I was reading Joel’s latest piece about GPS and space weather today and pondered how the modern age has only really taken hold of the New York Harbor towing industry, as I have known it, since the late 80’s and early 90’s.
When I was just a lil’ green deckhand in 1973 the most modern thing aboard the tug Richard K was the DC/AC converter in the galley for the engineer’s black and white TV, which was permanently tuned to any sort of wrestling which he swore was real. That or the Spanish speaking sports channel that featured international soccer in the UHF range.
There wasn’t a radar, Fathometer, or loran “A”. We had a magnetic compass of dubious pedigree and a radio set that required separate crystals for each channel you wanted to use. I was aware the guys sailing deep sea had some really impressive equipment, but I wasn’t headed for the Indian Ocean, I was going into Newtown Creek with a scow alongside.
Luckily, we operated in a reasonably small geographic area that included all of New York Harbor, Long Island Sound, Jamaica Bay, and the Hudson River to Troy.
We had a great deal of experience in the creeks and backwaters of the entire metropolitan area and it was all very familiar so long range navigation devices were not necessarily cost efficient as the thinking went.
The outfit was known as a “shoestring” operation as so many were, meaning the margin we worked on was as thin as one. Work was picked up as it came along and there wasn’t a whole lot money for new rope, much less fancy newfangled devices or shiny beeping things. We got from point “A” to point “B” the old fashioned way.
As fate would have it the boat acquired a salvaged wave guide navy setup for a radar and was installed as our only real nod to progress. Of course, I was the only one who could tune the damn thing. The tugasaurs wanted nothing to do with it and I was enlisted/drafted/impressed into the radar observer’s billet. Even though I had no license or credential, I was the guy they would yell for when the radar needed an adjustment, a tuning, or whatever. I think my eyesight was the asset most prized since the screen was so small I could have covered it with a coffee cup.
In later years after I was certified and licensed, I wondered how we ever made it from point “A” to point “B” safely with that old thing.
Now I don’t relate the story seeking pity for my advancing age or some sort of reverence for the old ways. I’m glad the old ways have seen their last and the new day has dawned with regard to the industry’s thinking when it comes to utilizing e-navigation.
But, my thoughts regarding these forms of navigation tools are mixed.
I treat these tools as suspect due to their uncanny ability to fail at the worst possible moment, a habit I’ve learned to embrace. A DR track on a chart, a stabilized radar display, and gyro compass are still my best friends. This is not due to my being a technophobe but my realization that these devices are merely tools subject to failure and misinterpretation.
This was illustrated perfectly today as I was finishing the first version of this article the laptop froze and dumped 2 hours of work into the ether.
My experience with electronic navigation aids has shown how useful and dangerous they can be. In the case where I was bitten by a device failure, I was lucky enough to escape with only clammy hands, a sweat-soaked shirt, and a slightly bruised ego.
In another situation I was stuck, I had no choice but to pray to every “God Electronic” to keep everything working as it should until I cleared the Cape Cod Canal’s East End in zero visibility with a fair tide pushing 75,000 bbl.s of jet fuel. It was a ten nautical mile white-knuckle nightmare transit that ended well in spite of being unable to see anything till I reached Sandwich Powerhouse.
That one is for the books, and another story, another day.
The decision to comment has more to do with how we as mentors teach the new guys how to regard these marvels.
Admittedly, my job is frequently more about piloting than navigating so I’ll address that first.
As with any transit, looking out the window should never be a secondary consideration no matter how slick the display or software. The data presented is fallible and as Joel points out it’s affected by influences you may have never considered.
And as accurate and reliable as they can be, during a training interval I sometimes turn off most of these devices to get the candidate comfortable with trusting his gut, eyesight, and sense of motion. Even with a nod to using all available means to keep a proper lookout the ability to function safely without relying on these devices is critical.
When I was getting familiar with a route my former captain pointed out the marks he used as reference and showed me how the trip can be repeated over and again by hitting your marks. If you found and hit your mark consistently, you would have a consistently safe and boring transit over and again. A good example is the Hudson River transit above Kingston.
It’s a “Pilot thing” .
