Free Fiction: Honest John’s Fine Used Spaceships

When a customer demands a spaceship that can do the absurd, Honest John feels compelled to live up to his reputation for honesty and tell the guy to take a hike. On the other hand, as the saying goes, the customer is always right, especially when there’s a pile of money involved.

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Digital depth sounders, sometimes called digital depth instruments, report depths as a series of single numbers. For example, 23.0, 23.5, 23.7, 22.9, and so on.

Herein lies the key to the problem with digitals. They can only report one depth at a time. By their very nature, digitals display those numbers one after another, like the times displayed on the face of a digital watch: 12:31, 12:32, 12.33, and so on. Whether that one depth is the depth you’re interested in or, effectively, noise is another matter.

So, where do those numbers come from and why all the guessing, or what amounts to guessing?

Digitals, like all depth sounders, send out pulses and measure the time between when the pulse was sent out and when the echo of that pulse returns. Let’s call that difference the delay.

Using the delay, the depth sounder can then calculate the depth of the water. The longer the delay, the deeper the water. The shorter the delay, the shallower the water.

Makes sense, right?


You see, there’s a fly buzzing around in the ointment. Well, several flies, actually. For every pulse sent out, a whole bunch of echoes come back: echoes from the bottom, from nearby rocks, from weeds, from fish, from kelp, from just about anything that can return an echo. That’s a whole lot of stuff; that’s a whole lot of echoes.

Once received back at the depth finder itself, that buzzing swarm or echoes is fed into a highly complex and equally sophisticated algorithm. In go the echoes, the machine goes crunch-a, crunch-a, crunch-a, and out comes a number: 21.7 feet, for example.

Pretty cool, huh?

Yep, pretty cool . . . until something goes wrong. When that happens—and in my experience it happens a lot—reliability flies out the old porthole. (The trick at that point is to make sure that the keel doesn’t slam into the old mud!)

Sound behaves differently in salt water, brackish water, and fresh water. It behaves differently in warm water, tepid water, and cold water. It behaves differently in water that swarming with algae and water that’s clear.

And that poor little algorithm, despite its sophistication and decades of development by the finest minds in the industry, often can’t cope. It has to make assumptions, it has to pick and choose, it bases current calculations, in part, on past calculations, and a lot of the time, it literally, for lack of a better term, gets lost.

I’ve found that when I’m in cold, clear water, my digital works just fine. I’ve also found that when I’m in deep water, rather than report “no bottom,” it tells me I’m in impossibly shallow depths. In the relatively warm, relatively cloudy waters of Puget Sound, it often delights in telling me that I’m in less water than my boat draws. Frequently, it can’t decide whether I’m in 158, 126, 75, 58, or 3.5 feet of water—all within the course of a few seconds. You can imagine how much fun this is when I’m trying to nose into bay to drop the hook.

Complicating matters still further, there’s no way for the user to adjust the gain or sensitivity of the units. That is, there’s no way to “tell” the digital that there’s a lot of “crud” in the water and to pay attention only to the strongest echoes. Think of this as being the rough equivalent of having a volume control.

Overall, digitals are fine units, but they do have their limitations, and often, those limitations make the difference between an enjoyable day on the water and a day spent in the enthralling anticipation of becoming suddenly and intimately familiar with the local underwater landscape, be it mud, rock, sand, kelp, or Junior’s discarded bicycle.





To review . . .

When it comes to being out on the water, one of the better ways to ruin a perfectly good trip is to run out of water, that is, to run aground. Just ask Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the ill-fated Exxon Valdes. Hell, just ask me. Ask just about anyone who’s been boating for any length of time.

Eventually, almost everyone runs aground.

Ah, yes, but how to avoid this potentially lethal calamity? (And running aground can be and often is lethal, even in a small boat.)

The simple answer to that one is that you have to make sure your boat has more water under her than she needs float. If your boat draws six feet of water, as mine does, then you have to make sure you keep her in water that is over six feet deep. Duh! (Frozen water doesn’t count.)

So, all in all, you have to know how deep the water is.


Which brings me back to the close of Part One.

