Panbo

The Aegean loss, would AIS have helped?

... written for Panbo by Ben Ellison and posted on Apr 30, 2012
Aegean_4-27_courtesy_Newport_Beach_Patch_Susan_Hoffman.jpg

It is quite chilling to see this photo of the Hunter 376 Aegean taken at the Friday start of the Newport to Ensenada Race (by Susan Hoffman) with the knowledge that the boat was "smashed to bits" that night and that all four crew were lost. We may never know exactly what happened, but the folks who found what was left seem convinced that Aegean was run over by a much larger vessel and some of the reports claim that she was in or near a shipping lane (though I don't see it marked on any chart I have). While I certainly don't want to question the wisdom of a skipper/owner who was reportedly scrupulous about safety issues or a race committee that hasn't had a prior fatality in the 65 year history of this event, don't we have to wonder if AIS could have helped?...

In fact, just last week I was wondering about how AIS fits with offshore racing. That's because I happened to read the rules for the 2012 Bermuda Race and was a little surprised to read in the Changes document that this time around "BROC {Bermuda Race Organizing Committee} has waived the ISAF requirement to have an AIS Transponder aboard (OSR 3.29.1 n)." If you go to the International Sailing Federation site and find the current Offshore Special Regulations section 3.29.1 (n), you'll see that they are required for Category 1 and 2 races (apparently the Newport to Ensenada race is classified as a 3, i.e. transponder only recommended). By the way, the OSR is a very interesting document reflecting a lot thinking about boat safety equipment and procedures -- even if you only gunkhole around in a power boat.
    So why did BROC waive the AIS requirement? Well, we did see a lot of AIS transponders on Bermuda bound racers in 2010, and it wasn't required then either, but I also see how a constant tracking technology visible within ten miles or so conflicts with the racing. That's because picking a route through the Gulf Stream and its meanders that makes sense with the weather is definitely part of the game. The racers will be using YelloBrick 3 tracker/messengers this year, but note how the BROC notice states that "Public display of positions will be delayed six hours during the first 48 hours of the race after the June 15th start so crews do not gain a tactical advantage by knowing other boats' exact positions."
   Incidentally, one reason I was checking the Bermuda Race site is that this year the BROC is mandating that every boat have a satellite phone "that will operate without coverage interruptions {sorry, Globalstar}, is powered by ship's power, and has a mounted external antenna to remain "on" from before the start until after the finish."  I also know that the webmaster is hoping to cover this year's race partially via tweets from the racers and that's why I'll be writing about satellite twitter stategies soon.
   But the subject of this entry is the use of AIS in offshore racing. I'd like to know more about the issues and discuss them. I'd also like to send condolences to the friends and family of the Aegean crew who were lost near Mexican border late Friday night.

Newport_Ensenada_Race_approximate_Aegean_location_cPanbo.jpg

Comments

It's hard to imagine that AIS couldn't have helped, at least to the extent that the proximate cause of the suspected collision was an alert crew that didn't get a good radar return from the sailboat due to sea or weather conditions.

What about an AIS receiver on the race boat? That combined with a DSC-equipped VHF would have made it possible for the sailors to sound an alarm directly in the large boat's pilothouse.

But what I'm wondering is how AIS can now help to identify the phantom freighter. If they have an estimated time for the accident, can't the USCG just "rewind" their AIS log to determine which large commercial vessels (which as I understand it must have Class A transponders) were in the collision zone at that time?

/afb

Posted by: Adam at May 1, 2012 12:28 AM | Reply

From the Sail Anarchy website [ http://www.sailinganarchy.com ]:

"The tracker doesn't lie: The Hunter 37 Aegean, which was feared to have been run over by a large commercial vessel during the Newport to Ensenada race, actually ran aground on the North Coronado Island."

You can find a link to the track on their site.

Posted by: Collin at May 1, 2012 6:53 AM | Reply

Well, that's odd. The SPOT share page posted at Sailing Anarchy -- http://goo.gl/5ZgqT -- sure seems like Aegean's track, except that the time stamp of the last position, 4/28 04:36:36 GMT, doesn't jibe with the race committee's report that they lost Aegean's track four hours later at 01:30 PDT. (Was the race committee using SPOT tracking or something else?)

I can see a mix up on time but how come the first guy on the wreck scene, a Vessel Assist pro who has patrolled the race for eight years, seems convinced that Aegean was run down? http://goo.gl/1yOw7

Posted by: Ben in reply to Collin at May 1, 2012 8:17 AM | Reply

The assumption that Aegean was hit by a freighter was made by the race commitee and everyone seems to assume this to be the primary reason for the accident. Has anyone thought about a gas explosion?

With four crew onboard they were probably doing a two hour watch. If the watch changed at 2 AM the oncoming crew person may have started the stove to make a drink for the off coming watch and himself at around 1:30am. If gas had leaked into the bilge a gas explosion may have resulted. The question is, would a gas explosion result in such catastrophic destruction of the boat as found in the debris field? I have been to several gas explosions on land as a firefighter and I can tell you that in some cases there is nothing recognizable left of the structure.

