Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Looking for a ship?

The job that began my seafaring career was on board a Very Large Crude oil Carrier which I was supposed to meet in San Pedro Bay. I was pumped when I walked off a late flight into LAX despite the little sleep I had the previous night lying awake with anticipation. With a weighty sea bag in hand I hailed a cab and asked the driver, who spoke plenty of Arabic but little English, to take me to the vessels berth. The union dispatch had provided me with the pier number but the driver had no idea where that was.

Though I was born in Long Beach California this was my first visit to the port of Los Angeles in fifteen years and evidently the drivers first visit ever. I had spent a lot of time in the harbor as a toddler with my mother skippering the M/V STAR, a tour boat out of a quaint marina which is now a parking lot for a shopping and dinning complex, but couldn't remember much beyond the Vincent Thomas Bridge we drove over and the distant Queen Mary hotel.

When we found the correct berth number I started to doubt my directions for another ship was in the berth, a foreign flagged behemoth much newer looking then the ship I had pictured. I got out of the cab and asked the security guard when the Marine Columbia would be fast alongside and he told me that no ship by that name was on the schedule but that I might try going over to the other berth by that same number in Long Beach.

My expensive cab ride started to get a little more stressful when I tried to explain to the diver that we needed to go to the other port in San Pedro Bay. My hope of finding the ship before midnight was gone once we wound our way off the Terminal Island maze and into the Port of Long Beach. Instead of finding a liquid cargo terminal we found a vacant container berth. The driver was now in very unfamiliar territory and starting to tweak just as I saw the pilot boat's white and red lights bearing down through the breakwater. I remembered passing the Long Beach pilots office on our way out to the container dock so I directed the cabbie back in that direction and had him wait as I met the pilot boat.

I explained my predicament to a groggy but sympathetic pilot and after paying off the cab he walked me into the Vessel Traffic Control office where he quickly determined the location of my missing ship. The room looked much like the air control deck on an aircraft carrier. Computer screens of the entire port displayed vessels names and positions, the Automatic Identification System had only recently become mandatory for ships after 9/11. This was the first time I had seen the technology in action.

The pilot logged out for the night and gave me a ride to the harbor launches where I waited for the next boat out. My ship was anchored inside the breakwater and unbeknown to me had just been sold as scrap. Her cargo had all ready been offloaded and all that stood between her and the cutting yards of Bangladesh was a complete tank washing and a Pacific Ocean crossing both of which I would be participating in.

I was thinking of this minor inconvenience when I came across a website the other day that basically does for any one on the Internet what the VTS in Long Beach did for me that night. The students at the University of the Aegean in Greece have created Marine Traffic, a web site which pieces together all of the different AIS shore receiving stations around the world providing real time data on any vessel equipped with an AIS unit and within range of a shore station (About 20 miles or so).

This compilation of AIS target data allows me to view my ship to see if it's near the coast, picking up the pilot, at anchor or fast alongside the berth, a great tool if you're debating whether you'll need a hotel room for the night. It allows anyone with a loved one at sea to know if they're ship is in port, transiting the Suez Canal or within cell phone range. It also means that you can now check out any ship in a port with AIS coverage to determine name, cargo, navigational status or destination (And included photographs of most vessels in the database).

And what if a ship is offshore, how might you keep track of it? As long as the mates are doing a good job at sending AMVER/SEAS meteorological observations than check out Sailwx.info . This website uses the position updates as received by AMVER and plots the ship (Or tall ship) on the chart. Of course there are other ways to track vessels such as with Purple Finder but this requires a subscription and passwords.

One more website in the vein of vessel tracking and spotting that I really like is from a company in the UK which spends most of the few clear days in the English Channel snapping pictures of passing ships from low altitude aircraft. Foto Flite then copyrights the pictures making them available online for searching and ordering prints. Shipping companies are probably their largest customer but surely a proud captain or two has bought a photograph for the mantle. My last Captain made it a habit of calling Foto Flite each time he took a ship out of the yard in Europe with a new paint job. He would fly the largest Ensign on board and dress up the yard arms with signal flags beforehand.

As for my first job I was surely dissapointed to walk onto a great paying ship to only find out she was doomed after thirty plus years of service. Like some of the other old ships I've worked on she had quite a history including a role in the original King Kong film where she transported King Kong himself to New York. Alas I wasn't even able to bring the ship to her final resting place. The American crew was replaced by a multinational crew prior to the beaching and dismantling. Any good Jones Act tanker company knows it's better to keep they're hands out of the dirty scrapping business.

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