30 December 2002
We've survived our first night at sea!
This morning we sat on the deck and sent off some more Iridium messages. This time it did not go so smoothly. To begin with, the phone was unable to find any satellites. Perhaps it was too heavily overcast with the wrong kind of cloud. We dug out a larger antenna and this time had more success, but by then Ding-dong and the phone were no longer on speaking terms. Ding-dong crashed several times and then came up with some screenfulls of error messages. Although these were in large white letters on a friendly blue background, they were not particularly helpful - something about an IRQ being greater or less than it should have been. We couldn't read it anyway because by then the sky had cleared and the sun was too bright. Ding-dong then thoughtfully offered to email an error report to Microsoft. At US$1/minute for an Iridium data call it's got to be kidding.
Eventually the weather cleared and we got our messages out. We then went onto the bridge to talk to the captain about installing our computer and phone inside. The l'Astrolabe bridge is remarkably spacious, and we were able to find a table at the back to set up Ding-dong, feeding the Iridium antenna cable out through a cable duct to the deck. With any luck our next email contact with the outside world will be from the comfort of the bridge.
Up on the bridge the pace of life is remarkably relaxed. As far as I can tell no-one is actually steering the ship - they simply pointed it south when they left Hobart and now they're just letting it run. The various ship's officers wander around the bridge keeping an eye on things, but I imagine that at this stage there's not a lot that can go wrong. There's a very snappy-looking GPS which claims to know exactly where we are and where we are going. By late afternoon we were at -50
degrees latitude, cruising at 12 knots.
There are 12 crew, some of whom we're yet to meet. I guess some of them are on night shift, making sure we don't suddenly sink or get abducted by aliens.
This afternoon's main entertainment for the UNSW team was working with Vanessa and Stephanie as extra film crew. Vanessa is making a segment about Stephanie's work for the children's TV show "Totally Wild". Tony was enlisted as camera operator, while Jon held up the piece of paper with the script on it and I filmed the whole thing so I can later produce "The Making of Totally Wild". After a couple of hours of filming we all went back to the lounge to critique Tony's debut efforts as a professional cinematographer. He clearly has a great future, and by the time we get to Dumont d'Urville he will be an expert.
Stephanie is measuring the ocean temperature as a function of depth every one or two hours along our route. She does this by firing a temperature sensor out the side of the ship. The sensor is attached to a kilometre or so of very fine wire, which spools out behind the sensor as it drops through the sea. The data comes back up the wire to be logged by a computer. Eventually the wire spools out to the end and breaks - hence the name: XBT, or "eXpendable BathyThermograph".
Dinner was a mixed success. Jon has not only learnt how to say "Pas de champignons, s'il vous plait", but also that eating cheese before the main course is a major "faux pas". After dinner we had an energetic discussion about which French film to watch. However we spent so long talking about it that when we arrived at the lounge someone else had already started a video. Now we are all doomed to watch "The Jewel of the Nile" poorly dubbed into French. That's all for today!.
We spent last night in our cabins on board the l'Astrolabe, attempting to grow our sea-legs. The cabins are small but comfortable, with two to six beds per cabin. With only 18 passengers on this voyage, roughly half the beds are unoccupied. Not surprisingly, it's rather stuffy and noisy in the cabins and the windows don't open.
We were all out of bed by 6:30 to watch the departure. It was a perfect morning, clear and sunny with wonderful views across the harbour and over the city of Hobart to Mount Wellington. At 7 am exactly the ropes were untied and we set off, making a long U-turn and heading south down the Derwent. Along the way we passed several of the Sydney-Hobart yachts who were just completing their race. It was a perfect beginning for our voyage.
After breakfast we set up the Iridium phone and various laptop computers and attempted to make contact with the outside world. We met with modest success, and are slowly learning how to use the technology to best effect. Iridium is a network of 66 Low-Earth-Orbit satellites that allows one to communicate directly with anyone else on the planet, using a hand-held phone only a little larger than the mobile phones of a couple of years ago. Originally there were to be 77 satellites, hence the name - iridium has an atomic number of 77. Somewhere along the line the project got scaled back to 66 satellites but the name stuck. Perhaps "Dysprosium" doesn't have such a nice ring to it.
After composing an email message (such as a diary entry), we take the laptop computer and the Iridium phone up onto the deck and point the antenna in a vaguely upwards direction (the phone sits on a nice little tripod to make this convenient). The only challenge then is to read the computer screen in the daylight. Later in the voyage we'll find a way to have the antenna outside (where the satellites are), and us inside (where it's warm and comfortable).
For the first time in many years I'm travelling south without my trusty Macintosh Powerbook, "poodle". Instead I'm typing this on a Dell X200 (which I've named "Ding-dong"). Nice computer - shame about the operating system. Ding-dong and the Iridium phone seem to get along reasonably well.
By lunch time Tasmania was just disappearing over the horizon. The sea, although remarkably calm, is nevertheless rolling us around quite a bit. There were considerably fewer people at lunch than at breakfast, and fewer again at dinner. As we were out of TV range by then the crew put on a videotape of - SBS television. I think I am going to like this ship.
So far the meals have been pretty good; the Russian cook is working hard, and already helping to keep everyone cheerful. There are two tiny dining rooms that are barely adequate for even the small number of people on this voyage. However, according to the captain the dining rooms become a lot less congested as the ship goes further south and the sea becomes rougher.
By mid-afternoon it was getting quite cool and starting to rain. Jon is reading Asterix comics to improve his French.
Tony and I have been hard at work videotaping everything that moves, and enjoying the creative challenges that poses. In terms of equipment, however, we have been seriously out-gunned by Vanessa, a journalist/scientist from CSIRO media. Vanessa has a very nifty professional DV camera with lots of widgets and a massive tripod that puts ours to shame. She doesn't have an Iridium phone, but.
Vanessa is travelling to Dumont d'Urville and back with Stephanie, an French PhD student. Along the way they'll be measuring sea temperature. My cabin-mate, Andrew, is also from CSIRO and is measuring the carbon content of both the air and the sea as we travel along. We'll find out more about what they're doing over the next few days, and decide whether it's interesting or not. If not, we'll throw all three of them overboard. (Sorry - I don't know what made me say that. I think it was the rather violent French video playing on the TV across the room.)
We've seen several albatross flying alongside the ship. They are marvellous to watch, covering so much distance for such a tiny expenditure of effort. I wonder if it might be possible to devise an interesting competition for physics and engineering students to make a mechanical albatross that could fly as efficiently as a real one.
The sea is getting steadily rougher, and it's cooler outside. However everyone is in great spirits, and we're already starting to feel at home on the little ship.