Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Introducing SSB Minder

Hi everyone,
As mentioned previously, I have been working on a device to help us get the most from our Icom HF/SSB transceiver.  The device is intended to make the Icom "our alarm clock" rather than our having to remember when to turn it on.  It will help us maintain regular DSC Watches.  Like so many cruisers we don't have the power resources to maintain a 24/7 watch.  It will help ensure we don't miss skeds, nets, weather forecasts or the daily news.

We now have a prototype system up and running on Zen Again.  We no longer have to remember when to turn on the SSB!  A small thing but very helpful indeed.  Knowing we're keeping the best DSC Watch we reasonably can is good too.  We're using the SSB more and using less power with the help of SSB Minder.

If you like the concept of SSB Minder and would like to trial a prototype system please email me at vk6hsr (yes, it's a gmail.com address).  All comments on the concept are very welcome.  SSB Minder is in development and is not yet commerically available.  Here's a draft Product Overview...

SSB Minder Product Overview


SSB Minder maximises productive use of your SSB while minimising power consumption.  SSB Minder wakes your SSB on-time and on-frequency for all SSB watches, nets and broadcasts of interest to you.  Your SSB becomes your alarm clock.

  • Small hardware "black box" running field-upgradable software
  • Automatically controls an Icom IC-M801E or IC-M802 transceiver
  • Applies scheduled power control and frequency/mode control to the transceiver
  • The user-defined schedule supports practically all normal radio activities, including:
    • Regular watches (voice or DSC) and skeds/nets
    • Tuning in to facsimile, weather and shortwave broadcasts
    • Passes through third-party software commands
  • Maximises use of the transceiver while minimising power consumption
  • Receives data from the vessel's NMEA0183 network for accurate timing
  • Exchanges data with the vessel's laptop computer to load your schedule

What You Buy

When SSB Minder is released you will receive a small hardware "black box" containing a low-power computer running custom, field-upgradable software.  You also receive a software app to run on your Windows or Mac OS X laptop.  The software app is needed only to manage your SSB Minder schedule.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Virgin Gorda Arrival

Hi everyone,
We arrived in Gun Creek, Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands at 1430 this afternoon after a 32 hour passage from English Harbour, Antigua.  We logged 188nm and the GPS matched this almost exactly, for a 5.8knot average boat speed and speed over the ground.

We had a good sailing breeze of 18-22 knots for all but the last two hours, when the breeze was right behind us and down to 10 knots.  We decided to motor in since the batteries needed charging.  That's because the last few days have been mostly overcast.  Today was a very grey day - overcast with occasional very light rain.  Despite the weather it's good to be in the BVIs!

Zen Again Track

Zen Again Track - detail of entrance to Gorda Sound

Zen Again Speed (over ground)

For most of the passage we were beam reaching which is the boat's best point of sail.  This morning the wind went around from the NE to the E and we were forced N of our track.  We gybed eventually but then the wind died.

We are now anchored in Gun Creek where there is a small ferry terminal complete with customs & immigration office.  The latter is closed until tomorrow morning so we'll clear in then.  Once cleared in we'll probably move to another of the many anchorages in Gorda Sound.  The sound is only 2nm from end to end.  Perhaps we'll visit the Bitter End Yacht Club.  The "club" is actually a resort which welcomes yachties, or so we believe.

Trust all's well where you are.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Antigua Departure

Hi everyone,
We departed Antigua this morning at 0700.  We are currently in position 17 11N 062 17W, saillng at 6 knots on a course of 320M.  Our ground speed is 6.5 knots.  The wind is NE at 18-20 knots with a 1.5m sea and short 1.5m NNE swell. We are sailing under single-reefed main and single-furled yankee.  Hazy with scattered cumulus.

We were sad to leave Antigua but time is passing.  It was a great place to chill out and relax, especially at Freeman's Bay which is quiet and peaceful.  Being there for the Classic Regatta was fantastic.  Race Week starts tomorrow but we can't hang around any longer.  So much to see; so little time!

