Waiting game

Lil Sis is enjoying her school camp in mainland China, and between her drop off and pick up, part of the family are on a shopping spree in Hong Kong. It is not the kind of activity that one imagines when thinking of Hong Kong and shopping though; they are running around the city’s alleys buying (yet more) spare parts for the boat! It can be a challenge to find technical tools and items in Hong Kong. There are no large DIY or hardware stores, and instead you find that for each item, there is one (back)street where everyone sells that item but almost nothing else. So when you have 20 items to buy, it requires significant local knowledge to find everything, and even then it can be very time-consuming. Nevertheless, it seems infinitely easier to buy spares and other small items from Hong Kong than from the Philippines.

The boat has been around Subic Bay for almost three weeks, and we are starting to get rather itchy feet. The weather analysis has started again in earnest, and considering our success finding bad weather en route to the Philippines, we are taking it very seriously. However, the challenge with sailing is that waiting for the “perfect” weather window may mean not getting out at all, and even perfect windows are not guarantees of good sailing conditions (as we have just learnt the hard way).

All small repairs on the boat have been made, and we have acquired a sea anchor as a replacement for our trusted series drogue which was unfortunately lost when we tried to retrieve it in rather large seas on the trip to the Philippines. Drogues are notoriously difficult to retrieve, and we probably should have waited for calm seas before even attempting to retrieve ours, but by the time the weather started to show signs of easing, we were so ready to get on our way – not to mention ready to exit the hell that is being tied to a drogue in big seas! – that we just couldn’t resist the urge to get it off.

We are now also starting to go through our departure checklists. What shall we eat during our next passage? How much water do we need to carry on board? We have a water-maker, but it is still in a “pickled” (i.e. long-term storage) state, and we need to get it going once underway (it is not a good idea to un-pickle a water-maker in dirty marina water). We need to get fuel, and the propeller needs to be scrubbed once more to remove any sign of barnacles which grow with amazing speed in these tropical waters. We need to handle administrative tasks in the current marina, and need to inform coming ports of our arrival. Are we comfortable that we have paper charts of the right scale for our next leg and do we need further pilot books for port arrival? Are seacocks in a good state and do our bilge pumps work properly? What about fire and gas alarms, and our emergency devices such as EPIRBs and PLBs? Are all the communications equipment in good working order, likewise our chart plotter and autopilot? Do we have enough gas to cook food on the next leg? The list goes on and on.

Whereas the stress factor is high, the excitement over what lies ahead grows exponentially. We hope the waiting game will soon be over and our bow will once again be pointed towards news horizons.

Looking forward

When we were hit by the gale on our way to the Philippines, we made the decision to alert the maritime rescue authorities to our predicament, as drifting without the ability to maneuver a boat in a very busy sea area is inherently dangerous (for us, but also for the other vessels). Would there later have been a need to issue any automatic emergency alerts (which thankfully there was not), those would have gone to the authorities in Finland where our boat is registered, so we chose to include the Finnish authorities in our alert at the outset. We are very pleased to have done so, as we received efficient and empathetic support from them over a communications system that the local authorities were unable to use to get messages through to us. However, the involvement of the Finnish authorities has led to our trip becoming an item of interest for the media in Finland, up to the point that our previous blog post about the Philippines leg of our journey has been quoted by the local press. We have therefore reluctantly had to make the decision not to elaborate further on the events from that leg on this blog. Instead, you can ask us over a cold beer or glass of wine next time we meet!

To that end, this blog post is about radios (again), but I will keep it short this time. We are over the moon as we managed to get our MF/HF (i.e. long-range) radio to finally work together with our pactor modem, and  successfully sent the first email through our radio! It seems like some sort of small miracle to be able to send emails through radio waves. We can now send and receive emails basically for free through private radio stations while we are at sea. These emails cannot be long, and cannot contain images or attachments, but will certainly work as reassurance to family and friends that all is well with us. We are now trying to sort out a way to update this blog (with very concise posts) through our radio while underway.

Communication issues

Be forewarned that this very long post is all about radios and satellite communications equipment, which some may find boring (I wish it actually was boring and straightforward, but this is a notoriously complicated field, which our experiences are proof of!).

Perhaps naively, after hours and hours of installation work (credits to Mr Finn) and programming (that is me) we thought we were sorted in respect of our radio and communications gear…Well, now that we have had spare time on our hands, we’ve realised that we are not quite there with either of our two long-distance communications devices.

Firstly, there is our long-distance radio (for those who do not understand boat communications, I’ll add that we also have a short-distance radio on the boat, but its range is only around 60 nautical miles, so it will do us no good when we are far from land and other boats). We are able to receive both voice communications and digital selective calls on our long-range radio, so we thought everything was fine, until we made a call to Brunei Bay Radio to try out our pactor modem set-up. A pactor modem basically works like the modems that we had in the nineties to connect to one another (remember the good old days before the internet?), which make screeching sounds and then almost magically  – although very slowly – churn out text that the person on the other end has written. So it is a fantastic piece of kit to have on board, assuming you get it to work! Our computer nicely speaks with our pactor modem, which in turn nicely controls the long-range radio. However, despite trying out several frequencies and double-checking radio propagation statistics (don’t ask!), the coast radio station never answered. That was hit number one, but we figured that that could still be down to Hong Kong “noise” on the radio frequencies. However, then we managed to schedule a DSC test call with the Hong Kong Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (they don’t routinely allow such tests, so we are really grateful that they helped us out). This was a test call on the real distress frequency, and having made sure we got the settings correct so that we didn’t make a real emergency call, we sent off our DSC call and started to wait for the HKMRCC acknowledgement, the whole family eagerly gathered around our navigation station to witness the moment. To our huge disappointment, the acknowledgement never came, meaning that they did not receive our DSC call. That was hit number two, and we are now rather puzzled as to what the error might be, particularly considering that we can happily receive DSC calls ourselves – the latest proof of which is a distress call received from an unknown source this very morning (see photo)!

Hit number three came in the way of our Inmarsat Mini-C equipment. This is in simplistic terms a satellite-based messaging system. We can really nicely receive meteorological and navigational warnings through the system, so thought everything was ok. However, we’ve now realised that our routine messages (such as satellite emails, with the help of which we could potentially update this blog while on the ocean) are not going through. Link tests, which test the set-up all the way from our mobile station through to the satellite and onwards to a land earth station, show no problems, so we are again unsure as to what the issue can be.

None of this will prevent us from taking off (Lil Sis finishes her music event tomorrow, after which we are SO READY to go, weather permitting!), since we are getting the weather and navigational data, have got several duly-registered satellite beacons to get distress messages out and also have a handheld satellite phone with which to send reports to our emergency contacts. Distress messages on the Inmarsat Mini-C system are also likely to go through (the problem is probably only with routine messages). However, the communication problems will ensure that there is no break from the boat work, which in all honesty we would have rather needed. We are starting to feel like we are in need of a holiday…

The action list grows

We received our new liferaft today. We had sent the supplier photos of the cradle for our old raft  (of the same brand) and they had confirmed that it would work with the new raft as well. Accordingly, we didn’t order a new cradle. Surprise surprise, the new raft is larger after all, and the cradle is an annoying 2,5 cm too narrow. One step forward, one step back…this seems to be the golden rule for anything boat related (actually, it is normally more like “one step forward, two steps back”).