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Know your equipment…..Digital Selective Calling (DSC)


Those on deep-sea vessels frequently overlook the lessons learned from brown-water and fishing vessels.  This is unfortunate as it is much nicer to learn from others’ mistakes – especially ones involving serious injury, fatalities or legal implications.  One such incident was just published by the UK Maritime Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB).

Occurring almost a year ago, but recently published in January 2014, the MAIB’s report on the fishing vessel Achieve’s sinking offers at least one lesson learned.  The small fishing vessel sank due to flooding in the fish hold which went undetected due to a disconnected high bilge sensor.  Once the situation became apparent, the crew of the ill fated vessel had mere minutes to activate their distress call, launch the liferaft and abandon ship.  As this incident occurred in the dead of winter in cold waters and survival suits were not used, the fact that there was only one fatality out of three crewmembers is significant.

The primary lesson learned is highlighted in MAIB’s report when they reveal that, “The MAIB is aware of three accidents (fishing vessels) where not using the DSC to raise a distress alarm has resulted in fatalities.”  Decades after DSC (Digital Selective Calling) came into use, confusion on its use is far too common.  The use of the DSC distress button on Achieve’s VHF would have sent the Coast Guard their MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity), position and distress condition.  Confusion over the vessel in distress and position thereof lead to a suspected 45 minute delay in response.  A secondary lesson learned would have allowed additional time for the crew to respond – namely keeping sensors such as high bilge sensors connected.  Testing of such critical sensors on a routine basis should not be overlooked.  Last, but certainly not least, the skipper and crew of the Achieve must be commended for keeping their liferaft ready for immediate use.  Without this critical piece of equipment available, the loss of life may have been much higher.

Would you be able to successfully send a distress call – whether it be by VHF, Sat C or MF/HF – if you had seconds to do so?  If the answer is “No” perhaps your next watch or hitch would be a good time to nail down those procedures.  Proper and effective use of communications gear can save lives!

MAIB Flyer to Fishing Vessels and Small Craft - Achieve: Foundering off Western Isle, Scotland on 21 February 2013 - January 2014

Collisions Happen…….Today.


A year ago, we talked about the continuing threat of collisions between vessels.  That article can be viewed at Collisions Happen….

Today, off the coast of Singapore, the container vessel Hammonia Thracium and the chemical tanker Zoey proved that collisions are still happening.  Reviewing the vessels’ AIS tracks on, there doesn’t appear to be any definitive information on the cause, although others report, “Prior to the incident, MPA’s Port Operations Control Centre provided traffic information to the two vessels and alerted Zoey that the vessel Hammonia Thracium was crossing the traffic lane.”

Oil spill response contractors are said to be on scene or enroute to deal with the close to 80 metric tons of bunkers that have been released from Hammonia Thracium.  The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) will investigate the cause of this collision, while the vessels assess their damages and options.

We look forward to learning from this incident investigation and lessons learned.

USCG Rolling Out AIS ATON : Safe AND Secure?


There are new buoys – and is some cases virtual buoys – coming to a U.S. port near you.  First seen in the port of Mombasa, Kenya almost two years ago, AIS-assisted buoys (Real AIS ATON) – physical buoys with an AIS transmitter installed – will be rolled out in select areas on an experimental basis by the U.S. Coast Guard.  These will be accompanied by both Synthetic AIS ATON – physical buoys overlaid with an AIS signal generated by a shoreside base station and Virtual AIS ATON – truly virtual buoys with no physical presence, which would be visible on an appropriately outfitted ECDIS, radar or computer.

U.S. Coast Guard to Test Automatic Identification System (AIS) Aids to Navigation (ATON)

Mariners first noted Real AIS ATON in the approaches to Mombasa, Kenya during routine transits.  The addition of the AIS transmitters – which we do not believe was announced through NAVTEX or chart updates – have allowed these buoys to stand out more when viewed on the ECDIS, while still allowing visual use.  The recent announcement by the U.S. Coast Guard highlights the chart symbols that will be in use.  It is of note that these symbols are not yet in use on the U.K. Admiralty charts for the approaches to Mombasa (please see linked chart).

KPA – Mombasa – High Performance Navigation Aids Installed

As noted, in real-life applications Real AIS ATON have proven to be beneficial.  As with all methods of navigation, redundancy is extremely important, therefore coupling the physical ATON with the virtual ATON is a great combination.  The introduction of the Virtual AIS ATON is a little more troubling.  Research by Trend Micro Inc., an internet security company based out of Tokyo as announced by gCaptain has revealed some serious security issues with the AIS system.  Being that AIS signals lack any form of encryption or authentication, they are vulnerable to hacking by outside forces.  This has been demonstrated repeatedly by Trend Micro – including the spelling of the classic hacker tag “PWNED” with a vessel’s AIS track.

gCaptain – Researchers Discover Serious Security Vulnerabilities to AIS Data

Advances in aids to navigation are welcome – anything that can make the operation of vessel’s safer is great.  However, it can be hoped that we don’t hang our hat – or the safety of vessels – entirely on the AIS system.  Yet.

Cargo Gear Inspection : Be Aware!

Maersk Alabama Stbd Stores Crane 004a

Every month, the vessel’s cargo gear is visually inspected and determined to be in serviceable condition or in need of some repair.  Such inspections should be taking place before and during cargo operations, as well.  But, what is the crew supposed to be looking at?  What are the indicators of future failure?  The following guide from the UK P&I Club and Lloyd’s Register can assist you :

Survey and Examination of Ships’ Lifting Appliances

Don’t let the lack of proper inspections stop your cargo operations, injure personnel or cause catastrophic failure!