Staying Alive, Running Blind

By Tom Neale, 5/1/2008



Barge and Tug Barely Seen in Cape Fear River

After days and days of gale and near gale winds from the north and northeast, the forecast the next day was for light out of the southeast—perfect for going up the Chesapeake Bay from Hampton Roads. We were ready to go. But as we walked along the waterfront streets of Hampton, Virginia I got that feeling that I’ve so often known. The wind was lightening and clocking in direction. It was moist and air temperature was getting closer to water temperature. I could feel the clammy ocean air coolness against my skin. “We’re going to have fog,” I commented to my wife, Mel. “It’s going to roll in tonight and lie heavy tomorrow.”

She didn’t want to hear this and I didn’t want to even think it. Our trip up the coast had been plagued with gale and fog and shoals and broken bridges and we were ready to move on. But we’ve had a lot of experience with fog and we’ve learned some things. The first is that we don’t go out in heavy fog. Usually we don’t even go out in light fog. It can become dense without warning, the swirling mists engulfing you like a dementia, rendering you blind, confused and close to helpless. Fog horns, bells on buoys and engine sounds from other vessels tease you as to what direction they’re coming from. We have good equipment on Chez Nous, such as two chart plotters, current paper charts, radar and good binocs. But we, like most, are still accustomed to seeing with our eyes and, there’s no escaping the fact that fog is a serious impairment to navigation.

At 0200 I looked out the porthole by our bed and saw that the lights on the other side of the Hampton River were becoming ghostly and dimming. My prediction had been right on. By daylight, you could barely see the pilings of the dock to which we were tied. We were socked in big time. The only thing that we could clearly see was that this was to be another day at the dock.

After breakfast, we both sat down at our computers, deadlines to meet. As is our custom, we had two VHF radios on, one set for channel 16 and the other for 13. Soon we were having a hard time concentrating on writing, so fascinating was the drama unfolding through the radios. It was a delicate dance; perhaps “waltz” more accurately describes it, of lumbering leviathans. None were nimble. None were sprite. None pirouetted. Tugs pushing heavy loaded barges, tugs pushing light barges, huge container ships and bulk freighters from all over the world, Coast Guard vessels, large and small Navy vessels, even an air craft carrier and submarine were out there, doing their daily business of moving about the crowded waters. They not only had to stay clear of each other, they had to stay clear of shoals, obstructions and bridges. And if something went wrong, there was no quick turning or sudden stopping as with vehicular traffic. The best that most could do was an excruciatingly slow turn or a gradual decrease of speed as the boat or ship ploughed through water and time.

The most amazing thing was that they were making it work. The professional captains, officers and crew were moving their vessels, slowly, patiently, carefully, without incident. We could tell what was happening as they talked to each other on VHF 13. There were many different scenarios, but they were all reporting to each other that they had zero viz or close to it.

A tug coming down Newport News Channel saw another tug ahead and called out to the tug coming up the channel, at an approximate location and on an approximate course. “I can’t see you, but I’ve got you on radar.” And then they both agreed to turn to starboard, to make it a wide-margin safe pass.

Container ships streaming toward and through the small aperture of first the Thimble Shoals channel and then the bridge tunnel channel at Old Point Comfort, checked with each other, asking intentions well in advance of making any change of course or speed, to be sure that everyone had time to do what was needed. The air craft carrier spoke with boats in the area, orchestrating its approach. Coast Guard boats circled, providing a screen of protection in the zero visibility.


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Huge container ships and coal ships, backing out of piers, called first, for vessels up and down the channels. It takes a lot of time and often several tugs to get one of these giants out of a berth, turned around in the channel, and then underway with enough speed so that its rudder can bite the water. Tugs and barges passing along the channel had to slow their passage to avoid getting in the way of these operations.

We could hear the stress in some of the voices as the morning wore on. So far no accidents, no spills, no grounding. But when you’re in dense fog, nothing is normal, and that includes mental state. In the late morning someone, somewhere, played a short burst of music on VHF Channel 13. “If you see me coming better step aside. A lot of men didn’t and a lot of men died…” It was from Tennessee Ernie Ford’s rendition of “Sixteen Tons.” The person who played it on 13 was in violation of the law and the interruption of radio traffic could have resulted in an accident, but I suspect that many a captain couldn’t help smiling a bit.

As I continued to listen I began to notice two distinct types of situations. In some situations a captain would call out to the vessel he saw on radar, identifying it as the target near a certain geographical location or aid to navigation, and on a certain course. He would have to ask the name of the vessel in question, its type and size and its intentions. Sometimes the other captain didn’t answer promptly, if at all, because even with sophisticated radar it’s hard for the caller to precisely pinpoint and thus identify the vessel he’s calling—particularly in congested areas. In other situations, the captain, even though proceeding in zero viz, would call the other vessel by name, obviously already aware of certain specifics such as type of vessel, course and speed. These encounters were much more likely to be resolved more quickly, with greater precision, and thus with a significantly increased degree of safety. It dawned on me that these were vessels with AIS.

AIS technology allows vessels so equipped to transmit to other boats, also equipped, information such as vessel name, type, direction, speed and more. It can be invaluable for safety. Class A AIS is quite complex, involves integration of many ship systems, and is very expensive from the perspective of the recreational boater. It’s designed mainly for large ocean going vessels. There’s a less expensive Class A, sometimes referred to as the “workboat version,” for smaller vessels, but this is still quite expensive for widespread pleasure boat use. But several companies, such as ACR Electronics Inc., (long a recognized leader in safety products) have developed a Class B AIS system for the pleasure boater. Class B units don’t share as much information as Class A and don’t always share information as quickly or with the same priority. But they would sure beat proceeding with only radar and fog horns. Their use sure beats calling out blindly on 13 or 16 VHF to the “boat out there”. ACR’s unit would probably sell at around $1,000, but prices on new products, once they’re on the market, often come down quickly.

I’m saying, “would.” Why? Because the FCC has not yet passed the request to approve Class B equipment. ACR Electronics Inc. as well as various other companies, are ready to go. ACR’s equipment (and that of various others) has been approved by the Coast Guard. But you and I can’t buy this life saving equipment until the FCC does its thing. They’ve had the matter formerly before them for months and it was a pending issue long before.

By mid afternoon, we began to see the shore. The fog was thinning. A few pleasure boats began to leave harbors and marinas. But fog fools you. After around 20 minutes of “a little better viz,” we were all socked in again. Soon we began hearing commercial vessels urgently calling what they usually described as “small vessels” which they were seeing on radar but for which they had no other information except approximate location. These vessels were usually not responding on Channel 13 or 16, which meant that their skippers weren’t standing by or were so freaked out by their inability to see (as I might have been) that they didn’t realize they were being hailed. One such vessel was in the middle of the very narrow bridge tunnel channel at Old Point Comfort as a huge container ship approached. He got out of the way just in time, possibly never knowing how close he was to death. If he’d had AIS, he would probably have been much safer, although he shouldn’t have left then, regardless.

If Class B AIS were available, there would have been a greater likelihood that he would have had a system aboard. I, for one, will be happy when this equipment is approved, so that you and I can be safer when we can’t see or be seen.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale