30 November 2009

Keep it simple

Overcomplicating a design often makes things worse.
It's a real art (or some would call it science) to achieve the desired design and streamline it to where nothing superfluous is left.
Once you achieve that probably the design will hold.
In other words less is more.
I am guilty of often spending too much time over engineering a small item that could be simplified and made more efficient.
I often get inspiration from comments of other users to complete my ideas, like
while presenting my work at the 2nd Australian Sea Kayak Symposium where I gathered tips from the attending public.
It is a trap to have something too complicated and with too many features that in the end might lead to the failure of the primary function.
In the outdoor industry I admire designs like Arcteryx (a leading manufacturer of outdoor clothing and gear) where they strive to eliminate everything that is cumbersome and superfluous but at the same time achieving an aesthetically pleasing very functional product.
In my opinion, the exact opposite is North Face, also a leading outdoor gear brand.
Their philosophy is to add more features and gadgets where none could be added anymore.
Both are successful brands in the same field but they appeal to a different style/demographic.
I noticed more college crowds wearing the heavily advertised brand North Face while Arcteryx was worn by a more discerning mature outdoor folk.
There are many other brands out there but I wanted to make an analogy between these two clothing brands and sea kayaks.

How often I see novice paddlers impressed by kayaks outfitted with gadgets or wanting to accessorize their sea craft with those gadgets.

deck clutter?
I have been one of them and in some respect still am.
Boy, was I lusting after one of those deck bags: it would make me look like a real sea kayaker.
But the more time I spent on the water the more I realized that it's best to keep a clean deck since loose items are begging to be claimed by the sea or wanting to entangle you in the heat of the battle.

Fortunately that deck bag never made it “under the Xmas tree” .
Don't get me wrong, to some I am still known as gadget man and admittedly I go to great lengths to acquire (or fabricate) the perfect item.
My goal however is to have the least chance of that gear to fail while keeping bulk and weight to a minimum (I also like to stow most items under the deck, these days)
A project of mine can see design, test, redesign and retest to lead occasionally to an abandoned project if I can not pull off the two principles: sturdy but light/compact.
Less is more.

That leads to this coin:

How much simpler could a coin get.
It clearly says 1 rupee, and to reinforce the concept of "one" a raised thumb is depicted.
I would not call it a feat in artistic design but it's simple and clear.

It achieves its function: light, simple and economical to produce (unlike some bi metal coins out there).
Now, if only Fonzie would be still around to see that his signature move made it onto the face of a coin :-)

24 November 2009

Too busy?

Is it more selfish to have offspring or not to have them?
That's the question I asked myself the other day.

I used to believe that it was more selfish not to have them.
Let's rewind a few years back.
I migrated to Australia to a relatively low density urban environment.
I grew up in a low density community (village of 600 people) and was partially schooled in a small city of 150.000 people.
To most world standard largely populated areas I grew up in an environment that was not oppressive and offered a lot of outdoor recreational opportunities.
Although even in my teens I started to sense that the world was getting rather busy.
I was lucky enough to travel to some of the most populated areas in the world and witness population explosion in its worse manifestation: India's large cities.
It was a shock to see all those masses having no room to live.

India's overpopulation problem (*1)
The population problem started to become evident to me when I kept on hearing that at the current rate the world was going to get busy, very busy.
Very reputable sources were predicting a population explosion that, unless something catastrophic would happen, would effect the way we live tremendously.
That knowledge lingered in the back of my head and just would not go away.
When I married I decided that I would not follow the common peer pressure of starting a family.
Despite coming from a family of 4 siblings I decide that I was not cut out to be a dad.
I am sure that most viewed my decision as selfish probably not knowing my reasoning.
At the time, there was not real talk of climate change, overpopulation and current other social problems that we are facing today when I decided that having offspring was not the best idea.
However I was somehow feeling guilty that I did not follow what society was expecting from me: perpetuate what was “natural”.