Posted by: Richard C at May 1, 2012 8:56 AM | Reply

It was me mixed up on the SPOT time, which is actually local to where you are. 04:36 EDT is 01:36 PDT.

Long thread on Sailing Anarchy with much speculation: http://goo.gl/7ZlLo

Richard, one theory is a combined hard grounding and gas explosion. Aegean definitely has propane stove and BBQ: http://goo.gl/jCoqa

Posted by: Ben in reply to Ben at May 1, 2012 9:59 AM | Reply

Not to assume anything about what happened, these were our sailing grounds in the late '80s and early '90s. One hazard that doesn't get a lot of press (beyond local) but does get significant government attention is the unlit (fish) poachers from Mexican waters and the high speed drug boats. For a while, the coyotes were smuggling people coast-wise but this seems to have dropped off. None of those folks, often to include the government boats, use AIS transponders. [And generally, the legal fishing boats* don't either.] Neither do the often unlit, uncharted boat-eating floating tuna cages off the Mexican Coast.

Having required the racing boat to have installed a transponder might have made a difference, but AIS is a lump of tech and unless people know how to and use the tech, AIS is just misplaced ballast.

*In our past two months sailing off the US Atlantic coast, we have yet to see a fishing vessel on AIS. To include the 110 foot Menhaden boat that came within his length of running us down in fog. And yes, we were transmitting and receiving AIS at the time. None of the other five menhaden boats in the fleet showed up either. Neither were they showing running lights or making fog signals. We had them on radar, but the azimuth resolution at short range merged two into one until one suddenly made a hard turn to avoid us. They showed up with the same signal strength as 20 foot boats dragging monofilament. AIS is a good thing, but...a panacea it is not.

Posted by: Christopher at May 1, 2012 10:24 AM | Reply

Very far fetched, but in keeping with the question posed in this entry, I suppose AIS could help racer's look out for each other, especially at night, maybe a friendly hail asking "why are you getting so close to land my friend?"

Posted by: Dan Corcoran (b393capt) at May 1, 2012 10:39 AM | Reply

Very sad and tragic story. Vessel's that are run down tend to stay intact. I’ve seen some ROV footage of a vessel that was run down, it had a big dark streak where the hull made contact with the offender, but other than that it was intact. I think there is almost no chance of it going through a propeller, even so it would result in large pieces not scattered debris as reported in this case. Here's a picture of recent gas explosion near Seattle. Note how the vessel is reduced to small bits and pieces (and these are the ones that stayed near the vessel, other debris traveled as far as 75 yds) . http://threesheetsnw.com/blog/2012/02/40-foot-boat-explodes-injuries-one-in-sequim/ I have a lot of friends with older sailboats with propane stoves but I have encountered few leak detectors. I’m guessing all newer boats have them, I seem to recall that they are required by the ABYC? It would be very easy to determine if a commercial ship was in the area, websites like Marinetraffic.com and others have this information.

Posted by: Blazer at May 1, 2012 11:00 AM | Reply

Looking at the track, it is a straight line directly to Ensenada going at motoring speeds.

So instead of discussion how technology might have prevented this accident, I think perhaps we should be discussing how reliance on technology may have caused this accident.

<speculation>It looks like they pulled out of the race due to light winds, started the motor and set a way point at the finish and let the autopilot do the steering. Nobody (including their routing software) noticed that the goto path went over some islands.</speculation>

Posted by: GJW at May 1, 2012 11:10 AM | Reply

They were in the cruising class that allows motoring at night.

Posted by: Jesse Deupree in reply to GJW at May 1, 2012 1:20 PM | Reply

I've sailed those waters and there is a constant stream of traffic heading in and out of San Diego including naval warships. Almost every evening there is a marine layer/fog that settles in and so an accident such as this is easy to imagine. It is unfortunate and in hindsight it's easy to say they should have had this or should have done that but neither conjecture nor fault finding will change the outcome. As seaman we are all of us responsible for ourselves and those we share the water with, and at the end of the day we are all human and we all make mistakes.

Posted by: Anonymous at May 1, 2012 3:47 PM | Reply

Having read the comments about light air, cruising class and motoring, I have to wonder about CO poisoning. Was the boat under command...

Posted by: Christopher at May 1, 2012 7:32 PM | Reply

A quick glance at that plot shows about 2.5 hours with a steady coarse and speed, autopilot for sure. If it wasn't CO poisoning they still could have been asleep.

As for AIS and racing, so the others can see you, so what; get over it. There are more important considerations. Same for the fishing fleet. IMO.

Posted by: norse at May 2, 2012 1:40 AM | Reply

It may well be the case that the actual cause of the accident will never be known, and I certainly don't know enough to ever bother speculating. I looked at pictures prior to the race of a good chunk of the vessels involved in the race. The one thing I noted was I couldn't find a single boat that had even a small radar. It seems to me that if someone was doing 24/7 ocean racing you would want all of the available tools to prevent a collision and or avoid hazards including a night vision camera, radar, AIS, weather receiver, loud audible alarms for gear, and if it was me, anything else I could think of that would mitigate hazards including good gas monitors on board. It's a really big ocean out there, and not nearly as empty as most would think.

