Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Calling Home - Inexpensive but Somewhat Effective Methods of Communicating with the Kids

2012 02 01
Almerimar, Espagne

We have been experimenting with inexpensive ways to call home.  Here are the two best.  One we not only recommend but urge you to add to your onboard systems.  The other we are very hesitant to recommend despite some promising aspects.  First the really really good system:

Undisputed Champion of
Person to Person Communication


As difficult as this may be to accept the Blackberry Video Chat software, exclusively for the Playbook, is a joy.  Even with low bandwidth the Playbook delivers clear audio and decent video.  If bandwidth is lacking it will shut off the video and go to voice only.

There is only one drawback: you can only talk to other people who own a Blackberry Playbook.  But this system is so superior to anything we have tried so far we bought a second Playbook for our children so we can all chat online with video whenever we want.  We are in Spain, our children are in London Ontario and Esquimault BC.  We all talk all we want for nothing.  With great audio and good video.

It is so simple to use and to set up.

Here sits Magic Jack
Occupying one of my USB Ports
The Bad: Magic Jack

The disappointment in communications has been the "Magic Jack".  This is a $50 USB device that sets up a VOIP type service for you.  You get a US phone number and supposedly free telephone service.

It works better than Skype, which no one in Europe seems to use, I suspect due to the truly dismal wifi service around here.  When it works the quality is acceptable but not great.  Calls are often broken and hacked up sometimes to the point of uselessness.

Also the program eats up a lot of computer resources.  When it loads  and while it runs it flashes advertising messages at you and you cannot make them go away.  You can minimize the software window to stop the advertising but every few minutes it pops right back up.

This last bit is just plain unacceptable in a commercial program.  I paid for this.  How dare they take over my machine and stop me from working.

Not what you expect when you pay real dollars for a product:  Garish, flashing messages that cover up the documents you are working on and that you cannot remove for minutes at a time.  What a crock.

Also I discover that the owner is a Dr. Ho type sensationalist.  Remember the twitching muscle machine?  All your phone info is wide open to this guy and his henchmen: everyone you call, everything you say.  They can eavesdrop on all your calls.

This product was recommended to us by two other sailors.  This morning we called one of them, our magic jack to theirs.  The broken delivery of the automated message on the other end of the phone apologized for not answering because their magic jack service was not working very well.  "Maybe when the internet improves" they intoned as they made their recorded farewells.

When we hung up, leaving MagicJack running we logged into the Playbook and spoke with our Esquimault daughter for half an hour without a glitch.

We do not recommend Magic Jack.

The Night The Lights Went Out on Darsena Tres

2011 01 27

More Trouble Than You Might Imagine
- A Melted Plug on our Transformer
Until the temperatures climb a bit higher we are devoting ourselves to boatwork.  Not much posting to be done about boatwork you might think.'s something you might not want to try at home:

The situation arose because the Budget Committee was not totally enthused with my cheapskate solution to using European 220 volt 50 cycle power on our 120 volt 60 cycle Northam boat.  You may remember my simple inexpensive idea:

  • buy a car battery charger in Europe that charged 12 volt batteries
  • use the Xantrex inverter to convert the 12 volt power to 120 volt 60 cycle electricity and Voila!!! the TV would work and we did not need to let that pesky 220 volt 50 cycle power on the boat.  It also meant I did not have to spend much money.  

It worked.  It was cheap.  Bliss. was a near miss on bliss.  There were two things the charger/battery/inverter system would not power: a cabin heater and the water heater.  They drew too much current.

A cabin heater is a necessity in Spanish November even in southern Spain.   We purchased an inexpensive 220 volt heater in Spain and ran it right off the mains.  Easy peasy.

Hot water I dismissed as irrelevant.  I mean we had a stove and a kettle.  Correct?

Apparently not incorrect.  The BC explained to me that hot water is not to be dismissed.

The local marina showers  leave a bit to be desired in the comfort and hygiene departments.  Dish washing in cold water is horrid (so I was told) and using valuable butane to  heat water on the stove is not only costly but vaguely imitative of life in a pioneer village.  Again, this is all as it was explained to me in some detail with repetition where necessary to make sure the material was understood.

Apparently I had not even approached Bliss Light.  Well, there are more than one way to skin a european cat, even a 220 volt 50 cycle cat.

While in Canada over Christmas I got on the internet (Unlike Spain Canada has good internet) and looked on Amazon (Europe does not even have Amazon) where I purchased a cheap transformer/voltage converter for only $104.   I had it shipped to  Port Huron using two day shipping (USA has the best shipping the world, except maybe for China) where we picked it up.