When I’m out on my boat, I want to know how far down the bottom is, and, if possible, what sort of bottom is down there: rock, mud, sand, gravel, weed, or some combination.



Enter the problems with digital depth sounders.

By and large, these are fine instruments, and I am certainly not about to remove the one I have on my boat.

However, digitals do have a couple of critical weakness.

As far as I can tell, these spring from their nature as digital instruments, that is, they report depth as a number.

“What’s the big deal?” I hear you ask.

Hang tight, and I’ll tell you.

Depth sounders work by sending out sound pulses, waiting for the echoes, and then measuring the elapsed time between sending out any given pulse and receiving back the echo from that pulse.


You wish!

The root of the problem is that sound will bounce off, echo off, a lot more than just mud, rock, sand, gravel, weed, etc. It will also bounce off fish, turbulence in the water, the layers between water masses of varying temperatures, baby jellyfish, adult jellyfish, plankton, whales, seals, submarines, garbage, and a lot of other stuff.

And we’re only getting started.

The pulses that depth sounders shoot into the water spread out, and as they do, they trace a cone-like shape. Therefore, by design, they strike a much wider area than would, say, a focused beam of light travelling through air and hitting a wall.

Moreover, sound waves do not bounce off only one thing. Indeed, they bounce off anything and everything they can. They’re very conscientious in that regard.

So, for example, a depth sounder sends out a pulse. A short time later, back comes the return. But it’s not just one echo. Rather, it’s a mass, a swarm of echoes, all originating from that one pulse.

Some of these echoes are strong, some are weak, some are slightly ahead of or behind the others, and so on. Those wildly differing echoes could have come from water turbulence, fish, weeds, debris, soft mud, hard mud, rocks, algae, eel grass, kelp, and the bottom—in multiple places and at multiple depths.

Oh, goodie!

Now, in one way or another, to one extent or another, flasher depth sounders and fish finders report all, or most, of these echoes, ether as a series of flashes around a scale or as a television-like “picture” of what’s under the boat. (More about this in Part Four.) The point here is that the report is visual. The operator gets to interpret and adjust the display.

With digital depth sounders, the report is strictly digital: a number. What you see is what you get. Take it or leave it. Period. Believe it, or don’t.

That number results from feeding that buzzing swarm of echoes, their delays and probably their strengths into a highly complex and equally sophisticated algorithm. In go the delays and the strengths, the machine goes crunch, crunch, crunch, and out comes a number: 21.7 feet, 245.9 feet, 34.6 meters, 61.2 fathoms.

Pretty cool, huh?

Yep, pretty cool . . . right up until the time that something goes wrong and reliability flies out the old porthole.

And that, girls and boys, what can and does go wrong, will be the subject of Part Three in this series of posts.




Depth Finder Showing a Depth of 15 Feet
A Flasher Depth Finder Showing a Depth of 15 Feet

When it comes to boating, let’s take it as read that knowing how deep the water is under your boat is pretty important. Any mistakes in this regard can ruin your whole day.

You already know how much water your boat draws, don’t you? Of course, you do. It’s right there in the owner’s manual, under the heading “Draft.”

So, how do you know out how deep the water is?

In lots of ways.

For example, if you can plot your position on a nautical chart, you can read the depth of the water where you are, right off the chart—maybe not for your exact position, but certainly for positions nearby.

You do know how to determine your position and plot it, don’t you?

Another way to find out how deep the water is, is to use a lead line. Lead lines come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from the traditional to the improvised. Essentially, they consist of a heavy weight and a long, stout line with marks on it. Traditionally, these marks are spaced at one-fathom intervals along the line and are marked with things like strips of red cloth, strips of leather, and so on.

The lead line I carry aboard my boat consists of a fairly heavy fishing weight tied to a braided cord that I’ve knotted every fathom—one knot for one fathom, two knots for two fathoms, and so on.

It is not a very long lead line, but then I don’t need very long lead line. I use mine to make sure that I have enough water under the stern of my boat when I’m stern tying, when I want to make sure my depth sounder is working properly, and so on.

A more convenient method is to use a depth sounder, also called a depth finder. Because sound bounces, or echoes, depth sounders can use sound waves to determine how deep the water is.

