Tactical GPS watch – All large commercial freighters and cargo ships now are required to carry either marine AIS transceivers or tactical GPS watch, which broadcast the ship’s name and position, along with other information, to anyone within receiving range.
These signals from tactical GPS watch are designed to help boaters avoid collisions by showing the ship’s speed and course. But they also provide valuable information about freighters — and potentially their cargo — to owners, charterers, insurers and banks that finance marine operations.
Over the past few years, a variety of ship tracking services — some free, some subscription-based — have sprung up in response to demand to take advantage of the new abilities to track ships worldwide inherent in AIS, which stands for Automatic Identification System.
AIS Provides Short-Range Data on Ship Movements
Ships broadcast AIS data on VHF radio frequencies, which reach an absolute maximum of 45 miles across the Earth. Typical VHF range is shorter, generally 15 to 20 miles. Each AIS unit either contains or is connected to a tactical GPS watch unit, which supplies position data.
Commercial (Class A) AIS transceivers continually broadcast information on the ship’s name, heading, course, and speed over the ground. The units also can be configured to provide additional information, such as ship dimensions, International Maritime Organization number, draft, rate of turn (useful for collision avoidance), pitch and roll, destination and estimated time of arrival.
AIS receivers (whether they are land station-based or on other vessels) then receive and display this information. Various government bodies and private organizations have deployed receivers in ports worldwide, making AIS-based tactical GPS watch ship tracking possible.
Lloyd’s MIU Runs Seasearcher Marine Database
Prior to the advent of electronic communication and ship tracking, ship owners and other interested parties got their information on freighter and cargo vessel movements from publications such as the Lloyd’s List, which has provided data on ships’ arrivals and departures since around 1734.
The Lloyd’s List, which still publishes daily web and paper editions, now is part of Lloyd’s MIU (itself a member of the publicly traded Informa plc group). Lloyd’s MIU offers a wide range of services relating to vessel movement, port information and company information, including AIS ship tracking abilities, through its Seasearcher online marine database.
Seasearcher boasts 24/7 live coverage, with more than 32 million ship position reports from more than 62,000 ships each day. Lloyd’s MIU has deployed some 450 of its own AIS receivers in ports worldwide, and says it offers live coverage from 6,900 ports and terminals in more than 100 countries.
Seasearcher can provide a wealth of information on current and historical ship positions and tracks, but it is not intended for the casual dabbler. Lloyd’s MIU does offer free trials of Seasearcher, but applicants must provide information on their business first, and the company reserves the right to reject an application.
“The AIS data we publish only goes to paying customers who have been suitably vetted, and many of our customers use this data to detect and monitor traffic thus ensuring that shipping is safer for all,” Lloyd’s MIU says in an Internet posting seeking additional organizations to run AIS receivers for its growing network.
Meanwhile, several other companies compete with Lloyd’s MIU to provide full-fledged commercial AIS tracking services. For example, SiiTech Inc., another company selling worldwide vessel monitoring services, offers a free “lite” version of its services along with a full commercial license, which costs $799, for marine industry companies.
Free Ship Position Tracking Offered by Regional Organizations
Meanwhile, amateur ship enthusiasts can choose from a variety of Internet sites offering free AIS position information on ships. These include sites run by fellow amateurs along with sites run by researchers and universities:
Marine Traffic, an open, community-based project based at the University of the Aegean in Greece, uses volunteer partners with AIS base stations to cover most of the world’s major ports. Users of the free service choose their search location from a world map, or search by name for a particular vessel.
Shipspotting.com, which bills itself as “an online community for ship photos and related topics,” includes AIS data along with more than 500,000 images of various commercial vessels.
ShipAIS.com compiles data from ship-spotting enthusiasts around the United Kingdom. It also offers photos, live webcams from two ports, and ship destination information.
Vesseltrax.com is run by a worker from the Texas City Harbor, who says the idea stemmed from efforts to calculate accurate ship arrival times for marine transfer operations. The site includes data from the Texas City Harbor and the Houston Ship Channel.
The sites offer varying capabilities to search by area and/or specific ship, but they all provide the opportunity to “see” cargo ships, freighters, and other commercial marine traffic in real-time via their AIS signals as they move in and out of port.
Boaters Can Learn from Commercial Fishermen
Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations found within the United States and throughout the world. A number of measures and practices have been taken by the fishing industry to improve safety at sea and increase the chances of survival after the occurrence of a marine casualty. Adoption of this technology and the techniques used by commercial fishermen can benefit recreational boaters everywhere.
Fishermen operate in extreme conditions of weather, sea state and fatigue. The risk of injury can come from equipment failure, collusion, and human error. If a safety skill or piece of equipment is developed in this environment, it can be sure to help smaller boats operating under more favorable conditions.
Some Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Equipment and Practices
Immersion (Survival) Suits – Immersion suits are required to be carried on commercial fishing boats operating north of 32°N latitude line. Research shows many people will not survive immersion in 70° F water for more than a couple hours and the body will not maintain its core temperature for extended periods in water that is less than 91° F. Use of immersion suits greatly increases the odds of surviving contact with cold water. These suits provide flotation and keep a person fairly dry in cold water. They can extend survival times by hours and often days. This is one piece of commercial fishing vessel safety gear that has a place on a recreational vessel operating in cold water.
Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) – These radio beacons take the search out of a search and rescue mission. The current 406MHz radio technology is use allows for rapid acquisition and location of the distress signal, pinpointing a vessel’s location in just a matter of minutes. EPIRBs come in two categories; those that are designed to float free in an emergency and devices that must be manually activated. Increased use of EPIRBs and improved electronics technology has greatly lowered the cost of 406MHz EPRIRBs. They can now be purchased for around $750.
Emergency Drill Training – The crews of commercial fishing vessels participate in onboard training or drills to practice handling emergency procedures. Topics include dealing with fire onboard, a man overboard, donning an immersion suit, abandoning ship, making mayday calls, and conducting damage control. Training is a proven way to improve a person’s ability to effectively respond to an emergency situation. Groups like the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA) offer courses in how to conduct effective drills.
Improved Communications Technology – A couple of new technologies, digital selective calling (DSC) and automatic identification system (AIS), have been developed in marine radio communications gear. DSC allows a person to call a specific marine VHF radio among the hundreds that can be in use at one time. This capability depends on the use of a using a nine digit Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number that is assigned to each boater that registers their radio. During an emergency, a skipper or crew member can punch a button on a DSC equipped radio that broadcasts this identification information to rescue agencies that allows access to the contact and description information of file for the boat.
Automatic Identification Equipment (AIS) is carried by many commercial vessels as a requirement to operate in Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) zones operated by the Coast Guard. AIS is backwards compatible with DSC radio equipment and provides a wealth of navigational data to a boat operator. Using a radar display with an electronic chart overlay, AIS shows every similarly equipped vessel on the screen. Clicking a vessel displayed shows its name, length, route of travel, speed and more. Safety information like closest point of support and time to closest point of approach are shown graphically. Information previously only available to vessel traffic controllers can be provided by having AIS onboard.
These are just a few examples of safety technology used by commercial fishermen that can benefit savvy recreational boaters.