On the Ashby Canal

As a special treat for my parents, my sister and I organised a trip on a barge for the day on the Ashby Canal. My Mum had always fancied a canal boat holiday and was therefore keen to try it out. We hired the boat from Stoke Golding, which is only a 13 mile run from our house (although we did have to get up quite early to get there on time). None of us had been on a barge before, so were grateful for the hints and tips from the hire company. We were less grateful to know that the boat had just come out of the paint-shop and was very sparkly.

Our first observation was that although the canal was calm, it was quite windy and this did impact the ease with which one could steer the boat. You couldn’t just steer in a straight line, there were always corrections to be made. And the steering was very delayed, so if you continued steering in a direction until you were going in the direction you wanted to be and then turned the rudder back again, you found yourself going in the wrong direction the other way! We had fun, as I’m sure you can imagine. We could generally cope with the straight sections fairly well… but some of the early narrow bridges were challenging… I think we were trying too hard and going too slowly, which made the boat respond to a change in direction even more slowly. Anyway, after ending up diagonally across the canal a few times, we soon mastered the art and most of the remaining bridges were expertly navigated.

Mum steering the barge
Dad peering from around the front of the boat
Richard and I

After a couple of hours we moored up and had a delicious lunch courtesy of my sister and then returned to canal navigation. Everyone enjoyed the day and learnt how not to steer a barge. Mum is glad she had a go because now she knows that she probably doesn’t want to spend a week on a barge!

Abel Tasman coastal track

We decided to explore the beautiful beaches and rocky coastline of Abel Tasman a little more by walking a section of the coastal track. A number of the track sections are across tidal estuaries and beaches, and so our plans had to fit around the tide times. This proved slightly tricky as low tide was around 9 o’clock (rather unsociable given that the tidal sections were not at the start or end of the walking day). This resulted in us taking the high tide path on at least one section, which was a couple of hours longer than the lower alternative across a bay.

We started at Marahau on the eastern coast of Abel Tasman and headed north towards Totaranui. The coastal path wound up and down over the headlands and was mostly in the bush, but provided pretty views of the coastal scenery at regular intervals. The path itself was extremely well-trod and was about 1.5 m wide at all times! There was certainly no navigational challenge! Such a path was necessary as tourists were frequently dropped off by the water taxis, allowing them to walk a short section of the path, before being collected a little further along the coast. So, frequently one would meet people in flip flops on the path, despite the location being a days walk from civilisation!

Blue sea of Abel Tasman

After about 7 hours, we reached our beach-front campsite at Medland Bay, where there was space for only 10 people. Thankfully the campsite was very quiet, with only one other couple there.

Beach at Medland Bay campsite. Our tent was pitched just above the bay

Over dinner we watched a heron and a kingfisher fishing in the river, and then once it got dark we took advantage of the darkness and stargazed for a while. Once we’d spotted enough satellites, Richard brought out the camera and played with his torch, lighting up the trees on the opposite hillside.

Southern cross over Medland Bay

The next morning, we set off sharpish, so that we could get to the next tidal section of the path (Onetahuti) before too late. We were actually there quite early, so given that the day’s walking was relatively short, we decided to make hot chocolate on the beach!

After a further hour of walking we got to the Awaroa Lodge, where we enjoyed an apple strudel :-). This was the end of our coastal trek as the next section of the path to Totaranui was tidal and uncrossable at that time. So, we spent a few hours on the beach, drying our belongings and swimming (for Richard anyway), and then we were picked up by our pre-arranged water taxi. This was great fun. The boat was fast and the pilot was kind enough to stop to show us a passing blue penguin and a seal colony.

Eating apple strudel at the Awaroa Lodge.
The speedy ride back to Marahau

The Journey Continues; Iceberg Ahoy!

We have all spent the last 4 days coming to terms with the routine of the ship.

Mostly this revolves around meal times; up for breakfast (7-8am), a bit of a read or watch a film, then lunch (12-1.30). After lunch its an hour in the gym and a bit more reading and then onto dinner at 6pm.

