Icebergs in Popular Shipping Pipeline Are Threatening Navigational Safety

May 23, 2017

Off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada’s “Iceberg Alley” is one of the world’s most popular shipping lanes. Currently, a record number of icebergs has moved in (along with loosened sea ice) and is threatening navigational safety.

The situation right now is extreme, due in part to two extraordinary weather systems in late March. To give you an idea of just how extreme, here are a few stats from April of this year:

  • There were about 660 icebergs in the area; the average number for the same time of year is about 212. More than triple the average!
  • The Canadian Coast Guard was called in 85 times to break ships from the ice.
  • Within the span of one week, the number of icebergs in the shipping lanes grew sharply—from 37 to 455.

Note that those statistics are from April—and peak season for the icebergs is May and June.

Thankfully, the International Ice Patrol is on the scene. The Patrol, which consists of an international coalition of 17 nations, formed in 1913 in response to the Titanic disaster. And it’s been warning ships of iceberg danger since.

Gabrielle McGrath is the U.S. Coast Guard commander leading the international effort, which is focused on identifying and tracking the biggest, most dangerous icebergs. In a recent interview with ABC News, she said, “In the last 104 years any vessel heeding our warnings has stayed safe from the danger of iceberg collision.”

According to Aslak Ross, head of marine standards for Maersk Line, the safety hazards posed by icebergs are not to be taken lightly. “We operate big ships, and our safety is a priority—and hence, we really try to avoid the areas of icebergs,” he said. “It is definitely something that needs to be considered in safe navigation.”


What’s Wrong With the National Charting Plan – Part 2

May 11, 2017


By: Bob Sweet, former USPS National Education Officer

In Part 1 of this blog, I outlined my main concerns with the Office of Coast Survey’s draft National Charting Plan. Namely, that it seems to support a trend toward the elimination of paper charts.

I’m going to run through four key reasons why paper charts are critical—especially for recreational boaters.

  • Reason #1: Let’s face it, electronics can and do malfunction. Most recreational boaters have a single thread system, based on a single GPS receiver and probably just one screen. A failure without paper charts would render this boater blind.
  • Reason #2: Chartplotters offer a limited window into the boaters’ area of operation. If the boater zooms in to see where the boat is located, he or she cannot see where the boat is going. If the boater zooms out to see where the boat is going, he or she cannot see any detail around the boat. The answer to this problem is to use a paper chart alongside the chartplotter. The paper chart will provide a larger view and sufficient detail. What’s more, the larger coverage of the printed chart is much better and safer for planning a voyage. Planning is more difficult on a chartplotter because it requires scrolling and zooming on an electronic chart.
  • Reason #3: Printed charts offer a great deal more information. This information is useful in planning and checking position while underway. Recreational boaters rely far more on visual cues on land because they usually operate away from shipping lanes. Most chartplotters used by recreational boaters do use vector charts, which offer simpler presentation, faster redraws, and scalable text. What they do not offer is refinement of features offered on paper/raster charts.
  • Reason #4: The trend toward just small-scale planning charts (large area) being produced is wrong. To the recreational boater, the local large-scale chart is his or her planning chart; it is their area of operation. Most recreational boaters do not go on extended voyages.

If for any reason, the National Ocean Service (NOS) stops creating the paper/raster chart images, these charts will disappear. That’s because the liability risk for a non-government enterprise is just too great to undertake chart generation. Commercial chart providers (those who currently print NOS charts, or modified presentations in chart books or re-sized chart sections), who rely on faithful reproduction of data provided by NOS to produce their products, would not be able to provide the products recreational boaters need.

You can download a copy of the Draft NOS National Charting Plan at:

What’s Wrong with the National Charting Plan – Part 1

May 7, 2017


By: Bob Sweet, former USPS National Education Officer

As you may know, the NOAA Office of Coast Survey is currently accepting public comment on its draft National Charting Plan.

According to NOAA, the purpose of the draft plan is “to solicit feedback from nautical chart users regarding proposed changes to NOAA’s paper and electronic chart products.”

I’m glad NOAA is reaching out for feedback. Here’s a brief overview of mine:

The National Charting Plan’s vision for the future sees “the end of raster navigation charts” and “the sunset of paper charts.”

That’s a wrong-headed view.

Yes, electronic charting has its value—especially in its ability to be easily updated. But for recreational boaters in particular, paper charts are critical.

Electronic charting favors commercial vessels

There’s no doubt the era of electronic charting is upon us. Problem is, electronic navigation charts (ENCs) favor commercial shipping over recreational boating. ENCs offer critical navigation information but leave out a lot of the detail and features found on paper charts.

The U.S. participates in treaties that lead to the mandatory use of ENC systems by commercial vessels on international voyages (see footnote). That means these commercial vessels no longer need to carry paper charts.

