Week 11 - "It All Went a Bit Apollo 13 for a While"
Back to Basics
This last week has been all about settling into a long ocean crossing, which is a welcome break after 94% of the days between Lanzarote and Saint Helena features winds of Force 4 or more.
We have had winds of Force 3 and 4 from astern pretty well all week, giving us the slightest relative wind across the decks of 4 or 5 knots. We saw a lot of squalls in the later part of the week, with rain falling in columns of the dimensions of a skyscraper and typically 2 or 3 of these to each large isolated cloud base. However, afternoons are now very dry and hot at 31°C (87°f). Last week we were still enjoying the most incredible sunrises and sunsets that we were attributing to the level of ash thrown up after the Tonga earthquake, but that has now passed. However, we are now catching the ‘green flash’ again, which is a phenomena that occurs at the instant that top part of the sun drops below the horizon. A clear green burst is often briefly visible above the upper disc of the Sun, lasting only a split second. While you usually need binoculars to see it, on occasions it is visible with the naked eye. It is also visible at Sunrise, but is harder to time.
The Pacific crossing with its good weather and predictable routines has meant the exercise bike bought in Valparaiso has been a bit of an inspired purchase! Most of us are cycling between 15-20 km per day and when the weather (inevitably) turns we will miss being able to use it.
The Pacific Communications 'blackhole' (see further down) felt a bit like another ‘lockdown’ . So of course, we made banana bread after scouring the cupboards for ingredients! Leftover pears and raspberries also made a great crumble one evening and in the same way that left-over protein ends up in the soup, Iain added half can of Ambrosia custard to the ingredients for the next morning’s smoothie. Paul suggested the left over crumble could go in too and then promptly declared it the best smoothie of the trip to date! We have used almost all of the fabulous salt from Lanzarote (Escamas De Sal De Canarias, Cosechada A Mano) and Dan has been experimenting with his own salt pan arrangement under the searing Pacific sun.
The better weather also provided the opportunity for our 1st barbecue of the trip. (We had that on the Lido deck, at the aft end of the funnel deck)
However, like most barbecues, there wasn’t enough time to do the chicken… and, you guessed it, we had chicken soup the next day.
And we finally got to do our laundry! When we refitted in Lanzarote in 2021, we removed the tumble dryer as it posed one of the biggest fire hazards onboard (and handily, was the same size as the 2nd 120 litre fridge that Iain was looking for a stowage position for)
The Pacific Communications Black Hole - Our Apollo 13 Moment!
During this long leg across the Pacific, and between the meridians of longitude of 076°W and 124.5°W, for 14 days of the crossing we found ourselves in the main region on the planet where VSAT does not operate.
We have a back-up to VSAT, a system known as Fleet Broadband, which is a connection rated between 64-128 kbps, although it can be as 'high' as 384 kbps. To put that in context, for those who had internet connectivity in 1997, 64 kbps was top of the range and by 1999, 128 kbps, known as ISDN was then the fastest available connection.
Our VSAT connection normally provides an ‘always-on’ 2,048 kbps download and 512kbps upload connection (although we have seen uploads exceed 6,000 kbps), and this keeps the crew in regular contact with family and friends.
This wasn’t our first VSAT black spot, as we literally stumbled into one in the South Atlantic as we sailed from Saint Helena to Montevideo. 'Stumbled' because we didn’t know it was there and as our attempts at connectivity continued as normal, we inadvertently used up all of our small packet data and were penalised, which had the effect of the most basic 200 character email taking 10+ minutes to send! However, no matter how poor the connectivity was, the one device that appears to need only a whisper of connectivity to work onboard is the sending of a text message via WhatsApp......A lesson to us all!
So, after our earlier encounter with the South Atlantic VSAT black hole, we put measures in place in advance to ensure we could maintain the best connectivity in the Pacific black hole that we were now expecting. The 'rules' were as follows:
If you can't connect to the Fleet Broadband, there is still a further backup, which is switching to an older technology known as Satellite-C. Our Inmarsat Sat-C station was installed in 2021 and it uses the same MS-DOS based operating system as the first terminals that were fitted to ships in 1992! Sat-C technology was one of the key technologies that made the role of radio Officer on merchant ships redundant.
