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2013-12-28

What could possibly go wrong?

The funniest part to me is "SECOND EDITION".
The above tome is regularly featured on lists of "most ridiculous subject matter/book title", and thanks to the spread of the Internet, the good Captain Trimmer's ponderings hold a special place in many a sailor's heart. Not that they've ever read Captain Trimmer, but that cover...it's memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Now, even though the redoubtable ship-avoider himself may have passed to Fiddler's Green, it turns out that his tactical advice may find new application in our new century.

Behold the crewless ship.
A cleverer monkey never handled a 200,000 tonne tanker via a tiny plastic joystick
Using the sort of logic that produced the "let the robots run things" dystopian science-fiction of my youth, the problems (and no doubt the expense) of finding competent crews for the world's merchant fleets are apparently giving rise to this no-doubt forward-thinking notion of vast, automated ships plowing indifferently through the world's seaways (link may require registration).

Vada a bordo, cazzo, indeed.
Now, examples abound of the historically fleshy sort of skipper screwing up, with huge and in some cases lingering consequences. It would be hard to argue that humans could do a better job than automation, just as no human helmsman can steer as well as even the more basic sort of autopilot. But as I've discussed before, no autopilot has an innate fear of death or even of losing the ship, and so when the good ol' AP starts to become overwhelmed at 30 knots, even a not-particularly skilled helmsman can usually muster up enough chops to avoid a broach, capsize or pitchpole, events that would be untroubling to even the most current of Raymarine's offerings. Would an automated passenger jet be able to pull off a "Captain Sully", a maneuver not in any flight simulation? I think not.

Machines don't care, and if the machine is being operated by remote or partial control, I would suggest that the person with the joystick is simply not as invested in the process as would be a crew deploying engine, anchor and trysail (or their equivalents) to keep off the rocks. Should shipping therefore become a glorified video game?

The captain will see you now.
Consensus, even among marine professionals, would seem to be hard to find. The technical hurdles, never mind the inevitable overhaul of the writing of the insurance policies, are enormous. But crewless ships can't be ruled out in a world with self-parking cars and robot air forces. Where does the sensible practice of small boat crew keeping a proper watch fall when there's no one at the bridge of the container ships plying the seas? It's already somewhat difficult to attract their notice; Neptune help you in a world of automated vessels if you take on water beyond SAR range. Or simply, if predictably, get stuck.
When things go wrong, one still needs a capable generalist. You can't program for the entirely novel.

We learn in the small boat game that every convenience has a cost, and that the cost is often related to the complexity of the convenience. I find it persuasive that at this stage in human development, and during a time in which the mere removal of electricity has crippled...and continues to cripple...large swaths of the city in which we live, that "crewless ships" is going to be a helpful idea. We may be the sort of jumped-up primate that will walk into traffic while texting, leading to an entirely new class of emergency-room visits, but even as idiot monkeys unable to master their own tools, we retain a certain self-interest that has been the hallmark of a life at sea. Even a robot's life.

UPDATE 14.02.19: The future is getting closer. The robot boat Saildrone One recently completed a San Francisco to Hawai'i voyage in a reasonable (for a 19-footer) 34 days. By the current rules, were we in its general vicinity, we could raft up to it (assuming we could catch it) and claim it for salvage as it is clearly abandoned. Perhaps "pre-abandoned"?
I wonder if you are hove-to and are rammed by this thing, who do you sue for absent seamanship? O brave new world/That has such vessels in't!

UPDATE 14.03.10: For those who prefer to listen than read, here's an interesting podcast from gCaptain on the topic of "robot" ships.










2013-12-23

On the rocks on the hard

Those of my readers in the tropics: I can hear you laughing in an most un-Christmas-like fashion. And volume.

So, we had a spot of weather over the weekend. As can happen every decade or so, warm air met over the Great Lakes with cold, and fat droplets of supercooled water fell all around, snapping tree branches and pulling down wires with crusty, tenacious ice.

A frickin' winter wonderland, alas.
Mrs. Alchemy had kindly plugged in the boat, if only to keep charged the sole little Group 24 battery that runs the bilge pump (not a lot to do for that pump unless the roof blows off in a rainstorm, in which case we have Other Problems). It occurred to me that it would be best, and in conformance to club rules, if I went down and unplugged it, particularly as every plug and outlet was likely encased in the suddenly popular ice-crust motif.

Post-hull cleaning and the bottom paint looks pretty reasonable.
 Alchemy, the boat, was no exception. While the constant friction of tires on salt (Torontonians are too full of self-regard to actually cease driving during adverse weather events, and I am no exception) made the main roads passable, if tricky even for this elderly former bike courier, the club itself resembled an ice rink prepared by a drunken Zamboni driver.

No, I did not go up on deck. I've nearly killed myself in the past trying to walk up there with a cm. of ice.
A quick look confirmed that, insofar as the minimal melting was concerned, all scuppers were functioning as icicle jumps, and that there was nothing superficially amiss.


The inner part of our club's basin is beginning to freeze ahead of the rest of the harbour.
Were I not overly concerned at the time to keeping my footing and avoiding sliding into the lake, I might have produced more artistic shots of the ice festooning the boat. It was, in the way of these things, pretty, even under a rapidly darkening Solstice sky.
 
Said sky and the dim alley between stowed boats called for a spot of flash.
The plugs and outlet were, predictably, both live and icebound. Disconnection was swift and merciless. I never want to be "that guy who burnt down the yard full of boats".

When I need to run a heater AND a power tool, it's best to run two lines.
The vinyl mermaid novelty fender seemed extra-perky as I had a last look around. All was silent, if not quite night. Our power was mercifully uninterrupted and our heat remains calorific, which is better than a large percentage of our city's inhabitants, for which I am grateful, although I feel that having a working Honda 2000 and a week's worth of gasoline may have some sort of talismanic effect in warding off disaster...I may be taking the sailor's black box theory a little too far.
♫ I saw my ship not sailing in on Christmas day in the morning...♪
On the other hand, there are still hundreds of thousands of cold, powerless homes in the surrounding urban and rural areas. This is, by any measure, a major event that is going well beyond inconvenience and property damage to actual danger of exposure, injury and perhaps worse. We had an unexpected guest in the form of a friend show up to couch-surf last night, and her story of a near-freezing, dark house at the edge of the city, with no landline, no genset, truncated and stuffed public transportation and no easy means of communication with the outside world (some cel systems are malfunctioning, as well...so much for "package deals") made me consider once again not only the utility of having a backup to the backup (like freshwater supplies, and like solar, wind and genset for the boat, in addition to alternators on the diesel), but to have things like candles, oil lamps, small camp stoves and plenty of blankets. Hundreds of people are abandoning their condos for "designated warming centres" today because they do not have an alternative or have no means to care for themselves the way we do...or would have to if we (fingers crossed) lost our own power.
Yikes...but how are you supposed to report an outage when the router's dead?
We may have more refugees from the fragilities of 21st century infrastructure this evening...it remains very much a last-minute thing, which is fine, because we wish to extend to our friends not only the physical warmth of an unstricken house, but the social warmth of having our friends literally at hand over these holidays. As as I tend not so much to shop but to opportunistically "provision", there's no shortage of food. I find that in this way, the knock-on effect of planning for the liveaboard life has produced some habits of preparedness which, while very minor compared to those of some armed survivalist in one of the more libertarian parts of this continent, seem to be serving us...and some shivering pals...well.

Ice-pan Gap: At least on the upside, very few Porter planes are roaring away next to the club.
I wish my readers, wherever they are, happy holidays and fair winds, and may the most ice you see this Christmas be in your beverage of choice.