Cut off from the World


2 September 2013

It’s 5 o’clock in the morning when a strange ringing resounds in the wheelhouse. It’s the SSB, the single sideband radio sending a message to all ships. This message is not a warning: it’s labeled “not urgent.”

The call provides a good excuse to plunge into the GMDSS guidebook (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System) and discover that Tara is currently sailing in zone A4, the most remote zone in the world in terms of communications.

Like Antarctica, the Arctic is a region where maritime information circulates the least. Aboard Tara, as on every ship, we have 2 systems of communication: one transmitted by radio frequencies and the other by satellite. This morning’s call proves that communication by SSB (single sideband modulation) is functioning well. According to the GMDSS guidebook, SSB is the only official instrument of reception and transmission accessible in the Arctic!

In other oceans, besides SSB, ships can use Navtex, Inmarsat and VHF. Like SSB, VHF is a radio, but its scope is limited to 50 nautical miles. Navtex can receive weather reports and navigation information. This data is transmitted by stations on land, but in the A4 zone there are no ground stations to perform this function. The Navtex data would certainly have been useful to us when passing through the Vilkitsky Strait. As for Inmarsat, its communication system is relayed by 4 geostationary satellites above the equator. The transmission of these satellites does not exceed 75 ° North and South, so it doesn’t cover the Arctic and Antarctic.

Given Tara’s current position, only SSB radio is functioning. This medium and high frequency radio can send distress messages throughout the world, to other ships and Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers (MRCC).

Currently in the East Siberian Sea, we are linked to the Russian coordination center of Petropavlovsk- Kamchatsky, located on the Pacific coast. Anyone on duty at an MRCC must be able to speak English. But how can a Russian and Frenchman with thick accents manage to understand each other over the radio, especially if the connection is poor and the situation is an emergency?

“At the merchant marine academy, you learn standard phrases for communication at sea. Recently I tried to remember the model phrases I had learned at school to enable communication with an icebreaker. In all merchant marine schools throughout the world, we learn the same expressions in order to avoid misunderstandings in emergency situations,” explains Loïc Vallette, Tara’s captain.

With each SSB communication, the position of the ship emitting the incoming call is indicated. There’s also a program that allows the boat in distress to quickly indicate the situation: a man overboard, a fire, a leak. So much for the short list of ‘official’ communication systems, those included in the international agreement signed in 1999, accessible to Tara in the Arctic. But fortunately we also have “Iridium” on board.

Thanks to Iridium, we can send and receive emails in this remote area of the world. In case of real need, we can also make phone calls, but the cost is prohibitive. Iridium is a system of communication by satellites that converges at the poles, so we have the best possible connection! “I’ve recorded onto the mobile Iridium phone the vital numbers such as the French MRCCs, the coordination center for medical aid at sea, etc. In case of need, at least we’re sure the connection will go through, no matter where we are,” says the captain. Without being superstitious, let’s knock on wood that Iridium remains just an excellent communication system for sending news from the Arctic to the people we love.

Anna Deniaud Garcia