Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Video Work In Bali Leads To Dengue Fever

I'm writing this update from a hospital bed in Phuket, where I'm being treated for Dengue fever. This is not a lot of fun.

Ley and I have just spent three weeks filming (high definition video) in Bali, working with our friend Jon Stonham, CEO of Private Homes and Villas. We managed to cover 25 luxury villas in 21 days, working at a cracking pace. OK, so we did enjoy the services of a private chef and a butler at almost every villa, and the food was fantastic. However the pace of work prevented us from relaxing at all, and the delights of the villas flashed past us without being sampled.

We captured lots of video, requiring over 200 gigabytes of hard disk storage space. Our new camera equipment records onto solid state memory cards, instead of video tape. At the end of each day we download from the camera directly onto a laptop computer. The high definition video is good enough to extract decent still photos - thats where these two images have come from. Whilst it was great to be behind a viewfinder again, the last few days in Bali proved difficult.

I started showing a range of symptoms including fever, joint pain, lethargy, headache and dizziness. A subsequent week in Singapore brought no improvement, and I spent our last day there in the "fever" department at Singapore General Hospital. Then it was straight to the airport for our flight back to Phuket, and then straight back into hospital again. This morning the doctors assured me I would be out of this in 24 hours or so. Both Ley and Jon also managed to contract the virus, with Jon spending several days in hospital in Singapore. Ley is made of tougher stuff - her symptoms were very mild until the last day of the fever when she broke out in a typical Dengue rash.

After six days in hospital it will be nice to feel normal again, and I'm very keen to see Crystal Blues. So, apologies for the delay in refreshing this weblog. We do have lots of updates to post, but they need to wait until I'm clear of the Dengue.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Refit Week 11 - Good, Bad, & Then Very Different

Just over 11 years ago we bought a boat, and yes, it was life changing. At the time I thought I was quite the technician - I even owned a (small) tool kit. Nowadays my assembled tool collection will only just fit into the trunk of a modern car (see the photo).

So here we are in Thailand, and for once we are enjoying the refit process ... obviously we have the tools, and the local contractors have the labour and tools whenever we don't.

Living ashore, in a house, is a bit weird for us - who ever imagined they needed so many keys to live a normal life ? Onboard Crystal Blues we have just two keys - one that starts the engine and one that does everything else. Now we've got house keys, car keys, shed keys, window keys, safe keys and the rest. Its way too confusing....and every time we drive into a parking lot, or even into the marina, they give us another security pass.

This place is security crazy. We live in a gated & guarded community, but Crystal Blues is even better off - she gets guards on patrol, guards nearby with 2 way radios, guards on bicycles and of course guards asleep - oops !

Life ashore is very different to life afloat, though its amazing how fast you adapt (regress?). I "go to work" at 8.00am every day, not even thinking that I'm supposed to be retired ... OK, that'll come later. So I dodge the Soi (street) dogs, the buffalo, chickens, children etc until I hit the main road, when all hell finally breaks loose. This I can deal with - its only traffic. Except that half of Thailand's drivers think they're Ayrton Senna and the other half can't find second gear. Did I mention the motor bikes ? It seems that road rules, traffic lights and road markings are only "a suggestion" here... you can drive down the wrong side of the road, you can drive through a red light or cross straight into a busy traffice lane without looking. Thats life. Your periheral vision gets a good work out here!

Its only 3km to the boat from home, though in the mornings we divert to dodge the heavy traffic and its then about 5km, but a relaxing and scenic forest drive. Which is just as well, because the boatyard is not relaxing. Phuket Boat Lagoon has a massive hardstand (right now its kind of empty - only 98 boats on the hard). We're right at one end, under a big tent and sweating it out as the last of the spot blasting and priming happens today. Tomorrow the sides will come up and things will cool down on deck.

Steel Work Problems

In our last blog posting we said that the steel work was almost completed - unfortunately we spoke too soon. Our "friend" Mr Nop, who had made new stainless railings and parts for us, managed to mess up his final job on deck. His boys put way too much heat into one area and severely distorted the roof of our hard dodger. The really unfortunate part was that he wanted me to pay him to fix it ..... extortionate stuff. Clearly, I can't recommend him to anybody now.

Much embarrasment among our Thai hosts, and with their help we found a better contractor, Mr Luk, who has a skillful and patient metal working team that are Lloyds certified. After cutting out the mess, they've created a very beautiful replacement, better than the original, as its now all built in 316 stainless. A work of art, pity we had to sandblast and coat it with 4 coats of epoxy. If you're planning any sort of steel or stainless work in Phuket, Mr Luk is definitely your man (details in our Thailand Marine Directory - download it here).

Divide and conquer was our war cry over the last 2 weeks. I went to the boat each day and worked with the guys on site, sandblasting, welding, painting and expoxy fairing. Ley became the winch wench, stripping and servicing all seven Wilkie winches in a week, as well as completing sewing work on the boom bag and a million other jobs. Some folks have written to ask us for a list of the work we're doing - if you're interested there are now two documents you can download. Firstly, the Main Contract Works schedule, being carefully undertaken by Pro Yachting. Secondly the Other Works schedule, most of this undertaken or at least project managed by us. Read 'em and weep. The hull is now completely sealed, primed and partially faired, and we certainly don't need to tell Jill & Pro (or their team) how to finish the topsides - they're experts.

Something Different

This week, we're entering a new and exciting mind space, leaving Thailand for a month to do something different - we're producing video recordings in Bali, Phuket, Koh Samui and Sri Lanka. We have 3 days in Singapore to collect, test and commission our new video equipment, then 3 weeks in Bali filming. This will be followed by 5 days in Singapore working with the client's production team, before returning to Phuket on December 9. The other regions will follow over the next few months, in between the boat work. Wish us luck ... if the web posts are slow over the next few weeks it's because we're busy !

