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Starship Web Site
Beam: 18' 6"
Displacement: 210,000 lbs
Main engine: 420 hp V8
Cruise speed: 9.5 knots
The Starship Crew
It's mid-December, a chilly if not frigid and dreary season in the Northern Hemisphere. And from the vessel Starship comes this report, courtesy of Michael Poliza: "We're making about 9 knots right now," he said by satellite telephone, after departing Acapulco for a southward run to Puerto Angel, just west of the isthmus between Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula. "It's about 82 degrees, there's a light swell, and there are just a few clouds in the distance. It's a good day for a cruise."
Poliza, a 40-year-old German media expert and habitual traveler, is aboard a 75-foot, $3.5 million high-tech vessel on a 1,000-day voyage around the globe.
Funded by Stern, the German news magazine, and sponsored in part by Microsoft, the three-year mission for Poliza and his crew is to explore the world, enjoy themselves and report to the world via the Internet.
The Starship is packed to the gunwales with PCs, network equipment and state-of-the-art satellite transmission equipment. During its circumnavigation, Poliza and his crew are posting daily Internet updates on their trip and the stops, creating a virtual voyage for millions of people. And along the way, the Starship will host scientists who will explore and report on environmental and ecological problems and success stories around the globe.
"We're trying to rediscover our planet, and the beauty of it," says Poliza. "And we want to share our voyage with whomever would like to join in."
The Starship's journey began in September in Anacortes, WA, where the fiberglass-hulled vessel was built at the Northern Marine shipyard. Since then Poliza and his crew of three have been cruising down the coast of the United States and Mexico.
Already, just three months into the voyage, the crew has reported some amazing accomplishments. On Nov. 28, off St. Benedictos Island, 200 miles southwest of the Baja Peninsula , the crew photographed giant Pacific Manta rays (with 15-foot wing spans), then was able to dive with a whale shark (21 feet). The next day they photographed a manta ray and whale shark together. Within hours, the incredible photographs were posted on their Web site.
"We don't know what drew him," says Poliza of the huge but non-man-eating whale shark. "Maybe low-frequency vibrations from the ship, or maybe he just wanted to be near this big, new thing in the water."
The crew also was fortunate to photograph a rare bird, the red-footed Booby, and has scratched the bellies of friendly sea lions. And the voyage is only beginning.
When Poliza was interviewed en route to Puerto Angel, the ship and crew planned a layover there to wait for a break in the winds that roar down from mountains that cross the isthmus and make navigation hazardous across the broad Gulf of Tehuantepec.
Then it's on to Costa Rica and Isla de Cocos (Cocos Island). There, says Poliza, the crew will do more diving. "Cocos is noted for its hammerhead sharks," says Poliza, who hopes to see more than a few while there. At Cocos, the Starship will welcome aboard ichthyologist John McCosker from the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco. McCosker will do some diving to search for new marine species on a seamount - a submerged mountain - about 100 miles off the coast of Costa Rica. After several weeks on Cocos and the surrounding waters over Christmas and New Year, the Starship heads south to the famed Galapagos Islands, then through the Panama Canal.
In addition to Stern, Poliza's corporate sponsors include Olympus (cameras), Sony (videocameras), Deutsche Telekom (satellite links) and Microsoft, which designed the ship's intranet and Web interface.
Originally, Microsoft's German subsidiary was going to help set up the Starship's software system. But the scope of the job, and the proximity of the Microsoft campus to the Starship's Anacortes shipyard, led Microsoft new-technology program manager Christian Stark - himself a German national - to contribute his time and expertise. Anacortes is a 90-minute drive north of Microsoft's Redmond campus, and Stark and a team of about a dozen Microsoft volunteers spent the past summer's spare hours installing software and testing systems. How many hours? "Whoa, lots," says Stark. "I put in 200 or 300."
The finished product puts the Starship in a class by itself.
The techology powering an onboard computer system with the outside world is based on off-the-shelf Microsoft software, the same software a small office would choose.
The ship has an onboard intranet powered by a twin-Pentium servers running Windows NT Server and is connected to a half-dozen workstations located throughout the ship where crew members or guests can send and receive e-mail, edit still pictures or video, and update the ship's Web site.
Microsoft Exchange Server delivers all e-mail within the ship and to the outside world; Microsoft Proxy Server handles the satellite connection to the World Wide Web. The crew uses Microsoft FrontPage and Microsoft Office to author all Web pages posted on its site, and video editing aboard is done on a Sony digital editing system based on Windows NT Workstation.
Among the system's features: a live video feed from the ship's bridge to the televisions located in staterooms and the salon, a feature that allows the crew to remotely monitor navigation information or views from several video cameras mounted throughout the ship.
"That was a big challenge," Stark says of the networked video link, developed with the help of Microsoft Studio.
To connect with the outside world, the Starship has a system that keeps its communications antenna continually pointed at one of several INMARSAT satellites locked in a geostationary orbit thousands of miles up. Poliza and the vessel's crew can manually establish a link with the satellite to send and receive e-mail and even browse the Web.
In addition, the system is designed to automatically dial up the satellite every six hours to stream navigation and weather information to the Starship's Web page. The system functions at ISDN speeds, but is not cheap - about $12 a minute. Yet, the uplink is used very efficiently; sending navigation and telemetry data takes less than a minute.
Surprisingly, though, very little of the Starship's electronic and computer setup was custom-designed. "It's almost all off-the-shelf," says Stark. "Just put together in a reasonably creative way."
Stark made trips to San Francisco and San Diego to help tweak the Starship's system as the boat moved south. Thus far the computer hardware and software have been working well. But the boat itself has had some teething problems. In rough seas during a night crossing near Baja, for instance, a clogged fuel filter shut down the Starship's main engine, leaving the craft to toss helplessly for a quarter hour until a new filter could be installed. "There's nothing worse than to be sitting in wind and waves and not have an engine running," says Poliza.
After visiting the Galapagos Islands - where Stark plans to join the ship for a short visit and bring some software updates - and passing through the Panama Canal, the Starship will tour the east coast of South America, round Cape Horn, and cross the Pacific. Before it finally ends its voyage in Hamburg, Germany around May of 2001, stops will include Hawaii, Guam, Australia, South Africa and the Azores. "We're looking forward to it," says Poliza.
Um, who wouldn't?
Last Updated: December 16, 1998