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July 08, 2024

A Stout Ship, and A Stout Crew

By John Trindle

...It was then the valiant crew set forth on a 3 month journey across the Atlantic, from England to the middle coast of the New World. They would call the place Jamestown, and the ship was Godspeed. The year was 1985.

Actually, the Godspeed made two journeys across the Atlantic that year. The first, though was from Willowby Bay Marina in Norfolk, VA to Felixstowe, England on the container ship "Stuttgart Express".

This Godspeed, a faithful replica of the original one of three ships which transported the founders of the first permanent settlement of the thirteen colonies, was built at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry-dock, to recreate the historic 1606-1607 voyage. Read a short summary of the journey here.

The ship was modernized for safety and comfort, with a propane stove, diesel generator, modern navigation instruments, and safety gear. In addition, all the provisioning was done with modern packaging and preservatives. The ship was crewed with 12, instead of the 13 crew and 39 passengers of the original.

This is not to take away from the achievement of the recreators. The Atlantic is still a big ocean, with lots of mood changes. The ship is still small. Help is still a remote option, though it might be available in hours instead of weeks.

You can read more details about the 1985 voyage on the web site of my friend Neil Tanner, WA4CHQ. Neil is an able sailor, shipwright, and a ham radio operator. Although he stood watch and crewed with the others, an important portion of his duties on the Godspeed was to keep the crew in touch with their families during the 3 month, 6000 mile journey. He was able to remain in contact with Virginia twice a day via Morse Code, and sometimes via voice, during the entire journey. In addition, the ship was able to keep in touch with their home base, and call for assistance from the Coast Guard when weather threatened to dash the ship against the shoals off the coast of North Carolina.

Let's consider for a moment the technological differences between the voyage in 1607, the one in 1985, and how it might be conducted today, almost 20 years later (table at end of article). What will the future hold? And does it really change the fact that it takes a lot of gall to take on Mother Nature? As I write this, I learn about yesterday's flight of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne. They are exploring near space, covering old ground, stuff that was done in the 40s and 50s by the government with Bell's X-1 and its descendents. Why do they do this? Why would anyone spend 3 months sailing across the Atlantic when they could fly instead? Why spend a lot of effort learning Morse Code and putting up with static when you could use the Internet, or a cell phone? I know the answer, I just haven't been able to put it into coherent words yet. Perhaps as you read about the crew of the new Godspeed, you will get an inkling of the reason, as I work on the explanation for a future Piker's Press submission.

1607 1985 2004
Navigation: Sextant and clock1 Loran-C2 GPS3
Communication: Ship4 HF Radio or Satellite Television5 HF Radio or Satellite Phone6
Weather: The sailor of the 17th century forecasted weather by... well, looking at it. Based on the sky, and the wind, and the color and temperature of the water, and a rough idea of where he was and what time of year it was, the experienced sailor had a generally good idea of what to expect. Except when he didn't. HF Weather FAX, Satellites: Satellite weather photos, composite maps, and rudimentary forecasts were available by HF Radio in the form of FAX maps, teletype text, and spoken word anywhere in the world. Internet, Improved modeling: The possibility of data connections through Iridium modems and the like allow the connected sailor to download weather maps and photos for most parts of the world. The forecasting has improved somewhat, but as in 1985 the sailor can at least see what's coming toward him.
Provisioning: The ship must carry food preserved by salting or drying. Fresh fruit and vegetables are only available for the first few days after leaving land. Fresh meat, and milk or eggs only if livestock are carried aboard. Preservative and packaging have made nutritious if not delicious food available for the whole voyage. Powdered milk and faux eggs. Limited refrigeration with ice chests. Not much change here, except refrigeration improvements have made it possible to run high efficiency motorized coolers or solid-state Peltier coolers from battery power more easily.
Power: Everything by muscle and leverage. Diesel generator, electric motors, limited battery and solar array Not much change from 1985, though the batteries are better and the solar array is cheaper. Still, not enough solar capability to nix the diesel generator.
1 Latitude is determined by the angle the sun (or a particular star) makes with the horizon. For instance, if it is local high noon, and the date is June 21, the sun will be at 90 degrees (straight up) + 23 degrees to the north (the earth's tilt with respect to its orbit) + your latitude north, toward the north.