Monday, 27 October 2008

AIS Part 3 - Safety At Sea, With AIS Onboard

AIS helps us avoid the cruising sailors greatest danger - a collision at sea. Of course the system isn't perfect, however it is a powerful ally in collision avoidance and I wouldn't want to be without it. Our previous two stories (read them here and here) introduced the system and discussed a typical cruising boat installation - in this story we share our operational experiences.

The Singapore Straits is the busiest shipping lane in the world, and the nearby Malacca Straits are not far behind in the traffic stakes. These two waterways provided a strenuous testing ground for our new Comar AIS installation. Our very first test was conducted on a three day passage from Sarawak (northern Borneo) to Singapore. Departing Kuching, capital of Sarawak, we tracked several ships on screen that were well over our visual (and radar) horizon. We also noted a fixed AIS base station on a mountain top near Kuching, reporting itself as being highly accurate in its position. As a newcomer to AIS this puzzled me, however we could see that base station for over 100 nautical miles into the Sth China Sea, so it was a welcome reference. You can see it in this image, the purple dot near the bottom, with its own MMSI number of course.

Travelling from Borneo to Singapore there are not a lot of ships - hence not a lot of AIS traffic and therefore a great signal to noise ratio. In that low noise / low traffic environment our system was receiving and plotting ship locations more than 120 nautical miles away. It was great to know well in advance the traffic that was likely to cross our path. We also noted that military support vessels don't have to run their transponder all the time - we passed within 1/4 mile of a small fleet oiler that didn't exist on AIS - though I'm pretty sure they knew where we were, and we had her on radar for hours. Whilst military vessels have a nominated identity in the AIS world, they don't always broadcast their location, for obvious reasons.

As we approached Singapore the traffic density (and target numbers) increased, and the maximum receiving range fell off. This is a logical consequence of the increased traffic levels, and illustrates how good the system really is - when traffic is dense the closer vessels dominate - which is exactly what we want for effective collision avoidance. In this image you can see vessels arriving and departing the Straits (red & green triangles) plus anchored vessels (purple triangles).

Departing Singapore for Langkawi, we cleared immigration at the Western Quarantine Anchorage. Already we had hundreds of vessels showing on our display, but the software handled things well and it was never confusing - at all times the closest and most threatening targets were clearly visible. In a dense traffic situation (harbour / river / channel) it pays to zoom in close on the chart plotter display screen, so that only local targets are visible - the ones that matter. One hour out we plotted a Class B transponder, the first we'd seen on screen, and watched this small motor vessel cross two shipping lanes and then run past our port side. Despite several hundred Class A transponders broadcasting close by, the Class B vessel was consistently visible. The 30 second reporting frequency of Class B systems was just evident - this was a quick motor boat, and the Class B position updates were just a little lumpy.

Moving into Malaysian waters we headed north west up the Malacca Straits, estimating three days for our passage to Langkawi. This was our sixth transit of the Malacca Straits, but our first with AIS, and what a great difference it makes. Every large commercial vessel showed up on our chart plotter, giving us very early warning of their speed and course. We habitually stick to the eastern edge of the main shipping channel in the straits, hoping to keep out of the ships way and also to avoid the fish nets and fish traps that pepper the inshore waters. Passing Port Klang has always been a challenge - it's a major shipping port and many ships turn into and out of the Straits channel, but this time it was easy. This image, zoomed out on the chart display, shows the traffic density - we're the black circle and arrow in the middle. Seriously, the traffic just parted for us - ships running up the straits turned early or late and always gave us plenty of sea room - it was very clear that our AIS transmissions were being watched. What a joy. We usually keep a dual lookout in that region, one of us on port and the other on starboard, however this time it simply wasn't necessary - I slept soundly for that part of the passage. Amazingly, in that three day transit the AIS system logged over 2000 targets. That's a lot of ships.

I've always found that most commercial mariners will try to be cooperative if they have the right information - AIS certainly gives them that. More importantly, on most large vessels the voyage data recorder (info here), like the one at left, will securely record your yacht's transmissions - no one can deny your existence. This has to encourage larger vessels to comply with SOLAS rules. The recording of AIS targets is very useful - should your tiny sailboat go missing one day, every big ship that you've passed will have a time and date stamped record of your past position to assist the search authorities. Furthermore, many shore based AIS stations (and there are thousands already in place) will see you as you pass within range and report your position - check it out here.

In my last story I mentioned that the AIS transponder provided a GPS position output in standard NMEA format. It is tempting to think of this as a useful backup to our primary GPS receivers, but think again. It seems that the AIS GPS positions are often fine tuned with differential information broadcast by local AIS base stations (hence that "high accuracy" base station we observed in Borneo). Also, AIS GPS hardware is built to far more stringent standards (IEC61108) than conventional receivers. This means that your AIS GPS system is most likely more accurate than your existing primary GPS in many coastal situations - so you should use the AIS position data as a first preference !

On Crystal Blues our AIS data is received and displayed by our PC based chart plotting software - Transas Navigator Pro. The software displays our vessel, plus all the AIS & MARPA radar targets, as live moving indicators overlaid onto the electronic chart. This is an incredibly powerful tool, derived from commercial shipping software.

AIS is in its infancy, but it clearly has a future on your boat. Thousands of aids to navigation already carry AIS transponders, so that you can see them even when the weather is thick. Some are suggesting that "virtual aids" will soon appear on your AIS display - electronic marker buoys that can be placed rapidly if a new wreck or other danger appears. These can be activated almost instantly by maritime authorities, well before a real buoy can be positioned. And in a distress situation, any commercial vessel can accurately locate Crystal Blues with ease, once within range.

