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sha1406032813sha1406033434sha1406033401I’ve been working in the G.O.M. for the last 16 months or so and regularly find myself making that long transit from the Dry Tortugas to the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River.  The trip is more or less a great circle extending 400+ nm.  The first few times I made the crossing I noted that I would have an extreme “crab angle” due to the influence of the current known simply as “The Loop” aka a parent source of the Gulf Stream.  Sometimes I’d be steering upwards of IMAG162815 degrees into the current in order to make good my charted course and struggling to make any real speed.  Sliding across the Gulf is the rule.

There’s little doubt that this is old news to the guys who have been working the gulf for years, but it was a real surprise to me.  I mean, I expected different, but not to this degree.  Banging up against the Gulf Stream makes for slow going, no real mystery there.  And running with the stream is amazing in that your speed exceeds anything you thought the boat could do…but the loop?

The “Loop” is a current in the Gulf  of Mexico and flows at greater or lesser velocities as the seasons change.  It is known to meander widely and is formidable enough to knock more than 3 to 4 knots off your speed.  Meander is a gentle way of putting it, one watch you’re cruising nicely, next you’re wondering if the wheels fell off…  It’s seems to be all over the place, but with satellite imagery and telemetric magic it can be tracked.  And if it can be tracked it can be planned for.  Soooo for  those of you who know all about this, need read no further unless you’d like to proof my work.  In which case I will gladly accept any additional clarifying data you’d wish to provide.

The information one needs in order to visualize and to take advantage of / or steer around this current  has been available, but the resource (available in the form of “pilot charts”) only gives a general overview of the current by the month.  Honestly, I didn’t find them all that helpful.

My colleague gave me this link that provides just the kind of data you can use.  The site is paid for by our tax dollars and in my opinion money well spent.

You’ll need to make certain your security settings in your browser allow java applets to run.

The initial page gives you the overview which you can select a geographic area and what you’d like to see.  If you just want velocities, click it.  If you want to save the data as an image, select .gif format.  The smaller the geographic area, the easier you’ll be able to interpolate the lat and lon grid.  (I use MS Paint to overlay the more detailed lat/lon grid, it’s a bit tedious but yields an reasonably accurate grid to pick off waypoints)).

Note the red grid over the gulf.  you can resize it as you wish and pick the day average as well.  I usually use a 3 day average.  Once you’ve made your selection choose .gif if you want to save the image.  After that, you can eyeball the route you want to take and then identify the waypoints you’ll need to hit to go around the adverse current or to take advantage of a following current.

 

gom site

This will assist in selecting a course around the higher velocities and hopefully save some time on your next transit.  Sometimes a few miles out of the way can save more than a few hours, an all important option when it’s close to crew change.  After all that is the most important consideration….just sayin’

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Thanks to a book recommended to me by Kennebec Captain and my time spent reading it, I have found the words to express my frustration with Zero Tolerance Safety Programs with a couple of quotes.

“The point of risk management is not to prevent failure, for that is impossible. The point is to have a plan ready to manage and control failure when it inevitably comes.” 

“This may in fact be the real story of human and societal improvement. We talk a lot about risk management a nice hygienic phrase. But in the end, risk is necessary. Things can and will go wrong. Yet some have a better capacity to prepare for the possibility, to limit the damage, and to sometimes even retrieve success from failure.”

“When things go wrong, there seem to be three main pitfalls to avoid, three ways to fail to rescue. You could choose a wrong plan, an inadequate plan, or no plan at all. Say you’re cooking and you inadvertently set a grease pan on fire. Throwing gasoline on the fire would be a completely wrong plan.
Trying to blow the fire out would be inadequate.
And ignoring it “Fire? What fire?”would be no plan at all.”

These quotes are not my own, they are from a book (linked above) and a commencement speech.  I believe they illustrate perfectly what and how we should think about risk management as a practice.  The message we frequently get from management is the same old saw; “zero incidents, accidents, errors”.  While this has a nice ring to it and is a worthy goal, it’s not humanly possible and we know it.

Planning for failures that might occur however, is well within the realm of possibility.  Evidence of this kind of real world thinking is represented by our Vessel Spill Response Plans, salvage plans, voyage plans, operations manuals and training curricula.   These documents all articulate what to do “when” something happens or “if this happens, then”.  They are general in nature since it’s impossible to prepare for every possible permutation of events and write a specific procedure for each.  It’s left to our training and judgement after that.

High Reliability Organizations

A High Reliability Organization is one that while highly trained to avoid failure, is keenly aware of the cues that arise announcing an impending one.   The thing that makes them so reliable is that they are prepared and mindful enough to catch a bad series of events while they’re still “curable”.   But it’s not just their awareness, their resilience in the face of an event it’s how quickly they can get the situation under control and continue using the plans set in place for such an incident as a guide.

