Sunday, January 31, 2010

Post pirates movie marathon

The heartlands of India were rather untouched by the salt of the sea until
the "Pirates of the Caribbean" came to be released. I ofcourse raise no
claims regarding the accuracy, or the lack thereof, of
this classic feature presentation, but looking at Capt. Jack Sparrow, it is
possible to reach certain assumptions regarding seafarers which may be

I am given to understand that these days one of the first question a father
asks of his prospective
seafarer son-in-law, is if he has been to the pirate port of Tortuga. My own
father-in-law ofcourse realised that at this point of time, it was probably
better that he did not know of the fact but being a doctor, couldn't resist
asking me one rather unremarkable evening,

"So how frequently do you guys take a bath on ships?"

Saturday, January 23, 2010

AIS - Internet interfacing - dangers further explored

A couple of posts back, I tried to give examples regarding the
indiscriminate proliferation of internet AIS feeds, as seen from a
landlubbers perspective. Now I'm hoping to wade into the practical dangers
of this as faced by seamen.

Honestly, I have seen very less resistance from people regarding this trend,
but whenever something along this line does get raised, there are four basic
responses that crop up.
1. The info is already out there. The logic is that the feeds are already
out there if we like it or not. So might as well use them for whatever
benefit that we can get out of them. This is like justifying buying fur
because its already there in the store. Let me explain. The people who have
set up the AIS antennae on the shore are in it for the money. They are not
doing it because they want to see their dad sail into the harbour. John from
gCaptain explained the economics of the iphone Apps. His iPhone app for the
AIS (gTrax) sells for about five dollars on iTunes. Plus for every port that
you require a feed to, you need to pay ten dollars every month. Out of all
the revenue generated, about 50 percent goes to the people providing the
feed. Do the maths.

2. The threat is too improbable for any actual danger to ships. In forum
discussions I gave an example of sailing into an US port on a ship named
"Allah Laden" and how that might be targeted by college students with
iphones. Laughable right? Sitting in a US city, it certainly seems so. But
try sailing into the middle east with a ship named " Jesus H Christ" and are
you still that comfortable? You see, this is not something local to US
Coast. This is happening all over the world and personally as a guy who
might be sailing anywhere, it worries me. And the Americans should worry
too. The ISPS regulation was pushed through the IMO by the Americans mainly
as an response to 9/11. So the whole point of a regulation, in which you put
equipment on ships for better monitoring, is lost when you make it available
to the very people you want to keep out. Small boats and yachts are common
sights in US ports. Probably most of contributors of gCaptain have a couple
of boats themselves. If a bunch of Somalians can climb fast moving ships in
the middle of the sea while fighting resistance, there is not much stopping
an Al Quida cell from boarding slow moving LNG tankers in the miles of
inland US waters. Americans should worry. 9/11 was a local incident.

3. Just switch off the AIS. Sounds very simple. Infact, readers from a
non-sea background are probably going to ask at this point, "So if you
switch off the AIS, the transmission stops? Then what was all this bitching
Well its not so simple. Making the master responsible for switching off the
AIS is a very convenient ploy. He is anyway the guy who gets screwed
whenever there's a cock up, so why can't he be the fall guy for this as
well? The AIS is not to be switched off unless the master has good reasons
for switching it off. Who decides these good reasons? Sailing in the
Somalian coast is a very clear example. Even my company orders state that I
should switch off the AIS. But what about Sailing off the Benin, Nigerian
and the west African coast? Statistics prove that there are more piracy
incidents on West coast Africa then off Somalia. They are just low key. Can
I switch it off there? Suppose I'm an Indian Ship coasting Pakistani
waters, or an American ship coasting Iranian waters, then what? If some
incident does happen, the first thing that is going to be said is that the
Captain should have known better. So is the captain now supposed to read the
news daily and make threat assessments, that the whole Obama administration
routinely misses?
Take another case. I read the news. Diligently. And I arrive off Houston in
my assumed ship "Allah Laden" a day after the Fort Hood incident. A Muslim
has killed more than a dozen chaps and Obama issues a warning fearing for
reprisal attacks on Muslim targets. Hearing this, I immediately switch off
my AIS. Houston pilots have an intricate AIS system and our good friend
oneeighteen, boards and refuses to take in the ship unless I switch it back
on. What then?

I have been accused of making silly connections, but to me, passing the
onus, on switching off the AIS on the master, seems like an old western
movie, in which the local goons insist that they will shoot in the main
street and people who don't want to get shot can simply sit in their houses.

