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Riding on Penobscot Pilot

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Huge freighters and tankers may frighten us small boaters, but they're also fascinating. I mean, how do you maneuver and dock a single-screw mountain of steel that's optimized for running long, straight legs? The answer, of course, is "very, very carefully," and it also applies to the way the pilots who specialize in this demanding task get to or from their work. I know a lot more about all this, and the electronics assisting, after an afternoon aboard a 48-foot twin-screw belonging to the small pilot group that guides ships up and down my local Penobscot Bay.


Capt. Jane Ryan uses electronics, and superb boat-handling skills, to pick up a pilot.

Penobscot Pilot departed Rockland, Maine, to pick up Skip Strong once he'd conned the 650-foot oil tanker Nor'easter some 34 miles from Searsport to a certain sea buoy. Though I hadn't yet met him, I knew Strong to be one heck of a mariner, and a bit of a geek, too. Getting to watch Capt. Jane Ryan prep and run the pilot boat was a bonus. Not only did she thoroughly check out Penobscot's spotless engine room and sheath a sharp knife on a rail for quick snatching if something tangled during the critical pick up, but she even programmed the boat's destination and ETA into her ACR Nauticast Class A transponder (ACR Nauticast B test). It was hardly necessary on such a clear day, but what a good habit. While such data doesn't affect regular AIS plotting—and, in fact, is often wrong (lazy captains!)—in tough conditions, knowing where you're eventually headed will improve another skipper's situational awareness.

As shown above, Ryan has a fairly normal electronics array. There's a primary Furuno radar and a Raymarine backup—"redundancy is good," she says—plus a Standard Horizon plotter and a RAM-mounted laptop running Coastal Explorer (CE). But she does use CE's AIS plotting function a little differently, actually trying for the flashing alarm which indicates a "dangerous" CPA (closest point of approach). She likes to converge with the ship early; time spent close under its hip helps her get in the groove for the moment when the Nor'easter slowed to about 8 knots, Ryan smoothly reduced Penobscot's CPA to zero feet, and Strong stepped aboard. Whew!


Pilot Skip Strong demos some of his gear.

Heading back, Strong showed me his gear bag consisting largely of a Raven Portable Pilot System, some of which might be useful to big-yacht skippers. It includes a mini combo GPS and differential beacon antenna that attaches to a combo sub-meter DGPS and WiFi transmitter. There's also a wireless pilot interface that plugs into the mandated "pilot port" of a ship's Class A AIS. It includes a couple of ways to work around miswired ports (and pardon me if it was almost gratifying to learn that even big-ship installers mess up data networking). The net result is that Strong can move freely around a ship's bridge with his little laptop not only showing him AIS targets and data from the ship's own sensors (that are tied into its transponder), but also plotting his position using his group's own DGPS and electronic charts.


AIS information helps Strong monitor tug assistance.

The screen shot at right is from Raven's Wheelhouse II, also specialized for pilots, but the underlying software that collects, mixes, and records the wireless data can feed several yacht navigation programs. Strong made this image from a recording of the Nor'easter job. Note how, as he spun the tanker in the narrow turning basin, the tug's AIS showed him its precise push vector, and hence what the ship's bow is doing, while his aft DGPS (the red dot) along with the track ghosts confirm the maneuver's success. Note, too, the oddly echoed shoreline, the result of the pilots overlaying NOAA's vector charts with more accurate survey data. Penobscot Pilots even has a weather station mounted on the end of that pier, and another item in Strong's bag was an experimental wireless receiver for monitoring it in real time during an approach. A big wall of steel can act like a sail, and even with all his other tools, Strong says it's hard sometimes to know if he's closing with the pier at 1.2 knots or 0.8 knots. "And it makes a difference." No doubt!

I rest easier knowing that pilots like Strong shepherd the oil moving around the precious coast of Maine and that captains like Ryan bring them home to do it again. I'm also appreciative that the Penobscot Pilots set up a network of shore-side AIS receivers. I use them, via their data partner Shine Micro, to see which megayachts are cruising Maine during the season. The pilots, of course, had their own reasons for the investment. Strong calls it "laziness," but without a big port VTS (Vessel Traffic System), he and his mates were on their own to figure out if ships were showing up as planned. Now each can fire up CE on his home computer and monitor AIS targets halfway across the Gulf of Maine via a private, full-detail Internet feed. Strong even uses it on the road, with a cellular data card.

Strong, in fact, headed up this project and is quite an AIS expert. He'd appreciate, for instance, how SeaCAS is using standard AIS messages for a nonstandard, and nonintrusive, task. And though he shares the concerns I wrote about here in March ("Here Comes Class B"), he, too, is quite enthused about Class B transponders. Once the FCC finalizes U.S. Class B rules, the Coast Guard plans to extend AIS requirements to some 17,000 smaller commercial vessels, including the ferries and schooners that often cross the pilots' carefully crafted routes. Not that AIS can be depended on any more than any other single data source. Strong has it right, I think, exclaiming first that "All AIS is good" but later adding, "Anyone who relies on AIS is screwed!"

Similar can be said for all electronics. Useful tools, yes, but only as part of a whole seamanship package. That truth came home powerfully watching Ryan and Strong do their tricky work and knowing they do it in every season and almost any weather. Interestingly, Strong's multifaceted skills are something you can study on. That's because he was the ship skipper who 11 years ago famously came to the rescue of a disabled tug and barge that were drifting fast into Florida's Gold Coast during a tropical storm. Even the Coast Guard thought it too dangerous to go out, but Strong and his crew managed to get a line on the tug from the deck of their 688-foot fully loaded tanker!

Never mind that the barge was loaded with a precious NASA fuel cell and that the story ends with a precedent-setting court case and a record-setting salvage award. Strong didn't know about that going in, and In Peril, the book he coauthored with Twain Braden—they alternate chapters on and off the tanker—is an epic mix of boat and engine handling, navigation, ingenuity, people managment, even a little marine electronics. You'll be glad you read it.

This article originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.