Monday, 18 June 2018

Dangerous AIS Targets? New Challenges To Safe Navigation

A Busy Waterway, However The AIS Fish Beacons Give Me Great Fears

Heading north around Cape Hatteras a few weeks back, we found ourselves facing a number of targets along our intended course - only some were more dangerous than others. That green target at top right of the image (36870200) was an American aircraft carrier performing incredibly tight turns and circles - but that wasn't the danger. Neither was the fast moving target to the left of our track (the track in black), which was the Captain Caden, a 21 meter fishing vessel out of Barnegat Bay.

FV Handful & Four Local AIS Beacons
The real danger was that tiny cluster of targets on our starboard side - the US flagged fishing vessel Handful, seen here with a cluster of AIS beacons around it. If we zoom in (at right), the picture becomes more clear - one primary AIS target, being the fishing vessel Handful itself, plus a cluster of four AIS fish net beacons floating around her. Fish net beacons, using AIS. Hmm. OK, read my lips. Say after me. This is not good....

The AIS system was devised and built as a safety system for vessels under management. It was not built as an identification system for unmanned, unpowered fish net and long line floats that do not ask questions and cannot correct their course. If the technology is used for net tracking, the targets should display with a clearly different icon or graphic on screen. But they do not. They look just like ships on screen.

The IMO (International Maritime Organisation) has published guidelines for the display of navigation related symbols on screen (read them here) and no fishing target beacons are included. The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation has published a draft paper (read it here) on marking of fishing gear, which acknowledges the illegal nature of AIS fishing beacons, but doesn't come down against them.

Thanks to Ben Ellison, author of the excellent PANBO marine electronics blog, I obtained the following information from a US Coast Guard website :

"18. Can I use AIS to mark nets, pots, traps, moorings, or as a race mark, etc.? There are no outright prohibitions to use AIS (i.e. AIS AtoN) as a marker (see Types of AIS and IALA Recommendation 1016 – Mobile Marine Aids to Navigation). However, it is not permissible to do so with equipment intended for use on vessels, (i.e. AIS Class A or B devices), for lifesaving (i.e. AIS SART, MOB AIS, EPIRB AIS), or with devices that are not FCC certified and licensed. See 47 CFR §§ 2.803, 2.805, 2.301, and 80.13 regarding licensing, station identity, and the prohibition to sell, market, or use radio devices that are not FCC authorized (search, Equipment Class: AIS)." It appears then that so long as these devices are FCC approved, they can be used at sea. But are they FCC approved?

So, what has gone wrong? Firstly, Chinese manufacturers have seized on an opportunity to use AIS electronic packages as fish net beacons, though without any approvals from relevant international AIS scheme managers. Secondly, US fisherman keen to track their nets (at  very low cost) have seized on these tools and deployed them, even though they are illegal under US law (my opinion). In fact you can't buy these readily in the USA - you have to order them online through Ali-Baba or one of the foreign web supply chains.

Above is the Ova fishing buoy beacon, sold out of China on the internet for not much over US$100.00, waterproof to 10 meters, and it comes pre-programmed with it's own MMSI number. Wait a minute - how did that happen? An MMSI number is supposed to be a Maritime Mobile Service Identifier - a number that identifies a vessel and an owner and tracks back to the national registration of the identified vessel.

Who ever heard of MMSI numbers being issued by the factory that built the product.... geez. They are supposed to be issued by the country of registration!

Then there are other brands and models - in fact there are so many models that there is an entire market place on the web where you can buy these (illegal) devices. Check out the page at this address. Many are shipped with software on disk plus a cable that allows the user to program the MMSI number - now this is completely illegal under US FCC regulations.

Many fisherman, reading this story, will be wondering what the heck I'm complaining about - OK so it's illegal, but where is the harm? In fact it could be that the fisherman are doing us a favor by identifying nets and floats that otherwise would be invisible to us at night. However until these beacons can be identified easily on screen as floating beacons (and not ships), then I believe that some dangerous situations are being created. Read on for the story on that ....

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Ocean Cruising Club - Potomac River History Cruise

OCC Dinghy Drift At Leonardtown (Image Courtesy Tong Gibb)
Last Saturday the Ocean Cruising Club started a six day mini-cruise of the lower Potomac River, from here in Reedville, Virginia. We joined the group of 25 boats for those few days, visiting St Mary's (the original capital of Maryland) and also Leonardtown. Both cities have a long history dating to before the revolutionary war - in fact Leonardtown was burned by British Marines during that war.

