Only effective electronic backup for GPS on point of collapse

First the good news.

In October 2014 the General Lighthouse Authorities of the UK and Ireland announced the successful launch of a prototype maritime navigation system called eLORAN. Descended from the old LORAN-C, this ‘enhanced’, digital version can provide positional fixes within a radius of 10 meters and can meet the exacting pilotage needs of ships using UK ports. Best of all it’s completely independent of GPS – and far more robust. According to Professor David Last, one of the leading experts on electronic navigation, the new system is ‘absolutely world-leading’.
Now the bad news. The eLORAN network will be closing down on 31 December because the French and Norwegian governments claim they can’t afford to go on operating the powerful radio transmitters in their territories on which it depends. And unless someone steps in to save it soon, the single UK transmitter may also be shut down, even though it could by itself provide a highly accurate time signal to back up those now derived from GPS.
The vulnerabilities of all global satellite navigation systems (‪#‎GNSS‬) – there are now five of them – have been well known for years. The root problem is that the radio signals from the satellites are extremely weak and have a very long way to travel. It’s bit like trying to spot a car headlight 14,000 miles away – roughly the distance from London to New Zealand. To make matters worse all the 140-odd GNSS satellites soon to be in orbit operate in the same narrow frequency ranges.
Jamming GNSS transmissions is therefore disturbingly easy. Small, cheap jammers readily available on the Internet can block the signal over a few hundred meters. A powerful but still portable device installed at the top of London’s ‘Shard’ could wipe out GNSS coverage from Reading to Southend.
Another big problem is spoofing: transmitting a fake GNSS signal that can make your receiver tell lies about where you are or what time it is – or even shut it down permanently. The North Korean regime has used these techniques to interfere with GNSS reception in South Korea, and there’s plenty of evidence of local jamming either caused intentionally by criminals, or just by accident.

Nature is a threat too. Down at sea level the electronics on board your boat may well go up in smoke if you get struck by lightning, while out in space solar storms can and do disrupt GNSS signals. Human error can’t be ignored either. A fault in the Russian ‪#‎GLONASS‬ system that threw up positional errors of 50 kilometers or more in the North Sea seems to have been caused by someone loading the wrong data.
Of course we now have GNSS chips with everything. Almost every piece of electronic equipment on board a modern ship or boat – radar, electronic chart displays, ‪#AIS‬, radio – is linked to a GNSS receiver. If the GNSS goes down all these systems are likely to go down with it. Not very funny if you’re passing through the Dover Straits in fog. And this isn’t just a problem for mariners. Many other critically important things – like mobile phones, stock markets, banking and broadcasting – rely on the GNSS time signature. The opportunities for criminals and terrorists, not to mention hostile nations, to cause chaos and destruction are all too obvious.
The US military are taking steps to protect their operations against these threats. They haven’t abandoned GNSS, of course, but they employ many other systems to generate the position, navigation and timing data they need. These include tiny inertial sensors, and chip-sized atomic clocks. Just how effective these are is uncertain, but in any case such technology is not yet generally available.
So where does that leave us sailors? The answer is that a black hole will open up on 1 January. There will be no effective electronic backup for GNSS after that date. Offshore navigators will have to dust off their sextants and start talking sights again, because – like LORAN-C – the other radio-based navigation aids have mostly been closed down.
There is however one bit of light on the horizon. The US government is expected soon to announce that it’s going to develop a resilient, publicly available back-up system for GPS, based on the British eLORAN prototype. In these days of budgetary stringency they will probably enter some kind of commercial partnership to deliver the new system.
We can only hope that European governments will take their lead from Washington, rather than continuing to pretend that ‪#‎Galileo‬, Europe’s own fledgling GNSS, will be invulnerable.

In the meantime I suggest you follow the recent example of the US Naval Academy, and start brushing up your celestial navigation!


Greenwich meridian is slightly out – but why?

An honour from the Royal Institute of Navigation…

Well here’s a nice surprise!

I’ve just heard that I’ve been elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation ( – ‘in recognition of my valuable contribution to navigation’ through my research and literary activities (writing ‘Sextant’).

I’m thrilled to join a very distinguished list of Fellows, though I hardly count myself worthy to do so.  Now I can add the letters ‘FRIN’ after my name!

Aboard Tenacious

entering Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel, Azores
Entering Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel, Azores

Well, we finally made it!

Tenacious is now safely tied up alongside in the harbour of Ponta Delgada, the capital of the Azores, on the island of Sao Miguel – St Michael’s as it used to be known to British mariners.

The voyage has lasted six days and has been pretty uneventful. The stiff northerlies that sped us on our way as we took our departure from Cape St Vincent gradually eased and veered into the east and eventually south east. The main excitements – apart from mealtimes – were the occasional visits from dolphins.

at sea
at sea
Stu at the wheel, with Craig
My cabin-mate Stu at the wheel, with Craig – and the ship’s bell!

The low cloud soon returned and there’ve been few opportunities for sextant sights, though I did a round of ten star sights with one of the cadets – with excellent results. I’ve also done another talk or two.

We managed to carry sail until the early hours of today when we were pottering slowly along the south coast of São Miguel in darkness. At 1000 the pilot boat came alongside as we approached the great breakwater that protects the harbour from the Atlantic swells.