It’s not making a blanket statement of “incidents won’t happen because we don’t want them to”, it’s the real world.  The message is clear to me, coupled with proven safety procedures we need to recognize that, and prepare for WHEN things to go wrong.

The business of towing is full of risk, it’s why tug boats have fenders.  It’s a contact sport.  A sign on the bulkhead stating zero, zero and zero isn’t telling me how to accomplish it.  And you can bet Harry Potter’s magic wand is out of the question.

The ability to meet and assume that risk is tied to practical and relevant training standards.  The conflict between zero incident safety programs and reality is that if we were to eliminate all risk, nothing would get done.  Something in that statement seems to make some eyes glaze over and disconnect from the conversation.

Ships are safe in the harbor, but ships are meant to go to sea.”.

Someone has to take risks to make things happen.  Sailing across the ocean, space exploration, flying out of La Guardia Airport during bird migratory season.  None of these things happened because risk was eliminated, it was addressed and planned for.  If you think all risk can be eliminated and still see progress you’re kidding yourself.  By seeking that end you’ll find that you are paralyzed by every threat, real or imagined and taking a step ahead will never happen..

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My last piece was generated from a rant I expressed in my pilothouse on my last trip down the East River heading for an anchorage in New York’s Bay Ridge Anchorage 21B.  Generally, my postings originate as rants that are rendered raw and then tempered with a good bit of editing for language and content.  I don’t just go off and shoot from the lip. Usually.

Of course, my professional perspective is what I draw on and my opinion is given full sway, it’s my blog after all.  But since my last post I’ve had some feedback that puts a neat spin on the ultimate aim of the article.  Education, for me as well as others.

A rather brave young woman decided to upbraid me for what she believed were insults to the Kayaking Community.  She was right on the money on some points and I give credit where it’s due.  She provided a couple of links I had not previously seen and found them to be really thoughtful and comprehensive in their advice on mixing recreational traffic with commercial vessels here in New York.

So in the interest of passing along the lesson of “you’re never too old to learn”, I wanted to recognize these organizations for working to make everyone safer in the pursuit of their particular vision of happiness.

The first one I’d like to share is one that includes enough information to rate as a must read for any recreational boater seeking to play on the waters of New York Harbor, or any busy waterway for that matter.

I Boat NY Harbor  The content of this site warms this lil’ old  tugboatman’s heart.  It’s comprehensive, articulate and clear and I ‘m glad someone has thought to do such a thorough job.  Kudos.

Safe Harbor.US Listing educational videos and notices of the events taking place in the harbor and good concise articles relating to interacting and avoiding close encounters with the behemoths that ply the waters of N.Y. Harbor.  The video catalog alone is worth a click.

I think it bears mentioning that the State of New York doesn’t recognize paddled craft as “vessels” subject to the rules as we understand them, that’s a big WTF as far as I’m concerned. This story just boggles the mind.

Everyone on the water has to have an understanding as to their responsibility when they take to the water for any reason.

And for now I’ll close with a thank you for the comments I’ve received.  Be safe.

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photo by capt. jim brucato

I recently posted a time-lapse video of a Cape Cod Canal Transit which was pretty well received by the boys at the Canal’s A.C.O.E. Office.  It was the 1st of March and the opportunity couldn’t be ignored.  With the opening seconds of the video showing us entering the East End in a pronounced slide and set toward the south breakwater, the canal is entered with the music of one of my favorite Santana tracks kicking in at just the right moment as we shot into the entrance.

The question from Ryan is; How would you compare a Hell’s Gate transit to a Cape Cod Canal transit?

Okay, since you ask……

One thing right off the bat, they are similar but different transits.  The Gate presents its challenge once we commit for the eastbound transit at the lower end of the Poorhouse Flats range.  After that (if you’re in the flood current) you are going through the Gate, stopping is not an option.  Thirty or so minutes later, the “deed is done”.  The Canal is a committed transit after passing Hog Island just west of the Maritime Academy.

Hell Gate is a tight and rocky estuary that doesn’t allow for a lot of leeway, it is an intense affair with two big turns.  Once you clear the railroad bridge it becomes kind of anti-climactic.  This time of year both waterways have the added challenge of dealing with large numbers of recreational vessels.

The Canal is a fifteen mile transit from Cleveland Ledge to the East End, the last twelve or so being the very definition of commitment.  Once you’ve sailed past Mass Maritime and the A.C.O.E. West End Station there isn’t any room to turn around or places to stop.