This week I received an email from Jeff Robbins, developer of the highly rated Vesper Marine Watchmate AIS display. The Watchmate is a very simple (low power) LCD screen that interprets data from any AIS unit and displays it essentially the way you need it. To quote Jeff "Watchmate prioritises targets ... the most important collision risks appear first. It also filters the data to eliminate false alarms when operating in harbour or crowded situations. And it has a user selectable "profile", that allows the user to select with a single button their sailing situation (eg. anchored, harbour,coastal,offshore)..."

Phew - Jeff has done his homework, and his display screen seems probably the best way to handle AIS information if you don't already have a compatible chart plotting system, and a very smart way to go even if you do. Of course it works with transponders or simple receivers.

Whilst we don't have Jeff's screen we're pleased with the extra safety and navigational information we receive from our AIS sytem, and even more pleased that the big boats out there know exactly where we are, day and night - rain, hail or shine. AIS transponders are a great advance in safety for both coastal and ocean sailors. Cruising author and boat designer Steve Dashew says of AIS "I would put an AIS B way ahead of most other “necessities” for a cruising yacht, especially when cruising in areas with lots of rain".

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Refit Week 6 - The Bug Fixes Begin

You might ask who chose that delightful new colour scheme - hey everyone else is ! Truth is, we're six weeks into refit and starting to deal with the "unexpected". That is PVC floor covering taped over the topsides to protect them during the sand blasting. Woops....

Soon after hauling the boat from the water we noticed a reasonable number of small blisters under the waterline - we'd seen them before, as they started appearing about 5 years ago. The last few times I've spent a few days grinding them back and rebuilding the base epoxy coat on the steel. Whilst it only affected small areas, it was a real pain in the ***.

This time things were more serious - they've been breeding ! So we called in Jimmy Watt from Siam Surveyors, a local and knowledgeable marine surveyor. Jimmy scraped a couple back and offered a depressing explanation. It seems that the last time we sand blasted right back to bare metal below the waterline (at Harwood Slipway in NSW), there was possibly a malfunction somewhere - oil droplets were probably sprayed onto the hull, most likely from a leaky seal in the compressor. Where was the oil filter in the line I ask ? These small droplets of oil were effectively propelled onto the steel and then the epoxy coat was sprayed over the top. The result is that the epoxy is now releasing from the surface, where the oil interfered with the adhesion. Its easy to see the splatter pattern of the oil droplets when you look at the partially sanded hull - the blisters clearly occur in obvious groupings.

Some areas of the hull have almost none, whilst in other areas the groupings are depressingly frequent. Coincidentally, we have good friends sailing a beautiful composite hulled yacht whose steel keel has been exhibiting similar blistering. Guess what - that keel was blasted by the same contractor around the same time. Oops.

In the end we decided to sand blast the hull again - something we thought we'd put behind us. Pro-Yachting offered a revised contract price to include the necessary work, and we found we could blast the hull clean here in Phuket for a very reasonable cost. We had no hesitation in accepting the proposal. To minimise the blasting time, the Pro-Yachting team started with paint stripper and scrapers - a team of five guys worked for 2 weeks, working there way through 14 one gallon cans of paint stripper. Back braking work.

For the past 10 days they've been blasting and priming, working their way along each side of the hull and keel. It is slow, dirty, noxious and tedious work, but we're impressed with their dedication and attention to detail. The blasting and priming are now finished - we have one coat of zinc rich epoxy (Jotun Barrier 77) and two coats of high build protective epoxy (Jotamastic 87).

Incidentally, we also asked the surveyor to test and inspect Crystal Blues hull, as she's almost 20 years old now. So Jimmy used his ultrasound testing equipment to survey the plate thickness. He checked all the likely "weak spots" - bottom of the fuel tank, the chain locker, bottom of the rudder, shaft log area, as well as numerous random samples. Whilst he did find two tiny pinholes (welding faults) he also said it was one of the best survey results he'd seen for a steel yacht. Happiness is a sound hull ! Jimmy has also shown us that she's built of Cor-Ten steel, something we did suspect but could not confirm. Cor-Ten steel is a step up from standard mild steel - stiffer and more corrosion resistant - some good news to balance the bad stuff.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Internet Afloat - The Story Continues In Thailand

We've recently posted quite a few stories on the use of 3G, GPRS and Edge mobile data services here in Asia (here, here & here). These are all broadband data services that piggy back on the GSM and WCDMA global cellphone standards. Consequently, if you equip yourself to operate here, your equipment will also operate in almost every other country (you just have to subscribe to a local service provider - buy a SIM card).

Whilst we operated in Malaysia using the excellent DiGi service (it was GPRS) here in Thailand we've purchased a "1-2-Call" SIM card. The service is almost as good - and it costs about the same. For about Aussie $1.00 a day we're getting unlimited internet access - its online all the time. Plus we get a generous SMS allowance as well.

Local testing here in Phuket has proved that the 1-2-Call (Edge) cellular data service is actually faster than the local ADSL fixed-wire broadband service. Yep, for a buck a day we're getting faster and more reliable internet than those who pay for fixed line ADSL broadband. Amazing.

But be careful here - if you subscribe to a service that is over-sold and under provisioned (like Celcom in some parts of Malaysia, and recently I believe Optus in some parts of Australia), your data rate will suffer, and connections will not be reliable. Consequently we look for services that are not over-sold, like DiGi in Malaysia and 1-2-Call here in Thailand. I'm sure its the same in many other parts of the world - large or dominant service providers deliver sub-standard service almost as a default. Oops, did I really say that ?

