Trifon was sailing west across the vast liquid desert of the Pacific Ocean being rocked by wave after wave. We saw
nobody for 16 days, not a single boat either visually or on our radar. We could have been on another planet in a different
part of the universe as there was nothing to link us to earth. There were no reference points to indicate that progress was
being made except for the GPS which gave a longitude and latitude reading. The ocean had swallowed us and we only existed
in a small plane between sea and sky, it was as though we were sailing in a virtual world of water and
air .We were a mere speck of dust being pushed slowly towards the south pacific islands of the Marquises. At night the environment
became even more surreal with the lack of visual input from the black sea and it felt like we were suspended in liquid infinity.
The stars provided our nightly entertainment and we picked out the constellations on each watch. Our knowledge increased as
we progressed and we would look for lesser known constellations to add to our star database. The southern cross, which points
south, confirmed our heading west and we could use the big dipper to both estimate the location of Polaris (pole star) and
hence north and use it to tell the time. Cassiopeia and the big dipper (Ursula Major) rotate around the pole star and you
can estimate the time by using them like giant hands on a 24 hour clock. When the moon was visible and not a full moon we
could draw an imaginary line from the two crescents to the horizon and find south. What was poignant was that many of the
stars that we saw no longer exist and we were looking at the light projected over millions of light years as the only remaining
evidence of their life. What we recognize as constellations are a man-made invention of the stars seen on a flat two dimensional
plane. If you look at the night sky and had no knowledge of the constellations you would have great difficulty in joining
the dots to form the recognizable patterns of the constellations. If you than study the star guides your brain locks on to
these patterns and you will always recognize the most well-known constellations and it is difficult to undo as your brain
will tell you this is Orion or the Big Dipper rather like word recognition. What was fascinating was that although you may
have the impression that the stars of a constellation are linked together they are often not linked or close to each other.
We look at the constellations as though they are two dimensional flat objects but in fact we are looking through three
dimensional space and a star that is in the same general direction as another star that is millions of light years closer
to us appears to be its neighbor. A good example of this is the belt of Orion which appears to be three stars in a row when
in fact they are separated by a huge distance and it is only our perception from earth that they have a connection. Orion
as a constellation does not exist from a different viewpoint in the universe.
My favorite heavenly body was Venus which is a planet although the
French call it the shepherd’s star. My second night watch started every night at 4am (ship time) and when I could see
Venus rising over the eastern horizon I knew it would only be an hour or so before the sun rose and Trifon had made it through
the night. Sun rise was always coupled which a degree of elation both through the beauty of the Pacific sunrises and the knowledge
that life on-board became easier during the daylight hours.
Time is another notion
that while it exists universally in the physical world it has been adapted by humans to regulate daily life. We think in terms
of minutes, hours and days and we decide what the exact time is on each part of the planet and these are linked together by
time zones and the International Date Line which lies on the western side of the pacific. The notion is grounded in the physical
passage of time but it is arbitrary when you pass from one time zone to another and we say that the time is one hour more
or less depending on which direction we heading.
We have decided that there are twenty four hours in a day and this corresponds to the cycle of the sun. The earth spins
once a day and the sun appears in approximately the same place at the same time every day. That is until you start travelling
east or west around the planet. The speed of the earth’s spin is around 1000 miles an hour and if you travel westward
at the same speed as the sun you would be frozen at the same time, according to the sun, in an endless day even though
your man- made watch would tell you that time is moving forwards.
A sailing yacht is slow moving object compared to
heavenly objects but after days and days at sea the sun’s time starts to differ from your watch. One
degree of latitude corresponds to four minutes difference in the sun’s noon and as we were sailing west at about three
degrees per day this meant that the sun would set and rise about twelve minutes later every day. If you don’t change
your ship’s clock after a week or so at sea you end up eating meals at odd times. But if you do change your ship’s
clock you need to remember what time it is elsewhere in the world for various reasons including tides, moon phases and communicating
with land and other boats. You could change your watch by a few minutes per day but this would probably become very confusing
and so most oceanic sailors I have met change their clocks in increments of hours after a set number of days or distance sailed
to the east or west. On
Trifon we usually had a clock set to the local time of our last port of call, one set to ship’s time which changed over
our oceanic passage and another clock set to GMT( Greenwich mean time) which is often called UTC or universal time. From GMT
we could figure out what time it was in Europe allowing for the one hour daylight savings between summer and winter. The arbitrary
line of longitude that runs through the Greenwich observatory near London is at 0 degrees and sextant tables or almanacs use
this line as a reference point to calculate how far you are to the east or west of this line.
