Saturday, 12 November 2016

AVRT5 self contained APRS Tracker

The AVRT5 is a self contained VHF transceiver, GPS, APRS transponder and Terminal Node controller.

I tested it up on the moors on the way to the boat too.

A what? It gives out a VHF signal on the 2m amateur radio band including its position and this is picked up by other stations and repeated until it (hopefully) gets to one connected to the internet. This means you can  track it. In particular on which also tracks ships on AIS.

It is very good value at under £UK 78 on ebay.  But it is a bit of a devil to configure. The documentation is in Chinese. But even if you read Chinese it is probably hard. Fortunately there is an Yahoo group (the unit is also sold as an AP510) that has the latest version of the software and other files (you need to update the firmware). There are also videos on YouTube to help.

The interface software that you need to set the parameters (like your ham call sign and the frequency) runs on Windows. It runs with the same amount of installation difficulty on Linux under Wine (mainly finding missing DLL and OCX  files from Visual Basic which you have to put in various Windows System folders).

It comes with a little stumpy antenna. This will just about get your signal to the next room. So when you have figured out how to use it get a better antenna! The SMA connector is a little fiddly as the collar rotates when you screw in the connector.

Mine is currently on Tui at Humber Cruising Association. Here we are on It is currently using a dipole antenna from Sotabeams made for plastic tubing bungeed to a stanchion.

You can even send one line emails over APRS - in this case using the app APRSdroid connected to the AVRT5 over Bluetooth. The GPS also stores position on a micro SD card.  It has a rechargable battery built in , charged by USB.  The battery certainly lasts a few hours but I have not tested that.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Netherlands trip August 2016

Photos from our trip to the Netherlands. Lowestoft, IJmuiden, Amsterdam, Medemblik, Den Helder Grimsby

I will put in captions in a later edit

Approaching IJmuiden

The North Sea Canal

In Six Haven Marina Amsterdam. Its always full but the harbour master always fits you in.

Heron watches us from a rooftop in Six Haven

Mike modified our folding bike "Little Nellie" as a beer carrier

The wind was low, time to do some splicing

Or put up mode sails!

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Man overboard beacons and recievers

What should your crew  carry in a pocket or on their life jacket in case they fall overboard when on watch alone?  First rule on Tui is to fasten your tether on at night and if you leave the sea. Next rule is if you are above decks alone to have our McMurdo Smart Find S10  AIS MOB beacon in your pocket. This is one of the first such AIS devices. It is waterproof to diving standards. It has three main drawbacks. It requires manual activation which means the crew overboard needs to be conscious and activate it in that window of opportunity while their hands are still usable. It needs to be held out of the water and this is going to be difficult to do for long as cold means you loose feeling in your arms. It has a non-replaceable battery so when it expires it becomes landfill (I wonder when they will run out of MMSI numbers or if they will recycle the numbers when their life ends?).

Another possibility is to carry a PLB which has a 406MHz transmitter and usually a GPS that sends an alert to the rescue control centre as well as a 121.5 MHz homing beacon so SAR aircraft and lifeboats can home in on you when they reach your last reported position. Carrying a PLB in your pocket is going to be your only hope if you are single handed and fall out of your boat. In that case I hope you are wearing a dry suit if you are offshore, otherwise this PLB is likely to just help recover your body. Within coastal regions and up to helicopter range offshore it is going to give you a fighting chance of being rescued alive. SAR aircraft like HMCG helicopters have a sophisticated direction finding receiver that can give a bearing to the 121.5 beacon as well as decode the position and velocity data the PLB is transmitting to the satellite. Altitude helps and while the 121.5 homing signal will be heard by airliners in something like a 35nm radius. I confirmed with a friend of mine who is a BA pilot that they regularly here the rising tone of a 121.5 beacon, which could be an aircraft ELT (the aviation version of an EPIRB), a ship's EPIRB or a 121.5 beacon that are still used as MOB (man overboard) beacons on oil rigs, offshore wind farms and ships. The procedure for the airline crew is they note the position when they first hear the beacon and when they last hear it. The line perpendicular to the flight path half way between these two points gives an approximate position line (you could also find the distance by Doppler shift but I don't think they do that). They are obliged to report this to local air traffic control. Sometimes if the beacon is not failing they send a crew member to check their own ELTs have not gone off!. It is not clear what air traffic control do with this information, or if they pass it to a RCC if they will do anything without some other evidence of a ship or aircraft in trouble. I expect they get a lot of false alarms especially now with so many PLBs. One reason for introduction of 406 beacons is that they have a unique serial number and are registered so if they go off in a non-emergency they know who to look for. Interestingly airliner have more than one VHF radio transceiver and typically will be monitoring 121.5 all the time, perhaps some smaller aircraft will as well. In the UK there is a national "D and D" (Distress and Diversion) control who can immediately triangulate any 121.5 transmission in UK airspace using direction finding receivers. However this only works above a certain altitude so not much good to us folks at sea level.

