Thursday, July 24, 2008

On the wheel

The amount of time spent on the coast is inversely proportional to the
amount of sleep a mariner gets. Despite always being I still get
satisfaction when getting into the routine of arriving at the sea buoy,
picking up the pilot, lining up for the channel and taking the ship in
and out of the bays, rivers, and harbors of the United States. Ports
like Brunswick Georgia are small and quiet and pretty quick for
transiting. Ports like Newark or Bayonne New Jersey are jam packed with
ships, tugs, and W.A.F.I.s (A term I use endearingly), and take a little
longer to get alongside. Baltimore though takes the prize for the
longest in port transit. Whether we take a pilot at the Virginia Capes
or Delaware Capes you're guaranteed a solid 10 hours of transit time.

A 150 mile transit is tiring when you get stuck on the bridge for the
entirety of your watch with a pilot. As an "Officer in charge of a
navigational watch" my duties when piloting normally fall into the
monitoring category. The pilot takes the "Conn" but I still retain
responsibility, as does the master for the safe navigation of the ship.
This doesn't mean that the pilot is without liability as most people
think. If something were to happen he or she would also face the
consequences, as was the case with the Cosco Busan last fall.

On all of the ships I've worked aboard the steering, once switched off
the auto pilot, is done by the Able Bodied Seaman on watch. They
transition from being the dedicated lookout to the quartermaster as soon
as we need direct control of the rudder. Once the Pilot has made the
formal exchange with the Master he will begin giving rudder angles or
course orders to the helmsman. I figured that was a standard always
adhered to until I started working with my current Captain.

The way his bridge run is fundamentally different from all the other's
I've experienced. He never has the watch AB on the helm. Instead the
steering duties are shared between the autopilot, when the pilot is
willing to use it, the Captain himself and the mate on watch when in
hand steering. This is a huge shift from my normal duty of ensuring the
pilot is conning prudently, the quartermaster is following the course
and angle orders correctly, and keeping the log books and positions up
to date. I also normally make the coffee, answer the phone, show the
pilot where things are, and adjust the engine order telegraph for the
desired propeller revolutions.

When I'm tasked with steering though everything else is secondary. It's
a little daunting to be the one responsible for keeping the course
rather than the one responsible for chastising the helmsman if he's off
more than two degrees. I don't mind it though as my involvement in the
ship's trajectory is now utterly personal. I steer with my right hand,
either standing next to the center console or seated in the "Pilot
Chair" with a small toggle that can swing a rudder the size of a two
story house 70 degrees to either side of midships. The Engine Order
Telegraph is at my elbow and I can easily adjust the engine speed and
immediately feel the effect of the response on steering. I have to pay a
greater amount of attention to the swing of the ship as well as the
interaction of the channel with the hull and rudder. I'm the first one
to know if something is amiss and the first one to get hung if we bump
the bottom.

This was how I found myself in the canal that links Chesapeake Bay and
Delaware Bay the other morning in awe that I was actually steering the
ship. Rather than being removed from the process of piloting I was in
full control, at the direction of the pilot, of our success. I had
steered the C&D once before, as a cadet and I honestly think I was more
nervous as a second mate than I was as a cadet. At least then I had an
excuse if I did the unthinkable and caused a grounding, illision, or
collision. "Well he was just a cadet" they would say as the led the
captain off in bracelets. But now it was all eyes on me and I could feel
the pucker factor each time I would swing pass my mark.

Despite the intensity of steering for the first time anywhere besides
open ocean on a ship in four or five years, I was actually having a
great time. The pilot was relaxed and pretty much maxed out the surround
sound with his iPod, something that wouldn't impress the NTSB if they
heard it on the Voice Data Recorder but still, it set the mood. The
night was perfectly calm, the banks of the canal lined with thick
foliage and the moon setting over the bow making for a memorable
transit. The Captain eventually gave me a break and the pilot gradually
got comfortable with the autopilot which performs amazingly well, even
at slow ahead in a narrow channel.

The miracles of technology continue to impress me. The autopilot on
board is designed to receive inputs from the gyrocompass and a rate of
turn indicator or ROI. The ROI allows the helm to respond with
infinitely more preciseness than any helmsman could which enables the
use of what are called constant radius turns. A small toggle is used to
set the digital course input. Once a course had been toggled in the
rudder will immediately begin to turn and attains a rate of turn
necessary to change the course in an amount of time that will inscribe a
perfect circle if turning 360 degrees. The radius of the turn can be
adjusted by the same course toggle and brought down from say 2.0
nautical miles to 0.4 nm requiring a faster rate of turn for the same
course change. When you are setting the turn up a red line appears on
the radar and electronic chart screen showing the track of the ship's
pivot point and as the radius of the turn is decreased on the control
the line curves more and more showing where the ship will go.

I saw this in action in the Solent with a Southampton pilot. He had
never used it before and must have been as impressed as I that the ship
steered through a 110 degree course change, in a buoyed channel with
current and beam wind along a constant radius of 0.8 nautical miles.
Rather than having to order the helm put over and increased to speed the
turn, then reduced or countered to slow the turn as he lined up for the
next set of buoys, the auto pilot maintained the proper rate of turn for
the predetermined turn radius. The system made minute adjustments to the
rudder as needed for the change in course, the change in speed as we
pushed more and more water, the set from current, the leeway from the
wind, and the side slip from our momentum. Awesome.

This technology, specifically the instituting of constant radius turns
seems to have been perfected on the Scandinavian ferries plying the
Baltic. Combining the auto pilot system with an ergonomic bridge
mirrored after the cockpits of airplanes and you have all the
advancements in ship handling that were available in 1994. Yes, that's
right, this stuff has been around for 15 years and more but this is the
first time I've ever experienced any of it, whether at sea or in a
simulator. And the ships being put out by the same designers and
companies that built this one today have another 14 years of innovation
packed onto the bridge. Just imagine.

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