We carry a sextant on-board and apart from the fact
it is an attractive object in a very nice wooden box it is our back-up navigation system. If you ever want to buy a sextant
be careful of the Russian ones which although are extremely accurate are mainly astronomical and not nautical sextants. The
difference lies in the eyepiece which projects a reverse image and has a higher magnification with the astronomical version.
Both of these qualities are not desirable for taking sun readings on the deck of a yacht in a three meter swell in the middle
of the ocean. You can change the eyepiece but that can be costly. The Russian navy was the last major navy to give up using
sextants as their principal form of navigation, I suspect that they were not overly confident of their American cousins GPS
system and whether the system would be periodically switched off. We had several problems over the course
of our voyage with the GPS that was mainly due to antenna wiring and not the absence of a signal.
An easy way to use a sextant to tell you how far west
or east you are is to calculate local noon and compare it to the time in Greenwich. By calculating this time difference in
hours and minutes and knowing that for each hour this corresponded to 15 degrees of longitude we could figure out our longitude.
You can now see the importance of accurate clocks and knowing the time in Greenwich. All a sextant does is measure the angle (height) of an object
from the horizon and an easy object to measure is the sun. The sun at noon is at its zenith or highest point and by measuring
the angle of the sun just before and after noon you can iterate or estimate the exact time of local noon. You do not have
to know exactly when local noon is as you can keep measuring the angle of the sun (and note the time) and if the angle is
increasing it is prior to noon and as soon as the angle starts decreasing you know it has passed noon. It is better to keep
the measurements close to local noon as the distance the boat has travelled between readings will affect the accuracy of the
result. You need to use tables to figure out latitude as the angle of the sun is different for everyday of the year and each
location on the line of longitude. I had a computer program (Star Pilot) that could convert a sun or star angle with a time
input to give me a position and I also had paper templates that helped with the calculations in the event of computer failure.
The complexity associated with sextants revolves around the various corrections that need to be made to improve the accuracy
of the reading and before accurate clocks existed they would not be that useful for longitudes calculations You need to correct
for the accuracy of the sextant which has to be measured and for the half width of the sun as you use the mirrors on the sextant
to put the bottom edge of the sun on the horizon and not the center of the sun. You also need to correct for the height of
the observer above sea level.
Before the invention of sextants ancient mariners used different methods of measuring the angle of the sun, some of
the Arabic peoples used a wooden square with a hole in the center that had a piece of string with a knot tied at a fixed distance
from the square. They would hold the knot between their teeth and the square would be held with the string taught in the direction
of the angle that they wanted to measure. You can do the same thing by holding your open hand outstretched at arms- length
and this is about 15 degrees of angle. Crossing the Atlantic for the pre-sextant Europeans was not particularly difficult
from a navigational standpoint because if you sailed south-west from the Canaries and picked up the trade winds slightly further
south and continued your journey due west you are eventually going to hit land whether it’s the Caribbean , Brazil or
the United States. A simple method for these mariners was to keep Polaris (pole star) at around 17 degrees high in the night
sky and they could reach the Caribbean without complex instrumentation. Sailing in the Pacific is a different challenge, the
ocean is more than twice the size of the Atlantic and you would have to be very lucky to find any of the tiny islands in this
wilderness. The only significant land-mass in the tropical latitudes after Panama is Australia 8000 miles away. This is why
many navigators are highly impressed with Polynesian navigators who could trade with other islands thousands of miles across
this ocean. It is believed that they used star sticks for calculating the angle of different stars for different islands.
