Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/09/19/beer_cook_power/

Beer trumps satellite comms on the Ionian Sea

Well, the Cook has a black belt

By Guy Kewney

Posted in Data Networking, 19th September 2006 09:47 GMT

Blog Make your choice! What's more important - a cold beer, or a satellite communications system?

Here we are, four of us on a Sunsail flotilla boat in the South Ionian Sea. Yes, yes, I know, it's a tough job, but someone's got to do it, and all that... but the thing is, the whole point of the trip is to gain some sailing expertise. And, to fund that, I'm testing this Inmarsat BGAN satellite terminal.

Well, the good news is I've tested it, and it works. I stuck the dish on the deck of the boat at our last stop, on the island of Meganisi, connected my Ethernet cable to it, and dealt with a few "error message" problems, and then: bingo - broadband for a mobile planet.

An hour later, the satellite system popped up a notice saying: "Battery low" and so I disconnected everything, closed down, and got on with the serious business of sailing. And at this point, a conversation began with The Cook.

Talk turned to the boat's power supplying abilities and we discovered a slight conflict of interest. Now, The Cook is actually a painter and teacher by trade and also, unfortunately, an Akido black belt. [His name wasn't Steven, was it? Ed] The conversation was, therefore, somewhat short because no one wants to pick a fight with the person who will be making dinner, doubly so if that person is artistically martial.

It turns out that the Oceanis 393 boat is really good at generating electricity - as long as the boat is running the engine. But we're here for the sailing. Who wants to listen to a big diesel engine chugging along in the peaceful seas around the islands of Kephalonia, Ithaca, Meganisi, and so on?

You can, of course, run your equipment from the ship's battery. To do that, you need a special device called a "cigar-lighter connector" - exactly the same thing as you'd find for connecting you PC to the battery on your car. Inmarsat staff gave me one, and I've left it in London. Well, what do you expect?

So the alternative is to turn on the mains power in the boat. And yes, of course you can do that! first, you turn on the big 50 bhp diesel engine, and second, you turn off the fridge.

"You turn off what?"

On a boat, morale is important. I judged it best for morale among the crew that dissent between the Skipper (me, apparently) and The Cook be avoided. Feeling that such a feud would also upset the Owner and the Irish Rugby Player, I decided to avoid one. So I let him keep the fridge running, and returned to my GPRS data card.

He paid for this. In the end, it turns out that the seas around here have a problem with normal ship to ship VHF wireless. You can chat over quite long distances, as long as there aren't mountains in between. It so happens that all these Greek islands are, in fact, mountains. So the only way of getting in touch with the fleet leader is a mobile phone.

Guess what else ran out of power?

Yup: the Cook's mobile. Serve him right. Mind you, the food was excellent. We arrived in Vathi to discover that the town charges roughly the same sort of prices for food as Greek restaurants in London do. We found a nearby restaurant which offered us Red Snapper - fresh caught that day - and a huge 1.2 kilo fish. It looked delicious. It costs 80 Euros per kilo. We told him it wasn't Gold Snapper, and made scrambled eggs and other delicacies on the boat.

And all that thanks to the Cook being in a good mood, because of the cold beer.

The next day, the sun rose and the alka-selzter fizzed.

Today, we sailed far and fast, and arrived at our destination on time. And the destination is Sami.

Sami is not a quaint antique town. It's a modern ferry terminal, expanded rapidly after the 1953 earthquake destroyed the rival harbour further up the coast. And it has berths for twenty or so full size yachts, and as you'd expect, a breakwater to shelter them from the open sea.

Did you ever study breakwaters? They're very simple. Waves come roaring in from the ocean, hit the breakwater, and collapse into foam. The opposite side, the water is smooth and calm, and you can tie up your boat and sleep. So the designers of Sami's breakwater designed it to let the water through underneath. It has about a dozen big arches which let the sea through. OK, a really really big wave will be reduced to a small swell. So your boat won't sink, but it will bob around like a crazy cork.

"Dang," I thought (or words to that effect) "I certainly won't be able to use the Inmarsat terminal tonight!"

Here's the problem: the satellite is small, and can only detect my transmissions from the satellite terminal when it sees them. So I have to point the BGAN device at it, very carefully.

To make this possible, the BGAN modem has a compass on it, and an elevation indicator, and also it goes beep. You line the thing up until it points where you think it ought to point, and it starts beeping, and the faster the beeping, the closer you are to your target.

Fine: now do that on a boat which is bobbing around on the waves like a featherweight boxer dodging a mismatched heavyweight. But you probably don't have a spare boat or pair of boxers, so to share in this experience, I'd like you to point a torch at the moon, and see what difference it makes to how bright it is. Oh, you have to stand on a pogostick while you do this.

In fact the idea seemed so absurd that I didn't try at first. But after a good dinner at "the oldest restaurant in Sami" - actually, a superb dinner! - I felt that I had, at least, to give Inmarsat the chance.

So here I am, sitting on deck in the dark, and the boat is swaying from side to side like a metronome. And the Inmarsat signal?

Steady as a rock. I will admit, I was impressed. ®