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Alone on the ocean, yachtsmen plan to signal to their nearest neighbours, in space.

Saturday, March 26th 2005 - 21:00 UTC
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A stirring tale of adventure on the high seas takes on a new dimension as yachtsmen try to make contact with the International Space Station.

Although the port of Stanley in the Falkland Islands lacks all but the most basic facilities for visiting yachts, each austral summer sees an increase in their numbers. Among the most impressive this year was Ellen MacArthur's huge trimaran, in which she later went on to break the single-handed round the world record, a feat which captured the attention of the world's press and the imagination of thousands.

Much less impressive to look at, is the 33 foot yacht Berrimilla which slipped into Stanley harbour recently and left yesterday to continue a journey, which is in its own way as impressive as that of Miss MacArthur.

Veteran Australian yachtsmen, Alex Whitworth and Peter Crozier, one in his sixties, the other in late fifties are clearly not contemplating putting their feet up for a while yet. After competing, not for the first time, in the 2004 Sidney to Hobart race, which in a bad year claims lives and in an average year, several broken masts, they decided to fill in the year till the next one by sailing to Britain to compete in the equally famous Fastnet Race, which starts in Cowes.

Berrimilla, the Australian aborigine name for the blue kingfisher, has a modest hull speed of about 6 nautical miles per hour, so, although much slower than Ellen, what Alex and Peter have in common with her, is that they can't really afford to hang around if they are to keep to schedule. Consequently landfalls are few; they arrived in the Falklands directly from Dunedin, New Zealand - an unscheduled stop after an early knockdown by a giant wave - and don't expect to be in port again until they reach Falmouth in England, some 8000 miles to the north.

Being two people, rather than one, getting some sleep on the voyage is less of a problem than it is for single-handers, though working alternate three hour watches does tend to limit social contacts to change-overs and the odd occasion, when, as Alex described it to Mercopress, "things may get a bit pear-shaped."With time for direct conversation thus limited, the ship's log becomes a channel of communication, not only with each other, but also with the outside world, by means of the yacht's own web site www.berrimilla.comcharts not only the progress across the oceans of these not-so-ancient mariners', but also their preoccupations, occasional celebrations and solitary musings, which, in turn, occasionally elicit a response from the outside world.. Thus, when Alex is seized by the thought, mid-ocean, that Berrimilla's nearest neighbour might be the orbiting International Space Station and commits this thought to the log, someone pops up to give the orbit times.

Armed with this information, as we read in a later entry, a lookout is kept and a desire is born to compare notes with the two astronauts in the space station:

"Thanks, Malcolm and Tricia for the Intl Space Station orbit times. Too cloudy last night and will be for the next few days, I think but nice to know they are passing by just up the street. Be really interesting to talk to them - anyone know anyone at NASA? We have a satellite phone, vhf and hf radio..."

It would seem these days that if you ask a question out loud from the furthest wilderness or from the depths of the ocean, someone is always listening and hastens to supply an answer. Consequently, it isn't long before NASA is informed of Berrimilla's interest in making contact with their rather more high-tech craft and passes this information on to their astronauts, whose imagination is obviously fired by the idea.

While direct telephone or radio contact from the space station to Berrimilla proves impossible, when Messrs.Whitworth and Crozier make land in the Falklands and are relaxing in the living room of Mrs.Arlette Betts' Lafone House, which Alex describes in the log as "not a B&B, but one of the best places I have ever stayed in" the phone rings and there at the other end of the line, so to speak, is Dr. Leroy Chiao, commander of the two-man International Space Station.

There follows a half hour conversation between mariners and astronauts, during which another idea emerges; if electronic contact between the space station and the yacht is not possible, what about visual contact? So now, at some agreed point between the Falklands and Falmouth, when the space station's orbit passes over the yacht's position at night, our two intrepid mariners will pause in their journey to shine a powerful light up into the heavens and scan the sky for an answering glimmer from two other brave voyagers, their soul brothers in terms of shared understanding of isolation and distance from home, who for that moment in time are also their nearest neighbours.

John Fowler (MP) Stanley.

Quotation from www.berrimilla.comby kind permission of Alex Whitworth

Categories: Falkland Islands.

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