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The Internet

One of Clint Eastwood’s characters might have said (but did not), that there are two kinds of people in this world, those who use the Internet whilst sailing and those that do not. On my website, I have always emphasised that the prime operational, and most important, means for obtaining Marine Safety Information, including weather warnings and forecasts, is the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System; that means VHF and NAVTEX for coastal sailors, INMARSAT and HF/SSB broadcasts for blue water types.

An important characteristic of GMDSS weather information is that forecasts and warnings have human intelligence as added input although, like all forecasts, they are based on computer output. Another characteristic is that they are, necessarily, very broad brush; they cannot come anywhere near describing the small variations that we sailors observe.

A second important characteristic is that the information comes to you, the user, as a broadcast; you do not have to go and get it. At the same time, I have always recognised that the Internet has become a very useful data source that both complements and supplements the GMDSS.

The Internet is supplementary in that it provides alternative ways of getting the same information – albeit not as an operational service; it should only ever be regarded as a back-up, maybe if you missed a broadcast.

It is complementary in that it provides extra information that cannot be made available via the GMDSS but, that can lead to better, more informed decision making and, therefore, greater safety - especially for the cruising sailor.

The Internet is not simply a convenience or a toy for the computer geeks; it is a very real aid to greater safety for all sailors, especially for the cruising yachtsman. In particular, I would argue that its most important feature is the provision of planning information for the next few days in order to minimize the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This has relevance even more to those on a short Summer cruise than to those who spend months away cruising. We can afford the time to wait; those on a one or two week cruise are always under pressure to get back home or the boat back to the charter company.

How it started

Over the years my website has grown, admittedly largely unplanned, with the intention of being comprehensive and, I hope, informative about weather for sailors. Being a sailor myself, I try to give realistic and pragmatic insights into weather, weather forecasts and their use. In doing this, I start not only from the base of someone who has been a senior forecaster in the Met Office, but who has around 40,000 sea miles under his keel mainly in European and Mediterranean waters but also with experience in the Caribbean. I have built up contacts and had discussions with several blue water sailors, both cruising and long distance racing, including round the world, types.

In the run up to my retirement, in 1993, the Internet was becoming widely recognized as a means of disseminating information but, to me, and probably to many other sailors at that time, it was still something of a mystery although clearly with the potential to become a powerful tool. At the time I remember being mildly irritated by the hi-lacking of the WWW acronym; for many years previously, this had been used by the World Meteorological Organisation to mean World Weather Watch, the combined international effort to co-ordinate weather observing, communications and forecasting. As such, it was central to my working life.

Getting going

I first learnt how to use the web from Martin Stubbs, a former colleague who I had helped to train as a senior forecaster. Martin has had a long interest in communications dating back to his school days when his father was a Merchant navy captain; Martin learned Morse code sufficiently well to be able to decipher the North Atlantic (weather) Bulletin that was then broadcast on w/t. Not surprisingly, he was a step or two ahead of me in coming to grips with the evolving Internet. He was also starting something, still a closed book to me, known as a website.

The eye opener was when Martin gave me a page of useful URLs (which I later learned stood for Universal Resource Locator) of forecasts. Having an enquiring mind (the uncharitable might say being an inveterate fiddler), I wondered how this page was constructed and began experimenting.

By opening it with Notepad I could see what I now know as html (hypertext mark-up language) coding. It became obvious that <p> meant “paragraph”, <hr> meant a line drawn across the page, <u> and <b> meant underline and bold, <h1>, <h2> and so on were headings of various sizes. I saw how lists were created and that a link, to the Met Office for example, was in the form <a href=html;//www.metoffice.gov.uk/>Met Office</a>.

Some while later, after joining the CA, I updated Martin’s page, using my self taught, very basic, html coding skills, and offered it to Ray Glaister the CA webmaster at the time. I then began adapting short articles that I had written over the years.

After a while, Ray had had enough of uploading my pages with new material, corrections and additions; he suggested that I have my own website with links to it from the CA. My initial reaction was negative but Ray persuaded me to have a go.