The pilot boat approaches - Ponta Delgada, Azores
The pilot boat approaches – Ponta Delgada, Azores

As we came in, we dipped our ensign to HMS Lancaster, a Royal Navy frigate already in the harbour. She returned the compliment.

HMS Lancaster - Ponta Delgada
HMS Lancaster – Ponta Delgada

I haven’t been here since 1981 when I sailed out from England in a Contessa 32. It’s changed a lot. Masses of ugly high rise buildings have shot up and there’s now a cruise ship berth (where we’re tied up) and a marina. But the waterfront is still as elegant as ever and I’m really looking forward to exploring the town again – and the island.

Ponta Delgada
Ponta Delgada

Everyone now has to clean ship – only then we can go ashore!

Tenacious on her berth in Ponta Delgada - by night
Tenacious on her berth in Ponta Delgada – by night

Aboard Tenacious day??

Cape St Vincent
Cape St Vincent and fishing boat

Such are the joys of life on the rolling wave that I’ve lost track of which day this is.

This will be my last post for a while as we are soon going to be making our departure from Cape St Vincent – a cliffy promontory surmounted by a large lighthouse that marks the western limit of continental Europe. After that I’ll be out of cell phone range.

Having spent a cosy night at anchor, to avoid bashing out into the gale then blowing, we set sail this morning in much more comfortable conditions – northerly force 4/5.  And I have a new berth – in a double cabin which I’m sharing with Stu, a garden designer who is besotted with Madeira!

my new cabin - mine is the top bunk
my new cabin – mine is the top bunk

We’re now about to cross the traffic separation scheme designed to prevent collisions among the many ships that sail past this historic headland – named after the great British Admiral.

Cape St Vincent
Cape St Vincent

Lunch today was chicken fajita with salad – very good too!

At 1600 I’m scheduled to do another talk on celestial navigation. Last night at anchor I showed some of the voyage crew how to use the sextant and we took some sights of the moon and Venus. Their results were impressively accurate.

the author on the bridge
the author on the bridge

We’re a more cosmopolitan crew on this voyage. We have people from Spain (Pablo), Portugal (Hélio) and Latvia (Eleanora) on board. Pablo is an expert in the field of artificial intelligence and Hélio has written a thesis exploring Portugal’s changing relationship with the sea.

Eleanora and Helio on the forecastle - at sea
Eleanora and Helio on the forecastle – at sea

And now we head our into the Atlantic, on a broad reach under a warm sun – and on the right course: due west. Who could ask for more?

at sea
at sea
at sea
at sea
at sea
at sea

Aboard Tenacious

Day 8 (I think!)

Just a quick post today, 24 March.

It’s 1400. We’re getting ready to go to sea again, under a cloudless blue Portuguese sky – but there are strong, cold northerlies which are going to make life uncomfortable once we get clear of the land. On the other hand the same winds will speed us on our way to Ponta Delgada.IMG_0032 5

The gangway has just been swung aboard and the line-handlers are standing by to cast off (that includes me). The pilot will soon come aboard. The new crew members are looking a little nervous, which is fair enough if you ask me!

Maybe the clear skies will hold and there’ll be the chance to do some serious sextant work. Lots of people have said they want to learn!

So farewell to Portimão. The open Atlantic awaits us…

Aboard Tenacious

Days 4,5 and 6

Back in touch again as we stand off Portimão on the south coast of Portugal waiting for a pilot to come out and guide us into harbour. If we don’t get one soon we may have to look for a berth further down the coast. The captain is not best pleased…

The sun is at last shining out of a clear blue sky, and there is a gentle breeze blowing – cool but not cold. Various members of the voyage crew who are about to leave the ship are seizing their last chance to go aloft and enjoy the view from on high.

The last few days have seen us pass through the spectacular Straits of Gibraltar


(helped along by the strong surface current that runs out into the Atlantic). The Rock was shrouded in rain for much of the time but the African shore was very clear. We then sailed north west, past Tarifa, and across the historic patch of sea on which the Battle of Trafalgar was fought.


The weather has been ‘unsettled’ – to put it politely. We’ve had little wind and frequent showers often coupled with thunder and lightning. At one stage we even saw a waterspout curling up into the dark clouds. Dolphins have joined us frequently – riding our bow wave with a grace and power that fills you with wonder and delight.

dolphins at the bow
dolphins at the bow

Night watches have been pretty cold and dark, with not a glimpse of the stars – until the clouds rolled back last night to reveal the glory of whole sky. Jupiter shone brightly in the west when my watch – Starboard Aft – came on deck at 0400 this morning.

I did a second, well-attended talk on celestial navigation on day 4 and I’ve given several demos of the use of the sextant. Some of the voyage crew have even said they want to buy my book when they get home! Yesterday however there was too much going on to fit in another talk as planned.

Unfortunately the weather, coupled with the frequent need to adjust the sails, has made it difficult to fit in more than a few real sextant sights. But those have all gone well with the beginners getting some impressively accurate results.

We have a lively group of young merchant navy cadets on board, learning their trade. Last night we had a quiz in which they tied for equal first place – putting some of the older members of the voyage crew to shame!

The cadets in the lower mess
Some of the cadets in the lower mess

Tomorrow the party will break up as the present voyage crew all head for home.

I’m staying on though, to help take the ship to her next destination – Ponta Delgada in the Azores.

More soon I hope!