Fact is, even at GPRS or Edge speeds, the service is clearly faster, more reliable and much less expensive than the wi-fi internet services offered by marinas in this region. It really works well here. Since our original post on this topic many have followed our example, and the results have been generally good. Ian & Mona Robertson in Kuching (Sarawak) are now using DiGi (Edge Service) for their second business office, whilst Jon & Pam on SV Tweed are also delighted with Celcom's service in Langkawi. SV Taipan (David & Kris) have also written to say how happy they are. SV Aku Anka (Arja & Glen) in Langkawi read our stories and also made the jump. All these folk are using Sierra Wireless AirCard modems. We're expecting this service to keep working wherever we travel, though with variations in service cost. Right now its the best value internet access around, and it works surprisingly well for a considerable distance offshore.

July 2009 Update / Current model USB Modem is Sierra Wireless Compass 885 or 888.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Refit Week 4 - Steelwork Completed

Its just on a month since we sailed into Phuket Boat Lagoon, and three weeks since we hauled out of the water. On deck we've been concentrating on steelwork - changes and additions to improve the boat and reduce maintenance in the future. Inside the boat we've started painting - with the lockers empty its a pefect time. Two coats of Jotun Penguard high build primer and two coats of Jotun Hardtop polyurethane and our old cupboards start to look like new again. As you can see in the photo at right, Ley just loves painting....

The guys from Mr.Nop's stainless steel fabrication business have been working very hard. They've fabricated beautiful new pulpit and pushpit railings and completely rebuilt the stern fuel locker in 316 stainless steel. This area was previously fabricated from timber, which was bolted and glued to the steel hull, and it was always a source of rust and maintenance work. Now its fixed and there forever, and our aft railings run forward past the cockpit for additional security.

We've also improved a number of the hard point areas on deck, the ones we didn't tackle in our last refit 8 years ago. This basically involves welding thick 316 stainless plates into the deck, drilled and tapped to take our fittings. Because the holes don't go right through its impossible to get any leaks. The plates are faired into the deck and painted over. Last refit we welded shut 210 (!) holes in the deck, and fitted these welded blocks as hard points instead. For this refit the count is only 53, but it still feels good. The tough one was the mainsheet traveller - 24 precisely drilled and tapped holes in a 10x50mm 316 stainless bar, curved to match the roof of our steel dodger. The guys were having trouble tapping into the hard stainless bar, until Ley's father Ray suggested using Carnation Condensed Milk as a lubricant and cutting compound. I'm sure they thought we were crazy when we brought the can out to them, but after the first hole they'd changed their mind - it really works. All the big 316 bar and plate stock has to be ordered from Bangkok, but things happen pretty quickly here and the job is virtually done.

Our PowerDive hookah gear gets a lot of use cleaning the boat, but its often needed quickly if we pick up a net or line on our propeller at sea. Getting the gear setup on deck in the middle of the night at sea proved kind of frustrating, so we're installing it inside the boat permanently. A fixed airline will run to a new stainless stell compressed air socket at the stern - now we can just throw a switch and plug in a hose to get underwater quickly. We've also put in a new stainless penetration for our aft deck shower hose, and added a welded hardpoint for a pasarelle at the transom. The cost of all this is not insignificant of course, but even with Mr Nop's best "creative" margins in play it is great value, and the local workmanship is outstanding.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

AIS Part 2 - The Installation Experience

AIS stands for Automatic Identification System, an active primary safety system for vessels at sea. The black arrow in the photo at right, captured from our PC screen, is Crystal Blues. The red arrows (targets) are ships we want to avoid. Clicking on a target reveals the data box seen at bottom left - lots of information on the ship in question (click the image at right to enlarge).

I met a cruising sailor last night who said that my first AIS story (here) was very technical - oops, I guess it is a technical subject. Not sure that I can eliminate the technicalities, but I will try to explain them. First though, an essential technology primer .... I strongly recommend you spend time roaming the excellent PANBO website, specially the AIS pages. Also, here are links for two very informative and useful documents, covering co-axial connectors and co-axial cabling. OK, on with the story ....

We purchased our Class B AIS transponder from Oceantalk in Singapore - in fact we bought four of them, as several other boats wanted to install the system. The unit is a Comar CSB.200, manufactured in the United Kingdom. It was supplied by Oceantalk with a Shakespeare VHF whip antenna and a Sanav GPS antenna.

All Class B AIS transponders require a dedicated GPS receiver and a dedicated VHF antenna. No arguments please - if you want this powerful safety system, you have to install the extra antennae. No, you cannot share signals from existing systems, however the AIS derived GPS position information is available to you as a separate NMEA signal, for chart plotting purposes. You'd better plan carefully for antenna locations, bracket positions and cable runs.

The GPS antenna is a simple patch antenna with a low noise amplifier that sends the received signals (as RF) direct to the AIS system for timing analysis - in other words, the external receiver is just an amplified antenna, and all the complex decoding and mathematical computations to derive your vessel position occur inside the AIS transponder. This is a specific requirement of the IMO AIS regulatory framework - it basically ensures that no one can feed fake vessel positions into the system. That is good to know ...

On the VHF side, AIS Class B uses just 2 watts of radiated power to send its reports outwards (the big ships get 12 watts). It is easy to receive signals from big-ship class A systems, however you better pay attention when installing your VHF cables, connectors and antenna. You want to ensure that all of your 2 watts is actually radiated into the ether. Robin Kidd from Oceantalk stressed this point - make sure your VHF cabling and connection work is good. Installation requires the following :

- Physically mount the AIS box. A U-bracket is supplied, but we used industrial strength adhesive Velcro to mount it on a vertical bulkhead (see photo).
- Run the cables for VHF and GPS antennae
- Install and connect both antennae
- Run cable for DC power with a fuse in line
- Run the data cable to the chart plotter/display system
- Terminate everything and then commission the system

Of course your chart plotter must be compatible with AIS messages in NMEA format to display the targets and information. If it isn't, you can use this very neat AIS display from Vesper Marine, the AIS Watchmate, or a more serious display (with charts) made by Comar, the CSD.200.

