December 2021 Beacon

Remember what it was like to travel to distant lands?

John R. Potter  

The pandemic has brought many changes, and some of us have found positive, as well and less desirable, impacts to working from home and meeting our colleagues only online.  I, for one, find video conferencing a very thin and miserable substitute for in-person face-to-face interaction, where so many more channels of communication are open and operating than available online, even with decent bandwidth and good video, let alone when technical difficulties intervene to make a videoconference more like a séance than an in-person meeting… “Is there anybody there?  Can you hear me?  I think you’re muted…”  I find this communication gap particularly damaging when creating new relationships, rather than trading on existing trust and working practice with someone I already know how to work with.  This is especially true when reaching out across cultural differences, to people from very different countries.  I have always greatly enjoyed visiting and learning about different cultures, and so I have felt particularly hemmed in by the travel restrictions that have necessarily been imposed to combat the pandemic.  So it was with great relish that I recently embarked on exploring options for being able to visit Malaysia, as part of preparations for an expedition to the Chagos Archipelago, about which more later.

Visiting MIMA in KL

Malaysia has been essentially closed to international visitors for some time, but they now have a mechanism by which professional visits can be made.  I seized on the opportunity to reach out to the Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA), Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) and the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) to arrange a visit, representing the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), where I am now a full Professor in the Electronic Systems Department, working primarily with the new Centre for Geophysical Forecasting.  I was accompanied by Casper Potter, a PhD student in the Maritime Technology Department of NTNU, who specializes in maritime robotics and hydrodynamics.

MIMA is a government maritime policy organization based in Kuala Lumpur (KL) on the west coast, with interests covering a broad range of regulatory and security aspects of interest in Malaysian waters.  We were very warmly welcomed and spent an interesting morning discussing aspects of interest associated with the introduction of autonomous and robotic maritime systems into maritime commercial operations, particularly with regard to the very busy and congested Malacca Straits, one of the highest density traffic corridors in the world.  NTNU is pioneering autonomous ship technologies and maritime robotics and has a newly established Centre for Innovation called ‘Autoship’, as well as many international research projects and some spin-off companies in this domain.

UMT, by contrast, is a new and progressive University on the east coast, bordering the South China Sea. UMT already has collaborative ties with NTNU and is keen to develop a closer relationship.  There are many overlapping interests.  Like Norway, Malaysia derives a major portion of its GDP from offshore hydrocarbons and aquaculture.  UMT has access to wonderful natural marine park islands just offshore, where marine biology students can spend time studying in a natural laboratory.

Finally, we were able to visit UTM in Johor, at the southern tip of Malaysia, where there is a Department of Aeronautics, Automotive and Ocean Engineering.  This department has a significant tow-tank facility, one of the largest in Asia, with wave-making capability, in which UTM have tested over 100 scale models of hulls under a variety of conditions over the past 20 years, including a maritime winged ground-effect vehicle.

These visits open collaborative opportunities to connect Europe, North America and Asia in exciting new projects and presented us with a kaleidoscope of refreshing new experiences as we travelled around this amazing country.

Jocara out of the water for emergency repairs

But this was just the start…  The tour, taking us from KL in the west, to Terengganu in the east, and then south to Johor led us to the beginning of the next chapter, in which we have begun to prepare our sailing vessel, ‘Jocara’ to support an expedition to the Chagos Archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean under a permit from the British Indian Ocean Territory administration.  This is a continuation of our initiative to promote the use of small wind-powered vessels as cost-effective and ecologically sustainable platforms to support small research and surveying teams in remote marine locations. Avid readers of the Beacon may remember that Jocara supported a New Zealand maritime survey team in the remote Ha’apai islands in the Kingdom of Tonga in 2018.  Following that, we sailed Jocara 5,000 n.m. west to the southern tip of Malaysia, where she has been ‘trapped’ for two years by the pandemic.  Now, we are on a mission to ‘rescue’ her and prepare her to support a new expedition to the Indian Ocean to investigate marine mammal acoustics and the possibility that ancient mariners may have traversed directly across the Indian Ocean and potentially have wrecked on the sprawling and remote Chagos Archipelago.  But we are not hunting for wrecks.  Rather, we are hunting rats.  We will explain in a subsequent article what we mean, and how this chapter of our odyssey unfolds. For now, suffice to say that the rats have launched a pre-emptive strike on our expedition, by infesting Jocara at her berth in Johor and sabotaging everything they could get their teeth into (plastic plumbing and containers, wiring, electronics, wood, fabrics, they know no limits).  But we are striking back and Jocara is now undergoing emergency repairs in Langkawi to prepare her for her voyage to the Maldives, from where our expedition plans to launch.