On Wednesday night the boat crews met upstream for a sunset dinghy drift - combining the boats together in a massive raft and then drifting downstream as the cocktails and nibbles were passed from boat to boat. Lots of fun that continued for several hours. Thursday was Flag Day here in the USA, so we dressed ship to join in the celebrations. This morning we cruised back down the Potomac River to Reedville once again, where Crystal Blues will rest until the end of the month.

Crystal Blues Dressed Up

Monday, 11 June 2018

Return To Reedville

Crystal Blues Shares The Dock, With The Beautiful Grand Banks Trawler Slow Dancing, Plus Dingies From The Visiting OCC Fleet

On Virginia's "northern neck", Reedville is a small village with a proud commercial fishing history. Right now it has aged gracefully to become a popular retirement and vacation area, set among rural farmlands, surrounded by a myriad creeks and bays.

Reedville Peninsular
Its a beautiful environment, still with a large population of working watermen, engaged in oystering, crabbing and net fishing. A fleet of large trawlers still work the Menhaden schools at the bottom of Chesapeake Bay and in the nearby Atlantic ocean. The Menhaden fish has been called "the most important fish in the sea". By tonnage, Reedville is still the second largest fishing port in the USA.

The Menhaden fishery once gave Reedville a fabulous wealth - it had the highest per capita income in the United States. Millionaires row in Main Street Reedville is evidence of this - scores of magnificent homes line the single street that forms the spine of this tiny peninsular.

Our friends Walter Keith and Mary Frazer have welcomed us back to their home and dock. There is a busy social calendar this time of the year, and in between music and social events we're trying to work on maintenance and repairs, but that is proving difficult.

On June 9th the Ocean Cruising Club started a Potomac River History Cruise from here, so we suddenly found the anchorage filled with 25 visiting OCC boats. Then cruising friends Bill & Jean Crew arrived on Pelican Express, with four legged crew mate Bella. Local friends are also calling to welcome us, several arriving by boat.

Ted & Lynne Hower Bring Pepper To Visit.  The Boat Is A Chesapeake Deadrise Skiff, Built By George Butler In Reedville.

 Yesterday was a big day for the OCC rally group - they came for cocktails here at Walter & Mary's home, then we all crossed the street for the first musical concert of the year at the Reedville Fisherman's Museum. Bluegrass and country rock kept our feet tapping until predicted thunderstorms shut down the evening.

Between the rain storms the social schedule has been frantic and the maintenance schedule continues to take a beating. Tomorrow we're off to cruise the lower Potomac River for three days with the OCC.

OCC Cruising Sailors Celebrate On The Porch At Walter & Mary's
Our Reedville Welcoming Committee
On The Dock In Reedville

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Back In The USA , Its Springtime Cruising

Arrival At Sunset, Chesapeake Bay

778 nautical miles later, we arrive in Norfolk, Virginia, after a very quick (3.5 days) transit from Great Sail Cay in the Bahamas. For the sailors reading this, that is an average of 9.26 knots. Of course we had 3 to 4 knots of lift from the Gulf Stream current for some of the passage, but we were pleased with our sailing speeds never the less. Cleaning the hull underwater, before we departed, also helped quite a lot.  The passage was completed with about 80% of the distance under sail, so not too much motoring.

Approaching The Sea Buoy Off The Chesapeake Bay Entrance
The warm weather had followed us north, so we sailed into harbor in shorts and not much else. After anchoring overnight we moved into a commercial marina berth the next morning, to allow for the necessary inspection by Customs & Border Protection

The clearance process here was simple and friendly, unlike the fairly shabby treatment we had received in Charleston the previous year. Next day we visited the Customs offices to obtain our 12 month Cruising Permit, and with that last piece of paper in place we could relax - we'd officially arrived.

In our approach, our first time here, we passed the enormous US Navy ship yard complex that stretches out along both sides of the river - a spectacular statement about US military expenditure - there were more ships here in just one river than in the entire Royal Australian Navy.

Rockets R Us

OK, so the 10.0 knot speed at the top of the screen possibly caught the eye of the boating folk, but that's what happens in the Gulf Stream heading north. However anyone familiar with my dim dark past will smile at the small print on the navigation screen, just ahead of us in this image .... rocket impact area? Yes, we are south east of Cape Canaveral, where Ley and I watched the Space-X launch late last year, and where I watched the last moon shot (Apollo 17) take off back in 1972. Memories can surface on the midnight watch.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Old Havana - Music Memories

Sorting through our collection of images and video from Cuba, we had to share this - a very tiny bar, a small band, an awful lot of energy! These young guys put new energy into an old Cuban classic, the beautiful El Cuarto De Tula. This clip is just the final two minutes of a seven minute epic. Early May 2018, at El Pachanka Bar in Old Havana. Gotta go back there.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Heading North, The Bahamas To Chesapeake Bay, USA

Smooth Sailing In The Bahamas
Crystal Blues will depart from Great Sail Cay, in the Abacos, Bahamas, early tomorrow morning. Right now we're sailing WNW across the top of Little Abaco Island, in brisk (25 knot) south easterly winds. Its a sleigh ride, smooth and quick with just a tiny staysail set and we're over 6.0 knots of boat speed.

