New Addition – DIY AIS Complete with Instructions

One of the potential upgrades that we had in mind for Rode Trip was an Automatic Identification System (AIS). AIS is a relatively new system that the Coast Guard requires for commercial traffic. It integrates a ship’s GPS and VHF radio and transmits their name, position, direction of travel and current speed. The system also allows the ships to see other ships that are transmitting, hopefully preventing tanker/freighter collisions. These systems are really slick but come with a rather hefty price tag, both in initial cost and power consumption. To buy a full AIS system would have cost a minimum of $800. Many recreational boats buy a unit that can receive the commercial traffic signals, but doesn’t transmit. We had our eye on one of these that would integrate with our laptop, which came in at a more manageable $300.

A couple of weeks ago for some reason I was thinking about a conversation that I had a couple of years ago with my friend Paul about software defined radios. I remember that he had been looking into these nifty little devices and receiving radio stations on his computer. A brainstorm hit me, the VHF signals are being broadcast by the big ships, I wonder if I could use a software defined radio to receive the signals. A quick search on the internet showed me that I wasn’t the first one to think of this clever idea. In fact there is an entire blog dedicated to software defined radios with a very detailed post on building an software defined radio – AIS. Even better it uses all freely available software.

There were only two pieces of hardware that I needed to purchase the SDR “dongle” and an adapter to connect it to our VHF antenna. I already had a PL-259 “T” fitting to allow the computer to share the mast top antenna with Rode Trip’s VHF. The grand total for doing the project this way was $28!

After following the detailed instructions in the link above and connecting the VHF antenna to the laptop I had AIS targets on the laptop! You can see in this picture Rode Trip (the red boat) and two other ships (green triangles) that are at a nearby marina. In addition you can see the two ships names listed on the right side of the picture.


We are looking forward to using this on our future passages. It will be nice if we need to hail any commercial traffic to be able to hail them by name rather than by Lat/Lon coordinates.

Rode Trip has New Guys Aboard

Rode Trip has been receiving Brian’s undivided attention lately. While I’m daydreaming about sunshine, crystal clear water, and swaying palm trees Brian is busy scrambling about Rode Trip tending to every need; completing projects that entail both repairs and improvements while supplies are still readily available. Every now and again I’m called upon to provide encouragement or act as gopher or cleaner-upper. (Seriously, we do collaborate on each and every project from beginning to end but Brian is the workhorse that keeps our boat afloat.) Brian and Rode Trip are simply inseparable! It seems, however, that this extra tender loving care from her owner/captain is just not enough for the ‘ol girl. Now Rode Trip has four new guys aboard! And let me tell you, these guys will really get her moving!

Let me explain how the relationship with these four guys became a reality. As our cruising plans evolved, and our conversations with experienced sailors expanded, it became obvious that Rode Trip’s sailing rig needed an upgrade in order to improve downwind sailing. One spinnaker pole would be an improvement, but a twin pole rig would make her fully capable of crossing oceans with ease. But how do we install twin poles? To design a twin pole rig for Rode Trip, Brian consulted the experts (in this case fellow OCC’ers with tens of thousands of miles of offshore cruising experience). We’d like to thank Scott Kuhner for sharing his twin pole design with us; thus making this project possible. Scott not only gave us a demonstration of his twin pole rig aboard s/v Tamure, but he also shared his detailed article as a reference. Scott’s article explains it best – you can read it here.

Initially, “Woah!” was this project going to be expensive! Brian was persistent, however, and after months of researching and planning we were finally able to obtain all the necessary pieces to complete Scott’s twin pole design. Thank goodness for consignment shops! Cruisers and racers, please continue to upgrade your boats with the latest, most technologically advanced materials so we can continue to reuse your old stuff!  Consigned parts (plus Brian’s jury-rigged engineering) enabled us to complete this project for less than $1,000. Here is a breakdown of the necessary parts:

  1. Two aluminum spinnaker poles; ideally these should both be the length of the boat’s J-dimension. Rode Trip requires an 18-ft pole at least 3-inches in diameter. At consignment (Hurricane Jack’s in New Bern, NC is our new favorite shop) we acquired one 18-ft pole and one 16-ft pole. The outboard end of each pole has a jaw type fitting, the inboard end of each pole has a vertical eye fitting.
  2. Two aluminum tracks; at consignment we acquired one 14-ft length of track.  We purchased a second 12-ft length of track new at West Marine.  Of course, all the installment pieces were also necessary for the tracks; drill, tap, screws, teflon lubricant, and a good ‘ol bosun’s chair with a capable line handler.IMG_6753IMG_6777
  3. Two track cars; these were both acquired at consignment and both required a bit of customizing in order to adapt to the pole ends.  The cars should enable the poles to pivot both up and down and side to side; Scott describes this connection as a ‘universal joint’.  The cars do not require a stopper, in fact a stopper knot will be incorporated into the haul line for each pole.  Pertaining to the track and car positioning on the mast, the track should be forward enough on the mast that when the cars pivot side to side they enable the poles to face directly forward.IMG_6784
  4. Lines and cleats; here is where we meet those four new guys.  After rifling through our own lines we had about half of what we needed.  Two topping-lift lines; installed on the outboard end of each pole and run through a block on the mast above the top of the track.  Two haul lines; installed on the inboard end of each pole and run through a block on the mast at the top of the track down to a cleat on the mast at the bottom of the track.  The haul lines have a very important stopper knot through the cleat to prevent the pole from dropping lower than the clew of the jib when in use.  Two cleats we had were installed on the mast, one at the bottom of each track.  To complete the line set up, we bought new lines for the fore-guys and aft-guys; these are lines that will enable us to maneuver the poles.  The fore-guy is installed on the outboard end of each pole, runs forward through a block on deck and back to a cleat (or tie-off in our case at the sampson post though a cam-cleat would be ideal here).  The aft-guy is installed on the outboard end of each pole, runs aft through a block on deck and back to a cleat.
  5. Blocks; Brian had previously installed two blocks aft which were intended for spinnaker sheets and will now be used for the aft-guys.  On the fore deck, Brian installed two blocks extending from the bowsprit that will be used for the fore-guys.  On the mast, a triple-block was installed atop at center of the two tracks.  The topping-lift for each pole runs through this triple-block as well as the topping-lift for the staysail boom.  The haul lines for each pole run through a block at the top of each track.  Honestly, I’m not certain which blocks we had and which were found in consignment shops but getting them all was a mix-match between these and those.IMG_6780

The poles are easily stored along the lifelines and out of the way.  We can’t wait to let these poles loose in a good breeze!IMG_6775

The Cape Fear River, NC

Rode Trip set sail from Oriental…well, we fired up the Perkins and motored from Oriental to Beaufort via the good ‘ol Intracoastal Waterway.  We had a light wind forecast with 5-10 knot northwest winds.  Right on schedule, at sunset, we exited the Beaufort Inlet and set our sails for an overnight trip approximately 60 nm south to the Masonboro Inlet.  It was a cloudy, rainy night.  It was however calm and the forecast held true with light winds.  We set all the sails; full main, jib, and stay sail kept us moving at an average of 4 knots through the night.  At dawn the next morning we approached the Masonboro Inlet.

IMG_6706On a Saturday morning, the inlet was bustling with fishermen buzzing about in skiffs and fishing from the shoreline.

IMG_6707Once again we hopped onto the Intracoastal Waterway and motored into the Cape Fear River.  We had traveled for 25 hours, 100nm before we finally dropped the hook in the Brunswick River, a tributary, just prior to passing through Wilmington, NC.  We made sure to be well rested because the following day would be very exciting…

Our friends, Ren, Ashley, and their beautiful newborn baby girl, Ani were to meet us in Wilmington to guide Rode Trip up the Northeast Cape Fear River to their home.  We’d met Ren and Ashley (s/v Nila Girl) in Long Island, Bahamas and sailed along with them to Jamaica.  We were looking forward to our reunion and to meeting baby Ani.  We enjoyed the sights along Wilmington’s Cape Fear River waterway along the way to our rendezvous location.

State Port

State Port


Tugs at the ready for big ships' arrivals

Tugs at the ready for big ships’ arrivals.


Cape Fear Memorial Bridge

Cape Fear Memorial Bridge



Battleship North Carolina

Battleship North Carolina



Market Street Landing City Docks

Market Street Landing City Docks

Isabelle Stellings Holmes Bridge

Isabelle Stellings Holmes Bridge

We were the only boat in waiting for the 1400 opening of the Holmes Bridge (seen above). Rode Trip caused quite a stir to this bridge-tender’s day; he was relaying messages to us via the VHF from Ren, directing us to our rendezvous site, asking when we’d be passing through again…it’s not often that sailboats venture past this bridge.  The Northeast Cape Fear River is uncharted.  Aside from minimal commercial traffic and local fishermen this part of the river doesn’t get much action.  Once through the bridge we welcomed aboard Ren, Ashley, and Ani.

IMG_6736When we weren’t chattering away, catching up on our respective adventures, we were admiring the beautiful scenery along the river.  And, of course, admiring Ani experiencing her very first boat ride!  She even took a turn at the tiller.


Ren guided us along the winding river with his local knowledge and use of an Army Corps of Engineers chart of recorded shoaling.  The river was plenty deep for Rode Trip; 30 feet in most areas.  We traveled 22 miles through wilderness.  This route is s/v Nila Girl’s home stretch when returning from the sea.  We anchored Rode Trip right in Ren and Ashley’s backyard (or I should say back river) and settled into our peaceful new resting place.