Longitude is determined by the time difference between when local high noon occurs and the reading on your clock. Say local high noon occurs at 7:24 a.m. according to your clock set in Greenwich, England. Remember that the Earth goes around 360 degrees in 24 hours, or 15 degrees per hour. Since your noon is 4.6 hours BEFORE Greenwich's, you are 4.6 * 15 or 69 degrees West of Greenwich. Good stuff, but if your clock is 30 seconds off, your position will be 1/8 degree or 7.5 minutes of arc off. Near the equator this is about 8.6 statute miles, enough to get you in trouble with obstructions.

Unfortunately, a clock which remained accurate enough when rocked about by the sea (a marine chronometer) wasn't invented until 1761, and so wasn't available to our 1607 voyagers. Generally folks relied upon knowing the latitude (which was important because the direction of prevailing winds tends to be different at different latitudes) and then sailing in a consistent direction, measuring days and estimating speed, until you ran into something recognizable. into land, and using land features to determine position

2 Loran-C is a low-frequency land-based triangulation system of position determination. Time signals synchronized by atomic clock from transmitters along the shore are received on board and compared. The time delay between the signals, plus the identity of each received signal when compared to positions in a database in the receiver, is used to determine position. The only problem with it is that 1) you need electrical power and 2) you must be "near" shore to rely on it for position (however, you can always get a good time reading from it and use the clock method above). How near? I was not able to determine that from my cursory search, but it seems that "in an airplane in the North Atlantic" is pretty reliable, but "in a boat across the mid-Atlantic" probably isn't.

3 GPS is very similar to Loran-C in that it is a time-based triangulation system. However, instead of shore-based stations, the transmitters are in many satellites whizzing around the earth in 90 minute orbits. The GPS receiver must have an up-to-date idea of where the satellites are in their orbits, from which it can compute its position based on time-delays between the signals. GPS works anywhere in the world that can see 3 or more satellites (the more the better) at one time, and where the high-frequency signal is not blocked (by trees or buildings). This makes it ideal for sea and air navigation.

4 The only way to get a message back home was to go there. Sure, you could send a message back by a faster ship, but it took weeks to get there, and weeks to get back. A ship was effectively cut off from its home base,

5 Many of us remember "live via satellite" as a thing television networks bragged about in the 60s. Satellite comms required advance preparation and a sizeable dish, and a stable platform so the dish could be precisely aimed at the satellite. Not something you can do aboard a 40 ton sailing vessel! So, the only way to keep in touch was via HF (High Frequency, as opposed to VHF or UHF) radio. HF radio ranges in frequency from 1.8 MegaHertz (1.8 million cycles per second, just above your AM radio stations) to 30 MegaHertz (just above CB, and below old-style police radio, cordless phones, and baby monitors) In the case of the Godspeed, they chose to use Amateur Radio HF so they could take advantage of the penetrating power of Morse Code. Morse Code can be picked out from background noise by an experienced operator where voice would be unheard or unintelligible. Normal marine radio communications are voice. Also, normal marine communications are on VHF (between TV channels 6 and 7) and are basically good for about 25 miles from shore.

6 You've seen the home satellite dish shrink from 10 feet in diameter to 18 inches. The same thing has happened with phone systems. The launch of additional satellites has made it possible to make a voice or data phone call from anywhere in the world (which can see an Iridium or GlobalStar satellite) for about $1.50 per minute. And at the moment HF radio is still a good option. Drawbacks of the Satellite phone system include the fact that it is hideously expensive, coverage is still marginal in places such as Africa and the equatorial Atlantic, and... it is point-to-point. Like any phone system, you can only call a number you know or can look up, rather than issuing a general distress call. 911 can only do you so much good when the operators and first responders are all 1000+ miles away, while a Mayday on a general frequency can alert the ship nearest you.

Article © John Trindle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-06-26
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