The stick would have a small hole in the top of the stick that they could align with their chosen star. It is also thought
that they followed the paths of migrating birds who were also are looking for land. The islands of the Galapagos were discovered
by the Panamanians who called them the magical islands as they believed the islands moved around and this was probably more
due to the imprecise navigation methods in the middle ages rather than any mystical powers. On a small boat crossing an ocean
most sailors have some form of communication system. Normal mobile phones only work close to land and have a range of around
twenty miles and are of no use in an ocean. There are satellite phones which work at any point on the globe and are straight-forward
to use. These used to be restricted to high end yachts and commercial vessels however the recent drop in cost of both the
equipment and the call rates mean that many yachtsmen carry these phones.
The satellite phones can be hooked up to a computer
and receive data in the form of restricted size emails. The transmission rate of the data is slow (19.2k/minute) compared
to modern internet connections and this means if anybody sends you a photo or scanned document you would have to stay connected
for hours to receive it. In practice these phones are used to make short phone calls or receive text only emails. The cost
of calls or data is equivalent to using a mobile phone in a foreign country and sometimes cheaper however you are not going
to use it for long discussions. One of the ways we used the sat phone on Trifon was to download grib files for weather information
as we sailed across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A short coded message to a US based automatic weather robot computer
would give us updated grib files for any area of the ocean for the following five days. The message would come back in less
than a minute and would be uploaded to our on-board computer. The files need translating by a program that is called a grib
reader and weather information usually in the form of wind speed arrows and isobars (lines showing atmospheric pressure) would
be displayed on a region of the ocean. The reason that grib files are used instead of colored maps of wind and sea state is
due to the small size of the former and hence cost. We also used the phone to keep in touch with our family, offices and friends.
To call or not to call needed serious
reflection because if you do call your family then they expect you to continue calling at regular intervals and if they do
not receive any news they assume something has happened to you. It is a bit like waving goodbye; if you wave at somebody then
they will wave back at you, what do you next? Do you wave again or do you wave faster or do you keep waving until they can
no longer see you? If you tell them that you expect to be arriving on the other side of the ocean at a
certain date then they will become highly concerned if you are late. In our busy land based lives we think of specific times
and dates around which our lives rotate. You know at what time the train, bus or plane will leave for its destination and
you are reasonably certain what time it will arrive. At sea during a long crossing there is no such certitude and it can be
challenging to explain to people conditioned by a pre-planned life organized by routine that you do not know when you will
had several instances of the miss-match in expectations of family and friends wanting to see us on our journey. My brother-in-law,
Robert sailed across the Atlantic with us from Gran Canary to Saint Lucia in the Caribbean and his wife, Claudine wanted to
join us on the boat for a three week holiday when we arrived and leave shortly after Christmas. Claudine and Robert live in
the south of France and the easiest way to get to Saint Lucia due its British connections was a plane trip via London and
included an overnight stay in a hotel to ensure that the connecting flight would not be missed. Plane tickets had been bought
months earlier as it can become very busy around December in Saint Lucia due to the annual ARC rally (
Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) and the hotel was also booked We left on Sunday 21st November 2010
and expected to take about 17 days to make the 2800 mile crossing. As it turned out we took 24 days and arrived one week later
than anticipated. We had several conversations with Claudine during our crossing when it became clear that
we would not be “on-time”. As it turned out Claudine did not come and had to cancel the plane
tickets and the hotel. Robert flew back earlier than anticipated on a changed ticket in order to spend
Christmas with his wife.
We had a similar incident with our friends, Frank and Sara, who live in Monaco. They wanted to visit the boat when
we were in the Galapagos Islands. Unfortunately we were about six weeks later than expected due to delays
in Curacao and Panama and we could not give them a date until we crossed from Panama to San Cristobal (Galapagos).
The best laid battle plans do
not usually survive first contact with the enemy and it’s the same way with oceanic sailing. As a
sailing boat we were not in control of arrival dates and we did not have a sufficient quantity of fuel to use the motor for
any significant distance. Sailing boats were given up as a commercial form of transportation over one hundred years ago partially
due to the uncertainty of the time of arrival. It was interesting for me to witness the change in our reactions to delays during
our voyage and from our lives on-land that were organized into hours and minutes. It was liberating when we crossed the Pacific
that time acquired a different characteristic of expanding and contracting with the various weather patterns that we encountered.