It works like this. The depth sounder emits a high-frequency pulse of sound that is shot into the water by a transducer. That same transducer then picks up the returning echo of that pulse and feeds it back to the sounder itself. The sounder then uses the length of the delay between the pulse and the echo to calculate the depth of the water.

That depth can be displayed in a variety of ways. Early on, depths were displayed as lines on a piece of paper or as flashes of light on a circular scale. These days, depth sounders that used the flashing-light method are called “flashers,” not to be confused with the other sort of flasher.

During the 1970s and 1980s, these flashing displays gave way to digital displays, which reported the depth as a number. My digital depth sounder displays three digits plus the decimal.

Digital depth sounders are still very popular and, for the most part, quite handy. They can be configured to display depths in feet, fathoms, or meters, and they can be configured to compensate for the depth of the transducer below the boat’s waterline.

I had one of these “depth instruments” on my previous boat, and I have one on my current boat.

However, depth sounders have come a long way, baby. Early on, like a tree branching, they evolved into fish finders.

Flashers were also sold as fish finders, and, indeed, there are currently several brands of flasher fish finders on the market, for use, primarily, in ice fishing.

Today’s common fish finder is an entirely different bread of catfish. Using multiple frequencies and television-like display screens, fish finders “paint” a picture of the water column beneath the boat, showing the bottom, rocks, logs, weeds, debris, and, oh, yes, any fish present.

Once introduced, it wasn’t long before screen-display fish finders were integrated into chartplotters, or, conversely, chartplotters were integrated into the fish finders.

These combination units can be optimized to show the contour of the bottom and the fish, or they can be optimized to show a stunningly detailed image of the bottom. So far, the units I’ve seen can’t really do both, owing, roughly speaking, to the way sound wave behave in the water, etc. The prices for one of these units can also be fairly stunning, too.

Hold onto that topic: the way sound waves behave in the water.

Anyway, this is all fine and dandy, but I just want to know how deep the water is under my boat. I’m not looking to kill fish, nor am I looking for the wreck of the schooner Hesperus.

I just want to know how far down the bottom is, and, if possible, to come by some idea about its composition: rock, mud, or sand.



And there by hangs a tale.

Which I will take up in my next post in this series.





Writing a novel can begin with anything: with a theme, with an image, with a snippet of dialogue, with a premise, with a real or imagined event, with a regional accent . . . with with whatever gets the writer’s fingers dancing.

The View that Disappeared began with the conjunction of a few lines of imagined dialogue and various stories that have been handed down in my family. Those lines of dialogue morphed into the Jack Luckner’s voice, his character, his attitude. As for the family stories, they were my grandmother’s tales of her time as a cook in an “old folks’ home” in Portland, Oregon. Needless to say, these stories were not happy little ditties about honored seniors living out their sunset years, or days, in a state of jolly and spritely tranquility. read more



It’s time to wrap up this series of posts on running aground and move on to other topics. “What other topics?” I hear you ask. Depth finders, anchoring, kayaks, crab pots, the release of my newest novel, hiking from one bay to another, mornings on the water, “Juneuary” weather in British Columbia, navigating rapids and narrows, writing, and so on.

Yes, fine, but what about the profit side of running aground for fun and profit?

Well, here goes.

We went aground in the Octopus Islands in the summer or 2015. (By rights, I ought to say that we went arock.) We figured at we’d taken some paint off the bottom of the keel, but that other than a patch of missing paint, we’d come through pretty much unscathed. read more



Octopus Islands Park
Octopus Islands Park

The Octopus Islands Marine Provincial Park, British Columbia, is a delightful cluster of tree-covered rocks and ragged bays on the east side of Quadra Island. The park is located at the mouth of funnel-shaped Waiatt Bay. The large end of the funnel opens onto the Okisollo Channel, a short distance north of Surge Narrows and a similarly short distances south of the Hole in the Wall and the Okisollo Rapids.

The bay is relatively sheltered and the holding, in our experience, is excellent. For the most part, the water is neither too shallow nor too deep for comfortable anchoring. There is ample space, especially in the bay itself. read more