February – averting satellite disaster

The British government turns out to have been ahead of the game on the  satellite risks I mentioned last month, with a £36 million programme just announced to  prevent navigational satellite failures damaging the economy by as much as £1 billion a day. It is feared that the entire country has become over-dependent on a handful of satellite systems.

Emergency services, the energy grid, mobile phones, Satnav, broadcasting and other communications, the Stock Exchange and an array of other activities all rely heavily on the super-accurate timing provided now by navigational satellites such as GPS and similar systems. There are life-threatening risks from failure, says the government.An image of a third generation Lockheed Martin GPS satellite

The new investment is in a National Timing Centre to create a network of super-accurate atomic clocks around the UK, accessed through ground-based communications, so that the economy will no longer be over-reliant on timing from GNSS signals from the sky.

GNSS is the term that embraces the US  GPS, the first system, Russia’s GLONASS satellites, Europe’s new Galileo and also a rapidly developing Chinese system.

Galileo failed completely for a while last year during its start up phase, because of operator errors, and there are now many examples of interference with GNSS systems and malicious ‘spoofing’, in which navigation instruments are fooled into thinking they are somewhere else. The heart of all navigation by satellite is accurate timing, without which positions cannot be fixed.

The Business Department said the centre will provide additional resilience against the country’s reliance on accurate timing, which underpins many every day technologies.  “ If there were a large-scale failure, economic impact to the UK would be £1 billion a day”, the department said. “Loss of this accurate data would have severe and life-threatening effects, such as on getting ambulances to patients or getting power to homes around the country”.


The plan puts the UK ahead of the US, where the issue has been rumbling on since President Bush announced a new satellite resilience plan, and a law to authorise it was passed. Those early moves have not actually produced any results.

President Trump’s White House has just announced a new programme but it appears to be no more than studies for future investment rather than actual projects, according to the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation (RNTF), a Washington group campaigning on the issue. The Foundation said the UK plan was a great initiative.

Almost nostalgically for small boat navigators with pre-satnav experience, the UK still operates a ground-based Loran navigation system, though receivers for yachts are no longer available (as far as I know). The RNTF believes that Loran may be expanded and incorporated in the UK timing resilience network, which it thinks will be wireless-based rather than land lines.

Amazing to think how dependent we are on one technology at the moment. Ten years ago we used to worry that the US might degrade the accuracy of GPS or switch it off in a war. That is now inconceivable, so dependent is the entire US economy on it at the moment.

More realistic dangers  include accidental  system failures, as with Galileo, deliberate or accidental interference on a regional or local level, and spoofing. If you think about what some idiot can do with a drone near an airport, imagine the chaos if disruptive forces started jamming and spoofing GNSS. The expertise to do that has been nakedly displayed in recent years in the Gulf and the Black Sea near Ukraine.

Back to earth: as I mentioned in an earlier post, plans are always tentative at this time of year, and so that is proving. The passage to north-west Spain I was writing about in December and January has run into the problem of coordinating two lots of family diaries, which can be tricky with joint ownership and joint sailing plans.

Various unmissable events on both sides now mean shorter periods on the boat this year, so the plans are evolving. Maybe we will go back
to south Brittany, where we spent three seasons recently.  Spring Fever on the River Vilaine, southern Brittany

We could always go down from there to Spain next year. There are so many lovely places on the French coast that it would be no hardship if that is what we decide.

Boat maintenance has been brought back home for me this month, with various canvas repair jobs to do on the safety equipment, sail cover and dinghy cover, plus rope whipping, and also ordering new lifelines and jackstays.

Got a great new  sewing  awl for canvas that is much quicker than a needle and palm..

January – satellite scares, and getting ready for Biscay

At the Royal Institute of Navigation’s small boat conference in Lymington earlier this month, I learnt a lot about  new risks of error  in satellite navigation : I did not know, for example, that it is possible with quite cheap local equipment to fool the GPS on a plane, ship or even a missile into thinking it is somewhere other than its real position.