After hearing a comment that having children is selfish the other day, I asked myself the question.
The commentator said that having offspring is a selfish expression of yourself: you wanting to perpetuate yourself with your children.
While some might view the comment totally out of line and actually absurd, I am lead to believe that there is some truth in it.
Why is it that well educated people with knowledge of the evidence that the world is overpopulated continue on the old adage: populate or die* (Australian Government slogan in the 50').
Could be arguable that the opposite is true: populate and die?

We are depleting our resources faster than we can replenish them and while all the efforts toward sustainability are focused on reduction of the use of those resources, there is very little talk on how to tackle the root of the problem: overpopulation.
The Public Health Association of Australia however seems to recommend this.

And what has this got to do with kayaking?
Simple: the population explosion is impacting my paddling environment.
No longer can I just decide on where I want to paddle and just head off.
These days a trip has to be planned carefully around holidays (avoiding them) and climate.
If I want to have a half assed experience of remoteness I have to pick the time of the year that other people don't favor: winter.
That certainly was not the case just a decade ago.
My neck of the woods, or shall I say surface of the pond, has experienced an unprecedented population growth.

India's crowded beach; not my scene (*2)
While the growth it’s dismal compared to some real big cities in the world, I don’t ever wish that my place would become so busy that an actual wilderness experience will no longer be possible unless I am prepared to travel so far away from home that I will have to use my annual vacation to reach those places.

Indonesians play in the water at Ancol beach during the Eid al-Fitr holiday in Jakarta, Indonesia on September 21, 2009. (REUTERS/Crack Palinggi) (*3)
Have I answered myself the original question: am I selfish?
Not totally, however I sense a certain rewarding feeling that I have not contributed to the problem.

There have been many mass extinctions of species in the history of our world. The planet seems to have taken no notice whatever. There will no doubt be more in the future. If we are foolish enough to precipitate our own mass extinction, I am pretty certain this will have not the slightest effect on the ultimate fate of our planet.Saving the planet may be a nice catch-phrase, but the real challenge is saving ourselves."
(from the Ad Contrarian 12JAN2010)

published under the Creative Commons licence from this author
*1 here
*2 and here
*3 source http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2009/11/on_the_shoreline.html

19 November 2009

Shopping online and shipping deals

Some call me gear freak, some call me hopeless shopaholic; I even seem to upset some folks with the latest addition to my kit.
There always seems to be something new, faster, better or lighter.
While I won't deny the accusations I might as well let you know some of my secrets of how I get all that gear.
Some obviously is home made and most of those projects have been documented on this blog.
The gear that is commercially available is generally bought on discount.
Like any savvy sea kayaker that is not overpaid in his/her job I try the most economical way to get the desired items.
Any gear that I am interested in I try to source it from local vendors first.
There are a couple of well stocked shops in my area.
Some of the items I desire may not be available locally or in Australia at all.
The Australian market is considerably smaller than the overseas one and competition here is usually non existent.
Since a lot of goods are not manufactured in Australia (some kayaks and a few other items aside) most merchandise is imported into the country.
Generally there is only one importer for a given product and that by nature leads to an inflated retail price.

Importers and retailers in Australia operate on a larger margin/smaller volume philosophy.
Discount stores of technical outdoor gear are not common in this country.
While some electronic merchandise seems to be on par (if not cheaper) than on overseas markets that does not seem to apply much to hardware for kayaking and outdoor sports.
As a consumer we are forced to pay double, sometimes triple the price of what our paddling friends in USA pay.
I used to work for REI and let me tell you, I got a shock when I moved back to Australia and went gear shopping.
Now, since most items are made in China, I find paying and exorbitant price for inexpensive goods a rip off.
My solution became: shop online.

