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These are the ramblings of Matthijs Kooijman, concerning the software he hacks on, hobbies he has and occasionally his personal life.

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Sailing trip to the Isle of Wight (Sponsored by Murphy)

Atlantis under sail

I originally wrote this, just under a year ago when I returned from this sailing trip. I found this draft post again a few weeks ago, being nearly finished. Since I'm about to leave on a new sailing trip next week (to France this time, if the wind permits), I thought it would be nice to finish this post before then. Even though it's a year old, the story is bizarre enough to publish it still :-)

I've put up photographs taken by me and Danny van den Akker up on Flickr.

Last year in May, I went on a 11 day sailing trip to the Isle of Wight an island off the southern coast of England. Together with my father, brother and two others on my father's boat as well as 10 other people on two more boats, we started out on this trip from Harderwijk on Thursday, navigating to the port of IJmuiden and going out on the north sea from there on Friday morning.

Initially, we had favourable wind and made good speed up to Dover at noon on Saturday. From then on, it seemed Murphy had climbed aboard our ship and we were in for our fair share of setbacks, partly balanced by some insane luck as well. In any case, here's a short timeline of the bad and lucky stuff:

  • :-( Just around Beachy Head, our engine stopped running. We quickly restarted it and carried on, but shortly after the engine stopped again. It didn't want to start again either. In case you're wondering
    • not having a working engine is a problem for a (bigger) sailing ship. Sailing into an (unknown) (sea) port is usually hard and on the open sea your engine is an important safety measure in case of problems.
  • :-) Fortunately, Atlantis, one of our companion ships was only a few miles ahead (after having crossed most the North Sea through different routes, many miles apart). We sailed towards the port of New Haven, where they towed us into the port.
  • :-( We diagnosed that there was a problem in the fuel supply, but couldn't find the real cause. We spent the sunday in the thrilling harbour town of New Haven, waiting for a mechanic to arrive.
  • :-) On monday morning, a friendly mechanic called Neil fixed our fuel tank - it turned out there was a hose in there with a clogged filter as well as a kink near the end that prevented fuel from getting through. Neil cut off the end of the tube, fixing both problems at once and our engine ran again like a charm.

Fort in the Solent

  • :-( We continued towards Wight around noon, but shortly after passing No mans land Fort - guess what - our engine stopped running again.
  • :-( This time we had no friends around to tow us in, but there was a Dutch ship (the Abel Tasman) nearby. We tried to get their attention using radio, a horn and a hand-held flare, but they misunderstood our intentions and carried on. We kept on sailing, but contacted the very much polite and helpful Solent Coast Guard by radio, to let them know we were coming in by sail and might needed a tow into the harbour.
  • :-) After we finished our conversation with the Solent Coast Guard, the Abel Tasman hailed us on the radio and offered to tow us all the way to the harbor. With the wind dropping, we gladly accepted.
  • :-) On monday evening We arrived on the Isle of Wight!
  • :-) In the harbour, our engine started again (with some initial coughing). Yay for having a working engine, but without having fixed a problem, it could break down any moment. :-( We had some theories about what the problem could be, but no real confidence in any of them.
  • :-) In the morning, we called for Tristan, a mechanic from the town Cowes where we were staying. He had a look at our engine, but since it was running again, there wasn't much he could do. He found a connection in the fuel line that wasn't very tight - guessing that that had allowed some air to slip into the fuel line. He tighted the connection and left us again.
  • :-( Shortly after he left, we started the engine for a short refueling trip - and it stopped running again. We called for the mechanic to have another look, but he didn't show up all day...

On the open sea

  • :-( Near the end of the day, we didn't want to wait anymore and tried to bleed out the air from our engine, thinking that was the last problem. No matter how hard we tried, air nor fuel would come through. Debugging further, we found that the fuel tank would again not supply any fuel at all. We "fixed" this by disconnecting the fuel line, blowing into it and then sucking at it (credits to Jan-Peter for sucking up a mouthful of Diesel...). Together with the diesel there came also a wad of something that looked like mud.
  • :-( Previously, we didn't suspect any pollution of our fuel tank, because the looking glass in the fuel filter was squeeky clean. Now, prompted by the gunk coming out of the tank, we opened up the filter to have a more thorough look and it turned out the filter was nearly completely filled with the same muddy stuff (which turned out to be "Diesel Bug" - various (byproducts of) bacteria and other organisms that like liveing in diesel tanks)
  • :-) We didn't have a working engine yet, but at least we knew with confidence what the cause of our problems was, and had been. As Danny stated it: At least it is truely broken now. All we needed now was machinery to filter our fuel and rinse the inside of the tank.
  • :-( On Tuesday, we found another mechanic who couldn't help us directly, but made a few phone calls. He found someone with the exact machinery we needed. The only problem was that the machinery was in the Swanwick Marina, on the UK mainland.

Improvised fuel tank

  • :-) On Wednesday, we tried to get into contact with the mechanic in Swanwick, to see if he could come over to Wight by ferry. We weren't hopeful, so in the meantime we also found a small plastic fuel tank (normally used for larger outboard motors) that could serve as a spare diesel tank. After also finding a few meters of diesel hose, getting an extra hose barb fitted and even getting a valve for fast on-the-fly switching between tanks (Thanks to Power Plus Marine Engineering for going out of their way to help us!), we had a working engine again by the end of the day!

    We weren't confident our shiny new tank to sail all the way back to the Netherlands using it, but it would be more than sufficient to get over to Swanwick to get our main tank cleaned. As an extra bonus, it would be a good backup tank in case we still had problems after cleaning.