We were at last free from the tyrant of the ticking clock. We had to check periodically when we were at sea what day it was
and we lost track of how many days we had been at sea; it was no longer important.
Our other major sources of communication were the
VHF and SSB radios. The VHF only has a range of about twenty five miles and the SSB (single side band radio) has a range of
thousands of miles and was our principal form of communication deep in the ocean. The sat phone is for private messages and
you can only speak to one person at a time without being overheard. The SSB can be heard by anyone that is tuned into the
relevant frequency .You need a radio license issued by the country of the flag of your boat which involves taking an exam
and learning the” radio-speak” pro-words of the magical world of ship’s radio.
If you have never heard a transmission it can sound pretty
strange as it appears that a galactic war is going on with the Yankees fighting the Zulus and somebody called Roger keeps
popping in to do some photocopying.Example
of a broadcast mid-Pacific:
Kite for Trifon, Kite for Trifon
Trifon this is Kite I read you
5 by 5. Over.
Trifon: Good morning
Kite, is all well on-board? Over.
Yes Trifon all is well and we are currently at 10.29° South 125.56° West. Over
Trifon: Kite you are breaking up, please say
again position. Over.
Our position is 10.29° south 125.56° west. Do any other boats copy? Over.
Trifon: Roger, what are the weather conditions where you are? Over.
Kite: Trifon we have
25-35 knots of SE winds and 3-4 meter seas. Over.
similar conditions to Trifon. Over.
Trifon what is your ship’s call sign? Over.
Trifon: Kite our call sign is Three Alpha Yankee Zulu. Over
Kite: Thanks Trifon, Kite standing by
on Channel 16. Over
standing by on Channel 16
The radio speak is quite formatted as both the sound volume and clarity can be poor in certain conditions, we use the
expression I hear you loud and clear in non-maritime situations but on the radio it is common to use 5 by 5 which refers to
maximum volume and clarity any lower figure would indicate poorer reception. Roger is a way of telling the sender that his
message has been received and understood. Over is used at the end of a phrase to tell the listener that you have finished
transmitting but you expect a reply from him, you have to hold down a button on the radio handset to transmit and the listener
cannot reply until you have released it or the message becomes garbled. You become part of your boat. You begin to think of
yourself as Trifon as that is how you are perceived by your fellow sailors. The boat starts to take on human characteristics
as you talk both to it and on behalf of it.
The SSB is the life blood of oceanic yachts communications and the some of the yachts in the Pacific that did not have
one may have felt a little isolated. The SSB is a restricted form of ham radio and this has nothing to do with pigs or poor
acting. The ham or amateur radio can tune in to any frequency within a large frequency range whereas the SSB is pre-programed
to receive and transmit on a limited number but still considerable of channels. A ham license is more complex to obtain than
an extension of a VHF license in most countries. The SSB can transmit for thousands of miles and there are distress frequencies
that can be used for calling for help in an emergency. The other major use of these radios is participating in one of the
many radio nets either run by dedicated and voluntary land based radio hams or ad-hoc radio nets set up by a group of yachts
when they leave for an ocean crossing or long passage. Your nearest form of help in the event of requiring assistance will
usually be a fellow yachtsman and if you do not know where the boats are or only have their sat phone number then getting
help may be much more difficult.
We joined in two ad hoc nets when we left the Galapagos Islands for the 3200 mile journey to the Marquises. One was
called the Isabella Marquises net and the other the Southern Cross net and they broadcast or transmit at a specific time and
specific frequency on a daily basis. The form of these nets was by having a net controller who either performs a roll call
of all the boats that have joined the net on previous days or asks all boats to check-in in random order. The controller will
usually ask if there are any medical or other emergencies to report and will then ask for location and weather conditions
in the vicinity of the yacht. Other matters will be discussed such fishing and we listened daily to an epic amateur yacht
race between two yachts a Garcia 50 called Bonaire skippered by Tim a British dentist and a Cigale 14 meter yacht called Argenteria
skippered by Marcello, a very gregarious Italian professional skipper. Both boats went at it hammer and
tongs over the Pacific for two weeks with the Garcia winning by a few hours. They were about a week behind us and each morning
they would report their positions on the net. I believe on one occasion outdated positions were given by one of the crews
in the psychological game that they were playing with each other’s nerves.
