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The glass helm was first assembled in the Mirage Manufacturing conference room. Here Mirage President Ken Fickett (yellow shirt), owner Brooke Williams (at right in shorts) and others watch as the system is first tested.

Q&Awith Brooke Williams, owner of East Passage, on the subject of his glass helm trawler

(Interview conducted Aug. 11, 2004 after a 52-passage from Annapolis to Rhode Island, which included a transit of the mouth of the Delaware River at night, amid heavy shipping. Trawler Times is Mirage Manufacturing’s official e-newsletter.)

Trawler Times: On this idea for a glass helm, what were you thinking and why did you do it?
Brooke Williams: I probably came to similar conclusions that Ken did (Mirage Manufacturing President Ken Fickett). I started looking at and thinking about electronics and what the manufacturers are doing this year, and it seemed they were playing catch-up ball. It seems they were going to the Furuno system, where it looked like the technology was there to go computer based. Before I talked to Ken I had semi-come to that abstraction, and I had come to the conclusion that the technology was actually very simple. He was jumping up and down and saying, “Yeah, it’s very simple. Been done in the aircraft industry for a long time.”

 We got talking back and forth about what might be possible, and he encouraged touch screen. I was not so much interested in touch screens because I wanted to avoid the soft plastic of the computer monitors. He encouraged the use of FT NavVision (maker of Windows-based vessel navigation, instrumentation, control,  logging, and alarm system). He said, “Why go part way, what’s the sense in having old fashioned steaming gauges?”

I started looking into that and it became apparent to me there was an inherent advantage to all that stuff with databasing logging and trend analysis for maintenance. For example, if I check in the morning and there’s a little water in the bilge, I wanted to know, did the bilge pump run all night to prevent me from sinking or did I just take on about three ounces.

TT: Did you have an electronics background before this?
BW: Zero

TT: How many computers did you have in your house?
BW: One and a laptop.

TT: The normal amount per household today.
BW: But I always thought about new toys, new instruments. That sort of thing. When I was in business starting out I remember paying $5,000 for a TRS-80. Computers just exploded our productivity because we didn’t have a typing pool at our disposal. You become somewhat technically literate if you survived the early days of Windows.

TT: I’ve had one trip and you’ve had that, plus several weeks of use out your system, and while I realize that you’re system is not yet fully integrated, fully up and running, has it been a positive experience thus far?
BW: The way the bridge is laid out, to be shorthanded, to do what we want to do. The screens are fine. In that category of question: What the surprise has been, there are always the unintended consequences. It was the overhead. (Note: We had noticed that the white ceiling panels reflected light from the screens back onto the windshield at night, requiring that they be replaced, say, with matte gray panels.)

TT: If we just measured the amount of light emanating from the dashboard, assuming we’d corrected for that reflection, actually a ricochet reflection, the light is much less…If there were a dark overhead there really would be an astounding reduction in light pollution compared to a typical yacht console.
BW: I’m convinced. You’ve heard me say that if there’s a solution I’ll sacrifice esthetics. A lot of people don’t run at night, and maybe we won’t run at night, but I certainly want the option to do so. We’ve had good visibility the past two nights we’ve been running. There can be situations, where its cold as hell and you can’t “when in doubt, step out.”

TT: All the stuff that you’ve plugged into that dashboard are all things that make it easier to run at night. It would be shame if you didn’t use them. In the past, we used to time our arrivals more often. It was felt that if you were going to a strange place you felt you should arrive in daylight. But now if it’s a fairly straightforward inlet, I would think you would be able to come in with the stuff that we’ve got here.
BW: I agree, and there are those who would have thought two or three times before having done what we’ve just done. I’ve crossed oceans in the Navy. The Navy ship I was on had zero lights not a single one. The only light source forward in the bridge was radar and it had one of those (cowls?) you looked into, and you assigned one person to do the radar because in those days those things phosphoresced. …I haven’t talked to other people other than you or Ken who are as paranoid about night lights.  People look at me like, “huh.”