4. Lets just do it in America. The US is an awesome country. idea's born
here are going to take flight and go everywhere. AIS iphone apps for china
are not far and are probably already out there. There is nothing stopping it
from replicating anywhere. God knows that the Somalian pirates have enough
money to start off a system that they can use within their own network if
they put their mind to it. Give me a couple of million dollars and I will
set up an awesome system that will stream live info to only my core group.

And AIS is not the end. LRIT is just being started. An Antennae off Scotland
could pick up a ship off Somalia and feed it live on the internet. Is
something in place to stop that?

The tragedy of this whole thing is that the people feeding this whole
movement are the shipping fraternity. Joe, who goes online from his mom's
basement when not in college is not the one paying these AIS stations for
live feeds. Its the yatchmen, pilots, tugsters, shipping companies and
seagoing folks who are paying this and jeopardising themselves and their
fellow mates. People are taking any mention of stopping this as invasion of
their personal rights. Guys, this is a new technology and just because there
are no laws against it doesn't make it right. Just because god gave you a
big dick doesn't mean you have to fuck yourself in the arse with it. Another
silly connection, but there it is.

PS: As I am posting this by email, I couldn't put any links to the above. Am
writing this as a reminder to myself & to you if you need me in the future
to give you the links :
01. gTrax's business model
02. IMB's Piracy statistics.
03. Fort Hood incident
04. LRIT details

Safety First !

Photo courtsey : gCaptain Forum

We might be scurvy-ridden-pirate-scum, but we also have ISM Checklists.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

AIS - right information in the wrong hands

In the mid 1990's when I visited the Indian port of Karwar, Trucks full of villagers came over to visit the ship for sightseeing. The same would happen when we went to Calcutta. Yet once on Gangway duty, when I asked one visitor to put down her address and phone number on the Gangway log, she hesitated. I reasoned with her, that since she had come over to visit my ship, I might also take it into my mind to visit her house to look around and to maybe have Dinner.

All I got was an earful from the captain who apparently already had her address.

Yet the incident has stuck with me as a reminder of the fact that the landlubbers often take the privacy of seafarers for granted. It would be a tough fact to forget, given that I am reminded of it often enough. We seafarers take it for granted that any port official with a badge can enter a crew members cabin with sniffer dogs. Yet that same official would demand a search warrant for the cops to check his apartment.

I view the proliferation of the Ships AIS information on the Internet as yet another example of the same syndrome. Today, anyone with an Internet connection can spot in real time the location, course , speed , destination, draft etc of a ship in a huge chunk of coastal area.

For the kind reader who is not from a ship background, let me explain. Under the ISPS regulations, every ship is fitted with an Automatic Identification System (AIS) which transmits the above information on VHF frequencies to the world in general. The purpose envisaged for this was two-fold. Primarily, this would give the coast state information on all the ships lurking around its waters (ensuring better traffic management, SAR etc) and as a bonus, other ships could also use this information for safety of navigation and in collision avoidance. What has happened now is that private individuals / companies have set up AIS receiver antennae on the coast and are putting feeds of all the vessel information live on the Internet. This is an example of such a site. Now developers are putting up applications on even the iPhone that lets you access this information. GCaptain has an excellent such app. Pictured above is a screenshot from another such app. Ryan at his neat website 59 56 N suggests that we can further make it better by adding machinery data, and as he says, "Better yet, shippers could also provide information about the owner, charterer, insurer, the works. And all of these, equipment supplier, owner and everyone else, could include a news feed, for the latest on the companies involved and their products/services."

Tracking blue whales is cool. Tracking emperor Penguins as they do their half yearly mating march is cool. Tracking Sputnik while it passes overhead is cool. Tracking ships is not. Granted I am being a bigot because I am not a whale, penguin or Sputnik. But here is the thing. This is my house. Unlike an airline pilot, I don't park this thing in an hanger for the night and go for the Mandatory 24 hour rest in a 5 star hotel. I sleep here. I eat here. And I miss my wife and daughter from here. And I do that for six months in a year. And when I am not doing that, some other chap is doing exactly that in this same chair.

Let me illustrate with another example. Suppose you lived in a neighborhood where the police feared that crime might rise in the near future. To preempt this rise in crime, the police chief decided to take a complete inventory of all the members and all the appliances of all the houses in the neighborhood. Now some of you agreed to it because you were good chaps and the rest of you did it because it was the law. Plus if you all had inventories ready, you could readily exchange it with your friends inventory and realize, say that John, three houses down had a nice lawnmower which you could use. A win-win situation for all.