The passage to the Chesapeake should take just over 4 days, subject to winds and the ever present Gulf Stream current. We'll clear in to the USA in Norfolk, and then head up to Reedville in Virginia for a break.

Havana Cruising - The Automotive Dreams Edition

Tourist Rides, Central Havana

After almost two months in Cuba, the sight of these 1950's juggernauts still makes me smile.

While Havana has thousands of beautifully restored tourist taxi's, the city also has many more un-restored versions, doing just what they were built for, more than 60 years ago.

A fair number of them have been skillfully re-worked under the hood, and improved to boot. An aussie friend in Havana runs a private tour operation using a beautiful 1956 Chevrolet - only it has a Toyota diesel engine, Toyota 5 speed gear box and 4 wheel disk brakes. Its also air conditioned, a rare luxury. On top its a '56 Chevy - underneath its a Toyota SUV. The only 5 speed column shift I've ever seen!

Stunning, Glowing, Local Transport

Don't get too excited - dreaming of buying one of these and bringing it home? The Cuban government has banned the export of these classics. They'll stay in Cuba forever.

If you're interested in these machines click the link below for more images.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Havana Cruising - The Community Arts / Gaudi Edition

Cuban artist Jose Fuster decided to decorate his neighborhood with tiled art - now the world comes to see his creation. He worked with his neighbours and the local community to extend the concept to the streets around his home.

Now referred to as Fusterlandia, the district is heavily decorated, from the bus stops to the roof tops. Predictably, Fuster's own home is the most impressive of all, but still it pays to sit back and soak up the district.

 The art is intensive and quite pleasing, and the locals are of course happy that their decorated homes attract the tourists. At times the streets are crammed with 1950's tourist taxis - every one seems to be wearing panama hats and smoking big cigars.

 However it really is spectacular, and if you come to Havana you simply must see it. Check out the Admiral on horse back - I never thought I'd see the day!

The Admiral On Horseback

 What style this art emulates is now hard to say - Gaudi is in there, but others say Picasso and Dali are also represented.

Even The Bus Stops Are Decorated - With Andrew & Caroline From SV Askari

Tourist Cruiser
On these streets it is a competition between the flash cars and the flash houses - which is the most artistic? I'll take the car....

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Havana Cruising - The Magical Arts & Music Edition

Music For The Street, So Much Energy

Havana absolutely rocks with music of all types - every second restaurant has a resident band for the lunchtime crowds, and usually another band for the evening session. So many musicians, so much energy, its hard to relax. I just wanted to hear all of it, to drink it all in, but it simply isn't possible.

Late Night, Roof Top Bar, Hotel Inglaterra

In any afternoon you can hear five or six bands at as many venues, all playing to the street and the crowd inside. The guys in the  first image above occupied almost half the floor space in the bar - in another bar the band occupied the entire space, and the patrons sat on stools outside on the sidewalk. The younger bands are mixing newer sounds into the traditional Cuban mix, adding saxophones and much younger interpretations of the Cuban classics.

Havana Ballet Center

Of course it is not all Latin rhythms - visitors can take in the Ballet, there are symphonic concerts, Jazz of all kinds. So many talented performers in one small nation, its hard to comprehend. I understand the government pays selected musicians a monthly stipend (yeah, probably only around US$20.00) and then schedules them to play where required - government owned restaurants, community festivities etc. However many musicians are also part of the new economy, playing in bars and restaurants where they gather tips in the breaks plus (the big earner) selling CD's of their own music direct to the crowd. Those CD's are a kind of variable - sometimes you get what you heard, other times the music on the disk is completely different. No way to tell, but its worth buying the memories, and great to support the talent in a direct way.

Sheet Copper Artworks - Hotel Lobby
Visual Arts

Sophisticated Graffiti
Other art forms flourish here - from sculpture to lino cut printing, oil painting, even street art is an accepted genre.

Galleries and artist collectives are everywhere, creative processes are underway around every corner. Usually with an eye to the dollar, though not in a blatant way - these are educated people, subtle and proud.

It could be argued that even the traffic barriers in Havana Old Town are artistic - here they stop cars with canons.  Old canons, hundreds of them, artistically buried / planted in the narrow streets to place limits on vehicle traffic, returning the streets to the people and creating a beautiful traffic free ambience in much of the Old Town.

