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2014-02-23

Bumps in the nightwatch


Nobody said global trade was going to be painless
Under the list of "problems facing the cruiser that are unlikely to go away soon" are paperwork and visa issues, the question of when it is worth it to bribe officials, and how to protect oneself, one's crew and one's boat from the debris floating in the sea. To date, I've run aground inside a buoyed channel with supposedly sufficient depth, I've run aground on a sand bar where I should've known better, and I've hit large branches and sucked plastic into the motor. I've also reported, several times now, the position and surmised course of floating picnic tables, shipping pallets, tree limbs and trunks to the Coast Guard. If there's garbage in the water big enough to sink a boat locally, there's likely worse at sea, if (one hopes) far more dispersed.

I've covered off in a largish post last fall the topic of strainers and the sealife and smaller debris that can hamper them. But this is more about steel and timber and tsunami debris that can do more than go bump in the nightwatch. Sure, most of it either sinks to the bottom or washes (and is plundered in the time-honoured traditon) ashore, but thanks to the sheer volume of world shipping, it's a non-trivial amount of junk afloat. While it's been said that if you worried about everything that could kill you at sea, you'd never cast off, it's part of seamanlike prudence, I think, to consider whether an unlikely event is worthy of planning for or of instituting a Plan B (beyond a life raft, which would be Plan A, I suppose).

Self-containered?

Apart from some practical steps to keep the water out (would you bother to fother?), what would be a reasonable game plan for dealing with a sea with roaming, hard to spot nautical hazards? Questions like this aren't theoretical for us: it's part of the reason we chose steel over fibreglass, and we've already had some useful, if unwelcome, confirmation that steel can take blunt-force impacts more successfully than can many other boat hull materials. Dunno about super-duper Kevlar or carbon-fibre boats, but that's not us nor likely to be us.


By the way, I encourage all sailors planning on going out of sight of land to watch the above two videos. The comments section, unusually in my experience of YouTube's offerings, has interesting and lively suggestions on keeping afloat after a hull breach.

This topic arises because the seas aren't getting any emptier of the now-universal containerized cargo vessel. Numbering around 10,000, this vast fleet of slab-sided sea trucks plies the oceans in calculated courses designed to minimize diesel usage and therefore cost. The crews, whatever their seamanship, are generally not well-paid nor numerous. As we read in Ninety Percent of Everything, an intriguing treatise (and a book I will be reviewing shortly) by Rose George on the "invisible" shipping industry, we often don't even know how much or of what nature is inside those containers, each of which is about the size  of Alchemy, and potentially much heavier. 
“When MSC Napoli grounded off a Devon beach in January 2007, its burst boxes of motorbikes, shampoo, and diapers attracted looters and treasure hunters. It was also a rare opportunity to compare what was declared on container manifests with actual contents. In 20 percent of the containers, the contents and weights were wrong.”--Rose George, Ninety Percent of Everything
Mate Johnny C. and myself share a awestruck fascination for bad weather as expressed in isobars squeezed tighter than a chilled gymnast's backside. You can argue whether the terrible oceanic weather of late is the fault of humankind all you want, but don't let it interrupt your bailing.

And this was before the last six.
Regardless of the human toll on property and infrastructure, those who can read these sort of synoptic charts can imagine (or recall in some cases) what these weather systems can do in the open ocean.
An imperfect storm.

One known and anticipated effect of bad weather in the more high-traffic parts of the sea is damage to those contain ships, which tend to lose, predictably, containers.  At over five hundred containers in the sea, it can be assumed that many sank more or less immediately, but nonetheless some continue to float for significant periods of time, to the point where they become known hazards to shipping.

Cigarettes: now in seafood flavour!

Of course, some are more or less safely beached, but considering their sometimes-hazardous cargo, safety is relative. It's clear that more bad weather has the potential, and maybe the probability, of increasing the number of containers in the sea, or conversely, the amout of debris that's supposed to be affixed to the shore cut loose into the open ocean.

This is better than hitting something awash below the WL, but it would be a different story in a 0300 h gale. Photo (c) Ocean Navigator

And while the loss of multiple containers doesn't happen every day, it happens frequently enough to make one wonder about what sort of watchstanding would protect against hitting voyage-wrecking debris, or if there are technological solutions worth the bother. Radar, forward-looking sonar or some sort of electronic beacon or tag on the containers themselves hold promise of varying degrees. It's not so much a matter of whether the tech exists; it does, but given that criminals are already exploiting the technology of container tracking, would a conscientious, budget-minded shipper not prefer to stick with the old paper manifests or their proprietary, closed cargo accounting?

While the ability to get some sort of lat/lon data or other directional signal from an awash, overboard container at sea would be very handy on the nightwatch, I don't know how that would help you if you ran into a fleet of large logs. "Keep a good watch" has its limits! But the Russian timber ship video, which for some reason will not embed here, got me thinking of an interesting possibility that is already in play in Russia.

My understanding is that in Russia, the cops can be corrupt and the insurance companies can be very weaselly in order to avoid paying out on claims. So the habit of continuously recording via a small camera every second of driving from the viewpoint through the windscreen has become common. I believe you can record several hours of driving on a tiny device; afterwards, the old files are "re-recorded" with more current ones. As I understand it, the process stops and starts with the car. Or with the douchebag powerboater.



I can easily see this rather simple technology adapted for the cruising sailboat. In fact, my friend Alex in Portugal gets a plug here for his extensive and innovative use of Go Pro cameras to record his racing crew's performances.



One can easily imagine a "watch cam" that records the last 24 hours of sailing automatically. It could be mounted three metres up the mast, for instance. Or even at the spreaders or the mast top for such useful functions as "spot the poorly charted and greatly expanded since Captain Cook" reef. It needn't be expensive or technically complex.

Oh, look, a situation ahead demanding caution. Glad it was spotted it from a 15 metre height-of-eye. Photo (c) Brian Steiler


If the boat hits (or is hit) by debris or derelict cargo/containers, the incident would be captured. That's handy for insurance claims, if not exactly peace of mind. "Yes, Maersk (or other major shipping line) representatives, it was one of your poorly secured 20-tonne boxes of dollar-store crap that stove in our bow...here's the video and please note the logo on the side!" Or even the side of the ship.

This is the container ship MOL Comfort just prior to splitting fully in half. I find the name a little ironic.


Now, I already have a "rear-view bumper cam" so that I can safely dock portside from my pilothouse's starboard helm: it's a simple way to make sure I'm close enough for the crew to jump off with a line. This is simply that sort of deal with waterproofing and a MP3-grade recorder, a 12 VDC supply and some sort of a switch or timer.

And it's probably not beyond possibility to envision a time when a drone aircraft can be launched from a boat to view (in visible or infrared or perhaps even a limited form of radar) the seas ahead for possible debris intersections.
Of course, by "probably not beyond possibility", I mean "is already being done on a regular basis". Whether one considers it necessary or prudent to use such technologies aboard, and whether such technologies will work in heavy weather at night at sea, remain probably as much a matter of opinion as of investment. The odds are low, of course, because the oceans are very big and empty.

Not as much, however, as they used to be.

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