If doing a price comparison for an item and find it substantially cheaper than if sourced locally, I will not hesitate to buy it online.
Most of my items are usually ordered from trusted large vendors and occasionally I dab on eBay.
Some of my sources (REI, Backcountry.com) even offer a return policy that is just unknown in Australian retail: unconditional satisfaction guarantee.
Since I am an avid consumer of outdoor gear and I tend to use the items that I buy it's just a matter of time that occasionally some gear fails.
I rather pay premium for quality goods that carry a lifetime warranty or I buy brands that have a solid reputation.
But let's go back to shopping online.
Some vendors in USA (they seems to have the best deals) will charge too much for shipping.
Interestingly enough they might ship for cheap or even free within USA but the cost goes up exponentially if shipped to Australia.
The reason being that they use UPS or Fed-Ex as their shipping company since they need confirmation of receipt for the goods shipped (to protect themselves from scammers claiming the goods never arrived).
Some large vendors have restriction for shipping some brands (North Face, Arcteryx, to name just a couple) outside USA and won't ship to Australia (regional market protectionism).
I am fortunate to have a couple of friends in USA that are happy to receive my orders to their home address and then ship forward the goods to me via the Postal Service.
In the end my gear ends up costing me much less than bought (if available) locally.

Some of my buddies have asked me if there was a way for them to do the same.
My friend in USA is not happy to do it commercially (he extends the favor just to me) and unless an agent could be sourced there, the shipping would remain the biggest problem for shopping online in USA.
Just recently I have been given the contact of a possible commercial agent and after some enquires I have finalized a deal.
BonzerImports is an Australian that lives in New York and has a business selling electronic gear.
He is willing to forward ship items addressed to his premises for a flat fee of AU$40.
As a purchaser you would be paying the cost of shipping of goods to his address (often pretty cheap or in some cases free), his handling fee of $40 plus the cost of actual postal shipping that you can calculate (at not inflated prices).
He ships using the US Postal Service.
Shipping costs can be calculated by selecting the desired level on the USPS chart
David from BonzerImports suggests to ship via Express Mail International level.
The chart for a 5 lbs. item looks like this.

David suggests to shop for more than one item at the time so you can consolidate your shipping into one package and have only one handling charge of $40.
David can be reached at
While I have not used his shipping service (I have my friend in Oregon) others that I know have and they assured me that he is honest.
Payment for his service is done directly into his Australian bank account in AU$, and there are no credit card fees for a foreign currency transaction.

10 November 2009

SHOP: Electric bilge pump switch

I have written about the installation of an electric bilge pump in a sea kayak here.
While the install seems nothing out of the ordinary and has been done many times over by keen sea kayakers, the switch to activate the pump remains the sticky point for most installs.
The switch is also the culprit that gives electric bilge pumps the reputation for being unreliable.
I started off with the standard toggle switch that some kayak manufacturers (Mirage for example) use as factory install.

available in Australia at Whitworths
The switch is inexpensive and only a relatively small hole needs to be drilled through the deck of the kayak.
A rubber booth protects the internal moving parts and makes it waterproof.
Unfortunately the booth is prone to get a hole in it and inevitably the switch fails making the pump inoperable.
Often is the UV, the salt water or abrasion that hole the booth.
Replacing the booth frequently only limits the problems but not fully addresses it.
I have seen some installations of bilge pumps using an air switch that is commonly used in kitchen sink garbage disposals.

available at Costco
I have never used one but I hear that occasionally it switches the pump on without activation form the user. Apparently the air that is in the line from the button to the actual switch can expand in hot weather and trigger the pump. If not noticed (like during car top transport) it will flatten the battery.
The air switch is rather expensive (AU$130) and needs a large hole drilled on the deck to install the button. The button protrudes deep below deck.

I have been using a DIY magnetic switch that needs no holes drilled for its operation.
The switch is made of two 3 parts: the magnet, the reed and the relay.

magnet on deck reed switch encased in epoxy
The reed is the actual switch activated by the magnet and the relay is the "booster" that is needed to run the pump. The reed alone is not strong enough to run the bilge pump.
Since the magnet and the reed are totally enclosed in epoxy resin they are very durable and there are no parts to wear out or needing maintenance.
Some kayakers have been discouraged by the complexity of manufacturing a magnetic switch and have rather used the other alternatives or opted for a fully automatic bilge pump.