And developed

So, it was thanks to the CA that www.franksingleton.clara.net was born. Domain names were a mystery and, in any case, I saw no point at the time in having a distinctive or more meaningful name; franksingleton became well enough known, so why bother?

The site then developed partly because I had a fair amount of material already written, partly in response to questions that I was getting, partly as a result of my involvement with the RYA, CYCC and the MCA on weather matters and partly my own somewhat egotistic view that some sailors might be sufficiently interested to read what I wrote. Numbers of hits on the site increased over the years,

I was getting emails from far and wide and I began to get requests to give links to firms, clubs and associations. At some stage, I discovered page editors such as Netscape Communicator, Microsoft FrontPage and NVU. None was very satisfactory and all seemed very inefficient. Amending pages was often easier, and sometimes necessary, by going back to the basic html.

In time, I realised that some form of indexing was necessary and I developed a home page with lists of my pages. Meteorology is complex with much interaction between various branches of the subject and my site has the same features so that a one-dimensional site map did not seem to fit very well; a two, or even three, dimensional matrix would be more appropriate.

I tackled that one by dividing my home page into “groups” including “Partly to amuse”, my self indulgent writing about matters that interest me, such as pages on the Beaufort scale, a long time fascination, a history of meteorology and, of course, climate change. Although not an expert in any way about communications, I have tried to understand NAVTEX problems on 518 and 490 kHz as well as the very different problems that occur with HF broadcasts.

Where I am now

I was unsure how to move on – if at all – but help was at hand and those who use my site will have noticed a rather overdue facelift this year and that I am now sponsored by MailASail. This is a result of teaming up with Ed Wildgoose, whom I have known for some years; I now provide the major component of his innovative "Weather Window" at http://weather.mailasail.com.

This will be a combination of pages provided by weather experts and the MailASail efficient data download services for WiFi, cell or satellite phone. MailASail offers long distance communication services for sailors and explorers in the form of satellite phones and airtime (Iridium, Thuraya and the new Inmarsat Fleet Broadband) as well as advice and services such as email compression, a sailor's "Blog" and, of course, weather services. We hope that Chris Tibbs will join us in the near future – possibly by the time that you are reading this.

For users, the benefits will be more consistent formatting, better navigation around the site with clear links to associated pages. For me the advantages are security of tenure and easier updating using WiKi type coding. The new domain name is http://weather.mailasail.com/Franks-Weather.

So as not to cause too much confusion, I have retained my “personal” domain name www.franksweather.co.uk which will simply route you direct to the new site. The old Claranet and Tiscali sites should redirect seamlessly to the new pages, but obviously we want to encourage users to update their bookmarks to the new site and to use the MailASail address above.

I must confess that I have never worried greatly about making my site easy to use, taking the rather lofty, purist attitude that anyone sufficiently interested would find what they wanted while those not interested would not bother anyway. Working with Ed Wildgoose has made me think more about the user. He, very obviously, hopes that my site will attract users to look at and use his services. That has made me give more attention to user needs.

Each page now has a brief and, I hope, clear introduction saying what it is about. There are links at top and bottom of each page to other pages that may be relevant, lead to greater understanding or simply open up something new. By constructing a site map, which I still find a difficult concept for such a complex site, I can try to guide users via the inter-page links to genuinely useful or just interesting information. There is a side bar always visible on the left, and similar to my home page, but which will also make it easier to see what else is on the site. The Home page now has a right hand side bar as well and this may appear on other pages later. No doubt my Forth Bridge paint and re-painting type of operation will continue and pages may gradually change in appearance but maintain the same level of information.

I am always open to suggestions for pages that sailors might find useful or interesting. One of my thoughts for a new page is based on a little series that I am running for the RYA Online Cruising News. This is of questions and answers in which I try to explain a wide range of subjects raised by readers. More ideas will be welcome, even if I do not take them up.

Ideas to Frank Singleton.

Thank you, CA!

Much water has flowed up and down the English Channel since Ray made his suggestion. The CA has much to answer for! It has helped to keep me occupied in my retirement (and out of Jennifer’s hair); I like to think, gainfully. Thank you, Ray.

This is a copy of an article in Cruising, the excellent magazine of the Cruising Association.

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