Practical Range for HF Weatherfax Reception

I spent a bit of time rigging a long-wire antenna at home today to see what sort of range is practical for HF Weatherfax reception:

  • The antenna is now about 20 metres long, made entirely from inexpensive hookup wire.
  • The antenna is L-shaped, with one leg oriented East-West and the other North-South.
  • I’ve also connected an earth wire to a copper stake just outside my window, significantly reducing background noise.

To my delight the little Degen DE-1103 receiver pulled in the Wellington MetService broadcast on two of the four frequencies! That’s 1,000 nautical miles! Local weatherfaxes from Charleville (WMC) are now clean and crisp.

HF Weatherfax received in Sydney from Wellington

HF Weather Fax Reception

It hasn’t been really necessary on my last trip, being mostly within range of VHF weather forecasts, but getting offshore weather via HF WeatherFax has intrigued me.

If you’re carrying a notebook computer anyway, the only thing you need is an HF receiver with SSB (Single-Side Band) capability. Most people think megabucks when they hear “HF” and “SSB”, but a very inexpensive receiver will actually do the job. I bought a Degen DE1103 off E-Bay. You simply connect the output from the receiver to your notebook’s microphone input and then use one of the available software packages to decode the fax data received on the appropriate frequency at the given time! I use SEATTY from DXsoft, an amazing piece of software that literally does everything for you!

Receiving a fax using SEATTY

I was amazed at the ability of the little Degen DE1103 receiver (read some reviews here). Even at home, with the supplied 12 metre long wire antenna strung among trees, I can usually get quite clear fax reception. Out at Curlew Island one night, I strung the wire antenna from the forestay to the backstay, and found the receiver was overloaded with the sensitivity switched to “DX”. On “LO” I had perfect reception!

HF Weatherfax received with Degen DE1103 receiver and notebook running SeaTTY

I use a boom brake AND a tradional boom-end preventer.

A preventer’s principal role is to keep the boom (and mainsail) from flogging when running in moderate conditions, especially when the main is set by the lee. Under these conditions, the rolling of the boat can make the boom swing back far enough to backwind the main and start off an accidental gybe.

A preventer is great and I use mine (read details of Sunny Spells’ preventer in this post) most of the time when going downwind (“gentlemen don’t sail to windward”, so that’s a lot!), but you really don’t want it to be the only thing restraining the boom when the poo hits the proverbial…

Regardless of how you set it up, during a planned gybe the preventer has to be let off and re-set on the lee side. SO, this is NOT a part of the running rigging that you can (or should) rely on when the going gets rough or you need to do things quickly. This was graphically illustrated to me recently when crewing on a fifty footer in the Sydney – Gold Coast race: with wind gusting to 45 knots we had to gybe, and opted for a “granny gybe” (tacking the bow through the wind) to reduce the strain on the rig. The crew responsible for the preventer was a bit slow throwing it off, resulting in a pad-eye ripped off the bow and a broken preventer line which proceeded to wrap itself around the prop… Thank gawd we didn’t attempt a gybe!

Also, if you really get the boat out of shape and the main is backwinded, you need to release the preventer pretty smartly, and if you can’t, it needs to be fail-safe – i.e the line should break at a lowish force rather than a high one (this is where the boom brake comes in). Imagine the 2 tonnes of force in a 1/2in preventer being released instantaneously when it breaks! A recent post on CruisersForum suggested using a velcro strop to attach the preventer to the boom – this sounds very sensible as it would allow the preventer to release in an emergency without breaking anything.

Boom Brake

Before I left Sydney for Hamilton Island in May, I rigged a boom brake (details in an earlier post here) to control the boom during gybing especially when sailing short-janded. The boom on a sail boat can be lethal:

Preventer using a figure 8 rescue descender

The boom brake was initially a bit of an obstacle on the side decks, but I got used to it pretty quickly. I initially thought I might unshackle it from the toe-rails when it’s not in use, but never got to the point where I felt it necessary (we were running most of the time though).

I run my jacklines OVER the boombrake lines, which also keeps the tether hooks off the deck, at least over that area. However, having an intermediate “catch point” in your jacklines (by running them uner the boom brake) is not such a bad thing – if you get washed along the deck by a “green one” you’ll get stopped midway rather than dangling over the transom! It’s just the clipping and unclipping (on a dark and stormy night…) that becomes an issue.

Liferafts, EPIRBs etc

It’s like paying for insurance, having to buy a lot of (expensive) safety gear, always in the hope that you’ll never need it!