AIS beacons are now available which activate automatically with the life jacket. Crucially they are fastened to what will be the highest point on and deploy their antenna automatically. For any boat that has an AIS receiver this is a pretty good idea. The beacon appears as a special symbol on the chart plotter (assuming that is modern and linked) and the AIS display gives the position, bearing and velocity of the casualty. Some systems will sound an alarm of they detect a MOB beacons. They will work within a few miles (PBO tests over open water found x miles). This gives a reasonable chance of the remaining crew finding their way back to the casualty. Even if you are out of range before the crew member is noticed missing you can retrace your course until you are in range and easily home in on them.  Also other vessels nearby will have AIS receivers and may pick up the crew member from the water first. Of course by no means all vessels are fitted with AIS, or will have it on or will pay attention to it. But it is mandatory on ships.  So AIS is great and ships will find you. But aircraft other than SAR aircraft will not (HMCG helicopters even have AIS transponders so we can see them zipping across our chart plotters).

The RhoTheta RT-100 121.5MHz beacon watch receiver. It needs an antenna on the BNC connector on the top and 12-24v power through the 9-pin D-sub at the bottom.
So why not have belts and braces and have an AIS and PLB combined? Or one of each in your pocket. It would be good to be seen by planes and ships, as well as the MRCC know your position and that you were in distress. One limitation is that by law 406 PLBs cannot be water activated. Bigger EPIRBs can be deployed from a hydrostatic release if a ship sinks so you could I suppose strap one of those to your leg (joking). The reason of course is the false alarm rate would be too high when a life jacket with a built in PLB gets wet. An AIS beacon is technically not actually a distress beacon. It says "I am here" but as far as IMO etc regulations are concerned it is not a distress message. Not that I mean watch officers will ignore the life belt symbol on their chart plotter it is more just that AIS took off so quickly that regulations have not caught up.

You can however have a 121.5 beacon that is water activated and they are in common use. It is common for vessels and rigs to have a 121.5 MOB beacon such as a Sea Marshal PLB-8 fitted in life jackets. These units are water activated and the antenna is like a light emitting necklace around the casualty's neck. Typical receivers include the simple RhoTheta RT-100 which is a 121.5 watch receiver that triggers an alert if it detects the alarm tone on 121.5 (or can be set top pick up anything on 121.5 including pilots calling Mayday, or more likely a test PAN message). While this unit does not have direction finding abilities (unless you hook it up to a directional antenna such as a Yagi-Uda) you can find the casualty  the same way that I described aircraft finding a position line. Or more specifically you steam in a straight line and wait for the signal strength to increase. If it does not turn through 180. Note the position (or distance run) between points of the same signal strength between where it increases and decreases. The mid point, where the signal is maximum, is the closest approach. Go back to this point and choose one of the two perpendicular directions to your previous path. If the casualty is not moving and your readings are accurate you are on an intercept course. But if you can't see the person in the water at the strongest signal of this second course repeating the procedure will home in on them.
The Adcock directional antenna on an RNLI all weather life boat. Probably the antenna is used with RhoTheta direction finding unit that can give a bearing to 121.5 MHz beacon or a marine VHF signal.

It is easier using a directional reviver. RhoThea make units that use a fixed Adcock antenna array. Rather than physically rotating a directional antenna this has four equally spaced antennas and the rotation is done electronically, typically with a display using a circle of LEDs or a digital readout of bearing.This type of system is sometimes called "virtual Doppler", and radio hams make their own for radio direction finding.