Posted by: Bill Bishop at May 2, 2012 8:42 AM | Reply

It would appear from a Spot tracking of the Aegian that it hit North Coronado Island on it's own and got pulverized by the steep rock walls a the north end of that Island.

I don't think that the AIS issues had anything to do with the matter.

I believe it was a tragic mistake of the watch being situationaly unware. That could explained by one person who was incapcitated medically or asleep or really not paying the mildest amount of attention.

Posted by: SG at May 2, 2012 11:23 AM | Reply

I read a bit on the forum at sailing anarchy, and i seen the news brief. i am curious in that no one says anything about an epirb on board. they had a liferaft. they may or may not have had AIS, but apparently most of the racers turn thier AIS off so competitors wont know where they are at. but i didnt see anything about an EPIRB. very curous seeing they lost contact, and then there was a large amount of time before they were found. a self deploying epirb beacon should have been able to send an emergency signal, even with all the damage.

Posted by: Robert at May 2, 2012 1:23 PM | Reply

I don't know squat about sailboats, but to me the Spot tracklog is telling...unless Aegian intentionally landed on that island, then later sailed away with the SPOT deactivated...and wrecked somewhere else...highly unlikely.

The Sailing Anarchy link to the SPOT breadcrumb-trail I think pretty much tells the story, but the chapter on how/why the island was missed by the watchstander remains unwritten.

The 4d's come to mind: drunk, drugged, distracted, or disoriented...if someone even lacked radar, how could they miss a friggin land mass on a GPS display?

I don't for a moment think they were run down by a container ship, as has been the case with numerous fishing vessels recently.

Posted by: Karl at May 2, 2012 2:12 PM | Reply

The first responders to this tragedy were convinced that Aegean had been run down and had probably been through a large propeller, but SPOT track obviously indicates something else.

It's odd that we didn't hear about the tracking info sooner but maybe this is one explanation:

"U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Sean Groark said investigators are aware of the tracking map but could not attest to its accuracy because it is commercially operated."

http://goo.gl/IRRGI

I'm inspired to write about the SPOT Connect, which is what Aegean was using, and that should go up later today.

Posted by: Ben at May 2, 2012 4:16 PM | Reply

The only teachable moment in this sad situation is that "AIS is not a panacea", and that watchkeeping, not just listening for buzzers, is essential.

Also, I have to wonder if a course laid over a paper chart and *then* input into an AP would have picked up on the island directly in the path.

This reminds me of that boat that wrecked with loss of life in Australia a couple of years back.

Or the Costa Concordia, perhaps.

Posted by: M. Dacey at May 2, 2012 4:39 PM | Reply

I don't think that any device, or equipment rule, or well-meant dictum is a substitute for good judgement -- the essence of good seamanship -- or sometimes luck (we don't know what happened to Aegean). And they never have been.

Good equipment can help, though. One thing I learned this week is that the offshore racing world is accepting and even learning to like AIS transponders. They're commonly required in European races and, while many of the U.S. committees are currently waiving the OSR requirement, they are "highly recommending" the use of AIS.

I came across several comments from racers who said AIS really helped with safety, both in regard to traffic on the course and other racers. I also read the Rambler 100 Capsize Safety Review ( http://goo.gl/NWak3 ) and two of the recommendations are:

* Add a requirement that AIS remain on during all races (OSR 3.29.1 n)

* Mount AIS antennas on Mast Head (OSR 3.29.1 n)

As Norse noted, the penchant for secrecy can be surmounted. I've heard that's happening among commercial fishermen who fought against AIS but now like how they can use it to help each other out.

Posted by: Ben in reply to M. Dacey at May 2, 2012 5:55 PM | Reply

One of the unintended consequences of AIS is that watch-standers on large commercial vessels are less likely to spot a non-AIS equipped vessel. It is now possible to successfully avoid most traffic without having the radar properly tuned. If there are no AIS targets on the screen in areas where there are few small craft encounters it is increasingly common for mates to behave as if there is no traffic about.

Posted by: Kennebec Captain at May 3, 2012 7:57 AM | Reply

Many years ago in Canadian waters during a long distance sailboat race, a boat captained by a friend actually hit a freighter which tore a large hole in the hull of the sailboat and brought the mast down. The sailboat crew could not understand why the freighter keep changing course sounding its horn spotting them with its searchlights. The freighter was trying to avoid them as it could not stop in such a short distance but my friend and his crew actually altered course and hit that big boat and then committed the cardinal sin of saying thought we had the right of way!

Posted by: Austin Gilbert at May 3, 2012 12:13 PM | Reply

Good points, Ben. The racers and the fisherman have similar concerns for, shall we say, stealthiness, but the "mutual aid" aspect seems more compelling in light of tragedies like this.

An AIS track might have, for instance, prompted another boat to radio the Hunter and comment "hey, you're heading straight for land, buddy".

Wouldn't help if they were, as has been suggested, all asleep or knocked out from CO fumes, but if even one guy had ch 16 on a handheld in the cockpit...

Posted by: M. Dacey in reply to Ben at May 3, 2012 11:00 PM | Reply

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