The gym

This routine though is nicely broken up with the occasional first aid talk from the doctor, or if you are on “gash” duty: involving 3 of us on a rota (so it comes around every 6 days) helping out in the kitchen and with general duties. Everything of course on board has to be “shipshape”. The steward is extremely particular and doesn’t like to see: (quote) “slack gash” on the ship.

This makes the day go a lot quicker, and makes you appreciate how hard the Chefs and Steward work all the time.

Today we had our fist iceberg sighting at 49 degrees south (which I’m told is quite a way north). We have to get to 75 degrees south, so there’s quite a way to go yet.

Approaching the iceberg
Passing the iceberg
The iceberg, well worn and rolled
The berg in the wake of the ship

The prospective date for reaching base is now about 24th December.

The other thing to get used to is gaining 5 hours over a period of just over a week. We have left Cape Town at GMT +2 and at Halley we will be at GMT -3, so we are getting an extra hour in bed every other day for 10 days!

Oh, hang on…….. Is that another meal bell?????

What we’re doing in the middle of the Atlantic

Jon asked what Autosub was actually for, and since we haven’t really done anything for the past two days as we head south, I thought I’d fill in a few details.

Autosub is an autonomous underwater vehicle capable of descending to depths of up to 6km. It’s primarily used for underwater mapping and surveying. For example, in March it will be heading down to the Caribbean to look for ‘black smokers’, underwater hot springs on the sea bottom that provide the energy source for unique ecosystems that only live at great depths. It has a multibeam echosounder that it uses to map the bottom, and can be fitted with lots of different science instruments including conductivity-temperature-density (CTD) sensors that can detect the fresh water that comes out of the black smokers to help find them. The CTD sensors are the ones on the sides in the picture, with the tubes hanging out of them.

Autosub's front end, where all the science instruments live. The plastic hoses on the side are for the conductivity-temperature-density sensor used to find black smokers.
Autosub's front end, where all the science instruments live. The plastic hoses on the side are for the conductivity-temperature-density sensor used to find black smokers.

The cruise I’m on is an engineering cruise, so we’re not expecting to do any science. The purpose is to put Autosub through its paces, tryout some new equipment (the obstacle avoidance system), and test it to the depths it’ll be used at in March. As a result, we’re looking for a spot that’s close to 6km deep to really give it a thorough test. The original cruise plan is in the picture. We’ve modified it quite a bit already – we skipped one of the early stops and pressed on south, and potentially bad weather has kept us closer to Spain than originally planned so we’re now heading for a point somewhere west of Gibraltar with about 5600m of water to do the deep tests. After that, we’ll (hopefully) go to the last point on the plan, the Casablanca Seamount for some final tests before arriving in Tenerife.

The cruise plan. We've already changed almost everything about it!
The cruise plan. We've already changed almost everything about it!

The Autosub team have spent the last day and a half doing maintenance on the batteries for the sub. The picture shows one of the batteries being fitted into the sub. The batteries are pretty cool – there are hundreds of small lithium cells in that case, all completely surrounded by oil so that they aren’t crushed by the enormous pressure at depth. The front of each battery case is a flexible diaphragm so that there’s no pressure differential between the inside and the outside.

James and Maaten install one of the batteries. They're heavy!
James and Maaten install one of the batteries. They're heavy!

Sorry. That was a bit too heavy for the blog. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll have something more exciting to write about – if everything goes to plan one of the other teams on-board will be deploying their remotely operated vehicle tomorrow afternoon and driving it gently across the ocean bottom. Their’s comes with live video, so we’ll see what 6km down actually looks like.

Sending Autosub for a swim

Day two of the cruise saw Autosub launched for the first time, mostly to check everything worked, but also to try out its new collision-avoidance system. I didn’t have a lot of involvement, so got to stand around and watch the launch, followed by learning how to launch the communications ‘fish’, a towed torpedo that allows acoustic communication with the sub.