Now in the middle of this, the teenage son of the Police Sergeant, who happened to take lunch to his dads office came across the inventories on his dad's desk and took copies of them. He then proceeded to stick all the inventories on all the street corners, the local pubs, motels, Biker gang dens and near the parole counter of all police stations. As they were pasting the last set near the out gate of the local correction facility, the teenagers friend turns around to him and says,
"Dude, you know what would be cool? If we could identify which of these guys had daughters over twelve years old. And to make it like really really cool, we should make those guys come over here and update their daughters age every six months. With their blood reports. "

Just pray that you live in a nice neighborhood.

LORAN - Nice knowing you. RIP

The Loran system shuts down for good on the 8th of Feb 2010. That is in about 15 days. The US coastguard, which is primarily the organization responsible for the upkeep of the system, claims that it is no longer required. I believe they are right. Those guys have been getting a lot of flak on the net since they announced the closure in Nov last year, and I am writing this so that at least they have one blog post they can show to the next congressman that bangs on their door.

I find myself being the devils advocate in this particular argument. I hate it when new kids become too reliant on one technology. I hate it when duty officers don't even know where the sextant is kept. I hate it that when I ask the chap to tell me the range to a ship, he checks the AIS instead of the RADAR. I hate it all. But here's the thing. Even if I hate it, it is still going to happen.
People have not used the Loran for a long time. And they are not going to start anytime soon. Hell, honestly, with feeds of GPS going into the ECDIS and Radars, no one even looks at the GPS anymore except when plotting positions on the chart.

Let us look at a few arguments raised against the shutting down of the Loran.

Firstly, About the reliability of the GPS. Guys, satellite navigation is here to stay. Sure GLONASS and the Galileo are having a rough time, but there is no doubt that they will be up and running. As per Wiki, the satellites launched by the GPS system from 2010 will no longer have the ability to implement Selective Ability (SA). So this means, after a few years, even if the US government did want to apply SA, it couldn't.

My biggest worry with the GPS is that it is controlled by the US. As a non-US citizen, I don't like it that a foreign government can cut off my principle aid to navigation at anytime. But if that did happen, how in heavens name would LORAN help me? Uncle Sam isn't going to forget to pull the plug on that system. I would rather prefer that the US Govt took all the money they spend on Loran and put in into making the GPS even better.

Even if I were a US Citizen, I might be concerned that the Al-Quida might knock off the GPS Satellites using American supplied missiles. But couldn't they also attack the Loran stations with their exploding underwear? After all the Locations of the Loran Stations is no longer the great secret that it was back in the second world war.

Also, very few vessels out at sea are even equipped with a LORAN Receiver. I put up a picture of a Loran receiver on the top of the post here because most of the newer generation wouldn't have even seen one. Hell, the last time I sailed on a vessel with a LORAN on board was way back in 1996. So today, even if the GPS went on a blink and we all were floundering around in mid ocean, we wouldn't have a Loran to go back to. Remember the madness that happened when all ships were asked to install the AIS at the same time? By the time all ships are going to be equipped with an LORAN, its going to be another couple of years. Why wouldn't somebody switch over to the Russian or European system in the meanwhile?

A little while back (I think it was in early 2000's), I was trading in the Australia region and there was a huge hue and cry by the usual small section of people, when the Aussie govt decided to stop transmitting weather faxes. Even I admitted that it was a pity. But the fact is that not enough people use it to make worthwhile. Change is inevitable and you sometimes have to let things go in dignity when it feel that it is no longer needed. The Loran system has long since gone past its dignified state. Just let it go.

Spanky - One year on and still at it

Do you remember "Jaws" in which this crazy shark gets into its head to bite a piece of the Hero's arse? Around this time last year, I had put up a post on "Spanky" who was doing crazy things at Galveston Anchorage. It was Deja Vu during my last call there as we came in to anchor.

The Duty officer reported," Sir vessel coming up from behind. Some ship called Spanky."

My blood ran cold and I almost spilled my coffee. It is a really good coffee.

I have no idea how Spanky knew I was around, but I was taking no chances, I hightailed it out of there and anchored well away from where I had initially planned.

Spanky gave up its chase after a while and went off to trouble some troubled Filipino third mate, who was last heard plaintively calling out on the radio,
" But why? Why are you coming so near me?"

The spooky thing is, the only time Spanky is seen is at night. If Louis hadn't assured me otherwise and actually taken a picture of it in daylight, it would be spooky indeed!
Pictured above is the Radar picture of Spankys run along with the AIS information.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The US Navy

Location : Texas

Came across this picture on one of the Forums on , obviously
based on the Maersk Alabama incident.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

God is a Man

I just realised why most administrators are men. The word "Administrator" is
derived from the word "Admin". And "Admin" in Hindi means "Man".