Pilots rarely rely on anything but a fixed mark, it’s always something that will allow the vessel to be guided or lined up in safe water every time. The visual clues for current or local anomalies are more telling than any vector on a chart display.
The new technologies assisting pilots are complementary to the basic methods they employ. They come aboard with their DGPS equipped laptop plotters, pilot plugs, AIS capable, and full of info regarding berths and sail times and who has the next slot transiting the security zone you’re waiting for.
But in any event, they still have the main trick in the bag. Even if everything is working perfectly, they are relying on the basics first and foremost. Their gut, local knowledge, and marks are their primary inputs.
The electronic marvels are secondary information used to augment the basic info available.
ISM and E-navigation
Since my company and vessel are ISM certified we are required to prove the provenance of every tool, chart, program, plotter, or radar in use for planning and conducting transits. The equipment must be fully supported and up to date if it’s to be used by the vessel.
No pirated copies of Cap’n for Windows are permitted. Now when it comes to software, I’m as stingy as they come. If it ain’t free, it ain’t for me. That’s all well and good for my needs but when it comes to my vessel it is not the way things are done.
How it goes wrong.
There are cases of pirated software failing the user because key alarm functions wouldn’t work in a trial or pirated version.
The M/V Lerrix in October of 2005 grounded off the Darss peninsula in the Baltic Sea when the software being used by the watchstander failed to sound a course change alarm. The software was pirated, out of date, and the function wasn’t active. Though the report said fatigue was a major factor in the casualty. The software wasn’t properly supported and could not perform as required. It’s failure to sound the alarm that could have awakened the nodding watch stander was not active or available.
In another example of technology failure the M/V Royal Majesty grounded near Nantucket Is, Mass. in June of 1995
Ironically, the captain is quoted as having said at dinner how much safer the vessel was since it was employing GPS technology for its transit only hours before the ship ran aground on Rose and Crown Shoal, 17 miles off course. It was found that the GPS unit suffered an antenna failure and had reverted to Dead Reckoning Mode as stated in it’s manual. The problem was that since the bridge crew was so completely confident in the unit’s accuracy, they had failed to note that alarm functions could not be displayed on the repeater on the bridge.
No one thought to step into the chart room a few steps from the helm and check the GPS unit against the “loran c” or Fathometer.
Had they done so, the DR alarm may well have been seen and measures to avoid the grounding could have been successful. The manual needed someone to read it prior to making use of this device, what happened?
Read the Manual, understand the Device
Even though I treat these devices as suspect, that doesn’t mean I don’t try to completely understand how they work. In order to make use of these tools, I need to know what it can and cannot do. You will be the victim of your own laziness if the device you’re using fails when you need it most because you didn’t read the manual thoroughly. There’s nothing smart or professional about trying to figure out a DGPS chart-plotter in zero visibility approaching the Ambrose Channel Entrance
(This is not an endorsement) The new Nobeltec software for one is a fairly intuitive piece of navigation software that has some really good and some mediocre applications. I mention it only because I’m familiar with it. The neat stuff is the alarm functions and the log and tracking functions. The ability to couple the laptop with the AIS system is nice, along with a true gyro heading.
The Black Box
The logging functions are a dual-edged sword. The data will either back up your story or it will hang you. The data is non-judgmental and unemotional and it merely states what happened, not what was intended. Your career could end up hanging by a few megabytes of data.
There’s nothing like a track-line showing a heavy set going uncorrected for 45 minutes toward shallow water or heavy traffic to ruin your day.
You’ll be required to provide this data post incident if so equipped, and don’t even think about pulling a “Nixon”.
The Coast Guard knows about plotting software and how it works, the first thing the investigator will ask for could likely be a copy of your log data and track-lines as he hands you a flash drive.
Knowing how the software works and how its intended to be used is a fundamental requirement. If it’s aboard, one needs to know how it works and how it doesn’t.
They are tools subject to failure and misinterpretation. The “black box” is coming for many of us in the future. It will be the same tool the NTSB uses to identify the chain of events that have lead to an airline crash, it’s the last something that will speak of your actions in the event you can’t.