BRIGHT SPARKS 420 - Solo aids

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A suite of electronic smart gear proved vital for one singlehanded Australian circumnavigator

BRIGHT SPARKS 420 - Solo aids
BRIGHT SPARKS 420 — Solo aids

Singlehanded sailing is one of the most enjoyable types of voyaging I’ve ever done, albeit on only one- or two-day hops across narrow stretches of water. The buck stops with you when you’re alone. You are it — navigator, sail trimmer, cook and, of course, skipper. I find it’s one of the few occasions society’s hustle and bustle is left behind and you just simply focus on the elements and totally rely on yourself.

One big notch up from this is the long-distance solo racer, undoubtedly a special breed, like my shipmate Bruce Arms who has just sailed around Australia on his catamaran Big Wave Rider. Having raced shorthanded with Bruce in a few Tasmania Three Peak Races, I already knew his boat preparation was second to none, but keeping Australia on your left for at least 6536nm relied on quite a few electronic smarts onboard, as he explained to me.

"The ICOM AIS was absolutely brilliant," says Bruce. He used a Class B ICOM MA500 TR unit with transponder so transmitted his details to any nearby shipping, as well as seeing them on his own screen. "A couple of ships actually called me up and at other times they altered course for me," he continued.

With sleep deprivation a major challenge, the twice winner of the Solo Tasman Sea Race indulged in plenty of sugar hits, with his favourite cups of hot chocolate topped with marshmallows a staple diet he said as he recounted the record breaking trip. Relying on mostly 20-minute power naps mostly, with longer 40 minutes when possible, Bruce was heavily reliant on the Coursemaster C85i and Simrad autopilots fitted to the 46-foot Bruce Chamberlin designed catamaran.

When asleep his electronic eyes were the watch zones on the Furuno 1623 radar, setup at 4 and 6nm radiuses. "The AIS and radar was running 24/7 and I always had one or other on because the radar would take 20 minutes to boot up," explained Bruce.

Course shaping was done at the comfortable saloon table on Big Wave Rider, where Bruce used a Toughbook CF laptop with C-MAP charts to plot the 38-day anti-clockwise circumnavigation. A simple plug-in mouse GPS was used and this system complemented the chartplotter in the cockpit. He was at pains to point out that paper charts were onboard, covering the entire trip and these had been used extensively in the planning process, when he and integral member of the team, wife Suzanne, were doing the preparation.

I enjoyed receiving Bruce’s blog and updates all the way round thanks to the Thrane & Thrane Sailor 250 satellite dome, a system that had already proved its worth during Jessica Watson’s world circumnavigation. Bruce used this small footprint sat dome for phone calls and general internet access. In addition, he also had an Inmarsat IsatPhone Pro handset.

His self-built boat, which was designed with these voyages in mind, required very little in the way of extra power onboard, relying on a Honda EU 20 generator nestled in a foredeck locker and three solar panels to charge the batteries. Despite limited power generation from his main propulsion, twin outboards, this proved sufficient he said.

Power consumption varied with the weather pressures on the autopilot, with the worst conditions south of Perth.

"The boat was being hit hard on the beam and I was being regularly knocked off the saloon couch until I finally turned east at Cape Leeuwin.
By that stage the wind had risen to 62kts and I was moving at 15kts downwind with no sails up," Bruce said.

It was at this stage that disaster nearly struck as he was deploying the drogue to slow down the six-ton boat, when he badly hurt his leg. "I’ve never ever seen waves that big, "said Bruce. His voyage has just been ratified by the WSSRC (World Sailing Speed Record Council) so our congratulations go to this tough Kiwi sailor.

As Bruce Arms proved, AIS is invaluable to sailors and the latest developments in this technology are moving into EPIRBs, PLBs and other MOB gear. Recently in Europe CIRM (the marine radio manufacturer's organisation) began ratifying the usage of AIS in emergency beacons and man overboard devices. This also included the issuing of each MOB device with a MMSI number, a unique identity that manufacturers include in every unit.

Manufacturers such as Mobilarm have welcomed these changes and the Perth-based company has already fitted AIS to its V200 beacon, developed for commercial use with the US Navy.

Elsewhere, and more suitable for recreational sailors, the McMurdo-Kannad group has just released the McMurdo SmartFind S10 personal beacon (which is not AMSA approved yet).
These one watt AIS transmitters can be seen and tracked from local vessels, with the target visible on an AIS plotting device. AMSA tell me they are watching this area with great interest.


1). An exhausted Bruce Arms battling through the Southern Ocean during his 2011 circumnavigation of Australia.

2). Bruce Arms with his young protégé Jessica Watson and above, wife Suzanne, shortly before the record attempt.

3). Just released in Europe the McMurdo FastFind S10 personal AIS beacon is yet to be approved by AMSA for Australian use.

5). Mobilarm has developed a personal AIS beacon for defence use, the Crewsafe V200, and the V100 unit (pictured) is a conventional PLB.


Bruce Arms proved the toughness of his self-built Chamberlin 46 cat during his recently completed record breaking Australian circumnavigation, Icom’s MA 500TR AIS (photo 4)proved its worth


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