The commercially available automatic bilge pumps work on the principle of switching-on periodically (commonly every two minutes) and switching itself off if no resistance (water) is detected. Such pumps need to be connected to the battery before every paddle and disconnected afterwords, or the battery will run flat eventually by the intermittent activation of the pump.
Having the pump periodically switchig on for no reason (testing the "waters") while paddling can be annoying.These pumps usually cost 3 times as much as conventional electric bilge pumps and are bulkier making installs behind the seat in some cases not possible (there is not enough room).

There is also the option of automatic activation of the pump using a float switch.
When the water level in the cockpit of the kayak rises high enough to float the switch , the pump gets turned on.
Often these switches need a relatively high water level to turn on and occasionally fail.
A paddler will be sitting in a few inches of water before the pump goes off.
The float switch will also swtich-on if the kayak is turned upside down.
In a few cases the user forgot to switch the pump off while the kayak was inverted ending up with a flat battery.

Just recently I have come across a very neat small automatic switch that activates the pump by "detecting" water (available in Australia at Whitworths).

Witch Switch water sensor switch
The sensor will switch the pump on if it detects water covering it.
The witch switch can be installed in any position and low enough to activate the pump even lower water levels are present in the cockpit.
While I have not tried the switch (I am happy with my magnetic one) this unit sounds promising.
I guess it could be a good alternative for a pump install where the fabrication of the magnetic switch is just too daunting.
The company offers a 7 years warranty on the switch giving the user confidence in their product.
Rule does make a new automatically switched pump that uses the same technology in their switch but the pump will only activate at water level above 2-3/4" (70 mm).

The Rule Mate pump is also rather bulky and only kayaks with plenty of room behind the seat will accommodate its size.
The Witch Switch can be positioned to activate at much lower water level than that leaving a dryer cockpit.

PS:Steve Foreman has alerted me of this great option for an electric bilge pump set up. While I am a bit puzzled at all the electronic components (I am no engineer, obviously) it's good to see that there are options out there.

09 November 2009

Compact waterproof cameras: long term testing

A few years back when I started kayaking I wanted to transfer my passion for photography on the water.
It was not long since I had embraced digital imaging and finally said goodbye to the film cameras.
While I noticed some drop in sharpness with my first 4.0 Megapixel digital camera compared to the Nikon FM (with quality lenses) digital images were obviously the future for me.
If nothing else the extended dynamic range alone was worth the initial drop in sharpness.
When shooting professionally (architecture) one very important aspect of my work was that the final photograph had to be very sharp.
Hasselblad gave me those desired results.
However the bulky camera was not suited for action photography or remote locations.
Schlepping a heavy and very expensive tool that I had to be very careful with ,when confronted by the elements, was fast becoming a chore that was taking a lot of enjoyment from my trips.
It was bad enough to shelter the “blad” from rain when bushwalking but I could not see myself toting around that thing on the sea, in a kayak.
The Nikon would have needed a bulky and expensive water housing to be able to use it on-water.
I was very excited when finally Olympus brought out the first waterproof camera.

MEI's current set of cameras, left to right: newest to oldest

My early attempts of housing a compact digital camera in a soft waterproof pouch proved useless; the results were worse then ghetto.
Water droplets and out of focus images were the norm, no the exception.
Olympus was offering a real waterproof camera that was compact and robust.
Finally I had the tool with me that would allow my style of images to be transferred on the water.
I don’t often photograph “sitting around the camp” or serene landscapes in dry conditions.
My preferred images are taken in rough conditions where a conventional camera does not stand a chance.

The little Olympus proved to be a winner (collection of images here)
Compact enough to be sitting in my PFD pocket I could reach for it at any time and getting it wet was not a problem.
Olympus even took care of water droplets on the lens problem.
They have a special coating that repels most water droplets. A quick dunking of the camera in the sea would clear the most stubborn ones.

The camera served me well for about 3 years when eventually some minimal water intrusion killed one memory card.
While not dead, the camera could not trusted on water anymore.

signs of light corrosion on the 720SW
In 3 years I did not bother to service the seals (recommended). At $150 a pop I figured I was ahead of the game.
I would have spent as much as a new camera. By then Olympus finally brought out a waterproof camera with wide angle lens that I purchased as replacement to the 720SW.
With improved features (better movies, better menu) the wide angle lens (comparable to 28mm) was getting close to my style of wide angle photography.

