A safer, faster trip on the bay

Navigation system upgrade will focus on depth, weather

March 27, 2002|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Within 18 months, cargo vessels entering the Chesapeake Bay will be able to tap into a beefed-up electronic navigation and weather monitoring system that proponents say will make the trip safer and, in some cases, faster and more profitable for shippers.

The Maryland Port Administration recently agreed to finance a $715,000 expansion of the system, which employs a network of monitoring stations to provide commercial and recreational vessels with up-to-the-minute data on water depth, currents, wind speed, fog and other conditions in the bay. Mariners can access the data by cell phone or the Internet.

"They can actually adjust the speed of the ship and their arrival and departure times to take advantage of the high tide and currents and so forth," said James C. Dixon, navigation manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has implemented the system in eight ports nationwide.

Dixon described how the Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System, PORTS, works at a news conference yesterday promoting next month's arrival of the Volvo Ocean Race Round the World. Leg six of the nine-month, 32,700-nautical-mile race will stop in Annapolis and Baltimore.

The PORTS system is light-years ahead of traditional navigation and tide charts, allowing both Volvo racers and commercial ships to take maximum advantage of changes in wind speed and currents on the bay.

NOAA designed the system primarily to make shipping more efficient. The data is collected from a series of sensors mounted on buoys, underwater cables and beachside monitoring stations scattered throughout the bay. The port administration's recent investment will go toward the purchase of additional sensors, giving mariners a more precise picture of what's happening on the water.

The port administration will spend an additional $215,000 annually to maintain the system, NOAA officials said.

Coast Guard officials laud the safety benefits, saying the system will help prevent groundings and other accidents involving ships.

The system was inspired in part by an accident involving a freighter that became lost in a storm and rammed the Sunshine Skyway bridge in Tampa Bay, Fla., in 1980. The accident killed 35 people when vehicles on the bridge crashed into the bay, prompting calls for a system to prevent such incidents.

"If you know [conditions] exactly, you can plan accordingly," said Lt. Ron Northrup, who works in the Coast Guard's office of vessel and traffic management in Washington.

Mariners rely on accurate tide data to decide how much cargo they can safely carry without hitting bottom. Information on weather conditions and wind speeds also factor into arrival and departure decisions, which can be critical in the increasingly time-sensitive shipping industry.

Tides can be predicted using sun and moon tables. But unlike the PORTS system, the tables don't factor in weather anomalies, such as an unexpected storm and high winds, which also can affect water depths and sailing conditions at various points on the bay. The concentration of salt in the water is another factor that can add or subtract from a ship's maximum draft.

To a shipper, a few extra inches of draft can equate to hundreds of tons of cargo per trip. While that's not a concern for the container ships that visit Baltimore, it is for the heavy ore vessels sailing into the port, said Capt. Eric Neilsen, president of the Association of Maryland Pilots, whose members are charged with guiding ships through bay shipping channels.

"The extra loading ends up being sheer profit," Neilsen said.

Bay pilots currently rely on cell phones to tap into PORTS data, but the association is working on a system that will allow members to access the information through laptop computers aboard ships.

When the new monitoring stations are added, the bay's PORTS system will be the largest in the United States, NOAA officials said.

Recreational boaters can access the system for free by calling 1-866-247-6787.

"This helps our marine economy and our trade by allowing for more efficient use of cargo vessels," said Mike Szabados, who helps oversee the program for NOAA.

"And it's a safety issue, too. Hopefully, fewer vessels will be running aground."

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