Navigation Computer – A Horrifying Mac Story

Electrical energy is a valuable resource on a sailboat. Cruising sailors often go to enormous lengths to conserve energy and devise clean energy sources. Tahina has seven 80-Watt solar panels to help cleanly provide many amps per day of electrical energy into our large high-tech battery bank. We also plan to get a wind generator down in the Caribbean. Even so, we will still need to occasionally run the noisy, smelly, diesel generator on occasion to make up for demands that go beyond what the clean energy sources can provide. (Don’t get me wrong, our generator is one of the quieter ones available, but sailors still hate to use them).

When deciding what computer to put into our navigation station, I wanted something energy efficient and that could run off our 12 Volt system (without requiring the large inverter we have on board). My long-time friend Andy Schwab has been working with me for months to plan our computer system needs. He evaluated a number of options for our nav computer and we’ve just finally completed the installation. The end result is a bit horrifying for Mac geeks, but it works (I should have written this yesterday for halloween!).

Our nav computer had to be able to run Windows because our Raymarine navigation software only runs on Windows (although, I have managed to get it running on a Mac under VMWare, it wasn’t designed for that). We initially looked at buying a custom energy-efficient PC to minimize the number of amps the computer would draw from our 12 V system. It turns out the custom PC route can be pretty expensive. Andy eventually came back to another idea he had.

It turns out the Mac Mini is very energy efficient out of the box (I believe they’ve won some awards for it). And, we were able to get a deal because Apple was just coming out with a new version. So, it was more cost efficient, and energy efficient to go with a Mac. But, what about the Windows problem? Yes, we actually installed BootCamp and then installed Windows on the poor Mac, and that’s what it will run normally. Thanks to a very efficient in-line 12 volt adapter we purchased, it will require 25%, or less, the energy of a typical energy efficient PC. My apologies to the poor Mac for subjecting it to this indignity.

To make up for this cruelty, we are using an Airport Extreme for our wireless network, and an Apple TV for our digital entertainment on the TV. And, I use a MacBook Pro for my everyday laptop use.

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7 Responses to Navigation Computer – A Horrifying Mac Story

  1. Ben Campbell says:

    Do you have thoughts about how the Mini will hold up to the marine environment? It may have an advantage of fewer connectors and such to corrode, but it will also be hard to service in the field. OTOH, you could take an entire spare computer without eating too much into your weight and space limits.
    Do you have a data backup strategy?

  2. Jim says:

    And here I figured you’d run everything on an Amiga…. 🙂

  3. Frank Taylor says:

    @Ben: I definitely have given a lot of thought to the marine environment issues. We find that computers left on in the marine environment last longer than those not used. The temperature keeps moisture at bay, which helps reduce the risk of corrosion. Your point that it is cost-effective to replace with a spare computer is in fact a good approach for these applications.
    Yes, we a backup strategy. We’ll have a complete backup to our two main network drives on board, and a third set left with a friend back in the US. If one goes out, he’ll make a new one and ship ours back. We also have rotating backup drives on board for the computers with partitions for each system, and will periodically send a set back.
    When we have a good Internet connection, we’ll use online backup services like Mozy.

  4. Jean says:

    About your post on electrical energy, did you consider to install a shaft generator ? To my knowledge it is the most efficient way. Of course, there may be a problem if you have propellers with foldable blades !

  5. Frank Taylor says:

    @Jean: Yes, we have folding blades. Not only that, we have saildrives not a long-propellor shaft. So, that option doesn’t work. You can buy water-powered generators, but they tend to slow you down a bit.

  6. Bryan Espinosa says:

    EPIC site I’m glad I stumbled here through my friend’s blog i’m gonna definitely need to put this one on the morning routine 🙂

  7. Lester Gambrel says:

    Awesome site 🙂 I’m happy I stumbled onto it through google. Gonna need to add another one to the list 😀

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