SSB radios use a lot of power especially when transmitting because
they pump out a massive signal, the Ham radio sets are often 150 watts i.e. 12 amps and the SSB radios are 120 watts and use
10 amps on a 12 volt system whereas VHF radios use 25 watts when emitting on full power. Installation of
these systems is reasonably straight forward but you need an antenna tuner which is a box the size of a domestic DVD player
installed close to the very tall antenna on the back of the boat. The antenna size is 7.3 metres tall and needs to be solidly
attached. Some cruisers use their backstay with insulators as an antenna however if you lose the mast then you also lose your
antenna just when you need it the most. The reason for the antenna tuner is that it changes the virtual height of the antenna
electronically so that the emission frequency is matched in terms of wavelength to the virtual antenna height.
You also need to install a large copper ground plate in the bottom of the boat to complete the antenna set –up
in wooden or plastic boats. The SSB
radio set that we used was an ICOM but be aware that there are US and European models which differ in their preset channels.
The American version is not authorized
on EEC flagged vessels and is less expensive than its European counterpart. The firm in the UK that sold us the kit pre-tuned
and tested the radio and antenna tuner before sending it to us. They also provided a plug and play guide for installation
which allowed us to install it without additional complications. You will probably need to go on a short course to get the
required license to use the set which is usually an upgrade of your VHF license. During the course you will learn how to use
the set which is more complex than VHF radio. VHF emanates signals into the air surrounding the vessels and signals get weaker
with increasing distance and usually cannot be heard outside a circle of 25 miles from the boat. Transmitting takes more power
than receiving messages and antenna height and local weather conditions and the quality of the electrical connections from
the radio to the antenna are important to achieve maximum range. The newer VHF radios have a GPS position locator and standardized
Mayday text messages to help the rescue services locate and understand the nature of the emergency e.g. fire, man overboard,
piracy, medical problems or sinking. There is a standardized radio speak format to send a Mayday or other emergency message
and we had this printed and displayed near the VHF and SSB sets to allow anyone on board to send a message additionally we
marked all the required switches on both the radios and the electrical panel to lead the user to correctly operate the radio
sets. The emergency frequencies for both VHF and SSB were also displayed. We also carried 3 portable
waterproof VHF units and the price of the waterproof version has dropped over the last few years. They are not much more costly
than their non-waterproof cousins and can be used in all weathers. We used these radios for several purposes. One of the dangers
of sailing offshore is falling off your boat and if this occurs at night in bad weather your chances of survival are not great.
To locate someone in the water after having turned the boat around can be very difficult. However the person in the water,
if they are conscious, can usually see the boat. By having the crew on-deck at night carry these radios in their sailing jackets
and leaving the ship’s fixed radio on channel 16 provided me a greater sense of security and therefore I could sleep
better off-watch. There are many systems available that are small personal emergency beacons to locate overboard crew however
many of the systems rely on sending a signal to a land based rescue service and if you consider the time it could take to
reach you 2000 miles offshore in the Pacific Ocean could run into days. We saw no commercial ships, fishing boats or yachts
for sixteen days whilst crossing from the Galapagos to the Marquises and the closest and quickest method of rescue is with
your own yacht. There are other systems that send a message/ alarm directly to your yacht however what happens if it does
not work. Our simple system is useful when only one person is on-deck as they can call to the below deck or sleeping crew
and wake them if the volume is left high on the main radio and it was easy to check if the radios worked. Other uses we had
for the portable radios were if we went ashore we could communicate both with the boat and also with other crew members ashore
and coordinate dinghy movements. We could communicate with other yachts in the same bay and even on close-by islands. Many
of the marina radio nets are run on the VHF system. The way that the radios are used is by calling on a hailing frequency
which is usually channel 16 and then switching to a different channel agreed between the two or more radio operators. Your
conversation will often be listened to by other navigators and therefore not only all local boats know what is going on in
the bay or marina but you may also attract the attention of the local police and customs officials. Most operators will switch
to channel 69 or 72 however with the small portable radios that do not have a number pad to punch in a channel number it is
often easier to “go up one” which means go to channel 17 from the channel 16 hailing frequency. This works well
except for Italian crews who consider number seventeen unlucky and most sailors we met were superstitious. The reason that there is no row seventeen on the Italian
national airline Alitalia is that the roman numerals for seventeen (XV11) when rearranged spell in Latin VIXI which means
“I have lived” and therefore due to the past tense implies… I am dead.