There are now tens of thousands of reported incidents of errors, deliberate, accidental or of unknown cause, with a substantial number of them unsurprisingly in sensitive areas such as the Gulf, and the Black Sea near Ukraine, suspected to be hostile activity.

Reports of accidental errors include a couple of local failures when US naval vessels arrived in the port of San Diego, apparently forgetting to switch off unspecified electronic equipment, which interfered with satellite-derived positions for miles around.

These are serious issue in defence circles, and of course for boats and ships of any kind near a source of interference or one of the ‘spoofing’ attacks. It is easy to imagine some disruptive force deciding to get hold of the equipment and blocking position-finding in a sensitive commercial area such as near an airport or in a vital shipping lane.

Satellite positions are integral to the operation of every form of commerce, from planes and ships  through mobile phone masts and everyday driving, Amazon deliveries and Uber – you name it and somewhere in the business location finding is vital. So there is increasing pressure to redevelop  an old ground-based system called Loran as backup. Loran has not been switched off, but would now need a lot of development and investment. If you want to know more, look at the website of the Washington-based Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation.

GPS is just one of five satellite position-finding systems in operation, all now called GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System). GPS, like the word hoover, is a US name that is in danger of wrongly becoming the label for  a whole range of products.

Other GNSS now running include the Russian GLONASS and the EU’s GALILEO – so in one sense there’s a lot better backup against total failure. GALILEO was completely out of operation for a while last year after operational mistakes were made by its staff. It was only in the start-up phase but the fault  proved that a single system can go down.

The cover of the current 5th edition of Pass Your Yachtmaster

I was at the conference because I have been commissioned to update an excellent sailing book, David Fairhall’s Pass Your Yachtmaster, illustrated with hilarious cartoons by the late Mike Peyton.

Completely coincidentally, the cover of the current edition has a nice but anonymous photo of a Sigma 362, the same model as Spring Fever. Having done 11 seasons polishing and antifouling, I recognise the detail of that bow!

David has updated previous editions of the book, first published in 1982, but asked me to take the baton for the next.  The book is a primer for students doing the Royal Yachting Association yachtmaster exams and tests.

I have to say that re-reading  David’s book and many others on navigation has reminded me of several things I ought to remember, and certainly knew when I did the exam and practical test in the 1980s, but had forgotten, so it’s a good exercise for more than one reason.

Back at the yard, plans for sailing to Spain are firming up so we’re making a couple of small improvements to the boat and some minor repairs. We’ve also booked for the Cruising Association’s Biscay Day in London in March where we will meet others sailing that way.

One annoying issue on Spring Fever has always been the need to lift the anchor from the bow roller a couple of feet along the side of the boat when retrieving it to stow in its locker. I’m always afraid that this is going  to damage someone’s back, holding a 15 kilo weight plus chain at a very awkward angle on a potentially rolling boat.

The reason is that the drum of the Furlex reefing gear almost touches the deck, a feature from the boat’s racing days to maximise sail area, so it blocks the anchor from being lifted straight from the bow roller. We are looking for a rigger willing to shorten the forestay with the mast up, to lift the drum 8 inches so the anchor can be pulled up through the roller, and if necessary lashed and dealt with later. Our usual rigger is not keen because he works alone and it needs two experienced  people, he says.

The sail luff can be shortened at the head because it is very narrow there. Our sailmaker is taking 9 inches off but we will lose only about a square foot of sail area.

We’ve also decided to install a holding tank, so the lavatory can be used when we’re somewhere, er, sensitive to such things eg a marina or swimming bay. Nobody ever asks in the UK or France but Spanish authorities are thought to be more vigilant in checking that boats have holding tanks to store their waste on board, an EU requirement. Very few places have pump out facilities to empty tanks so the usual procedure is to empty them by opening the discharge valves a few miles out to sea.

Spring Fever is ashore this winter at Kingston, the Cowes Harbour Commission yard, rather than at Cowes Yacht Haven, whose prices have been creeping up by the addition of extras. The Haven also focuses on expensive racing boats whereas the Kingston yard, which is very friendly, is mainly full of older boats like ours, so we immediately felt more at home. It is not as conveniently sited, but it is looking like a good switch.