My ACR Vecta2 hand held directional 121.5 receiver. It comes in a Pelicase with a test beacon that transmits on 121.775 MHz and 243.550 Mhz (which means it leaks the second harmonic really). The locater has two channels one of which is the test frequency. It has a nice signal strength display on two ranges as well as a built in speaker and headphone jack. For a vertical antenna you would hold it with the antennas vertical so polarized the same way.

 Simpler and cheaper units include the Vetca hand held directional receiver. This is a small directional antenna fitted to a hand held receiver. One simply moves the antenna around until the maximum signal is found and takes the approximate bearing. You can either steam on a course perpendicular to this until you get another bearing and then plot them on a chart, or you can just home in following the maximum signal. A weaker signal might be harder to take a bearing on so a more elaborate search patter may be needed.

Not many pleasure craft will carry 121.5 directional equipment but RNLI All Weather lifeboats all do. Now that these 121.5 MOB beacons are set to be slowly replaced by AIS units as they come up for service the direction finding equipment is coming on to ebay at prices within reach of parsimonious yotties. They also have the advantage that you can find people in the water with a PLB yourself. If you are offshore the vessel best placed to rescue the MOB is the boat they fell off. But relying on the 406 system may not be much help. The MRCC knowns where your casualty is and that they activated a PLB. They need to find a vessel nearby and divert it to look for you. large ships will have regular position updates and can be contacted by INMARSAT. Officially an MRCC could use HF radio telephony, sending a DSC alert to a geographic area and seeing who replies. Many MRCCs including those in the UK have abandoned HF. This means they can only contact larger ships. These ships might contact smaller vessels in the area using VHF. But this will all take a few hours before anything happens and possibly days before anyone gets there to find a dead body in the water. So with the limitation that it cannot be automatically activated and the casualty has to be able to manually activate it it would be good it their own boat could locate the PLB. So carrying a 121 receiver seems like a good idea. In fact any airband radio would work, and one with a simple Yagi antenna would be better. Here is an example of a home made Yagi Or get a Theta RT-100 if you can. Mine was £50 on ebay. Then it can be on all the time and auto alert.

Even better but not so easy yet is to pick up the 406MHz signal from your boat. The better PLBs that have GPS unit in them transmit the position
using a simple encoding.  A cheap UHF receiver can be obtained that picks up 406 can be obtained. For example many hand held ham radios such as the ultr cheep vhf/uhf offerings of Baofeng will do . The data is encoded using Manchester code  decoding software for a PC is cheap to buy too see COAA EPIRB plotter for example  or MultiPSK.  People have success using the cheap software defined radios that are sold as USB TV receivers to receive EPIRB signals

 In principle you can find the PLB just like a AIS beacon this way. Before long we will have 406 beacon decoders readily available. Micro Technologies made a tiny one used to test beacons (but they may have gone out of business). I  just found a company called Stanguard makes a neat self contained EPIRB receiver decoder. Still a bit pricey at £495 +VAT but includes antenna and receiver. If you want to make your own you could follow the instructions of the French radio amateur (and Maker ExtraordinaireF6HCC . He uses an embedded microprocessor to decode the signal and a small LCD display. As a receiver he uses any scanner or ham hand held transceiver for which you can get a discriminator output and pick up 406MHz. Interestingly it also decodes ARGOS satellite positioning beacons used to track animals and fishing boats on 401MHz (the protocol is similar).

With the idea in mind that some ships and planes can locate on 121.5 and some with AIS why not have a water activated 121.5 and AIS MOB beacon without a 406 beacon? Well Sea Marshall already have it. but at £349+VAT too expensive for me to buy one for each crew member at the moment. I expect the next step, if regulations allow, will be such a beacon with a manual 406 activation. Military pilot emergency radios exist with this (and more capabilities) but I expect Sea Marshall are working on it for commercial marine use.

There are also now beacons that as well as AIS are capable of sending a DSC distress message such as the  Ocean Signal MOB1.   Although such beacons are currently more expensive some have the advantage that they can receive an acknowledgement message.  They will send a Individual Distress Relay call to the MMSI (of your own boat) programmed in the the unit. They cant send an All Ships distress unless manually activated.  Tui has a Standard Horizon floating DSC equipped hand held VHF radio that also flashes a light if it falls in water. [Thanks to Ken Goodings for reminding me to mention DSC] I have sometimes carried this on watch alone but it is quite bulky (as it floats I suppose). A DSC message has the advantage also that it will set of a loud alarm, certainly on Tui it is one of the louder and more attention seeking alarms. It will also wake up the watch keepers on bridges of ships in a way perhaps an AIS beacon would not. 

