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…

Could be worse

Since we are stuck in Hong Kong, we are making the most of it. And, to be honest, we can’t really complain. The weather is fantastic, not too hot and not too cold. As I write this, we are anchored in Double Haven. It was a bit of a trek to get to this secluded anchorage, but the sea is absolutely calm here, completely unaffected by the monsoon. We are sitting on the deck, listening to the fish jumping and birds chirping and thoroughly enjoying ourselves. Yes, we are frustrated that we have still not managed to leave, but sailing in Hong Kong certainly is easing the pain.

Strong Monsoon signal in force

Here we are still, boat finally ready but with winds that are rocking the boat already in our very sheltered marina. The Strong Monsoon signal is in force and it doesn’t look much better for the next 10 days. We were thinking of at least venturing out to Macau in the next couple of days, but found out that the Macau port authorities require five working days’ worth of a warning to do the paperwork, which kills that idea as Lil Sis has to be back in Hong Kong from Wednesday next week for a few days anyway (we were originally planning to fly her back from Taiwan, but as it happens, it looks like we won’t be going anywhere before that).

On a positive note, we are getting a lot of the “not so urgent” and “nice to do” action items ticked off from our list.

Boat ready, but the weather…

What a busy week behind us! We have been running left, right and centre to collect the last pieces of equipment, spares, school supplies and medication. We’ve also done a lot of administrative work, finalised boat installations, checked the status of gear, programmed radio channels and so on. We are happy to say that the boat will be ready to go by Monday (13 days behind schedule, but that really isn’t too bad!).

However, now that our attention has turned to the weather for real, we are starting to realise (or perhaps the right word is “admit”) that we may have to wait a while still before proceeding eastwards. We always knew that it would not be easy to find a suitable weather window in March, with the northeast monsoon still in full force. Nevertheless, we were hoping for one to appear (surely there had to be some beginner’s luck for us?!). For a little while, it looked like there might actually be a window early this coming week, but it has narrowed down and were we to leave, we would be pushing straight into 25-knot winds after 1-2 days. Not to mention the waves and swell from different directions that the area is known for, which in the words of a far more experienced sailor result in a “washing machine” effect during the NE monsoon. We just don’t want that sort of a first leg on our journey; there would be a real risk that everyone would run off the boat when we reach Taiwan and never return!

So, while fine-tuning the boat and bemoaning the weather over a glass of wine (or a cup of cocoa in the case of the girls), we are considering other, temporary sailing grounds closer to home. Those may not take us where we ultimately want to go, but at least we would get out of our berth.

Real-life chemistry (and biology) lesson

Big Sis and Lil Sis have had a fantastic time today carrying out research into the operation of our emergency powdered oxygen. Not only are they both now pros in using the oxygen set (hooray, Mr Finn and I will have great nurses at hand should we need them!), but Big Sis also now understands how the chemical reaction works to create oxygen and how oxygen helps if a person is in shock.



Ready to go, but only mentally…

Mr Finn intended to do lots of things on the boat today…but not this!

It seems that we’ll soon be working overtime to get the boat ready. That is probably not a surprise to anyone who has ever prepared for an ocean voyage, but it is frustrating nevertheless.

In addition to figuring out the contents of our grab bag (for the non-sailors out there, this means the emergency bag that we would take with us if we had to evacuate to the liferaft), I have been designing our boat stamp and boat cards, so less of an unpleasant job for me.

Mentally, we are all so ready to go…

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”).

Boatschooling has started

Big Sis and Lil Sis are hard at work with their boatschool lessons, having had the last day at their “formal” school a week ago. Somehow their boatschool schedule has resulted in longer school days than before, probably because we are cramming in a lot of extra subjects. There is no separate homework though! Let’s see how the schedule will develop once we get on our way…