Tuesday 4 September 2012

2nd Leg Day 10: The Day We Travelled Back In Time

Today we were set back in time by some 150 to 200 years. When was the sextant invented? And the chronometer? Thereabouts. At least for about seven hours.

To top it all, the sun rose on a previous century. At least as far as our on board electronic equipment goes. Specifically the autohelm. This item of electronic ingenuity lost all its control parameters, never to be found again. Lost in the world of quantum physics, whence it came.

We were relegated to steering techniques of two centuries ago. Or thereabouts. Literally. No wind indication, no automatic steering and the GPS playing games to boot. So we deliberately switched them all off to regain some sort of sensibility in the sea of erroneous data coming from their screens. After some phone calls to the faqctory on a Friday afternoon in Cape Town, we had some advice. But no working instruments. Eventually, after wading through a number of calibrations, we reached the stage of the autolearn function, an automatice alignment tool. This got us back a modicum of control, but with the compass indicating a boat's heading some 80ยบ off the starboard bow.

So now we have automatic steering back, but with a twist. Apart from the fact that the instruments now indicate the boat crabbing along its beam, One person assesses the boat's course on an individual, separate GPS connected to one of our PCs. Then he calls out course adjustments, which are dialled into the autopilot by the crew member at the helm. The two members then assess whether the adjustment is working, then remembers the setting, which is now some 80 odd degrees off the real course. The real course is also displayed on the chart plotter, along with the erroneous boat's heading.

This is something really bizarre in navigational terms. This now forces us back to old school navigation planning, as the instrument calibrations are now rotated trough a large angle. We ignore the errors and now trust our own backup systems and the paper charts, which now becomes our main backup. At least we still have the boat's chart plotter to log our noon positions. But now we do it on paper in anger, no pun intended.

I was heckled for a long time for keeping my old school manual navigation skills alive. This event is a prime example of reasons for keeping the skills alive.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing and enjoying the good sailing wind. The swells run at around 1.5 m, five feet or so for our American friends. The wind is on our port quarter, almost astern, blowing a nice force five. Incredible sailing weather. Every so often we surf down the face of a swell. Then the whole boat vibrates while the water foams along the sides. The boat peaks at nine knots at these times, from a steady 5.5 to 6 knots.

Some whales came too look at the spectacle this morning when we were hand steering and trying to get back some control over the instruments. They just looked at us with their beady eyes, snorted and disappeared into the wild blue sea.


In the end we are all glad that we got the autohelm back. It is not a joke to look after the boat and steer it manually halfway across the Atlantic, where we are now. Perhaps another eight days to the Brazilian coast.

Today's incident is somewhat ironic. I am reading a book about string theory, a mathematical construct that is used to solve some of the quirks between Einstein's general relativity and quantum physics. The quirks in the instrumentation also bring up some of the relativistic arguments, adding to those forwarded in What the Bleep Do We Know Anyway and in The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene. The main issue is that the universe lies in the eye of the beholder. In other words, the world that you perceive is the real world for you. Other people have other perceptions, due to the different position they occupy and speed at which they travel.Very scientific, until you realise that it is also psychological. Wade Davis has a broad expansion of this in his book The Wayfinders, where he explains about the Pacific Ocean's navigators, who “pull islands out of the ocean.” A relativistic approach to navigation, I should say. I had some similar visions today, having to resort to primitive means to navigate us to our intended deswtination.

As it is, we shall be seeing land only in three to four weeks' time, perhaps some other ships along the way. Other than that, just the blue ocean and the odd whale. Mostly not even birds, as we are too far from dry land. You tend to lose your sense of moving along. The only sense is that of being rocked around on the swells. The blue that surrounds you becomes the world, and any land that appears look like it rises from the sea. If this happens during the night or in cloudy conditions, the land suddenly appears before you as if by magic. Quite disconcerting if you do not understand the vagaries of navigation and lose your sense of where you are.

A set of GPS co-ordinates doesn't help either. It tells you where you are. Period. It does not impart any information of where you are in relation to the rest of the world. For that one needs a chart to plot the co-ordinates. Only then does it starts making sense. Interesting how one's perceptions change, and your ability to make some sense of it, with a change in the environment.

Authored by Johan Zietsman
Last updated on 2012-12-12

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