Ships Happen

Adriana and I have this thing with ships …

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… we tend to attract them. And ships are not the kind of thing you want to have close encounters with in the middle of the sea.

This story traces back to 1999. My family owned a nifty 21ft sailboat – just the perfect vessel for weekend sailing in the sheltered waters of the Ilhabela channel in Brazil.

We had great sailing aboard that pretty little thing
We had great sailing aboard that pretty little thing. Specially when ships were not around.

 

Adriana and I were spending a few days with my parents there, just before our wedding. It was fall, and the weather was great. One day we went sailing, a warm, sunny day, with just enough breeze to push us along slowly. We had been sailing like that for a few hours when i noticed a super tanker coming inside the channel – some 3 miles from where we were.

Ilhabela is an island which forms a channel with the continent, some 10 miles long. And there’s a port right in the middle, where Petrobras‘ tankers come to load and unload oil and fuel. Those who sail there are well familiar to the ship traffic and used to keep en eye out for these enormous ships.

So, back to the story, as i saw the incoming ship, i knew we were on its path, and proceeded to trim the sails and get out of its way. The wind was almost absent by then, not enough to get us out of the way. So i moved to the sailboat’s stern to put our outboard engine into action. It was a new Suzuki 8hp, well capable to speed us from our existing position within seconds. If it worked.

I put it in position, pulled the cord and … nothing. That was not common for that engine. Tried a couple more times and nothing. Even less common. I then checked the fuel level at the tank, tried a few other tricks, and pulled the cord again. Nothing. I looked up, and the ship was quite close – way to too close. Apparently i had spent more time troubleshooting the engine than i had imagined. At that point Adriana turns to me and asks “hi … hmm … have you seen that ship?” Things were starting to get serious, and motivated me to start pulling on the cord repeatedly, in a frantic effort to get the damn engine to work. As my arms were getting tired, i finally heard it – the ship’s horn. And i knew it was for us. So did Adriana, as she made clear to me. I accelerated the rhythm of pulling the cord of the engine, and the closer the ship got, it’s horn on, the faster i pulled the cord, to no avail.

Finally Adriana told me the ship was deviating from us, as it did, and we stared that mass of steel move alongside our tiny sailboat. I was feeling bad enough to have forced that monster to maneuver, and as the ship’s helm station towered above us, i pulled the outboard’s cord once more as in to show them that it was not working. Needless to say, it worked, and the crew must have considered turning back and running over us!

Us & the Ship
Us & those giant metal things – a complex relationSHIP.

 

Fast forward to the recent past. The four of us were enjoying our summer sailing vacation on Pesto. We were crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca – a narrow passage between the US and Canada with heavy ship traffic. It was again a beautiful day, clear skies, and spirits were up since we had crossed with a pod of Orcas along the way. At a certain point we entered a patch of fog and visibility came down to zero. I switched the radar on and started to follow the traffic through there. Eventually, one of the blurs on the radar started to get closer to us. So far so good. The signal was large on the screen, indicating it was a ship. A little later it got even closer, and at that point the radar didn’t offer enough precision to tell us whether the thing would pass us to starboard or to port. I knew the ship would have a radar more powerful than ours, and Pesto also has a strong radar signal reflector, and so i kew the ship was in a better condition than us to assess our mutual courses. As such, i decided to keep our course straight. Kept the radio on, just in case, and kept tracking it on the screen, with Adriana trying a visual throughout the fog. The ship eventually actioned its horn. Again, we were being “honked” by a ship! It passed us to starboard. We never saw it, but it passed somewhat close to us.

Fog patches here are so thick, one could almost carve them with a knife
Fog patches here are so thick, one could almost carve them with a knife
Close Encounters happen here even without fog (and apparently not just with us)
Close Encounters happen here even without fog, and apparently not just with us. (Walla Walla was “honking” when i took this picture)

 

Dramatizations apart, the learning is that equipment failure or other circumstances may put us on a situation where we depend on others to take action. And the more timely information is available, the better these situations can be avoided or ultimately handled. On the first case, maybe the tanker might have altered its course earlier. On the second, if we knew exactly the  course and speed of the invisible vessel, we could have gotten out of its way confidently – and it would have seen our move, despite the fog.

So, in order to put a good end to this inconvenient attraction, we recently installed on Pesto an equipment called AIS. Essentially it does two things: broadcasts information about our vessel (including exact location, speed and course) across a perimeter of over 50 nautical miles radius around us. And at the same time it scans the same area for vessels doing the same. This way we ensure all traffic “sees” us with precision, regardless of the conditions out there.

The AIS not only tracks information about traffic around us, it also keeps them informed of our presence and heading. It also fetches the information in different ways. In these screenshots i am looking at it from my iPad. Note it had identified 143 vessels in a perimeter 48n.m. wide around us.
The AIS not only tracks information about traffic around us, it also keeps them informed of our presence and heading. It also fetches the information in different ways. In these screenshots above, i am looking at it from my iPad. Note it had identified 143 vessels in a perimeter 48n.m. wide around us.
It also integrates information with our navigation instruments. In this example, the AIS is placing all identified vessels on the map on our chart plotter (the little red triangles).
It also integrates information with our navigation instruments. In this example, the AIS is placing all identified vessels on the map on our chart plotter (the little red triangles are vessels with AIS). If any of them were moving at the time i took the photo, we would see an arrow representing its course, and predicted position within 6 minutes.
The AIS is that little thingy in there ... ironically it came in the form of a little blue box
The AIS is that little thingy in there … ironically it came in the form of a little blue box

AIS. After those two experiences, we were certainly not leaving port without it !

4 Replies to “Ships Happen”

  1. Hi Roberto – yes, that’s one of the features of the AIS. It determines vessels in collision courses (or too close proximity), and triggers an alarm.
    Now that we have one installed, we can also see and be seen within this system.

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