On average the canal transit lasts from 1 to 2 hours depending on the current and traffic.

The Canal is similar to Hell Gate as it requires focus and timing to approach and negotiate.  The primary difference is the amount of time you need to spend doing it.

Turns must be set up well in advance for large units since a fair current will introduce a respectable slide toward the down-current side of the channel.  Bottom clearance is a consideration as well.  Although the canal has a decent depth, there are some shallow spots that develop from time to time that will create enough suction that can make handling a deeply loaded unit a struggle in the turns.  With a head current (going against the flow) it’s almost like pushing a pencil by its sharpened tip across a table.  A balancing act that lasts for the entire transit until the east end breakwaters are in the rearview mirror.

Hell Gate has numerous eddies to contend with but they are fairly predictable for an experienced pilot.  The Canal has a strong current that follows the trend of the ditch without too many cross-current issues (except perhaps near the academy and east entrance breakwaters).  The east end can be challenging once it is approached since (as evidenced in the video) the bay influences the entrance with waves, weather and wind.  There is also a railroad bridge at the West End Station that closes the waterway from time to time.  Traffic is advised well in advance by the A.C.O.E. Controllers and the bridge never has an unannounced closing.

Should there be a strong northerly or easterly component to the wind and seas at the eastern end, many conventional tug and barge units delay their transit until the conditions abate since exiting the canal in push gear is something we’d want to do without a heavy swell surging the gear.  Tugs towing light barges negotiate the canal at nearly any stage of the current without too much difficulty, but those towing a loaded unit “short” (close to the tug) through this waterway experience a delicate affair that is generally timed to coincide with the slack rather than max current.  Tail boats are often used to help keep the tow under control as well.

from the web, 4/11/83 the morton bouchard

Like Hell Gate, the canal can be an unforgiving stretch of water.  More than one unit has had a bad day in the canal when things went sour.  It only takes a few seconds of inattention to get in trouble; it gets ugly in a hurry.

Hell Gate is scenic and cool for its views of the Manhattan skyline and its Upper East Side until we reach the Astoria side of the railroad bridge, then it’s industrial chic for the ride past the Bronx.  It gets pretty again when you reach the Whitestone Bridge and head under the Throg’s Neck bridge for the Sound.

The Canal is lovely and quintessentially New England, with wide walking and bike paths on both sides.  Folks fishing in crystal aqua green water enjoying the parade of vessels large and small.  It’s a beautiful ride any time of the year.

Sea level canal transits (like the Cape Cod Canal and Chesapeake and Delaware) are challenging and interesting.  You are on your toes for the entire trip since a fair current will boost your speed over the bottom dramatically and a head current will make for a long trip.  It’s about focus and forethought.  My Dad used to say that a boat handler should be thinking a mile or so ahead of his boat to be ready for what’s next.

I’ve got to say that I like both transits.  The Canal is pretty, but at the end of the day they both offer something that is challenging and interesting.

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Tugboat mariners are an independent sort and we’re accustomed to enjoying a measure of autonomy that few industries allow. We don’t take kindly to the “clueless” telling us anything, much less how to do our job.  We’re used to the press not having a clue, we’re used to answering the same old questions over and again about what it’s like on a tug. We’re thankful that when we’re underway the world shrinks to the tug, tow, and our immediate horizon.

When we watch those poor bastards driving (more like crawling) on the B.Q.E. and F.D.R. Drive as we sail by, we thank our lucky stars we’re not faced with that every day. But unlike them, we have an “alphabet soup” of Federal and State agencies looking over our shoulder.  Insurers, customers, and employers alike pile on to make our jobs just a little more interesting.

The trip that takes our daily commuter from his front door to his place of employment is seldom given more thought than to decide what size coffee to pick up with his bagel or scone every morning.  It doesn’t require too much preparation, just a full tank of gas, a friendly traffic report, and perhaps set his “Tom Tom” for an alternate route .

Up until about 15 years ago, like our commuter, voyage planning in the N.Y. towing sector was still an informal exercise.  The plan was always fluid with the distinction of being mostly in our heads as opposed to written down. Planning seldom got too complex, we didn’t see a need to write down what we could recite from memory.  The term “voyage plan” wasn’t in the vernacular.

To us, it wasn’t broken.  So of course it had to be fixed.

In the mid-90’s I was attending the first Bridge Resource Management course offered for tug masters by the Seaman’s Church Institute in New York City.  There were eight seasoned tug captains in our group and one or two qualified as “Tugasaurs”, meaning they had been in “tow-biz” since Christ was an “Ordinary”.  We were on the company dime and didn’t really know what to expect from a class that was undoubtedly more suited to a ship than a tug.