Hundreds Of Canons, Stopping Cars

Which leads us to that most complex of artistic disciplines - architecture. Havana can boast a good collection of Soviet inspired brutalist concrete structures from the 1960's, and then there is the Russian Embassy in Havana, which has to be seen to be believed (what were they thinking?).

However it's the older architecture that is so compelling, with fine restoration work proceeding apace on almost every block. In the heart of town the old Capitol Building is beautifully restored, along with a collection of significant buildings, including the oldest hotel, the Hotel Inglaterra (do not miss the rooftop bar at night).

The Havana Ballet Parapets At Night

Take That Paris - The Havana Ballet - Art On the Inside And Outside

Not Bad, Eh?
Now to something more mundane, but far more personal.

At lunch in the Old Town, a young woman sat across the street and produced a sketch of me, then presented it at our table. This was not something we'd requested - she was an opportunist. Some minutes later she returned, and I asked how much she wanted - the answer was enlightening.  "How much do you think it's worth? Give what you think, or give nothing, it's yours" she said. So of course I over paid. Go figure.

So capitalism is alive and well, and the people have a certain charm that allows them to prosper when they spot an opportunity, and Cuban art is a big opportunity.

In the past few years the internet has become widely available, and far less expensive, and the younger generation are right into it.  This will rapidly impact their expectations, influence the art and change the country for sure - go see it before it changes too much if you can.

Finally, I believe that the Cuban people have raised vehicle maintenance to an art form - the massive number of 1950's vehicles (and older) that are still running is a tribute to their talent.

Need to see more? For more images of Havana arts and music, click the link below.

Way Cool Transportation

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Havana Cruising - The Mojito Coast

Line Ém Up - Mass Mojito Mixing Every Few Minutes

After the quiet dignity and charm of the Cuban south coast and cities, arriving in Havana is a shock to the system - specially the liver. This is a party town, where the bars mix Mojitos in bulk and rum is cheaper than mixers, so each glass carries a delicious kick.

We arrived in Havana at Hemingway Marina on April 27, and wisely resisted hitting the Old Town for a few days - rest and repairs took precedence initially. Of course getting to the city isn't simple - with the marina about 15 miles out of town, a fairly battered 1950s Chevy will cost 25 bucks each way. So after an initial day visit we decided to book a room in the Old Town and stay for a couple of days next time.

1950's Chevy Taxi, This One Still Had The Original Engine & Transmission

And so the fun began - Havana Old Town is a world class destination, with thousands of historic buildings, many now restored, and a lively culture that welcomes tourists. A non-profit foundation has managed the gradual restoration of the Old Town with great sensitivity. Its a huge area to manage, but the planning policies have given it a living breathing heart, ensuring that the local population are not displaced and that schools and community facilities are included in the development mix. So yes there are tourists (thousands of them) but there is also nearly half a million locals in the old city, so the visitor gets a "warts and all" education in pretty quick time.

Plaza Vieja - Restaurants, Bars, Boutiques, Hotels, Home Stays & A Primary School - Life Must Go On

Of course mixing the haves and have-nots occasionally creates predictable social challenges, however the Cuban people are not without pride and dignity, and they handle even the ugliest tourist behaviour with great patience. The financial differences between the citizens and the visitors are enormous - a school teacher in Cuba might earn US$40.00 per month, a doctor say US$80.00 per month. Many tourists spend that on drinks in a single day.  But the real imbalance occurs when restaurant waiters earn, in a single day (and just in tips), the equivalent of a teachers monthly salary. How does that work? Yes, social change is coming, and its driven by tourism, which in turn is driven by the culture, music and history of the place.

Opposite our guesthouse, just minutes from the beautiful Plaza Vieja shown above, was a small store selling tourist nick nacks, cold drinks and local crafts. We spoke with the two sales staff, who on that day was a pleasant husband and wife team with excellent English skills - they were both University Professors, and she had a Doctorate in Mathematics, yet in one day selling stuff to tourists they earned more than their monthly government stipend. Something has to give.

Local Transport In The Old Town

Despite the rampant inequalities between the base level Cuban worker and the growing middle class, people are happy. They all have a decent education, they all have access to above average health care. Basic food stuffs and consumables are price controlled by the government so that every one can eat - just not in the new restaurants.

Havana is not to be missed - staggeringly beautiful buildings and plazas, amazing culture, food and drink that was frankly much better than expected and a musical culture that is without par. And it is the Mojito capital of the world.