Over our last few days in Antigua we did a little more exploring.  We walked up to Shirley Heights where an old military lookout post was sited.  Several of the buildings still in quite good shape and as you'd expect there is a great view.

View over Freeman's Bay to Nelson's Dockyard from Shirley Heights

From the lookout we walked back along the coast which was a very pleasant walk.  The local flora is interesting and colourful with many different trees and several types of cactus.

The last couple of days were quite social with the crews of Andiamo, Deesse, Gallinago, Iona and Super Ted V all in Freeman's Bay last night.  We all had a quiet drink ashore at the local beach bar (run by an Aussie) before saying our farewells.  Most of these boats are also heading for Europe but by several different routes.  We may meet some of them at the Azores.

So now we are enroute towards the British Virgin Islands (BVIs), and in particular the island of Virgin Gorda.  We should get there around midday tomorrow if the wind holds in.  We're looking forward to catching up with the crews of Vulcan Spirit and Mahi Mahi.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

DSC Global NavArea Group IDs

Hi everyone,
HF DSC (Digital Selective Calling) is a technical topic I've posted about previously here.  We've been using routine DSC calling on Zen Again for some years now.  We use it to contact individual yachts, to exchange positions with individual yachts and to contact groups of yachts.  Most recently we used routine DSC calling while HF net controller during our Indian Ocean and South Atlantic Ocean crossings.

Icom HF Radio in DSC Watch
Recently a new DSC initiative has been announced.  The NavArea Group Calling Network ("Network" below)  officially establishes a set of Group IDs.   Each Group ID is intended for use in one of the global NavAreas.  The NavAreas are illustrated below...

NavArea Map
The Network builds on previous work which agreed routine DSC frequencies for use by yachts.  See my previous post (here again) for the details on this.  The agreement on frequencies allowed yachts to reconfigure their HF/SSB radios to scan those routine frequencies in DSC Watch and so receive routine (vice distress, urgency and safety) calls from other vessels.  Distress, urgency and safety calls are still received, either by scanning a mix of distress/routine frequencies in DSC Watch or by having an antenna connected to the second antenna input on the radio.  Note that distress, urgency and safety broadcasts should still be transmitted on the distress DSC frequencies!!!

Routine group calling was possible, but only if preplanned prior to a passage since a known Group ID is needed to make a Group call.  In most countries the unique Group ID of a yacht is its individual MMSI shifted right by one character.  So Zen Again's 503433900 becomes 050343390.  So it's actually very easy to arrange a Group ID for use amongst friends.  This use of DSC groups involves "closed groups" in that their ID is not publicly known - an important point.

For our recent ocean crossings we gave our Group ID to other yachts with DSC HF/SSB radios.  They added our Group ID to their radio's address list.  We could then make a routine call to this Group ID and all the radios (in range) with that Group ID programmed would receive the call.  If accepted their radios would change to the traffic (DSC-speak for voice) frequency and our net could start.  Needless to say their radios needed to be turned on and in DSC Watch mode!  This worked well.

However, what if you're at sea and want to contact any other yacht(s) in range?  This is a key advantage of the Network.  By programming your radio with the Network's Group ID for your current NavArea you can make a routine call to the relevant Group ID.  All vessels with this Group ID programmed and their radios in DSC Watch will receive the call.  So this is a great way to make contact with other yachts in your region.  It could be used to seek assistance in situations short of Urgency (DSC-speak for "PanPan").  This use of DSC groups involves "open groups" in that their ID is publicly known - an important point.

So here are the Network's Group IDs...

NavArea Group IDs
Note that the Group ID is constructed from:  "0" denoting group; three digits being the country code of the country coordinating the NavArea; two digits being the NavArea number; and "000" at the end.  So they are potentially easy to construct from onboard resources in extremis! ;)

The table above is copied from Brunei Bay Radio's web page (here) describing the Network.  Allan at BBR is one of the instigators of the Network.  The instigators were:

It is likely that various coast stations will start to program their radios with the Group ID for their NavArea.  For example local volunteer organisations may use Network Group IDs to announce position reporting skeds.  Northland Radio in New Zealand (http://www.northlandradio.nz) is already doing so.  It seems likely that offshore races and rallies will start to use routine DSC calling to initiate their skeds/nets in future, and may require the Network Group IDs to be configured.