Back to the installation. If you power the box from a shared DC circuit breaker (ours is on our navigation instruments circuit) you should include a 5amp fuse in the power feed. Be careful with the VHF antenna cabling - OK, its just RG.58, but you've only got 2 watts to radiate, so make sure you use high quality connectors and fittings.

The GPS receiver supplied by Oceantalk is the RV-76, made by San Hose Technology in Taiwan. It includes a nice 10 metre pre-terminated cable. Its very thin, and easy to run through the boat, but it turns out to be RG.174, which has very high losses (attenuation) at these frequencies (1.5ghz). If you use the supplied cable as-is, with its existing terminations, it will work just fine. However if you need to cut, join, extend or splice (as we did), then you'll have to use a more suitable cable (RG.223). After attempting to extend the supplied cable, and getting no satellite signal, we changed to a Bedea RG.223 with Telegartner crimp connectors - voila, tons of signal. We purchased the cable and connectors from Coastal Electronics in Singapore, though similar cable is made by Belden and others. Make sure you use the correct crimping tool (see photo).

On the VHF side, the Comar AIS box will actually measure and report the SWR (reflected energy ratio) on your VHF transmission line during commissioning - you'll soon know if your VHF cabling and connectors are good or not. Click on the photo below at right to see typical values.

With all that hard work done the rest was easy - plug the box into our PC using the supplied cable and configure the COM port on the PC (baud rate etc) . Then load the Comar software (supplied) and configure the unit. At this point you'll be asked to input your vessel identifier, which is the unique "MMSI number" issued by your National Marine Authority. If you don't have an MMSI number you'd better apply for one now, because you cannot transmit using AIS without one. A Comar Class B transponder will stay in "receive only" mode until you give it your MMSI number. The real trick is that this number can only be entered ONCE by the user - mess it up and you have to send the box back to the dealer for resetting.

I've just learned that Class B systems are FINALLY approved for use in the USA (story here), but that they are not allowing users to configure the MMSI identifiers. I bet that will be fun to administer.... seems the installers or retailers will have to configure the box before handover. The Comar configuration software is simple to use, neat and logical.

So, use only good cables and connectors, get yourself an MMSI number and enjoy the results. Our next story on AIS will conclude the series with our user experiences.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

A Working Holiday In Phuket

Most people come to Phuket for a holiday, but we've come to work - Crystal Blues is here for a major refit. After arriving on August 18, we anchored in Chalong Bay and completed clearance with Immigration, Customs and the Port Captain. Now, four weeks later, that arrival seems like months ago - we've done so much in the past month it's scary. Ley says that it's beginning to feel like real work again - up at 5.30am, breakfast, drive to the boat yard. Of course the drive to work here is a little more interesting than at home in Australia - the local villages, caged monkeys, water buffalo and rubber plantations give this commute a different feel.

Two days after arrival we'd rented a car for six months and were on the road house hunting. Four days later we signed a lease for six months on a large three bedroom home (air conditioned & furnished throughout), in a quiet private estate. Then the fun began - how long would it take to empty the boat of everything ? The answer is forever - we're still not done, though I can say that 95% of the contents were removed in 25 car loads. Half those car loads were filled using the dinghy as transport to shore (it took 2 dinghy trips to fill the car). The rest happened after we moved into the Phuket Boat Lagoon 0n September 4th, where just 3 trolley loads could fill the car. It was messy, hot, sweaty work, but its done.

The ocean tides are big here, which is just as well, as the channel to the marina is dry on the lowest tides ... we motored in on a 3 metre tide but still saw less than 0.5 metres under the keel. They badly need a suction dredge.

We've been lucky with the rental house (check the photo's here)- besides being comfortable, nicely furnished and "homely", its got a SHED ! It also has shelves, a work bench and even a Gerni (high pressure water wash). So the 25 car loads became 1 house load, which we're still trying to sort out. Seriously though, the house is lovely. Lots of light, space and a garden. The neighbour's dogs have adopted us (Lucky, Blacky, Red and Grumpy), and the locals are friendly as well. There are several good restaurants within a 5 minute drive, all very economical. The boat yard is a 10 minute drive.

We've now started a Picassa Web photo album, so family and friends can see the refit as it progresses - you can view it here.

Crystal Blues was hauled from the water last Thursday, September 4. Prior to haulout we'd taken so much gear out of her she was riding over 100mm above her normal marks. The Boat Lagoon crew are really good at this work - Mr Sin runs a very tight ship. They held her in mid-air whilst we disconnected and dropped the rudder out, before expertly blocking her right in front of our contractors shed. Two days later, last Saturday morning, a huge crane truck arrived on schedule at 10.00am and lifted the mast out.

Within an hour the Pro Yachting team had moved a massive frame and tent into position and the boat was covered. Of course not everything went well - we were incredibly lucky that the monsoon rains held back whilst we emptied the boat contents, but the moment we were lifted the heavens opened, and they haven't closed yet. Its raining every day and night. Thank heavens we have that tent over the boat.

And just who ordered these political protests ? No sooner is the boat out of the water than suddenly there's talk of a people power revolution. Politics in Thailand is almost unfathomable - one side (the democratic party) is suggesting democracy be abandoned, whilst the other (the ruling coalition) is determined to re-nominate the prime minister who was sacked yesterday by the courts, basically for corruption. The coalition says he didn't do the country any harm - sure he did, he just stood up and lied in a court of law. Guess that doesn't count if you're a politician. The last prime minister, Mr Thaksin, is now exiled in London. When he was questioned about corruption (by the press) he basically said it was OK because it was everywhere. What a guy.