Want to see more? Click the link below for more images of Old Havana.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Cuban Cruising - Sunsets & Thunderstorms

Cayo Largo Marina Sunset

Thunderstorm Formation
From the marina at Cayo Largo these thunderheads do look lovely. We were two days out from Cienfuegos and spent a couple of days in the small marina at Cayo Largo, before moving on westward again.

Our plans to explore the reefs and cayos changed rapidly when strong winds were forecast, so we changed tactics and course, heading instead to Havana after rounding Cape San Antonio at the extreme western tip of Cuba.

Around the cape, now heading north east, next afternoon the weather became decidedly dodgy, with thunderstorms forming right in front of us. These are things we like to avoid, as the accelerated winds and lightning they contain can be quite dangerous.

One in particular gave us grief for many hours - first came the the incredible cloud formation, followed by heavy rain nearby. We altered course, further offshore, monitoring the storm's movement on our radar as we traveled.

Then a fantastic waterspout formed, snaking across the ocean surface and sucking water furiously up into the clouds.
Waterspout On Starboard - We Last Saw One Of These In The South China Sea

This was not something we wanted over the top of us, so the radar tracking took on extra importance. Below is the basic radar image of the storm - note that the green rings on screen are each set 2 nautical miles apart, so the storm on our starboard side is only a mile or so away - that water spout was close.

Often we want a more informed view on screen, specially at night, so the radar image can be over-layed onto the electronic chart display, giving us a more detailed view of the navigation environment. In the image below the radar information is displaying in pink, whilst the vessel, it's track, course and heading can be seen on screen. These display systems are now common on many cruising boats - we all benefit from the improved safety information and situation awareness. And it helps to keep those nasty waterspouts away.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Cuban Cruising - Charming Cienfuegos

Tourist Rides, When They're Running

Like every city in Cuba, Cienfuegos is full of beautiful old cars, though keeping them running seems a constant task. We anchored off the marina just south of the city and spent 10 days exploring and relaxing, with the usual range of boat jobs thrown in. This was also a great city to re-provision, for our next passage to the west.

Cafe Prado

The city is relaxed, safe and surprisingly sophisticated, with a great range of restaurants, cafes and bars. Yes, it is Cuba, so nothing is perfect, but the city has a sense of prosperity and optimism that was infectious. There is quite a lot of tourism, but its low key and chilled.

You could spend weeks just sampling food at the dozens of privately run restaurants and paladars.  The architecture in the central city is grand and well preserved, though you only need to move a block or so to find the classic Cubano crumbling edifices. Two hours drive to the east is the city of Trinidad, the oldest Spanish city in the new world, well restored and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

As usual we chased down all the music we could find, and on any night in the town square you could easily listen to four or five different acts.

There is never a cover charge, unless you visit one of the late night clubs.  The bands are paid a government stipend, which they creatively augment with CD sales and tips from the crowd.

On our first Saturday in town we came across a local community center cultural event, in a residential side street away from the city center.  Basically a classic Cuban band playing for the local residents, who really know how to dance. These folks have standards though - long pants and a collared shirt were required for entry - we fit the bill and were invited in for a wonderful night with the locals. After dancing all night we pulled up kinda tired the next day .... but we did return again the following Saturday.

For two days we explored the countryside around Cienfuegos on a rented scooter - traffic is light and generally slow, much of it horse drawn, so we felt safe riding. The farming town people made us welcome, ignoring our lack of Spanish and trying very hard to support us.

Crystal Blues departed Cienfuegos on April 22nd, bound for Cayo Largo.
For more images of beautiful Cienfuegos click below.

A Great Wine Cellar - Another Cuban Surprise

Palacio de Valle

Cuba's third largest city, Cienfuegos sits at the top of a protected bay. The marina is nothing fancy, a spread of concrete wharves in fairly poor condition, so we were happy to anchor off the shore, with the majority of visiting boats.

Just north of the anchorage was the Palacio de Valle, once a private home but now part of a large tourist hotel, Hotel Jagua.

After the very basic infrastructure we'd seen over recent weeks on the Cuban coast, this area was like arriving in Disneyland. The Palacio even boasted a serious wine cellar, where we were able to re-stock with reasonable wines.

Cellar Door
The cellars are absolutely original, built into the basement of the Palacio, behind heavy locked doors.  The basement also hosts a Tapas Bar - ask at the bar to look inside the cellars. You can purchase wines at very reasonable (wholesale) rates here, the range is OK and the storage is all air conditioned so we don't expect any losses.

El Jeffe, President Castro, had a holiday residence nearby and would come to these cellars for his wine, even eating in the cellar dining room. We figured that was good enough for us, and held a tapas dinner there with cruising friends, in the same tiny room, full of character and history.