Unfortunately the quality of the 1030SW was appalling.
So far every user of the same model camera (specifically the 1030SW) that I know, that shoots in salt water, has had trouble with the camera.
Salt water corrosion being the common problem.
After only a few months the camera showed signs of corrosion (not just surface like on the 720SW) and compartment doors to battery and ports became hard to operate.

The black paint on the front panel flaked off and the lens frame with it.
Olympus "repaired" one 1030SW of mine under warranty that flooded the first time I used it in water. Eventually they replaced it with a new Though8000.
A second 1030SW had the same problems and that one got serviced under warranty too.
Without expressly saying it, Olympus admits that that particular model was a dud.

signs of heavy corrosion on the 1030SW (and that's after servicing)
However some waterproof cameras "die" way before they reach "maturity"
How often do I see kayakers using waterproof cameras while paddling without any security for accidentally dropping them.
Water makes things slippery and often tired hands become “fumbly”.
Some at least use a tether but even then a few accidents have occurred while passing the camera to an other paddler.
All of my cameras, while on water, are tethered and have a floating device to prevent them to be donated to Neptune.
A piece of minicell (closed cell foam) large enough to float the camera is essential.

fishing clip used for attaching floatie detail of reinforcement on minicell

Recently I have added a budget waterproof camera to my set: a camera from Aldi!
Yes, that’s right: a camera from the discount chain store.
Manufactured by Olympus it offers enough features to satisfy most amateur photographers.

single door on Traveler camera: battery, card and port all in one location
The quality of the images is slightly inferior to my other Olympus cameras but at 1/3 of the price of the others is not a bad one as spare for “high risk” shots (read surf photography).
Sure there are many self professed expert photographers that will laugh at the Aldi "toy".
To them I reply: it ain't what you have, it's how you use it :-)
Thousaunds of dollars worth of high end equipment and very little results to show for it... that's what I am laughing at.
What really sold me is the 3 year warranty. I strongly doubt it will last 3 years in salt water but I will make sure I keep that purchase receipt handy :-)

05 November 2009

Warming up to my "Mockpool"

All that vast "plain" deck needs some "bling"...
I was looking at my new (to me) Seabird Designs NorthSea kayak.
This unique kayak (unique as different than any other and unique as the-only-one in Australia) is a prototype that I purchased used after the importer assessed it.
It had a few scratches and it needed a bit of work but it was a kayak that I could fit.
My legs don't have to be splayed wide or flattened to the floor in this kayak.
I can have my legs slightly bent and my knees closer together, a position favouring a fast paddling technique (surfski style).
North Sea's cockpit compared to Tahe Greenland
What I did not like (initially) was the narrower beam and the round hull.
It felt tippy like a log when I first took it for a paddle.
Noticeably faster than my Impex Assateague (most narrower kayaks are) it has much less initial stability.
I was actually rather disenchanted at first and almost put it on eBay after a particularly frustrating first session in the surf with it.
I am glad that I listened to Mark Sundin when he told me to persevere and spend some time in it: I would eventually get the hang of it and probably love it.
A few months later I have to say that he was right.
While I will probably never have the same confidence to just bob around without my paddle in hand and trying to chase images in rough waters like I can do in the Assateague, the kayak is warming up to me.
I love how it needs so little effort to surf small wind waves.
The bay where I often paddle produces those conditions.
The waves are not big or steep enough to push my Impex but sufficient for the SeaBird.
All I often need is a couple of powerful strokes at the moment my hull is lifted by the following wave and I can usually surf along having fun.

It seems that the round hull of the SeaBird offers less friction (wetted surface) and a higher hull speed.
Looking at surfskis' bottoms there seems to be some similarity in the shape of the hull of my North Sea.