TT: Like, “Why is that man yelling at me?”
BW: Or what’s the big deal about light. Someone shines a flashlight in your eyes it’s what? Thirty-five, 45 minutes to recover…The question that everyone is worried about, and we’ve had in the fringes is: What happens if it all crashes? Well it doesn’t all crash; a fingernail falls off or something else falls off. But with a handheld GPS you can go anywhere in the world.

TT: How many computers do you actually have?

BW: Two. There not quite cross-connected the way we wanted. It’s not completely seamless. For example we put one monitor on one of the small inverters. What we found was that when we switched (from inverter to generator or shore power), because the touch screen was USB, they were sending signals back that were causing glitches, and I haven’t quite got the drill down pat. When you switch from shorepower to generator for example, maybe you switch those monitors off, then you flip then back on, and you don’t get that USB glitch whatever it is.

TT: I guess you’ll just have to work out a set of protocols for steps that you have to take in the course of business.
BW: They’re talking about, the folks at FT NavVision that Windows will gobble up the first comm port available and assign so that if you need it for something other than FT NavVision, there’s a sequence in the way you boot those programs. Is that onerous? Ask me again in a year, but it sounds like its no different than turning a blower on, turning an engine on, warming up the engine, and making sure that while the engines are warming up, you are turning the VHF on.

TT: There’s a whole list of things and an order in which you do things.
BW: Yeah, and it appears that I’ve got more of that

TT: In the Navy in your day, ships had wheels, did they not?
BW: A big, solid, monster, brass wheel.

TT: Yet you’ve gone for the no-wheel. A lever, a little tiller, whatever we call it. What was the reason for that?

BW: I don’t know. How did that come about? Ken suggested that. A lot of this evolved from conversations back and forth, and sometimes it’s hard to tell who the author was.
TT: You’re right; it was quite a collegial process.

BW: Sometimes Ken would explain things in great pedagogical detail. Other times he’d give you a three-word sentence and say, “Go do it.” So I can’t remember. All I do remember is that he wanted the little Raymarine joystick.
TT: An actual joystick?

BW: And as I remember about the size of the bow-thruster control, and I told him, “No way in hell.” I wanted something that looked like a steering mechanism.

TT: We’ve been using that Simrad autopilot package, though, for some time.
BW: After he used the boat, I heard Ken telling people (lever steering) was a piece of cake—intuitive. And it is, it really is quite easy to use. I had asked the Simrad people about doing that at the Miami Boat Show. They hit the ceiling. No it will wear out the pump, they said.

TT: I guess if you were more aggressive than the autopilot, you might.
BW: Well you are. The autopilot is very benign.

TT: So what they were worried about is that you would be hand steering all the time and wearing out the pump.
BW: I guess. I don’t know, but I guarantee you that 7 degrees was an aggressive move for that autopilot. That was something I had to learn. You can’t make sharp turns with it. And that’s probably a good deal…Something else I had to learn: The Mathers (electronic throttles and shifters) doesn’t click solid into neutral like an old fashioned cabled sailboat shifter. When you were in neutral, you knew you were there. And a couple times when I was first doing it with the Mathers, I’d pull back and pull right through it (into reverse). I don’t do it anymore. I don’t even have to think about. It’s part of learning how much force to use.

TT: I think the results from the engine instrumentation point of view have been positive. But I think for the factory boat we are building right now, which is also a charter boat, we’re going to have standard gauges but with two screens for everything else.
BW: I agree. If you’re chartering there’s a certain learning curve that you don’t want to get involved in. Two screens, because (1) they can be used without touch screens and (2) it’s glass instead of soft, and a soft screen is just not going to hold up.

TT: By the way did you use that wireless tablet yet (another way to access the ship’s computers from anywhere on board)?
BW: No, no.

TT: You haven’t had enough time yet.
BW: Just not enough time.

TT: Well that’s all I can think of. Thanks, Brooke. I enjoyed our trip together.

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