Monday, 12 May 2008

The Second Race part 2

1500 GMT ICPC Race Headquarters Pendennis Castle Falmouth England.

Mike Trevelyan was perplexed. He was Watch Leader in the Race Operations room and was waiting for Xylonite to post her position in. All the other yachts had sent in their positions and their previous 12-hour logs three hours before at 1200 GMT. All the participating yachts had to send in these reports every 12 hours. This was primarily for safety but the other yachts could then see how they lay in the field. Nothing had been received from Xylonite.

If the position and report was not sent in manually, a PCS should have been sent in automatically by the GMDSS communications suite one-hour later anyway. This safety function which sent a PCS every six hours, but it also enabled the crew to complete a task they might have been involved in without causing alarm at Race HQ.This had not happened either.

Mike said to his deputy Tim Harding

“Ok Tim, I’ll check with them downstairs”

Mike was referring to the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre at Falmouth who were not actually in Pendennis Castle but below the promontory on which the ancient castle lay. Mike was especially useful as a Watch Leader because he had recently retired as a Coastguard Officer after 20 years and had useful contacts in the CG Service.

He picked up the direct line telephone to the Duty Officer, which would cause his telephone to ring immediately.

Chris Hoskins picked it up and said “Duty Officer.”

“Hello Chris it’s Mike Trevelyan. We haven’t had a 1200Z PCS from one of our fleet. It’s the Xylonite, could you check for me please, but do it yourself and keep it quiet?”

“Afternoon Mike, yes of course. I’ll do it now. The yellow welly brigade has gone home so it’s quiet here. How’s Annie?”

Chris was referring to the hordes of yachts that swarmed around the English Channel in the summer but had now returned home as it was a blustery mid winter day.

Mike replied “She’s fine and glad to see me doing this. She found the return of her husband to normal hours after 20 years of shift work an interruption to her social life!”

Chris chuckled and said “Ok, I’ll bear that in mind when my day comes. I’ll call you back shortly.”

Mike said to Tim “Christopher Hoskins is checking the logs himself. Can you dig out the PIN codes and I’ll alert the Admiral.”

He was referring to Admiral Sir David Hope-Squires RN Rtd. who was the race organiser on behalf of the sponsor. Admiral Hope-Squires was a keen yachtsman himself and had tried to get himself a berth on the race but at 61 years old was considered a bit long in the tooth. He was Commodore of the Joint Services Sailing Club and had organised many offshore races for them and was a committee member for Cowes Week. He had a sharp and analytical mind and was an excellent public speaker.

Ice Cold Vodka were lucky to have him. He would decide what and when to tell the media

‘Shit’ thought Mike. The Xylonite had gone missing on his watch. Any yacht going missing was bad news but losing contact with the Xylonite was really bad news.

When it had been announced that the Prime Minister’s son would be participating in the ICPC, the status of the race had been elevated from yet another offshore race to a major media event. It would take all of the Admiral’s charisma and charm to keep the media’s thirst for information reasonably satisfied without giving the game away.

With a very deep low pressure system developing in the South Atlantic, if the catamaran had broken up or been damaged, find survivors would be unlikely.

Mike knew it would take the Coastguard Officer at least 10 minutes to retrieve the log files of all satellite GMDSS reports for the last three hours. Meanwhile Tim would use the Personal Identification Number code to remotely interrogate the transponder beacon, which was part of Xylonite’s SATCOM C equipment. The PIN codes were kept locked away to prevent unauthorised access to the system.

Mike Trevelyan dialled the Admiral’s mobile telephone number. He was in London but was due back in Falmouth either today or tomorrow.

“Sir Henry, its Michael Trevelyan, Duty Watch Officer at HQ. Sorry to disturb you but is it convenient to talk?”

“Good afternoon Mike, yes go ahead, I’m in a taxi on the way to Paddington. I’m on the 1605 and should be in Truro at 2036.”

“It’s probably nothing but we’ve not had a 12 hourly log or automatic PCS from Xylonite. Your instructions were explicit that you were to be told immediately if the yacht failed to file a report. My assistant is interrogating her transponder and I’m waiting for Falmouth MRCC to check their logs.”

The Admiral replied “Yes you were right to call. I’ll call you back from a call box at the station to ensure this is not picked up. We should be there in 20 minutes. Do you think you’ll have more information then?”

Mike could hear the sound of slow moving London traffic in the background. He replied “Yes. I’ll wait for your call.”

