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..

December – thinking about Spain

Spring Fever was taken out of the water on December 16 and put ashore at the Kingston yard in East Cowes, where we are planning to leave her until May. Idle thoughts now turn to planning next year, and to Spain.

We have given up our pontoon mooring on the River Medina for 2020 because we plan to stay away from the Solent for the whole season and it will be cheaper to take a visitor mooring for a few weeks before we leave than to pay a whole year for our own. The conversation is increasingly focussing on the wonderful hills and Rias of North-West Spain, though we do not need to take any decisions for a few months.

Tony has crossed Biscay many times in big ships but neither of us have done it in a 6 tonner, so it requires a bit of research on routes and weather planning, plus the purchase of the pilot book for Atlantic Spain and Portugal.

The whole passage works out at about 600 miles, but it does divide neatly in two if you take the option that goes close in via Finisterre in western Brittany and then direct to a Coruna in Spain. This shortens the Biscay crossing to 300 miles, or two to three days, which is within the period of reasonably accurate weather forecasts, so we can be more confident of not having to cross the steep (and as a result sometimes very rough) edge of the continental shelf in bad weather.

Another option is to head for somewhere like Falmouth or Plymouth and then direct to Spain, crossing the shelf early in the passage, but taking longer, which means information on weather when approaching Spain will be unreliable. That is one serious drawback. Two other things that persuade us towards the Finisterre route are some nice French towns such as Camaret and Audierne where we can wait for a good forecast for the crossing; and the fact that with a short-handed crew – both co-skippers in their seventies – it is probably not such a good idea to do a three or four day passage. (Having written that down, I now remember the Yachting Monthly on my shelf with the account of 77 year-old Jeanne Socrates solo non-stop round the world voyage!)

There is a third route to North West Spain, which is down the west coast of France to the border and along the Spanish north coast, which is nearly as long as Atlantic France. One tentative thought is to come back that way the year after.

It would be good to stay in the EU over the winter of 2020/21 because if we can prove we are there at the end of the transition period in 12 months time the boat will retain its EU VAT paid status and would not be subject to the restrictions of the temporary importation rules for boats from non-EU countries (see earlier posts on Brexit).

The plan is idle winter speculation at the moment, and on past form we may end up doing something completely different from what we discuss at Christmas. But it’s fun to think about it.

There are however some things we really ought to do to make sure we have the option: we ought to fit a holding tank for waste, and we should certainly make some improvements in our anchoring equipment before it causes an injury.

The problem is that the boat was set up for racing, so the Furlex drum is almost touching the deck, which means that the anchor has to be lifted very awkwardly round the side of the boat to lift it back into the well, a recipe for pulled muscles if waves are building.

The drum needs to be raised, which involves shortening the forestay and recutting the foot of the working genoa. That way we can pull the anchor stock through the bow roller and lift it out in a safer way with less risk to our backs, and we also can lash it down to the bow roller if we are in a hurry or reanchoring soon.