In the mean time I will be fitting my all my life jackets with Sea Marshall water activated 121.5 beacons that I bought second hand, once I have thoroughly tested them in a Faraday cage, changed their 9v lithium batteries and O-rings and checked they are water tight. One advantage of these units over many proper PLBs is that the 9v battery is fairly easy to replace. I will also fit my RT-100 permanently maybe with an external alarm and antenna.

Sea Marshall 121.5 MOB beacons. The landyard is an antenna that goes around the users neck and lights up when active.

The battery is a lithium 9v PP3 type, and is "user replaceable" with care. Lithium batteries last longer unused and and work at lower temperatures than alkali batteries. Some of the ones I bought had had the batteries in 14 years and they still gave off a signal and lit up in test mode.

Edits: 19/9/2016 Added info from later comments on EPIRB decoders and from Ken Goodings on FaceBook SSB and Offshore Email group  re DSC 

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Wells town quay

Wells visitors pontoon. We stay afloat even at low water here. The quay is lined with  children catching crabs. At the end of the day they put them back.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Wells again

We had a nice force 4 following wind from  Grimsby which faded away later with a bit of swell starting. Wells harbour is full due to carnal so they put us in the outer harbour with the wind farm cats. Advantage is it is close to the beach...and the very pleasant beach cafe . Camp site shop handy and a miniature railway in to town . Amazing how close the channel is to the beach

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Grimsby to Wells Next the Sea

As we left Grimsby Sarah's Choir
St George's Singers were live
on Radio 4 LW . Our boat has a
car style radio that actually has LW
(which is rare and useful out of FM
range). Sarah sang along.


We had a spot of reasonable weather and a chance to get away so we went to the boat on Sunday. The Gribs said the wind would be easterly and later in the week come round to the north.  I was thinking to go north of the Humber again, but also wasn't feeling too good so thought we might have a day of light boat maintenance and victualling  and set off the next day.   The thing about going south is the obvious port is Wells Next the Sea. Its a tide away and best to go in HW-2 to HW.  And HW Monday was 2130. Sarah got up early and got to doing some passage planning with other club members in the ladies shower. She came back and got me out of bed saying we were putting to sea. She told me the passage plan and she started stowing things while I did the engine checks and got out the charts. It was a high Spring tide, so the Fish Dock lock was closed until about  HW+1 as otherwise the the level would be too high for our pontoons. So we left at 0920, but as we had not done the planned shopping our neighbour threw across half a loaf of bread to make sandwiches.

It was a great day for a sail and while close hauled we could make it on one tack from the Humber

We took the recommended route south of the Rosse Reach separation channel, but we would have to tack to miss Donna Nook Bombing Range. The presence of (Typhoon?) planes doing low level attack runs, probably getting a radar lock on us, suggested the range was in use. Humber CG informed us we should call the range on Ch 16. We called but did not get a reply until quite close and they requested we pass North of the range, so we put in a tack.

We made excellent time and had to hand around for half an hour waiting to make our approach just before HW-2. We couldn't raise Wells harbour on the
Our track in to Wells Next Sea on Google Maps.
VHF from the leading buoy but one of the wind farm vessels relayed the message.  The Channel is narrow and very winding, but well marked by port and starboard buoys. The sandbanks visible and with breakers on the approach made it rather worrying. When we reached the life boat station we were in radio contact and the harbour master could see us on CCTV.  A launch came out to meet us to guide us in through the tricky bit. We spun around and came along side the visitor pontoon stopping easily and ferry gliding in facing the flood tide.