These things just come to me. I can't help it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

From Egyptian Ship Chandler with love

Location : Mexico

Receiving emails from ship chandlers of Egypt is as common as getting emails
from widows of rich Nigerian government officials. I am convinced that both
types of emails are true. You only have to go to Nigeria to see that there
is obviously no government official left alive (plus even their President is
in some sort of coma in Saudi). And a visit to Egypt will
resolve any doubts regarding the earnestness of the Egyptian ship Chandlers.

The most recent one I got starts off like this,

"Fm: Winner Supply Co, Egypt
Kind Att: Master
Date: 11th Jan 2010

Dear Sir,
Good Day Capt, ( Happy New Year )

Wish this day to be a great day for, you, your family, and
all the great crew under your wise command..."

I like this guy already. To everybody out there, if you do visit Egypt,
please take supplies from the Winner Supply Co.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Note to self # 243

w.r.t Mexican restaurants :-



Also remember for - Street fights, insulting someones mother etc.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cold Cold Texas

I hate the cold. I think I can trace it back to the time when my whore of a
captain had made me keep lookout on the monkey Island when the ship was in
the winter Baltic. There is absolutely nothing about the cold I like. And if
anything insists in associating itself with the cold, even if it is the
snow, fluffy bunnies or Santa, then I don't like them either.

Which is why I like the gulf of Mexico and Carrib region. Its a mellow
region and save for a few hurricanes a year, you would be forgiven to assume
that you were lounging about next to your pool in the backyard on a sunny
day. This trip proved otherwise. The arctic chill, also called "The Canadian
Express" made its way from up north and the temperatures reached record lows
in 27 years. Why they had to wait 27 years only till I reached the port is
something I have yet to figure out. But Water was freezing, decks were
icing, people were slipping, extremities were hurting and there was a lot
and lot of swearing.

It just wasn't Texas week as the Texas Longhorns lost to Alabama in the
finals of College football at Rosebowl at Pasadena. Over the last couple of
years, I've been trying to follow the sport and watching the movies, you
pretty much get the idea what the game is about. This particular game wasn't
so bad, and the 'bama team had to deal with a pretty decent fight-back from
the longhorns in the third quarter. These might just college kids pushing
around each other on a grass field, but they are huge in the US. When you
listen to them giving interviews at the post game celebrations, I was
reminded of Tendulkar when he was hitting Quadir for sixes. There is
something about the raw passionate power of excellence that brings tears in
my eyes at times. Van Gogh paintings, Tendulkar sixes and the broken elbow
of quarterback Cole McGraw.

Those and the cold bloody wind.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Preamble to the constitution

Going through the recently issued US visa's onboard, I realized that the Preamble to the US constitution is written on the background of the newly issued US visa's.

The Declaration if Independence hogs so much attention that one often forgets that America actually has an Constitution. Actually it didn't have one for about 10 years after declaring themselves free, when there used to be something called the "Articles of Confederation".

The Preamble, as I understand basically states the objects, which the Constitution seeks to establish and promote.

The Preamble to the US Constitution, goes like so :

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

The fact that Indians were "inspired" by other things than Hollywood movies is evident when you see the Indian Preamble,

"WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:

JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and of opportunity;
and to promote among them all
FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;


Actually the the words "socialist", "secular" and "integrity" and to promote among them all "Fraternity"; were added to the definition in 1976 by constitutional amendment. So the original preamble echoed the US preamble to a greater degree.

Now if only I had been as fascinated by these things when I was in school!

Fun Fact : The Indian Constitution is the longest in the World!

Monday, January 04, 2010

Life and love

Location : Gulf of Mexico

Discussing life with kids is always interesting. As a kid, life is
agonisingly slow, unbelieveably clear, enviably unending and yet inevitably

So this kid is getting married at the end of the year. As I absorbed his
vision of how his married life and parenthood would be, I was particularly
struck by a statement of his. He said, " Sir, I love my nephew like my own
(future) son. Tomorrow even if something goes wrong between myself and my
brother, I will still love my nephew like my own son."

Yeah Well. About that...

Leave your child in the middle of the night for half a year and be
surprised to find yourself crying. and then shed those tears for another

Then we'll talk some more.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The next year

Location : Gulf of Mexico

I hope the new year has brought good tidings to all of you. We were busy
preparing for cargo ops, when a cold front passed over us and the operations
were suspended as the weather turned sour. So the boys had a good couple of
days off, while I spent a restless night as the ship got tossed around a
bit. Ah the trade-offs in life!

Personally the last year went super. If we could have every year like the
last one - minus having babies that is - that would be awesome.