Autosub just after launch. The writing reads 'Harmless Scientific Instrument' in case you were wondering. (Picture by Juhan Ernits)
Autosub just after launch. The writing reads 'Harmless Scientific Instrument' in case you were wondering. (Picture by Juhan Ernits)

The launch went very smoothly, and the sub spent several hours doing short straight runs at different depths to test its systems. The really challenging bit, however, is the recovery. The sub stops on the surface, the ship has to go over to it and maintain a precise distance from the sub, and then a grapnel is fired towards the sub to capture it. Then the lines are attached to the ship’s winch and the sub comes out of the water.

That’s the theory anyway! On the first attempt the sub got sucked under the side of the ship by the force of the propellor. Fortunately, the sea was very calm, so this wasn’t too bad, but the ship had to make a large circle and try again. While we were doing that, a pair of friendly dolphins came by to check out proceedings. On the second attempt, the sub again got pulled under the ship, but when it popped out the back the engineers managed to hook it and get it onto the winch.

Two dolphins check out the ship. (Picture by Juhan Ernits)
Two dolphins check out the ship. (Picture by Juhan Ernits)
Autosub comes back on-board.
Autosub comes back on-board.

With the sub safely back on-board, there are a few small problems to work out, but mostly the test was a success. We’re now heading directly south for deeper water. In three days we should be off the Portugese coast, in 6km of water, and ready to give the sub a real work out! We’re also expecting 6m waves on the way, which might be fun!

First Day on RSS Discovery

As some of you know, I’m spending the next three weeks on the research ship Discovery, cruising from Glasgow to Tenerife. I don’t know how much of an adventure it’ll be, but I thought I’d blog about it anyway, partly for myself, but also in case anyone else’s interested in what I’m up to.

RSS Discovery: My home for the next three weeks
RSS Discovery: My home for the next three weeks

I boarded the ship last night, and we got a brief introduction to the ship. It’s bigger than I expected – there are 49 people on board and it doesn’t feel crowded. I get an individual cabin, with room for a desk and a couple of chairs as well as a bed. It all seems very civilised.

I’m here to work on our automatic fault detection for the Autosub autonomous underwater vehicle. We’ll be putting Autosub in the water a few times during the trip, but our software will still be running off-board. We’ll download all the logged telemetry from Autosub when it returns to the surface and doing some testing on that. I’m looking forward to seeing how the team actually use Autosub in practice, and how they write the scripts that control it on each mission. One of the things we want to try out is some software we’ve built to check the scripts before they go on the vehicle.

We started this morning with a meeting with the Captain so we could discuss the plans for the cruise. After that we visited the bridge – there are a lot of ships out in the Irish Sea! We’ve also had an emergency drill, although we stopped short of actually getting into the lifeboats. It’s all quite a change from my usual days in the office.

A big challenge is going to be keeping fit. I have the OMM the weekend after I get back, and after our good result at the Saunders, Alex will be expecting me to be ready to run fast, so I’ll have to find a way to train on-board. There’s a gym, but I haven’t had a chance to try it yet. The ship’s too small (and too covered in cranes and winches) to run around!

We’re putting Autosub in the water first thing tomorrow morning so everyone is sorting out the scripts for the mission this evening. There’s lots to do to get the sub ready!

Sunset on the Irish Sea
Sunset on the Irish Sea

Rainforest meets Reef

I had dreamed of visiting Daintree for years. It looked so idyllic, with tropical rainforest right next to the Great Barrier Reef. Of course, it’s far to hot and humid to climb, but it seemed like a great place to relax after a month on the road.

I wasn’t disappointed. Daintree Eco Lodge was luxurious. The rain forest was alive with bird and insect sounds. It was very hot and humid, bur that gave us a good excuse to do not much except relax and take it all in.

The reef trip on Poseidon was fantastic. We took an introductory diving course and did two dives as well as some snorkelling, seeing the most amazing fish and coral. Sorry no pictures of the diving, but there is a rather sexy picture of me in a stinger suit – it’s stinger season right now so better to look like a telly tubby and be safe. 😉

I would have liked to have seen more, but we were out of time… 🙁

Here is a collection of shots from the three days we had there.