SAR organisations do NOT monitor these Group IDs, regardless of what frequency they are used on.  They listen on the distress DSC frequencies only, and for broadcasts or their individual RCC MMSIs only.  Additionally it is important to understand:  the distinction between distress and routine DSC frequencies; whether your HF/SSB radio has a separate DSC antenna connected; and which DSC frequencies (distress/routine and frequency bands) your radio is scanning while in DSC Watch.

The Network is a great initiative.  However it suffers from the same issue which afflicts all HF/SSB radios.  That is power consumption.  HF/SSB radios use a lot of power, and most yachts don't have power to spare.  This initiative currently appears to presuppose yachts keep their radios on 24/7.  Sadly this is not practical and most cruisers simply will not do it.  A solution would be to define a watch schedule.  This would fix the power issue but would we all remember?

I am developing an easily installed "black box" (working name SSB Minder) which sits alongside an Icom M802 or M801E radio, controlling it via a user-defined schedule.  The SSB Minder consumes minimal power.   It uses the Icom's Remote port to turn the Icom on and off per the schedule.  This saves a lot of power and helps avoid missed DSC Watch periods, skeds, nets and your favourite shortwave radio program since your radio wakes YOU up on time!!!

I will soon be seeking volunteers to trial SSB Minder prototypes

I will be posting a full description of SSB Minder in the next few days.

Congrats to Terry, Bob and Allan for initiating the Network.

Antigua - Classic Yachts Regatta

Hi everyone,
This morning we took our little 2.3m dinghy outside English Harbour to a nearby mark for today's Antigua Classic Yachts Regatta race.  Twas a great spectacle.  There was 8-10 knots of breeze and seas were under 0.5m.  The big boats were doing over 10 knots.

Adix - yacht or ship???

Wild Horses

For our money the prettiest yacht in the regatta is the US yacht Columbia.

It's a great time to be in Antigua!

Antigua - English Harbour

Hi everyone,
Can't believe it's been 6 days since we arrived here, and 6 days since my last blog.  We are loving it here in Freeman's Bay in English Harbour.  We haven't done a lot but the time seems to have flown by.

A set of boat jobs were done in the first few days...

  • Filled main fuel tanks from jerries and then took jerries ashore to refill
  • Polished s/s
  • Cleaned topsides
  • Cleaned hull

I've also been spending a lot of time on the Raspberry Pi computer project mentioned previously, which I still intend to describe in a future post.

The water in the anchorage is very clean so it's hard to resist jumping in for a swim at least daily.  There are a few turtles in the water and plenty of fish.  A wreck at the S end of the bay which is home to some colourful fish.

Like most boats here we are anchored bow and stern since the tide swirls around the bay.  In light winds and the swirling waters setting a stern anchor is a good way to stay friends with your neighbours!

Needless to say, we've also been ashore every day.  Initially we explored Nelson's Dockyard which is an amazing place.  The old buildings are beautifully restored and have been retasked for modern use. The working marina keeps the site from becoming a museum - very smart.  There is a small museum which has a lot of interesting exhibits.

There are several cafes and restaurants ranging from expensive to affordable.  There is also a good bakery and a small minimart.  The dockyard has a great ambiance, particularly after the busloads of tourists leave.  Diesel, petrol and water are available at the shipyard dock opposite, where there is a small chandlery too.

Nelson's Dockyard - all the original buildings have been restored
Pillars Restaurant in the Admiral's Inn
The marina has been gradually filling as the start of the Classics Regatta approached.