The political action in Bangkok has left Phuket quite untouched, except for a peaceful sit-in protest that shut down the airport. However last Friday a local friend called early and said he'd heard that the schools might close and that we may lose power if the government workers go on strike. In Phuket no power means no water, as almost all the water is sourced locally from wells. He recommended stocking up on drinking water, washing water and petrol for our portable
generator. So we rushed out and bought two 100 litre plastic containers for washing water, re-filled the water tanks on Crystal Blues, and moved our 200 litre Turtlepac water bladder to the back porch of the house. We now have 1400 litres of fresh water on hand plus 120 litres of petrol in jerry jugs in the shed. We're ready, though I doubt we'll need any of it. The Thai people are too smart to mess with the tourism cash-cow - I'm sure Phuket will remain peaceful.

Over the past 5 days we've stripped the deck of all fittings and have also stripped the winches, tracks and fittings from the mast, boom and spinnaker pole. Mr Sung, the stainless steel expert from Nop Stainless, has demolished our wooden transom fuel locker and re-built it in 316 stainless steel. Next he'll move onto the deck, where we're adding more stainless attachment points and some electrical and air penetrations. The staff at Pro Yachting have been very helpful, every request has been rapidly supported. Right now we're ahead of our program, and very happy with the service here. If only it would stop raining !

Saturday, 23 August 2008

AIS Part 1 - A System Primer

My father taught me to sail when I was about 8 years old - he's the worried one in the old photo at right (probably because my brother Peter is on mainsheet). With great and delightful understatement, he always said that "a collision at sea can ruin your whole day". He's absolutely right of course, though nowadays we can use AIS technology to help avoid those "ruined days". This is the first of three posts regarding the system, and basically describes the technology. Future posts will cover our installation experiences and the system in operation.

Some years ago the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) ratified a standard requiring all ships over 300 tons to carry an Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder. This was a major step forward in collision avoidance for ships at sea. The system really works - AIS equipped ships constantly transmit information including name, MMSI number, position, speed, course, rate of turn, cargo carried etc etc. Commercial vessels within range receive that data, which is then displayed on dedicated screens or (in most cases) overlaid onto radar or chart plotting screens. The result is that AIS equipped vessels are readily identified, tracked and avoided.

This is a significant primary safety system, and many in the yachting community have taken advantage by purchasing low cost AIS receivers - these display ship locations on navigation chart plotters, or on suitably equiped navigation computers. Whilst an AIS receiver system is a good thing to have, I always believed that the best safety system required the big ships to see me as well - I wanted a transponder that would transmit and receive.

Nowadays we can all see and be seen, with low cost AIS transponders available to the cruising and pleasure craft community. The "big ship" Class A systems are expensive, so the IMO has also ratified a simpler version called AIS Class B, for pleasure vessels.

There are important differences between the two, however they are designed to work together. Class A systems use dedicated GPS receivers for position information and system timing. They then transmit a wide range of vessel data, and do so quite frequently, using coded data bursts on VHF channels 87 & 88. The system uses a protocol called SOTDMA to keep everything organised, with GPS derived time managing the broadcast slots. With 2250 time slots on each channel every second, the dual channel system provides up to 4500 time slots. Class A systems transmit at up to 12.5 watts. A ship travelling at more than 14 knots will transmit dynamic data every 6 seconds. A course change increases the burst rate to every 2 seconds.

Thats us in the chart plotter image at right, the black circle and arrows on the lower right, moving west. At left of the image are AIS equipped ships entering and exiting Singapore Straits, into the Sth. China Sea. Click the image to enlarge.

Class B systems also use a dedicated GPS receiver, but transmit a more restricted data set (no rate of turn, destination, ETA or cargo information) and do so less frequently, using less power (maximum 2 watts). The control protocol is CSTDMA (Carrier Sense Time Division Multiple Access). Basically the Class B systems listen for a gap in the Class A traffic, then transmit. There is no guarantee that any individual data burst will be successfull, however the system transmits a burst every 30 seconds when underway. Even in Singapore, with literally hundreds of ships transmitting close by, I've watched very solid returns from Class B equipped vessels in the Singapore Straits. The system can certainly process lots of traffic - our transponder identified over 1000 targets (!) in 48 hours on our recent passage from Singapore to Langkawi.

Most of the approved Class B systems use a common internal circuit board, made by Software Radio Technology (SRT) in the UK. SRT was part of the IMO advisory panel that set the standard, so its no surprise they have complying product on the market. Our Comar CSB200 AIS transponder (user manual here) uses the SRT circuit board.

AIS is already compulsory on pleasure craft in some parts of the world (eg South Korea), and I believe it will become mandatory in many countries. In Singapore, pleasure craft must carry either an AIS-B transponder or one of the local HARTS transponders that use cellphone technology as the data link to shore based monitoring stations (more info on HARTS is here - thanks to Terry Sargent on SV Valhalla for the document).