For international navigators, paper charts may not be critical, because their task is setting course in the open ocean most of the time. As the vessel approaches port, there are few approaches, and these are clearly delineated on the ENCs. Often, the vessel is brought into port by a “pilot” who specializes in local waters. ENCs work great for this task and that’s the rationale behind the international standards. They also eliminate the risk of failure of the electronic system by requiring redundant systems.

For recreational boaters, though, this trend toward diminishing the availability of the more detailed paper charts (and even their electronic equivalents called raster navigation charts) should be a serious concern.

Most recreational boaters use some sort of electronic navigation based on GPS. And many have chartplotters, which display the boat’s position directly on an electronic version of a chart.

But prudent recreational boaters always carry paper charts as well.

The problem with ENCs is that they emphasize commercial shipping areas, while offering a less detailed presentation, particularly of land features. Unfortunately, it is precisely those areas of potential elimination—that is, charts of larger scale (more detail)—that mean the most to recreational boaters.

In short, recreational boaters need charts that their commercial and international counterparts do not.

As NOAA accepts public feedback and modifies the National Charting Plan, I hope it will give equal priority to the millions of recreational boats and boaters—as opposed to its current emphasis on satisfying just the thousands of commercial vessels.

Complying with international treaties is important. And supporting safety at sea is critical. But emphasizing this small segment of the user community is not the right answer for the vast population of boaters.

Your thoughts matter!

In Part 2 of this blog, I’ll outline four key reasons why we still need paper charts. Stay tuned!

Footnote: By international treaty, the U.S. participates in the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which applies to international voyages. In 2012, IMO (International Maritime Organization) adopted regulations leading to mandatory use of Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS). By July 2018, all international vessels over 10,000 gross tons will be required to implement ECDIS.

New Lightning Tracking Satellite Brings Security to Boaters

May 2, 2017

GOES-16 and GOES-13 Earth Photo Comparison from January 15, 2017. [photo obtained from GOES-16 website]

If you keep up with advancements in weather technology, you may have heard news from NOAA about the first lightning mapper, the GOES-16 satellite.

This satellite is equipped with new technology that can help track and predict big storms. How does it work? Not to get too technical, but the satellite is in “geostationary orbit,” meaning it will follow the western hemisphere as the Earth rotates for the next five years. Staying in the same location allows it to view more detailed changes in the atmosphere, leading to accurate weather tracking. The National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) explains, “The mapper continually looks for lightning flashes in the Western Hemisphere, so forecasters know when a storm is forming, intensifying and becoming more dangerous. Rapid increases of lightning are a signal that a storm is strengthening quickly and could produce severe weather.”

Not only can GOES-16 see lightning and track its movement, it can also track in-cloud lightning. In-cloud lightning, where the electricity stays inside of one cloud, often lights up the sky with a flash but generally no sound. These flashes “often occur five to 10 minutes or more before potentially deadly cloud-to-ground strikes. This means more precious time for forecasters to alert those involved in outdoor activities of the developing threat,” the NESDIS website says.

Currently, tracking weather over the ocean is difficult due to the short range of land-based weather trackers, and satellites often have a hard time capturing detail. With the launching of the GOES-16, storms can be monitored and tracked so mariners can hit deep seas with a sense of security. Receiving fair warning to get out of dangerous zones and understanding when you are and aren’t threatened is imperative for safe boating.

GOES-16 launched in November of 2016 and will be in preliminary and testing stages for six to 12 months. GOES-16 is has not been declared operational yet, but has ten years of space time planned. Learn more about the GOES-16 on its website.

NOAA Invites Public Comment on the National Charting Plan

March 26, 2017

In February, the NOAA Office of Coast Survey released a draft of “The National Charting Plan: A Strategy to Transform Nautical Charting.”

NOAA is currently seeking public comment on the draft.

Through midnight on June 1, 2017, all nautical chart users—from professional mariners and recreational boaters to data providers and navigational equipment manufacturers—are invited to review the plan and provide feedback.

Here’s what you need to know:

The National Charting Plan lays out a strategy to make improvements to NOAA’s entire suite of nautical chart products—with the goal of providing customers with products that are more useful, up-to-date, and safer to navigate with.

According to NOAA, the plan includes services and products that will be changed or discontinued, and the introduction of completely new products and services optimized for modern technology and techniques.

It’s worth noting that the plan is a comprehensive strategy to improve all charts—and does not cover maintenance of individual charts.

In soliciting user feedback on the plan, NOAA states that while some changes have already begun (like improving the portrayal of wrecks on electronic navigational charts), other changes (like the possible conversion of charted depths from feet and fathoms to meters) are being evaluated.

Want to give your input about the changes discussed in the plan? See the Federal Register Notice to download the plan and to get directions on how to submit your comments.