  • :-) Early Thursday morning, we headed over to Swanwick where Geoffrey and Johnny laboured all morning to get a ton of sludge out of our tank. They sprayed the fuel back in using a narrow piece of pipe to clean the stuff off the edges of our tank as good as possible.
  • :-( As soon as they were done, we cast off and set course to Brighton Eastbourne Dover Ramsgate Dunkerque, Oostende, Zeebrugge, Dunkerque. Unfortunately, the wind direction was unfavorable (and later also didn't abide by the prediction, in our disadvantage of course), so we ended up sailing for only a small bit and using our engine most of the way.

    We changed our destination a few times along the way, usually because we thought "We might as well go on for a bit more, the further we go now, the easier it will be for the last stretch". Near Dunkerque, we planned to go on to Zeebrugge, but the wind picked up significantly. With the waves and wind against, we were getting a very rough ride, so we stopped at Dunkerque after all.

  • :-( We came into port friday after office hours, so there was no personell anymore. In the restaurant we managed to get an access card so we could get to the toilet and back again, but the card had no balance, so we couldn't even take a shower...
  • :-( Early saturday morning we carried on, this time with favorable wind direction, but not enough wind to make a decent speed. Since we lost all the slack in our schedule already (we had planned to be home by saturday afternoon), we used our engine again to make some speed.
  • :-( Shortly after crossing the Westerschelde, our engine stopped running again (can you believe that?). We quickly found that the engine itself would run fine, but would stop as soon as you put it into gear - there was something blocking up our screw propeller. Using Danny's GoPro underwater camera we confirmed that there was indeed something stuck in the screw. We didn't want to go into the water to fix it on open sea because of the safety risk, as well as the slim chance that we'd actually be able to cut out whatever was stuck.

  • :-) We contacted the coast guard again (the dutch one this time), telling them we'd sail towards the Roompot locks and would probably need a tow through the locks and into the harbour. We contacted the Burghsluis harbour and found they had a boat crane and were willing to operate it during the evening, so we had our target.

  • :-( Then the wind dropped to nearly zero and we just floated around the North Sea for a bit. After an hour of floating, we contacted the coast guard and asked them to tow us in all the way - we were losing time quickly and with unreliable wind, there was no way we could safely cross the northern exit channel of the Westerschelde.

Diver on the open sea

  • :-) While floating around a bit more, waiting for the coast guard to arrive, we slowly floated nearer to a small boat that we had previously seen in the distance already. Now, and this is where the story becomes even more unlikely, this boat was running a "diver flag", meaning there was a diver in the water nearby.

    We slowly approached the boat and shortly after yelling over our problem to the woman on the boat, the diver emerged from the water. She told him of our problem, he swam over and under our boat and not even 30 seconds later he emerged again carrying a fairly short but thick piece of rope that had been stuck in our screw.

    We started our engine and were on our way again, suffering about a 3-4 hour delay in total.

  • :-) We contacted the coast guard again to call them off, but they were already nearly there. To resolve some formalities, they continued heading our way. A minute or so later, the Koopmansdansk, a super-speedy boat from the KNRM came alongside. After we gave (read: Tried to yell over the roaring of their motor) them some contact information and the gave us a flyer about sponsoring the KNRM, we both went our separate ways again.

Koopmansdansk

  • :-( During the night, a thunderstorm came over us. I missed most of it because I was sleeping, but Jan Peter and Danny were completely drenched and attested that it was both heavy and somewhat scary due to the lightning.
  • :-) Early sunday morning we went through the locks in IJmuiden, passed through Amsterdam and the Markermeer pretty uneventful. It even seemed like I would be at home just in time to head over to Enschede for our regular Glee night with some friends.
  • :-( We were running low on diesel, so we had to find a place to fuel up in Lelystad. We found a harbour that was documented to have a gas pump, but didn't have one, so wasted some time finding one...
  • :-( When we got to the locks of Roggebotsluis, it took a long time for the bridge to open. After floating around for 10 minutes or so, we noticed that one of the boom barriers (slagboom) looked warped and bent. Turns out just before we arrived there, some car got locked in between the barriers, panicked, hit the barrier while backing up and then sped away past the barrier on the opposite side. A mechanic was being summoned, but being a sunday...
  • :-) After a short while, the bridge controller fellow came out, pulled the boom somewhat back into shape a bit and announced they'd give it a go. Thankfully for us, everything still worked and we were on our way!
  • :-) No more delays after that. Brenda picked me up in the harbour, where I took a very quick shower before we headed to Enschede. Just in time for Glee, though I started falling asleep before we were even halfway. Apparently I was exhausted...

Overall, this was a crazy journey. All the problems we had have been a bit stressful and scary at times, but it was nice nonetheless. I especially enjoyed trying get things working again together, it was really a team effort.

Improvised Arduino NMEA multiplexer

Also interesting, especially for me, is that we had installed an AIS receiver on-board, which allows receiving information from nearby ships about their name, position, course and speed. This is especially useful in busy areas with lots of big cargo ships and to safely make your way through the big shipping lanes at sea.

This AIS receiver needed to be wired up to the existing instruments and to my laptop, so we could view the information on our maps. So I spent most of the first day belowdecks figuring this stuff out. I continued fiddling with these connections and settings to improve the setup, running into some bugs and limitations. Knowing I might have to improvise, I had packed a few Arduinos, some basic electronics and an RS232 transceiver, which allowed me to essentially build a NMEA multiplexer that can forward some data and drop other data. Yay for building your own hardware and software while at sea. Also yay for not getting seasick easily :-p

Now, I'm getting ready for our next trip. We start, and possibly end, in Vlissingen this time (to buy a bit more time) and intend to go to Cherbourg. Let's hope this journey is a bit less "interesting" than the previous one!

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