For more background information on the politics, technology and products behind AIS, I suggest you spend awhile reading the AIS links on the excellent PANBO blogsite here. A very good background story, published by Yachting World, is also available here. Our own installation experiences will be posted next.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Coastal Internet Update - Google At Sea

We continue to receive questions about internet access afloat, so an update seems appropriate. To my delight, our Sierra Wireless 3G/GPRS modem continues to provide amazing service. With a DiGi sim card installed we had perfectly reliable internet access for more than 70% of the voyage from Singapore to Langkawi. Service dropped out at One Fathom Bank, north of Port Klang, but came back in again as we approached Pangkor Island and held the coast to Penang. It dropped again for a few hours between Penang and Langkawi, but we have seen the service running quite well more than 16km offshore. In Malaysian waters we certainly don't bother with wi-fi anymore. Whilst true 3G and/or Edge service is hard to find, the DiGi GPRS is fast, stable and incredibly widespread. At about 2 ringit (70c) per day, we love it. The Sierra Wireless modem will work anywhere in the world, though costs will vary in different countries. For more detailed information, click here & here.

Monday, 18 August 2008

1000 Miles To Phuket

Latitude 06 degrees 32.31 North, Longitude 099 degrees 25.16 East. The Southern Andaman Sea

Its 1000 nautical miles (just under 2000km) from our long-house anchorage in Borneo to Phuket in Thailand. Right now we're just 90nm from Phuket and should arrive there tomorrow morning. Then we start work in earnest, as Crystal Blues will come out of the water onto the hard stand for a six month intensive refit and paint job.

We departed Sarawak, Borneo, on July 23rd, and paused in Singapore for a 4 day break that (typically) turned into a 2 week layover. Why does this always happen to us ? Catching up with friends is part of it, and being thoroughly entertained by the Stonham family (we call it being "Stonhamed") also took its toll. However we did spend a lot of time checking out equipment for an upcoming video shoot, completed our AIS transponder installation, re-installed our wifi antenna system to the davits aft and purchased a lot of the materials needed for the refit.

Our good friend Robert Goh, who lives in Singapore, is a newly initiated cruising sailor. He's also a 1st rate alpinist and mountain climber. Unfortunately he was caught up in the sad disaster that engulfed the climbing teams on K2 in Pakistan this season - Robert wasn't hurt, he was below the ice fall and he returned to base camp safely. Check his website here. His summit attempt has now been cancelled and he's naturally very disappointed. Robert's partner Elaine spent time with us as the disaster progressed, and is naturally quite relieved that he's on his way home.

We escaped from Singapore on Wednesday August 13, heading north up the Malacca Straits and arrived in Langkawi (Malaysia) exactly 2 days and 11 hours later. Every hour of that passage was on the engine - the "new" Cummins engine has now clocked over 2000 hours. There was no useful wind for the entire trip. The even newer Comar Automatic Identification System also proved its worth - more on that in a future story. 36 hours anchored at Kuah town in Langkawi let us abuse our credit cards whilst stocking up on essential duty free "beverages" and adding further to the collection of refit materials now clogging the boat.

Stashed below are 2 sheets of Dow RTM Styrofoam insulation for our new freezer box (each 2.6m long), plus a roll of vinyl marine hooding for Ley to make new covers. On deck we have a new aluminium extension ladder for access to the boat on the hard. A deck mount air-con unit loaned by SV Tweed fills the salon, thanks Jon & Pam (thats the Tweed crew in the image at left, breakfasting on Roti in Langkawi). Our aft cabin is full of grog, hardware, stainless steel angle, paint and spare parts. Its now a big floating hardware store, and it all has to come off the boat and go into storage when we arrive, along with everything else on the vessel - food, clothing, utensils, parts, tools, mast, rigging etc. This will take a while, though we hope to complete the transfer before we haul out on September 4th.

We departed Langkawi this morning and have a fine weather forecast for the next 24 hours - a little wind this time, so we're now motor sailing with 7 knots of breeze just aft the beam. Flat seas and sunny weather, little rain, its unusually mild for the South West monsoon. Ley and I expect to be in Thailand for 6 months, and will be renting a house for the duration, somewhere close to Phuket Boat Lagoon. Friends and family are always welcome, so please email or call us if you'd like to visit.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

A Cruising Life For Sale ...

We met Jon & Sandra Stonham in Borneo two years ago. They've became fine friends, and we've travelled extensively together (see our Andaman travels here). They also have a terrific website - see it here. However they've decided its time to stop roving and put the girls (Nicola and Alex) into "real" schools. So they're settling here in Singapore, where Jon is starting a new business and Sandra has accepted a position in the finance industry. All of which means that their beloved Tui Tai, a centre cockpit Tayana 47 designed by Robert Perry, is for sale.

The family moved off the boat three days ago, into a lovely big apartment, and the girls are learning to sleep in a "real" house again. Jon and Sandra haven't been getting much sleep at all, as their beds arrived from Hong Kong without mattresses. Oops.

Tui Tai was launched in 1993, is registered in Hong Kong and now waits patiently for a new owner at One Degree 15 Marina here in Singapore. She has a fabulous inventory, and has never wanted for maintenance. Download the inventory document here. She sails very well, is quicker than Crystal Blues in light airs, and sleeps six in three cabins. Tui Tai has air conditioning, a 6kva generator, an R.O. water maker, substantial systems and lots of comfort. Many of the electronic systems have been upgraded in the past two years. A solid cruising boat with impecable credentials. Interested ? An email to jon"at" would kick things off nicely.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Kuching to Singapore, With AIS Onboard

After two months with our friends on the Tulai River, Crystal Blues departed Santubong (Kuching) at 11.00am on Tuesday, bound for Phuket (Thailand) via Singapore, Penang and Langkawi. As I write we are just 125 miles from One Degree 15 Marina in Singapore - it has been a magic run across the South China Sea. We covered 180 nautical miles in the past 24 hours.

Good winds have kept the boat speed well over 7 knots for hours at a time, and the forecast is for these conditions to hold. Right now we have 11.5 knots of true windjust aft the beam, boat speed is 7.5 knots and a favourable current is giving us 7.8 knots over the ground. Magical sailing, although its pitch black outside and the new moon won't rise for another hour - just before dawn.