One thing I disliked about the SeaBird was the rudder.
Soudkapp (c)

Flimsy and very badly executed hardware prompted me to remove it and install a skeg.
If my preferred paddling would be racing or trying to leave my paddling buddies behind I probably would have left the rudder on, but for my style of just enjoying sea kayaking for the sake of it, a skeg suits me better.
So back to that big "plain" deck.
I am not a cool (?) "all white" kayak kind of guy.
While the hull on the North Sea is carbon/Kevlar weave with clear coat (admittedly very sexy) the deck begged for some "bling"
I like the look of SKUK (Nigel Dennis) custom deck designs and Rockpool's decoration.
Rockpool kayaks have not been available in Australia until recently.
Adding glitter to the finished kayak would be rather difficult, so I just settled for the "starfish"
Soudkapp deck (c)

A made-in-China kayak that is trying to impersonate a British boat?
Not wanting to pretend that it is a Rockpool I named my North Sea: MOCKPOOL, complete with the Chinese flag instead of the Union Jack.

Some might think that I ripped off Rockpool's design but certainly they are not the first to use starfish as decor on a kayak; they just made them famous.
If I can only work out on how to add glitter now... :-)

02 November 2009

GEAR: compass for sea kayak

I often wondered what that recess in front of my bow hatch was.
Well, I have been told it was not designed for the snow dome that I mounted there :-)
OK, jokes apart I want to talk about sea kayak compasses.
I am not a big fan of GPS and while I know that are great in featureless coastal areas to pinpoint your position or when visibility is really low I prefer the old deck mounted compass.
I use a few different styles on my kayaks.
My Impex Currituck came with a Silva 70P mounted in the recess.
(For mounting instructions click here)
I think that compass is great: always there when needed and relatively out of the way.
I heard some kayakers with poor eyesight lament visibility issues since it's too far away from the cockpit.
In my case the Silva 70P is occasionally covered when I stow my sail on deck.
The mast base (red, in the above picture) is positioned in front of the compass and the folded sail covers the compass dial.
I have therefore started to use a different compass: the Suunto Pioneer.
While the rose is smaller and the cardinal points are not as bold, the casing allows me to mount the Suunto in alternative spots on the deck.
Suunto mounted on VCP hatch cover
The Suunto Orca comes with bungee cord style attachment, the Pioneer with a plastic base that can be hard mounted on the deck while allowing the compass to be removable.
I don't like the bungee style but I also don't like drilling any unnecessary holes in my deck.
On one kayak, the preferred position for the Suunto is the hatch cover.
Drilling holes in a rubber hatch cover could compromise waterproofness.
I therefore created a fibreglass base for the Suunto that would give me a flat surface for my mounting hardware.
using the existing holes in the rubber casing I threaded some cord to keep the Suunto in place on the fibreglass base plate
On the base I stuck some industrial strength touch tape (aka Velcro).
The self adhesive pads are water resistant and will stick to most surfaces like the proverbial sh*t to a blanket.
The Scotch branded touch tape is extremely tenacious and won't "fuzz up" after a while loosing it's holding power.
Scotch brand touch tape uses little interlocking "mushrooms" for its holding power even when wet
And while I like the holding power of the this touch tape I am not totally confident that a good knock won't dislodge the compass.
I tethered it with a small cord to one of the deck lines.
I also use a 3rd type of compass: the Silva 70UNE.
Basically the same as the 70P this compass is not designed for a recess in the deck (not all my kayaks have one).
Silva 70UNE on my SeaBird's deck, the "black tubes" are paddle parks
This Silva kayak is unique since it has a small light inside the rear handle that can be turned on for night navigation.
If you have ever tried to navigate in the dark you will understand that shining a flash light onto the compass to check your course is not the way to do it: you will loose your night vision.
The Silva 70UNE light is just strong enough to illuminate the compass' dial but not overpowering to kill your night vision.
On the other hand the Suunto can be adapted to night illumination by slipping a very small chemical light stick between the compass' base and its rose.
I purchase my light sticks from a fishing shop: they are designed to be used in conjunction with a fishing lure for night fishing.
prying the base open to slip in a mini light stick

And last but not least this little gem.
A "budget" compass that I picked up on a road trip to China.
To this day I still can't figure out to where it is pointing....
I guess the saying it's true: cheap, good: pick one :-)