The darn thing weighed 28 pounds.  But it converted 220 volt 50 cycle power to 120 volt 50 cycle power and lots of it.  Enough to power the hot water heater.  The difference in frequency, from 50 cycles to 60 cycles, was not a factor for any of the equipment on Meredith.

A new problem presented itself: our luggage allowance to fly back to Europe was only 50 pounds each.  Already we were already packing 8 litres of maple syrup and four kilos of Peanut butter (only nominally available in Europe) and a Blue Sky solar panel controller for a friend and about 20 pounds of electronics.

But the promise of hot water motivated the BC.  She packed, repacked and packed again.  For a full day she configured the luggage and manipulated which sock went into which suitcase to make sure we would each take one 50 pound bag on the airplane.  There was  another 30 pounds in carry on bags but who notices that.

She did pretty well.  At the airport the two bags were each one half kilo over limit and the very nice man at British Airways waived the difference.  Nice airline that BA.

Once back in Almerimar we schlepped 130 pounds of stuff back onto Meredith and started to set things up.   First came the transformer/voltage converter.  I plugged the inlet of the transformer into the 220 and the shore power cord into the output socket.  As I threw the breaker starting up the long dormant electric water heater I involuntarily scrinched up.

But everything was perfect.  No smoke, no smell.  Water was heating in the tank, the BC was happy and me, I was pretty smug at my $100 fix.  Perfect.

Twenty minutes later it was perfection lost.

Dark fell, and up and down the darsena (dock) stoves started to be used up and down the dock to cook supper, heads started to emerge from boats all along our stretch.  People were calling to one another, urgent questions were being asked, just out of earshot of those of us snug and smug down below on Meredith.  Then, of course, came the knock on the hull.

"Is your power out too?" inquired David, the 82 year old co owner of the boat beside us.

No I answered for indeed our power was not out.  However it seemed we were the only boat on the darsena that enjoyed this happy situation.  Dark and cold claimed the length of the dock.  Except for our Meredith.

Sharp queries were raised by the other men all of whom found themselves without electricity and with wives in the middle of preparing dinner.  Unhappy wives I might point out.  Funny how all the other boats thought there was something suspicious about our being the only boat with power working.

We shared a power stand with David and Barb the octogenarian couple inhabiting the boat beside us and their boat too was dead as a doornail and David's meal, until then heating on their electric cooker was cooling rapidly. David could not get the breaker that controlled current to his boat to reset.  I tried for him to no avail.  As soon as it was set it blew.  No one else was having any luck either.

Then we turned the breaker for Meredith off.  David's breaker then worked just fine.    David thought this suspicious, I just figured it was fortuitous.  I was the only guy with power and a happy wife.  Not too shabby.

Climbing back on my boat  I noticed a smell...a smell of overheated transformer.  Tranformer!!!  Quickly I moved to the cockpit of the boat to check on our transformer.  The smell definitely emanated from the transformer.  Little wisps of something vaguely white and smoke like were emerging from the front of the transformer case.

Perfection was not lost.  It had been kidnapped, and was being tortured and murdered horribly right in front of me.

At least no one else saw anything.  What was there to see?  Well, the 120 volt output receptacle had melted.  Little geysers of black plastic were spitting out of one of the socket holes in the receptacle, spraying molten black stuff everywhere.  I unplugged the transformer.  I did this gingerly for fear of electrocution.

"Everything is fine here" I shouted to the men whose wife was standing beside him.   "I have power and all lights are green".

And all of that was true at that precise moment.  I went back to the power stand, reset David's breaker and Voila! again.  There was power on his boat.  Then there was power all down the dock.

In the end it was David, the 82 year old man on the boat beside me, who was blamed for the outage.  Apparently his 80 year old wife was cooking dinner on their electric cooker.  Two electric burners and an electric oven and all were on full bore.  The current draw must have been ferocious and we all know how rickety these Spanish systems are.  Right?

The guys on the dock who knew about these things told us all in whispers, out of respect for the elderly, that we would have to watch those two in case they burned the whole marina down.

I agreed to do my bit.  In the interests of safety.

Post Mortum:

I repaired the transformer.   Examination of the receptacle showed it was cheaply made and inadequate to its designated function.  Luckily electrical fittings are cheap and plentiful in Europe.

I cut out the melted receptacle, installed new wiring and connectors at both ends, resoldered several dodgy looking solder joints inside the transformer and tried everything again.
As you can see the three prong Canadian Plug
Does Not fit the Two Prong Euro Receptacle
To make it work we use an
adapter - shore power into adapter into Euro connector

The water grew nicely hot.

Then the hoses, which had sat through one too many heat up/cool down cycles started to fly off connector barbs.

I hate boatwork.