On this voyage we're testing and commissioning our new Comar AIS (Automatic Identification System) installation. The system uses small vessel mounted VFH transceivers to transmit and receive vessel data - position, speed, course, name etc. This data is automatically received by other AIS equipped vessels, and the data is displayed on dedicated screens or overlayed onto electronic chart displays.

In our case the AIS targets and data are available on our Transas Navigation software chart display - so we can see our own vessel, plus all AIS equipped vessels as real time targets on the electronic chart. Check the image at right - or click here to download a larger hi-resolution screen image. Radar targets can also be overlayed and compared, making this an ideal active safety system. Right now we're receiving data and safety messages from vessls over 100 nautical miles away, so I'm very impressed. Its a real step forward in collision avoidance, a major concern for all cruising vessels. More on this in a future story on the web, once its fully commissioned.

AIS is already compulsory on larger vessels, and is moving into the recreational boating area. It's now compulsory on all private vessels in Singapore, and we think it will become compulsory in many other countries quite soon.

We should arrive in Singapore late tonight, with a planned stopover of four or five days. Our telephone number in Singapore is +65-9122-8094 (see the right hand pane).

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Cruising Internet Access Improved

fiogkaomjonDiGi have simplified registration requirements for "foreigners" who wish to take advantage of their excellent 3G / GPRS data services here in Malaysia. You can now buy a post-paid SIM card for only MR$100.00 up front, from which the first months service charge will be deducted.

You'll need your passport and a Malaysian billing address to sign up, but you don't actually need the monthly invoice .... just remember to go to any DiGi office each month, quote your service number and pay the bill. Sixty six ringit for unlimited and reliable data access is great value. We departed Santubong earlier today, bound for Singapore. The DiGi service has worked continuously since we weighed anchor, and we're now more than half way to Tanjong Datu - its rock solid. Click here for info on the system and the equipment we use. We've noted some folk using 3G cell phones are having trouble with access - 3G service is limited to the big cities, so you must configure the phone to down-shift to GPRS if you want wide area coverage. If your phone can't do that then you should consider a stand alone modem that will.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Births, Deaths & Marriages

This is our third year visiting our friends on the Tulai River, and we thought we'd seen it all....regular readers will already know about the marriage, however life here has a way of grabbing you by the throat and forcing you to face reality.

A few days after our Aussie visitors headed back to Australia we were relaxing in the cockpit when a local longboat approached ... "Uncle, can you help us ?" they asked. "Of course, what is the problem ?" we said. "My wife is having a baby" he said ... "When ?" I asked ..."Maybe now" he said !!!

Wow .. They needed a fast trip to the clinic, and our Caribe dinghy is the fastest boat on the river. Quickly I threw some clothes on, Ley checked the fuel tank and the wife and husband climbed aboard. The grandparents were left in the longboat to travel down stream at a slower, traditional pace. So off we went, with me busily thanking God that we'd serviced the Tohatsu outboard and there was good air pressure in the tubes.

Always the wise one, Ley had spotted the storm clouds in the distance and thrown in our largest umbrella. As the rain started I slowed the boat and set the umbrella up as a kind of dodger ... mother-to-be and father sheltered behind that and off we went again, flat out to Bintangor town. Dodging logs and flotsam at 20 knots in a rain storm proved kind of challenging, but we got there OK. The clinic put them in an ambulance to Sarikei Hospital, and a healthy baby girl was born about two hours later. Thank heavens ! That's Grandmother at left, in the photo above, with a nervous mother at right.

The following Sunday Ley set off to church early, and was immediately aware of a loud keening and wailing coming from the longhouse. On arrival she learned that our friend Lucy had passed away in the early morning ... suddenly everything had changed in the longhouse. Lucy was 60 years old, had eight children, the youngest being only 13. She was regal and proud, a beautiful woman. Unfortunately she had high blood pressure, as many Iban do, and suffered a stroke in the early hours. With no transport available, the family sat with her until she passed away around 6.00am.

Lucy was laid out in the public area of the longhouse for two days while visitors and family arrived from all over Sarawak and Malaysia. We sat with the family, next to Lucy, while friends and relatives arrived and completed there lifetime relationship with her. Each person was able to sit with her, to talk, to sing their memories and to hold her hand. The family never left her side, sang to her, burned candles constantly and still managed to look after the dozens of visitors.

Frankly I've never been so moved by a social process - the ability of these folk to deal with death and face it positively, actively combining Christian and traditional practices, was awe inspiring. After 48 hours so many people had gathered it felt like a party ... the locals erected a special kitchen just to cook for the visitors, who all slept in the public space of the longhouse.

For three days no one in the longhouse worked - no fishing, no agriculture, no hunting. Then Lucy was buried by the community and her family, who asked specially that we take the final photograph of her, as seen above. As a practicing Catholic her final resting was organised differently to traditional Iban practice, which would have seen her laid out on a platform above ground. For another two weeks, the children in the longhouse must now be careful - no running, no music, no television, no entertainment. Life will be quiet.

We departed the Tulai River last Wednesday, on the outgoing tide. Given our close relationship this was a very sad departure - many tears were shed for days before, yet on the day our friends were all there on the river bank, wishing us safe travel. We really do love this river, but we love the people even more - they're family now, and it is very hard to leave them.

Crystal Blues is now anchored on the Santubong River, near Kuching, and will depart for Singapore tomorrow morning. The passage should take three days. Our next six months will be spent in Phuket, Thailand, refitting and painting Crystal Blues. Our refit booking starts in September, so we need to get a move on ... we have to cover 1000 nautical miles (about 2000km) in the next 2 weeks.