All at sea- technology enabling security, education, and environmental research
In November 2015 my family and I set sail from Lanzarote in the Canary Islands – taking part in the Atlantic Odyssey, an annual transatlantic yacht race.
In December, after nearly three weeks at sea crossing the stormy Atlantic, we arrived on the French island of Martinique in the eastern Caribbean.
Rough crossing …
We arrived in the harbour, Le Marin, exhausted but also exhilarated, finishing sixth out of 42 boats in the rally. Strong winds and high seas had tested our sea-faring skills and nerves but in these conditions, safety remained a priority. If a crew member went overboard, we knew it would be extremely difficult to recover them.
Being alert to danger 24/7 is exhausting. Vigilance was key. Just like any successful journey, it’s never something you do alone and you have to rely on your team and the people around you.
What I soon realised was that, when at sea, technology is your lifeline. Our boat had a fixed GPS beacon, broadcasting our position three times a day, allowing the rally organisers to always know where we were. In the event that we’d have to abandon the boat, we had a mobile emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) station (connected to the satellite network of the official worldwide rescue organisation) with us in an inflatable life raft.
In the event of anyone falling overboard, we all wore personal automatic identification systems (AIS) beacons: the beacons use VHF frequencies to indicate the position of a ‘man overboard’.
Sailing in the dark
We also relied 24/7 on our on-board radar for security and safety for two reasons.
Tropical gusts are potential perilous, with thrashing rain and a vertical wind shear of up to 50kn. The radar allows us to pick up these storms so we could safely reduce the amount of sail surface and our risk. The satellite phone on board connected us to specialised weather and email applications on our iPad through an Iridium WiFi access point.
Radically shifting our water and energy habits
Life at sea taught us greater respect for our two most important resources: water and electricity.
Fresh water is heavy and sailboats are limited in size so we relied on a desalinator to make fresh water for a crew of six for three weeks.
Likewise, keeping food fresh for almost a month is a challenge that consumes electricity, as does the yacht’s essential facilities and autopilot. The result was us that we needed to radically change our daily habits. It taught us to never waste water and be more conscious of our electricity usage — all the things we take for granted in our daily, busy lives in the modern world.
All pens (and iPads) on deck — education at sea!
The deck or cabin of a sailboat isn’t what immediately comes to mind when you think of schooling, but for the duration of our journey this was the ‘classroom’ for our daughter, Alienor. We wanted to make sure that she didn’t miss out on any school work, so via The National Centre for Distance Education she was able to follow the official secondary school curricula during our travels.
While I helped Alienor with her Latin lessons using traditional books, for the most part she was able to access electronic documents on her iPad including listening to recordings and practising for her Chinese lessons.
The curse of sargassum seaweed
As I mentioned in my last blog, as part of the Atlantic Odyssey, organisers Cornell Sailing work with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission-UNESCO, to conduct scientific projects. As participants, we were excited to be working as citizen researchers.
One of the projects was to collect information on sargassum seaweed. Global warming has caused these large masses of seaweed to gather on many of the beaches of West Caribbean islands which is negatively affecting the tourism and fishing sectors on these islands.
We helped launch autonomous drifter buoys on the surface of the ocean, which use satellite technology to track the movements of the seaweed — and also collect data on salinity, ocean currents, and temperature. Data collected will empower scientists to understand its impact on the environment.
Protecting the ‘big blue’ for tomorrow
It was a sobering experience to see up close the stark reality global warming has on the oceans. We all need to be proactive in protecting the health of the oceans. We may not all be ardent sailors or spend our lives at sea, but how many of us take, or dream of taking, island holidays with our families or friends?
It’s up to us to protect the sea and beaches. We can all do our bit to protect our planet for a better future, no matter how small or big