected Garmin devices from the Internet loading them to the plotter that then controls the updates.
  • Synchronise user data including routes, waypoints, tracks, Garmin community information, etc., this is two way so a route or waypoint created on the plotter will be transferred to the iPad(s).
  • Using a sub function called "Helm" (previously a stand alone app that still works (2023)) allow a device to connect to the plotter show the display and to control it remotely (I suspect that works best with touch operated plotters like mine as it is no different whichever you are using, plotters with knobs must presumably have virtual ones on the iPad). A nice feature is that the resolution is not limited to that of the plotter so my 10.5" iPad displays at a better resolution than the 7" plotter. 
  • Provides a stand alone view of the all purchased charts with functionality to build routes and to monitor your position using the internal GPS, it does not however show AIS information although "Helm" does.
Software updates automatically downloaded to an iPad from
the internet, they will transfer to the plotter when the iPad is
connected to it.
An iPad running "ActiveCaptain" to view and control the plotter
 topside from the chart table. The plotter is displaying radar (controls
on the left) in overlay mode north up stabilised from the autopilot
compass, note the returns (pale blue) from the wind farm >= 4 miles
 NW (top left). Route information 2nd from right is controlling the
autopilot. Pic on route from Ramsgate to Lowestoft during my
2021 round GB trip.
And with the plotter in split screen mode, radar & AIS on the
right, range rings at 1/2 mile intervals. The chart on the left showing
the bigger picture with AIS.  The radar target  to the N is closer
than the AIS target to the NE.
Past St Albans heading for Portland in mist and fog.
Garmin chart on the iPad in stand alone mode. The track is from the plotter
during my visit to Milford in 2023 arriving in dense fog on route to St Kilda.
Current position and the active track is displayed if the iPad has GPS.

4G Internet

I have data sims for the phone (O2) and one iPad (currently Vodafone), both can provide personal hotspots for other devices to connect to the internet, I usually use Wi-fi but Bluetooth and wired connections also work. 

The latest versions of ActiveCaptain & IOS on iPad allows you to connect to the Plotter and the Internet by wi-fi and 3/4 G respectively at the same time that is useful and is certainly more convenient than switching from one to the other.
If you are having problems with a poor signal and have two devices, put the phone or iPad in a waterproof bag, if not already waterproofed in a case, and hoist it up the mast, the extra height may make the difference. But don't forget to switch on the hot spot and connect your other device first.

My review of anchorages & marinas, now has comments on cell phone coverage for many locations and a few have info on wi-fi) 

A more reliable but also more expensive option is to install a dedicated 3/4G & Wi-Fi router with an external active antenna for the cellular connection.

Wi-Fi at a distance.

Antennas from the right: Domestic radio,
Wi-fi, Navtex, AIS GPS, Iridium,
 SSB radio then the stern navigation light.
The steel work on the right is the removable
davit for the dinghy's outboard.
I usually don't bother with marina wi-fi as it tends to perform worse than Vodafone 3G or 4G and I have unlimited (but throttled at 10 MB) data on that account. Also many harvest ID's and data for advertising or for more nefarious reasons - use a VPN if connecting this way. 

Occasionally, and frequently in the Scottish Islands and remote Scottish Lochs, the phone signal is poor or non existent and wi-fi may be the only terrestrial option, but very often signal strength is low or does not work at all in parts of the marina or anchorage, Lochboisdale marina is a good example of this, especially at low tide when the wi-fi router drops out of line-of-sight. The answer may be an external active / booster antenna and a router which might also allow you to pick up BT or other wi-fi hotspots when at anchor.

I use a Digital Yacht iKConnect wi-fi router with a WL60 Mk 3 antenna & booster mounted on the aft gantry. Its a bit of a pain to connect to the hot spot but once done it works very well on signals that don't even register on the iPad and all devices can connect to the router using wi-fi. The PC can connect with a RJ-45 cable but it is not really necessary. Of course browsing performance will depend on the speed and capacity of the marina's Wi-Fi which may not be impressive with lots of boats about. 

The router could also be used to connect iPads to the PC and each other but would require the router and antenna to be switched on using power and it becomes a single point of failure, albeit one which can easily be worked round. 

Satellite Communications.

When I am away from civilization I have an IrdiumGo with the marine fitting kit, it is VERY slow downloading data but is reliable and works anywhere, it provides:
  • Phone, SMS and size limited email, covered here.
  • Tracking of Sancerre covered here.
  • Emergency Alert to a service centre.
  • Downloads of weather GRIBs, observations, automatic weather routing, GMDSS weather forecasts from PredictWind using their integrated downloader and viewer optimised for various download methods and bandwidths.
The new IridiumGo Exec is 40 times quicker for downloads and has some additional features but is more expensive up front and when used. An Iridium phone can do much the same. 

All can use a smart phone or iPad as the client, a PC can only be used for weather downloads.
The PredictWind GRIB downloader and off-line viewer. Clicking
on the circled letters gives you the relevant MDSS weather info.
The download shown above at 7 MB would be far too big for Iridium, it has multiple models, most of the available data over a wide area and covers up to 10 days (some models don't go out that far) every 3 hours. Over Iridium you have to be more targeted, generally every few days I download daily GRIBS from three models (UKMO, ECMWF and GFS) for all of the Atlantic at low resolution with minimal data (wind + pressure) for 10 days, this gives early warning of bad weather and has saved me from being in the Isles of Scilly for two named storms and gave me time to get to shelter before a number of others arrived.

Then twice a day I download at higher resolution for a smaller area and usually with more data and models. The wind GRIBS can be imported into SeaPro for display and weather routing but I don't bother, making my own decisions from the wind maps on iPad or PC.

For higher speeds you would probably need to go to Starlink which is expensive, OTT for me, uses a lot of power and has issues in bad weather or when in motion.

Managing e-mail through Iridium.

When you activate an Iridium sim card you can set up an Iridium optimised email service but the address will change with every sim card, will stop working when you deactivate and requires you to log on to check for mail. To get round this I set up email forwarding from another account to the Iridium account, a copy being left on the original. I give this address to people and my iPad, iPhone and PC handle the email when I have a terrestrial data link, I delete emails or move them to another account after reading so that they will not be down loaded when I connect to the account via Iridium. I then only have to check the Iridium account when I know I will be out of contact for a time. 

Update: Predict wind now provide an email service which may be easier but I have not looked into it in detail as I don't need yet another email service.

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