Except for playing with the newest simulator, the curriculum promised to be about as exciting as a root canal when our instructor, a young ship driver/academy man, introduced himself and began reviewing the need for the practices he was going to impart.  The more he talked, the uglier it got.  It proceeded to get bloody (figuratively) as we began to chew this guy down to his ankles.  I mean, who the Hell did he think he was telling N.Y. boatmen how to do their job?  He’s never set foot on a tug much less handled one.

It wasn’t long before our “victim” saw the cavalry arrive in the person of Captain Rich Weiner (pronounced “wine-r)”.  This poor bastard’s savior was just in time to prevent his bloodied carcass from being dragged to the seawall and summarily dispatched as eel-bait.

Captain Weiner is a well respected and widely known docking master in New York Harbor and has worked with many of us over the years.  Once Rich walked into the room, the pack eased off long enough to hear the same message delivered.  And although he delivered the very same message, he had status as one of us.  His reputation and expertise gave him the credibility to make clear that the issue was the message, not our unfortunate messenger.

After the grumbling settled down, Captain Weiner was able to smooth our ruffled feathers and explain how voyage planning was being required and formulated.  Whether we liked it or not he explained, we should be the ones deciding how it should be done.  Having others decide how we do our jobs was even more distasteful than the new idea itself.  So, in the end we all drank the Kool-Aid.

It was difficult to admit that it was a good idea at first, especially since our voyage planning seemed perfectly adequate to us.  The more Captain Weiner talked, the more it became clear that our customary practices were not enough to satisfy the “powers-that-be” and were necessarily being replaced by the increased paperwork and tedium.

It simply became impossible to argue against the need for detailed passage and voyage planning.  The fact that it must be written down was probably the most irritating part of the idea since our paperwork load was increasing exponentially every day.

With that said, it was obvious that knowing where, when and how are key to a safe and hopefully uneventful passage from point “A” to point “B”.  There’s little difference between a tug or a ship’s voyage planning when it comes to the considerations of wind, weather, available depth, current, and way-points. Arrival times at key points along the route, DR positions, current set and drift are always critical considerations now more than ever in the age of OPA90., the Clean Water Act, and any number of State Regulations.

These days the practice is deeply ingrained in our procedures and codified by customers, company policy, insurance providers, and ISM safety management systems.  Everyone uses a different template, but they share the same basic information.  These plans allow us to visualize the entire transit and determine ETA’s with greater accuracy.  The plan is an overview of our vessel’s presence of mind along the way.  At any point in the trip we can have a clear and detailed reference of how things are going.  Guesswork is reduced to a minimum.

On top of that,  it is a professional approach, proof that the vessel, crew and cargo is in “good hands”.

We aren’t being asked to be clairvoyant or perfect, the document is a “working” plan subject to updating as we go.  There’s little doubt it’s for the better, “Tugasaurs” notwithstanding.

If you aren’t conducting and detailing a policy of voyage/passage planning, you will be. ISM Safety Management Systems are built around international law and customary practice, within which voyage planning has become an integral practice.  Sooner, rather than later, you’ll be asked to do this.  Better to do it now so you control how it’s formatted instead of having some geek do it for you.

Passage plans and voyage plans are synonymous, the voyage starts long before we sail with the collection of the vessel/tow

particulars including:

Deep draft, of the tug and tow

Cargo, grade and amount

Vertical and under-keel clearances, including “vessel squat

Expected speed over the route and waypoints (courses and distances),

Tidal heights and current (set and drift) for critical points along the track-line, including departure and arrival

Estimated time en route

Estimated arrival times, at waypoints and final destination

Berth information, chart catalog, pubs last update

Pilots and escort/assist boats, required or not

Once this information has been collected and detailed on the plan, we can refer to and update the all important ETA as we go along. Adjustments, observations and delays are all considered.  The greatest benefit is that our situational awareness is enhanced by the plan. We have considered and calculated a D.R. for the entire trip giving us a good basis for setting up assists, line handlers, pilots and crew changes.

A well prepared passage plan is akin to the FAA’s required flight plan.  How long will it be before tugs with tows have to file our own “flight plan” with a government agency sometime in the future?  I’ve read discussions pointing to that possibility, I would hope if that should come to pass it will be under the control of licensed and experienced mariners with the local knowledge for each area of concern.

Of course it’ll be up to us to take an active part in the process before the clueless run us into each other or aground.   As distasteful as change may be, it’s better if those of us on the job have a say in how it should be done.  I’d recommend that the “powers that be” continue to embrace the idea of deferring to expertise, it just makes sense.

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