The visitor's pontoon in Wells in the evening.
Our track back from MarineTraffic. You can see
where we hove to
We spent a pleasant but rainy day in Wells which has a good chandlers and lots of quirky food shops and cafes. On Wednesday the wind was still easterly and we left so as to be going down wind on the way back.  Going out we passed the colourful beach huts on the long sandy shore. A seal bobbed up and was watching the beach too then turned around when he heard us. A glorious day of sun shine and following wind. Tui loves to reach and we were making 6.5 knots through the water. Before reaching the traffic separation zones  we hove to for 40 mins (Tui heaves to perfectly at zero knots and rock steady - its a ketch thing!) . We cooked some new potatoes in the pressure cooker and Sarah read her kindle in the sun.  This meant we arrived with perfect timing back at Grimsby Fishdock in time for its lock to be open "free flow".

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Second hand metal sextant

I learnt celestial navigation on an RYA Yachmaster Ocean course in the 1980s, from a woman who lived in rural Oxfordshire and whose name I am sorry I cannot recall. She had many ocean crossings under her belt and had a wonderfully un-mathematical way of understanding the mathematics and an incredible ability to recognise navigational stars as they peeped out from between clouds perhaps by knowing where they should be and their colour and magnitude but with out the need for constellations as a guide.

Davis Mark 3
My first sextant was a Davis Mk 3, a very cheap plastic vernier sextant while much better than it looks (it looks like a toy) it is not very accurate. A few years ago I bought a Davis Mk 25 and could find my position on dry land to within about a nautical mile by sun sights. Better than that if I averaged five sights and used liner regression. My problem with the Mk 25 is that it seems to need alignment every time I use it. I like the "beam converger" which means you can see the sun and the horizon superimposed across the full width of view.

Mark 25
Eventually I decided to buy a "proper" metal sextant. I bought a Tamaya MS-2L for £275 on ebay. It was made in 1984 and as far as I can tell has sat on a merchant ship unused all its life until the ship was broken up in India and it fell in to the hands of a dealer. Its certificate says it has a fixed error of 0''.  It has a 7x35 monocular scope and I added a zero magification sight tube from Celestaire.   . It comes in a very practical protective plastic case. I am still getting used to using it. For example it is much heavier and taking a series of sights in rapid succession and you feel the weight. Also it takes some getting used to using the monocular as it is harder to find a star. As expected though it stays in adjustment unlike the Davis.

I understand that modern new Chinese Astra sextants are excellent value and in particular lighter, but a good Tamaya is probably the best value to be found second hand. 

I look forward to trying my new one at sea!

Leaving Hartlepool

A couple of photos by Matt Colquhoun of Tui leaving Hartlepool Marina bound for Grimsby.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Photos from first trip of 2016

Scarborough,   Flamborough Head

First outing of the season, Hartelpool to Grimsby

We were offered a long term visitors berth at Humber Cruising Association last November, but there followed a series of named storms so we didn't venture out. Its all very well insisting there is no off-season for sailing but the reality is we only got moderate northerly winds with a ridge of high pressure and that means it is cold.

By March we had high pressure and winds W or NW 3 or 4 forecast and reasonable temperatures (up to 10 deg C).  We had clear skies, no swell except a horrible one the first day. We saw porpoises, seals and no other yachts.

It was sad to leave Hartlepool. One of the friendliest and most economical commercial marinas we have encountered. While the town is not so interesting near the marina are big supermarkets, a cinema and a fun maritime museum. The cruising ground is superb with plenty of short hop ports to visit and lots of marine life to see.  It also has the advantage that you can often get out the lock 3 or 4 hours either side of HW.

We spent two nights at Whitby and one at Scarborough.  Whitby is our favourite NE port to visit with a picturesque and vibrant town, shops (including a chandlers) excellent showers. The down side is the swing bridge opens every 30 mins only two hours either side of HW. Like most harbours along the NE coast the port authority staff will often "talk you in" over VHF as they watch you on cameras.  Whitby and Scarborough both said they did not really have visitors berths as they had moved residents on to them for maintenance, but they seem to have a tradition of finding a place for you somewhere. We filled up with diesel from the fuelling point at the fish dock. Commercial quantities means minimum 250L or 55 g. That was what we needed to fill up so fine with advance notice.

It was a shame that we had to motor, as the wind was no more than F3 and we had a schedule driven by tides. But is was sunny, clear and calm, so we couldn't have everything. We saw porpoises on every leg or the trip. They don't seem to stay with us when we are under engine, which was a shame. The seals however pop up to take a good look at us (and maybe to see if we have any fish).

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