Just remember, the deadline is midnight June 1, 2017!

Heavy Icebreakers: An Asset to Scientific Research

March 14, 2017

For the past 40 years, the U.S. Coast Guard has resupplied the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott South Pole stations in Antarctica for Operation Deep Freeze. As you might imagine, getting to the edge of the earth is not a simple task. The Coast Guard deploys over 140 crew members to navigate frigid waters and safely supply the two stations using a heavy icebreaker. The ship navigates through 70 miles of ice, ranging in thickness from one to 10 feet, just to reach the McMurdo station. On Feb. 13th, as the icebreaking crew reached where few humans have been, senior Coast Guard leaders gathered in Washington D.C. to talk about the need for more U.S. icebreakers.

The Committee on Polar Icebreaker Cost Assessment was briefed by Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Michel, who shared how access to polar regions is important for our nation’s security and sovereign interests. Yet the Polar Star is currently the only operational icebreaker.

According to the Coast Guard’s blog, “…the Admiral spoke of the need for modern, capable icebreakers as a national security imperative. To that end, the Admiral shared key findings from a 2010 study that identified the need for three heavy and three medium icebreakers to provide sufficient capability to support U.S. national interests in the polar regions.”

Admiral Michel urged, “To be clear, our current fleet does not meet this need. We currently cannot guarantee year-round, assured access. If Polar Star were to suffer a casualty, we have zero self rescue capability.”

Directed by Congress, this committee formed to create a report that can be used for future operation and acquisition processes for one or more heavy icebreakers. This was the first meeting, but they plan to publish their findings in July 2017. Once the findings are published, an educated decision can be made on the next steps to continue providing safe access to Antarctica.

How To Handle GPS Failure at Sea (and why it’s absolutely crucial to be prepared)

February 25, 2017

“For thousands of years . . . sailors used the constellations, sun, and moon to navigate to distant shores. Today, all that’s needed is a device called a GPS receiver. GPS stands for Global Positioning System, and it lets us know where we are and where we are going anywhere on Earth.”

NOAA National Ocean Service

GPS is a godsend. Indeed, mariners, road-trippers, tourists and adventurers of all kinds depend on this device to get from point A to point B.

But as wonderful as GPS is, it’s crucial that we not lose the ability to find our way without it. Because GPS is not immune to failure. It can stop working for any number of reasons, from a dead battery to a lost signal—or even intentional jamming.

The odds of your GPS failing might be slim, but unless you’re well prepared, the consequences could be life threatening.

How to Handle a GPS Failure

  1. Always Carry a Backup: Sometimes the only “fix” you need is a backup GPS. That is, if the problem is with your device itself (a dead battery or other technical failing), then a having a second device on hand will quickly solve your problem. Here’s a great piece of advice from Steve Henkind in Sail Magazine:

I like to carry a spare that is similar or identical to the main unit; if I should have to activate the spare, there’s no learning curve involved. Also be aware that most units go through a cold start the first time you turn them on in a new area; this means it may take several minutes, or longer, to establish a fix while the unit is searching for the satellites. That’s why, if you are passing through navigationally tricky waters, it’s a good idea to start up the spare beforehand; once the spare unit has a fix, you can turn it off. Periodically turning on the spare also allows you to check that its batteries are strong and functional. 

  1. Navigate Manually: If your GPS fails due to a lost signal, you’ll need to use traditional methods and tools (e.g. paper chart, compass, parallel rulers) to verify your position and calculate course headings and distances to the closest port of call. Again, this is why it’s important to learn—and maintain—manual navigation skills.

There’s a great article in the Daily Boater on how to navigate to shore without a GPS, including these tips on how to verify your position:

  • If you can see land and can draw lines of position back from preferably 3 or more points on your paper charts, you have to be where they intersect.
  • If you can see only one landmark, you can calculate a “running fix.” Get a bearing from your … compass to the one point you can see. Draw the line of position from you to it – and write down the time. While maintaining course and speed, give yourself some time before taking another bearing to that landmark and draw the new line of position and mark the time. 

Don’t know how to do running fix? This article in Cruising World provides a step-by-step explanation.

  1. Call for Rescue: When you can’t navigate to land, for whatever reason, it’s time to call for help. If you have a standard VHF radio and are within radio range of the Coast Guard, send out a distress call. Using its Rescue-21 system, the USCG can pinpoint your location and quickly begin the search and rescue mission.

Learn more about Rescue-21 here.

TIP: Prepare, prepare, prepare! Many expert skippers recommend that you always keep a manual log of where you are and what course you should be steering to make your next waypoint—and update it every 15-30 minutes. If your GPS ever fails, the information in your log will provide a good starting point from which to navigate your way back to land (or in the worst-case scenario, the information may help expedite search and rescue efforts).