It started with a woot

arduino   sailing   pebble   visualsail   cloudpebble  

As many of these hobby projects gone awry do, it started with a sale on a shiny new gadget on woot.com. I had been eyeballing the pebble smartwatch since they launched several years ago with a very successful kickstarter. My previous sailing watches and gps units had all slowly died in the 2014 season either from water, corrosion, or just the general abuse that things (and people!) that sail with me tend to endure. I was loathe to spend hundreds of dollars on new ones that I knew would likely meet the same fate.

I had this vague idea that I wanted to make a sailing watch out of it, but had done exactly 0 research to determine the how or even if it was possible. I was on vacation, and there it was on woot.com for $60. Seemed like a smart move, no way would I end up investing hundreds of hours of my life coding for this thing.


Ok I lied, that's not how it started. Back in '05/'06 I wrote a desktop application called VisualSail. I wanted to finish better in regattas. Some guys have the natural gift of being able to sail anything fast, some get 40 hours of "stick time" a week and practice makes them perfect.

I am neither of those.

visualsail

I thought if I could analyze my races after the fact I might spot my mistakes and try to avoid them in the future. There were other commercial offerings at the time (and there still are). I wasn't happy with the fact that the replays were 2d, and none of them offered the ability to slice and dice the data like I wanted. I built VisualSail as a hobby project and sold it as a commercial product for a couple years. I probably only sold 50 or so copies but it was a good experience to launch a "product" soup to nuts. More important was the fact that it made me a better sailor. I also learned that the primary goal of google adwords is to drain your bank account, not sell your product, but that's another story. I'm not bitter or anything.

netduino

I was using simple gps data loggers that just wrote date/time/lat/lon to an NMEA text file. They were great for this purpose, small, inexpensive and reliable. I wanted more though, more sensors, more functionality, and most importantly, more data while actually ON the boat sailing rather than just afterwards. I built this monstrosity pictured above using an arduino and various shields. It was slow, it was a power hog, and most importantly, it was expensive. The simple data loggers would have to do.


2015 edition

Fast forward to 2015 and my sweet woot deal of a shiny new pebble watch. The first order of business was to see if my idea of having the speed/time/heading etc on the watch (rather than the more traditional method of fixing it to the mast) was even a good one. Thankfully, developing for the pebble is stupid easy. The first pass at a pebble application was done using cloudpebble and the javascript api. I built a simple app I called dinghydash. The pebble doesn't actually have a GPS, nor does it actually run javascript, so this prototype required me to take my phone onboard for the race, and the pebble would use the phone to collect the gps data. This was ok for a test, but I didn't want to be required to keep my phone onboard long term (as I said, things on my boat tend to get.... damp).

The experiment was a success, I decided not only did I like having it on my wrist, I liked how notifications were done with vibrations rather than beeps. The screen was always on and easily readable both in broad daylight, and with polarized sunglasses on (a must for any sailor). At the end of the day the pebble still had plenty of battery left, despite the fact that the prototype app was likely very inefficient with the amount of radio chatter it was doing. It seemed like the user story was a good one, and I decided to build something more powerful.

I initially called it "Poverty GPS", in reference to the fact that it was intended to be the cheap version of the $700 commercial alternatives. I guess that wasn't catchy enough, so I renamed it Mr. Gibbs after my favorite fictional first mate.


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