Jetty at SE end of Nelson's Dockyard Marina
Boats moored stern-to in Nelson's Dockyard Marina
More boats
One particularly lovely classic yacht
We have also walked the short distance to Antigua Yacht Club in Falmouth Harbour.  The club is hosting the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta and we attended the Welcome Party on Wednesday.  We had arranged to meet some OCC (Ocean Cruising Club) members there.  To our surprise we also met the crews of three yachts we cruised with in Sail Indonesia 2012 - Imagine, Infini and Kilkea.  Twas a very pleasant evening.

Lots of boutiques outside Nelson's Dockyard, but this was our favourite!
On Tuesday afternoon we walked out to Fort Berkeley.  The fort protected the entrance to English Harbour, being on the narrow peninsula which runs SE from Nelson's Dockyard.  The fort sited several gun batteries.  Most of the fortifications are still intact, as well as the original stone powder magazine and stone-walled guardhouse.

View SE from above Nelson's Dockyard  - note location of dinghy dock
Rear of Fort Berkeley - note steps up to the Powder Magazine
Inside the Powder Magazine
Site of the eastern-most battery
Today we took our little dinghy outside English Harbour to view the classic yachts racing past.  Twas fantastic, but that's another story.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Guadeloupe to Antigua

Hi everyone,
Today we had a great sail from Deshaies, Guadeloupe to English Harbour, Antigua.  The 45nm passage took a little under 8 hours in a 18-22 knot ENE breeze.  There was a good 1 knot of W current in the Guadeloupe Channel so it was quite a close reach, but certainly not close-hauled.  Here are the usual plots...
Zen Again Track
Zen Again Speed Over Ground
Our overnight stay anchored off Deshaies was very pleasant.  By sunset there were at least 40 vessels moored or anchored in the bay.  We departed at 0630 this morning.

Guadeloupe in our wake
The passage was interesting due to the strong cross-current.  Also there were a steady stream of large motor vessels and yachts coming past us.  Two yachts which came past were enormous - Twizzle and Gloria.

The approach to English Harbour was interesting with the cross current continuing.  The entrance is notoriously hard to identify but we picked it up a mile or so out.  The famous pillars of Hercules aren't very big but are certainly spectacular.  It would have been quite a sight to see a ship of the line sail into this harbour!

Approaching English Harbour 
Pillars of Hercules
Fort Berkeley
Once in the harbour we did a quick motor-around to check it out.  English Harbour is one of those special places for cruisers, and especially for those with any English blood in their veins.  Can't wait to stroll around Nelson's Dockyard!

A quick tour of English Harbour - spectacular!!!
Passing Nelson's Dockyard
After the obligatory tour of the harbour we anchored in Freeman Bay.  Everyone had told us we'd not find room to anchor but it wasn't a problem.  Additionally, we ended up anchoring near sv Levada, a UK yacht we last saw in Rodrigues!

At anchor in Freeman Bay
With UK yacht Levada
We plan to clear-in tomorrow and hope to spend a few days here exploring.  We may move around to Falmouth Harbour and to Jolly Harbour later.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Guadeloupe - Les Saintes to Deshaies

Hi everyone,
Today we had a pretty good sail from Les Saintes off the south side of Guadeloupe to Deshaies on the NW side of the main island of Guadeloupe.  The 34nm passage took a little over 6 hours of which we had to motor for 2 hours due to lack of wind.  Here are the usual plots...

Zen Again Track
Zen Again Speed Over Ground
We had a great sail across the channel between Les Saintes and the main island, with a NW current helping us along.  Once in the lee of the main island the wind was very variable.  Brief rain showers came over with wind ahead of them and nothing behind them.  Towards the northern end of the main island we had 1 knot of current running against us.

The island's leeward side is quite scenic with lots of green hills and a number of settlements from villages to small towns.  The rain showers love to pour rain over the island, often leaving little to fall on those sailing to leeward.

Guadeloupe's leeward shore
We motored through one large calm area, sailed again for a while and then motored into Deshaies.  It seems a pretty little town and is at the head of a quite well protected bay.  The wind funnels through but the swell seems to stay away.  There are some moorings here but most of the 40 or so yachts here this afternoon are anchored.  We are anchored in 10m over sand at 16 18.36N 061 47.91W.