Day to Day Communications
On a daily basis we send reports at scheduled times to:
Andrew Weir Shipmanagement, Astra’s specialist shipmanager, based in Londo
PassageWeather.com, who provide Astra with dedicated weather forecasts and routeing advice
National Reporting Requirements (where applicable). On the leg from Cape Horn to Valparaiso we reported to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Chile twice a day, at 12:00 and 24:00hrs UTC.
Kat, who is married to Iain and fulfils the role of Designated Person Ashore (DPA) for the country where Astra is registered, known as ‘the flag State’. The insurers stipulated that Kat must receive a communique each morning and evening from Iain!
Perhaps some of you are now wondering what happens if even the Satellite-C becomes inactive? Well, in addition to independent hand-held satellite phones, which are like a 20 year old Motorola from which we can send a satellite SMS or make a voice call, we also have an MF/HF radio. These work like ham radios and use atmospherics to either send or receive radio messages that bounce via the troposphere. Once contact is established with a coastal radio station, potentially thousands of miles away, we can ask to connect for a radio link call.
And finally ('really.....is there no escape....Ed') we still have VHF, morse signalling lamps and a selection of International Signal Flags. However, Iain offloaded two heavy boxes of code and numeral signalling flags, deeming them surplus to the needs of the voyage. Unfortunately, we almost picked up a fine for not having the flags for ASTRA’s call sign V,7,L,B,6 in Chile!
On 14th February we fully emerged from the comms black hole, we are sure to the delight of our families and friends. Normal service has been resumed.
Iain: Good Morning DPA, How do you read?
Kat: Astra, DPA, Over
Iain: Standby for ASOS
Iain: DPA, How do you read Astra?
Kat: Astra, DPA. Reading you about 3 by 3
(yep, the DPA/Editor is also a space nerd...Apollo 13 .. an amazing moment in Space History) --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Meanwhile, the bulk carrier we spotted sailing from Portland (Oregon) to Mozambique remains our only ship sighting in 16 days, except for one small (48m) Chinese fishing boat that passed 8 miles from us over the weekend. Iain also spotted a plane by chance, as it was in the telescope of the sextant while he was spotting Achernar for morning stars.
Yes....We Really Are Using Sextants....
With the excellent sea conditions of the last week, it's been a great chance for us to brush-up on our celestial navigation skills, so morning and evening stars have been taken when cloud cover has permitted and Meridian Passage to give us our latitude at true noon.
(see pictures at top of post)
So, as we lost the VSAT and Inmarsat-C took over, we switched to all the backup systems onboard. The smaller back up radar was utilised and we 'rested' the main navigation computers by using our back-up of an iPad and an independent GPS position receiving device. Auto-Pilots were also switched over. It was interesting to see that, with all the primary systems shut down, it looked a completely different navigation bridge during the hours of darkness.
The long peaceful crossing of the Pacific has also provided a great opportunity for training onboard for Carlos, who is working hard to make the transfer from RYA certification to STCW Officer of the Watch. He has been receiving daily classes on Rules of the Road, International Code Flags, Morse Code and navigation. Over the most recent the weekend he learned how to calculate a course and distance between two points using plane sailing, which is a method used for short distances. The presence of a trainee onboard is something to be encouraged on any vessel and it's great for the crew to be working with someone like Carlos, who is keen to learn and develop.
Day 72, Thu 10th Feb
We reached the half-way point for our Pacific crossing between Valparaiso and Tahiti, 2,200 miles from either port.
Day 73, Fri 11th Feb
The final 6,000 litres of fuel that was stowed on deck was transferred down to our internal tanks.
We are now 1,000 miles east of Tahiti, where our weather router has brought us a little further north of our ‘dogleg’ route to pick up some currents for the next 72hrs towards Tahiti. The advantage of our destination being a small island mid-Pacific is that our ETA will not be wildly upset in the last 24-36hrs, which often happens as you approach land and start to get affected by tidal streams, as there are only weak ocean currents here.
Our fuel is due on Monday morning and our ETA is late afternoon of Saturday, February the 19th, so there will be a chance for the crew to relax ashore before proceeding on to Wellington, New Zealand. (Hmmmmmm, I wondered why they suddenly put the foot down.....Ed)
Nature Notes We have all been surprised by how little wildlife we have seen while crossing the Pacific. For about 10 days we saw absolutely nothing, just some birds when we were within 250-300 miles of an island. In the last week Carlos spotted a reasonable sized turtle about 200 miles NE of Pitcairn and, on Valentines Day, we spotted some of the biggest flying fish we’ve ever seen.