On the lighter side of ship radio we heard of a crew
member on one boat during the 2010 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) transatlantic crossing that proposed to a female crew
member on another boat in the middle of the Atlantic. The marriage proposal was accepted. When coming into Rangiroa in the
Tuamotu Atolls I put out an “all ships” message to check the tidal times for running the pass into the lagoon.
The message in English received no reply and I then put the same message in French and within 5 minutes the local French Gendarmerie
in Rangiroa replied and asked if I needed assistance.
I explained that I had no tide tables for the atoll and wanted to check low water times so that the contrary current
would be more manageable entering the Tiaputa pass. The police did not have this information but immediately called a local
dive school and radioed me the low tide times. This friendly and helpful behavior was typical of the French officials across
all of French Polynesia. Our ability to speak French helped these relations and we found that speaking the local/official
language to the officials whether English, French or Spanish was taken as a mark of respect to them and often facilitated
entry and exit formalities.
The SSB radio works by bouncing a strong radio signal off the ionosphere in the higher atmosphere or using it as a
reflector. The signal is reflected or more accurately refracted back to the earth’s surface in a concentric circle and
these concentric circles which have their center at the antenna are at different distances from the emitting yacht depending
on the channel frequency used. If you use the 2 MHZ frequencies then the range of reception should be anywhere in the circle
from 0 to 400 miles from the boat. If however you transmit on the 12 MHZ frequencies then you may be heard up to 2400 miles
from the boat but there will be a silent or skip zone around the boat for hundreds of miles. When calling for help on the
SSB please keep this in mind as in the middle of the pacific if you use 2.182 MHZ it is possible that nobody will hear you.
It is a good idea to broadcast emergency messages on several frequencies if you are a long way from land.
We used the SSB mainly to speak
to other yachts when we were offshore but it was also used as a back-up to download weather reports and send e-mails. To do
this we have a modem connected to the SSB and the main on-board computer. You need a provider for the e-mail service which
in our case was SailMail and has an annual subscription of $250. The benefit is that e-mails are free and you can e-mail the
weather robot in the US and download the latest weather files and you can set it up to automatically send you these messages
on a daily basis. You log on to SailMail and pick up any outstanding messages in your mail box. To do this you have to tune
the SSB to one of several frequencies and if they are busy you either wait or tune to another frequency. You need a grib reader
software file on the computer to interpret and display the files. We had used this system whilst in the Med and encountered
several cruisers who had often not been able to connect quickly.
You are limited to 90 minutes per month by the provider of air-time
which is sufficient to send text e-mails and receive some weather info but not enough to run a business or send photos. Our
experience was that the system was painfully slow and on many occasions we could not connect or were cut-off during transmissions.
We can confirm that the system works and having a good deal of patience is a pre-requisite for successful use of the SSB with
an e-mail facility. Our Iridium phone could send emails via our portable computer and was much faster than the SSB and so
was our primary data/weather source. I had a docking station for the Iridium which meant that not only it was hands free,
automatically charged when placed in its fixed docking station but also had a fixed external antenna. The advantage for us
of this arrangement over a purely fixed or just the portable phone was that we had excellent reception and if we ever needed
to jump in the life-raft I could take the phone with us. You cannot rip out the SSB in the middle of an ocean and drop it
in the life raft and the VHF portable radios have a very limited range and are only of use with visible shipping or near visible
vessels. We have an aluminum yacht and therefore need to use an external antenna for the Iridium which is mounted on the push-pit
rail at the stern of the boat.