View of Deshaies from Zen Again at anchor
We don't expect to go ashore here.  We'll spend the afternoon aboard taking it easy and watching more big yachts coming in to anchor.  We're certainly a pocket cruiser amongst this lot!  Some very pretty boats here.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Caribbean WiFi Internet Access

Hi everyone,
Before leaving Australia we saw references to cruisers using WiFi boosters in the Caribbean.  We did some research and decided to buy a booster in Australia.  Now we're here we are finding it very, very useful.

The reason these units are so useful is that there are so many countries here.  Getting mobile phone SIM cards takes time and is expensive.  And roaming charges are high.  In contrast there are a number of WiFi Access Point ("hotspot") providers which cover many of the countries.  With a booster one can easily connect to them from the boat via the booster.

WiFi booster temporarily mounted on the pushpit
The unit we chose was a MikroTik Groove.  It was about 1/3 the price of those usually purchased by cruisers.  That's because Grooves are normally sold to IT professionals.  The others supposedly have an additional layer of cruiser-friendly software.  We did have initial trouble connecting but eventually tracked down the problem (see below).

These units (MikroTik and others) have all the WiFi circuitry in a "bullet", with a high gain antenna attached directly above (see below).  The connection to the bullet is via ethernet cable.   The units come with a PoE (Power over Ethernet) wiring harness with which 12Vdc is fed to the bullet.  An ethernet to USB adaptor completes the assembly.

WiFi booster assembly
(antenna, bullet, ethernet cable, PoE harness & ethernet USB adaptor)
Detail of our MikroTik Groove "bullet"
We control the Groove using MikroTik's Windows GUI program "WinBox".  WinBox's QuickSet menu makes it easy to find and connect to access points.

QuickSet Menu showing available Access Points
QuickSet Menu showing active connection
We are actually running WinBox in a Parallels virtual machine on our MacBook Air laptop.  Amazingly this weird configuration of a WiFi booster connected via ethernet to a Macbook then via Parallels to Windows 8 running WinBox allows us to surf the net in Safari and get our email in Mail back on Mac OS X!

The only trick we found is that a DNS Server needs to be configured in Mac OS X's Network Preferences for the ethernet connection.  We used Google's server at IP address

This post brought to you by MikroTik Groove and HotHotSpot.com!!! ;)

Guadeloupe - Les Saintes

Hi everyone,
We've been at Terre de Haut in Les Saintes for three days now.  Really enjoying the place and also enjoying getting some long-planned boat work done.

Each day we've been ashore for a few hours.  Yesterday we walked around the town and up to Fort Napoleon which overlooks the anchorage.  Unfortunately the fort was closed when we visited but the outside is certainly impressive.  It was built in the mid-1800s.

View of anchorage (Zen Again with boom tent near bottom right)
Fort Napoleon which overlooks the anchorage
This morning we went ashore for fruit and veg at the market.  The market was very small and we ended up buying what we needed at the Carrefour Express supermarket.  We also bought a lot of loverly cheap bread at one of the several boulangeries.  Today was a nice sunny day so the photos came out quite well, assisted by the polarising filter!

Boutiques on pedestrian mall
Main Terre de Haut ferry jetty
Terre de Haut dinghy jetty
Yesterday afternoon we had a very pleasant swim off the boat, checking out the wreck in the bay.  The wreck turned out to be a not very old ferry.  Unsure when it sank.

Sunset from Terre de Haut anchorage
The boat jobs we've been doing include retasking our Raspberry Pi computer.  Originally we used it as a chart plotter and media player (as described here).  While it works for that purpose I've decided to try using it for a different purpose which I'll describe in a later blog.

The job involved reworking the wiring associated with our Vesper XB8000 AIS transceiver, our Icom HF transceiver and the USB hub connected to our laptop.  I also did a lot of software installation, updating and configuration work on the RPi.  Sound simple but took all day!