The Admiral had already decided that he would stay in London if there was no positive news. He should be there to inform the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary himself at No 10 Downing Street, face to face if he could. He would call a press conference, if necessary at Ice Cold Vodka’s facilities in Pall Mall, nicknamed The Ice House, and keep the media away from race headquarters if he could. No doubt the local press and television would turn up in Cornwall but Mike Harding was a good communicator himself and would keep them at bay with non-committal responses.

1525 GMT Race Headquarters.

Mike’s direct line from the MRCC rang. He picked it up and said “Mike Trevelyan.”

“It’s Chris. I’ve checked and nothing here. I also checked the rest of the fleet and they are all logged. What’s your next step and can I help?”

Mike replied “Thanks very much. We’ll call all of the fleet, at least the back markers anyway as she was next to last with that daft rig of hers. I’d like to leave it until 1900Z when the GMDSS should send a six-hourly PCS automatically. If nothing’s received then we’ll pass it over to you. I’ll give you her last position if you’re ready.”

He dictated the last position and course and speed. 38 deg 37.0 S 35 deg 29.0 W Course 225 degrees at 13.5 knots.

By this he meant that the MRCC would transmit a message on a safety channel to every ship in the South Atlantic and alert the AMVER organisation in Martinsburg, West Virginia USA. Aircraft could be involved also.

The Coastguard Watch Officer said “Ok, I’m due off at 1800 but I’ll brief the oncoming watch that a participating yacht has not reported and play it down. I’ll stay here until you tell us to make a shout.”

Mike replied “Thanks Chris and keep it to yourself for the next few hours.”

He slowly replaced the telephone receiver.

Tim had had no response from the first Transponder Interrogation. He was trying again using a different satellite. A direct call by satellite telephone had not been answered.

The last position of the Xylonite was approximately 1100 nautical miles off the coast of Argentina in the very inhospitable waters of the South Atlantic.

This was getting serious.

1535 Paddington Railway Station

Admiral Sir David Hope-Squires dialled the direct line number to the Watch Officer in Pendennis Castle.

“Mike it’s David Hope-Squires. What do you have?”

The WO replied “The Coastguard have not received anything. We’ve tried to access the transponder twice and also made a satellite call. Nothing.”

“Right. Keep trying. Are the Coastguard pressurising to take it on?” replied Sir David.

“I’ve asked them to wait until 1900Z when the GMDSS should chirp again. If no joy then I don’t think we should delay any longer.”

“I agree” said Sir David, “that would be irresponsible. That should give me enough time to brief the Press Secretary. I’ll return to Head Office and we’ll get a press briefing set up for sometime later tonight. That should keep the media away from you until tomorrow. I’ll fax you a holding statement to use, everything being handled here in London, that sort of thing. We must stress that you still have 11 other boats out there to look out for.”

Mike thought this was the best course of action and said “Fine. The Coastguard will have their own press officer and I’d guess the pack will besiege them for information.”

“Yes, I’m sure they will. I’ll get onto The Commodore. OK Mike I’ll go back to The Ice House. I’ll imagine I’ll be there for some time.”

He replaced the telephone and picked up his bag and briefcase. He walked briskly back towards the taxi rank where he had arrived only five minutes earlier.

The Admiral was already planning. He had number of telephone calls to make.

1615 Her Majesty’s Submarine Sphynx, The South Atlantic.

HMS Sphynx was mid-way through her five-month patrol as part of the British armed forces commitment to the defence of Falkland Islands. Their main task was to be an invisible but ever present threat to any form of seaborne attack to one of the five oil producing platforms around the islands. The Royal Air Force maintained a squadron of ageing Tornado GR5’s at Mount Pleasant airfield. These mounted air patrols and escorted the weekly air link flights in and out of the airport.

The Army maintained a Garrison of 350 troops.

Today was near the end of an RnR (Rest and Recreation) and AMP (Assisted Maintenance Period). The submarine was moored alongside a Forward Repair Ship of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service in Mare Harbour, a couple of miles from RAF Mount Pleasant and Death Star (the nickname given to the garrison’s accommodation complex built in the early 1980’s).

About a third of the crew were ashore – either sightseeing on one of the Battle Field tours of the 1982 Falkland Island conflict, doing a little shopping in Port Stanley or perhaps jogging or using the gym at Death Star.

Those lucky enough to have been able to get ashore to stretch their legs would be returning by 1800.

Tomorrow was day one of another 14-day patrol. While the sub was in harbour the Royal Navy’s patrol vessel HMS Edinburgh Castle kept watch.

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