The first annoyance was that the two (!) EPIRBS on Sunny Spells are now both obsolete… The newest one was still good ’till 2010, but they’re both 121.5 MHz, so out they go. I’ve decided to replace it with the GME MT403G 406Mhz EPIRB with GPS receiver – I figured that, for the difference in price, you’d prefer 10 meter accuracy (rather than 5 miles) on the day you need it! These GME EPIRB’s have the added advantage that they are non-HAZMAT, so I can take mine on the plane when I fly up to Airlie Beach next month.

Life Raft

Having seen a bit of wild weather on the Australian East Coast recently, and most of it not forecast (a line squall can have really nasty wind associated with it!), I have come to realize that coastal sailing is every bit as dangerous as offshore passages, with the added dangers of lee shores, submerged shipping containers and other floating debris, not to mention the hundreds of migrating whales we saw on our recent passage from Sydney to Hamilton Island.

I’ve sailed without a life raft to date, but I have to admit that I’m not happy about it. Also, I can fool myself most of the time, especially on a nice sunny day, but it really hits home when you do the safety briefing and explain to the crew that, “if we go down, make sure you have a PFD on… if we have time, we’ll inflate the dinghy!”

It’s a big ticket item though. I’ve been scanning EBay since I returned in July, and this month I was lucky enough to find a good second-hand raft for the right price. It’s not hard to find a liferaft, but getting one that’s the right size is harder There seems to be a large number of larger life rafts for sale, but 4 and 6 person rafts suitable for offshore sailing are like hens teeth.

An advert in the AFLOAT magazine prompted me to explore new liferafts. As always, things are not as simple as they seem… A lot of terms get bandied about by the manufacturers like coastal, offshore, ISAF, ISO, SOLAS… Are you still with me?

When human lives are at stake, then someone will try and regulate the industry – that’ll be SOLAS, ISAF and ISO (not to mention ORC…). Trying to wade your way through this lot and work out what the average yachtie needs is not easy. Fortunately, one of my phone calls was to Peter Campbell-Burns at MarineSafe in Queensland. MarineSafe sell Zodiac life rafts but, more importantly, they service them too. Peter generously explained the ins and outs of life rafts to me. The following points were of greatest interest (I wasn’t taking notes – maybe I should have been…):

  • One should not buy too big a life raft. Work out how many people you are likely to be most of the time and buy a raft that’s just big enough. As Peter said, if the life raft is too big, it will ride you rather than the other way round. This was an important point – just because Sunny Spells has eight berths doesn’t mean I need an eight person life raft. In fact a four or six person liferaft is optimum.
  • Life raft certification IS confusing. However, here’s my take on it: SOLAS means it’s certified for commercial shipping; ORC or ISAF means it meets the ISAF or ORC regulations for racing (more about this later); and ISO 9650 is a fairly recent standard that is intended to improve and harmonise design standards for life rafts.
  • The terms “Offshore” and “Coastal” generally refer to their intended use under SOLAS (i.e. commercial shipping) certification. However, SOLAS defines “Coastal” as 200 miles from the coast – that’s a long way in a 33ft sail boat… The difference between “Coastal” and “Offshore” is primarily in the quantity and quality of supplies (water, food, EPIRB) packed into the raft and does not necessarily reflect on the quality or stability of the raft itself. A “Coastal” life raft may be convertible to “Offshore” at the time of servicing by upgrading the contents.
  • The quality of the raft itself is better judged by those who have experience with them. Things to look for include: welded seams (rather than glued), ballasted stabiliser pockets, a usable boarding platform with internal ladder to grab onto when getting in (apparently it is NOT easy to get into a liferaft in a heaving sea…).

This conversation made me realize that I had been unecessarily eliminating life rafts labeled as “coastal” from my search. As it happens, there was a very nice Zodiac 6 person liferaft on EBay, at the right price. By sheer coincidence, the photos showed that, you guessed it, MarineSafe had packed the life raft, and it even had part of the serial number visible. Peter checked his records and, very selflessly, considering it potentially cost him the sale, recommended that I bid on it, even suggesting a maximum price!

I’m now the proud owner of a life raft. Will it ever get used? Hopefully not! But hey, would I sail without insurance? Don’t think so…

Manufacturer's photo of Zodiac MP6 Open Sea Life Raft

I’ll do another post soon re. the requirements for racing, as everything is not always as it seems!