Wednesday, June 16, 2010


On February 27, 2010 I was serving as master on the small cruise ship Spirit of Endeavour en route from La Paz, Mexico to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Early that morning, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Chile, killing 521 people. The resulting tsunami spread throughout the Pacific and did damage as far away as Japan. Someone at company headquarters asked me to write up my impressions of the event; this is the report I filed.

Preparations for dealing with the tsunami began as soon as we got the word. The Second Mate called me about midnight to tell me about the earthquake off the coast of Chile and that the Pacific Tsunami Center had issued an advisory: it was not yet known whether an actual tsunami had occurred. I got up and did a quick check online: information was sparse, even about the earthquake itself. But information started to roll in, and as soon as the existence of a tsunami was confirmed, there would be a constant clatter from the Inmarsat printer, as bulletin after bulletin came over the satellite. That printer, the beeping of the GMDSS alarms, the constant worried chatter in Spanish over the VHF would be the soundtrack of the day for me.

By 0500 it was confirmed that the tsunami was headed toward Mexico, with an expected arrival time of 1050. Sport fishing boats were starting to come out of Cabo San Lucas harbor and there were no long lines of cars on the highway visible from the water, so I took that as a good sign, that the local authorities weren't too alarmed. Either that or they hadn't got the word yet. We relaxed a little and even took the time to check out a couple of humpback whales before breakfast call and our arrival in Cabo San Lucas.

I chatted with our agent and someone from the Captain of the Port's office before disembarkation. They were aware of the situation and were taking a wait and see attitude. The sport fishermen and sightseeing boats were being told to stay close to the harbor just in case. Another quick check on the Internet revealed this was the attitude almost everywhere except Hawaii and in the earthquake zone itself.

During disembarkation someone from Reservations called. She told me a passenger has just gotten on a plane and was concerned about the tsunami and was asking questions. I told her what I could, then noted to the Assistant Engineer that if anywhere was safe, it was on a plane.

Then things began to tense up. The Captain of the Port closed the port, and the sport fishers and sightseers started to stream back into the harbor, as they cursed each other, the COTP, and tsunami on the radio. They were not worried about the tsunami, they were worried about losing a day's business on a peak-season Saturday. The COTP finally lost it and told everyone that he wasn't answering anyone who didn't identify himself, and the chatter died down. A bit. Other officials were warning locals and tourists to stay off the beaches. A quick check on the ever-growing pile of paper streaming off the Inmarsat printer showed that the tsunami had passed Acapulco, about 700 miles to the southeast, with a surge of only 1.2 feet. Not bad, but predictions for harbors in southern California were higher, more like three feet, so who knew what we would actually experience? I held a quick crew meeting, trying to get everyone prepared without scaring the heck out of them, then we jumped to stations. The deck crew slacked the mooring lines a bit, and we set the gangway on the dock. The Guest Programs staff got busy fending off guests -- the first of them would probably start to arrive right about the same time as the tsunami -- and the rest of the crew tried to carry on as normal, or as normal as it gets on a Turnaround Day.

It was the ship's doctor who first noticed that the tide seemed to be going the wrong direction. I went up to the bridge, which faced right out the entrance to the harbor and into the open Pacific. Whatever was about to happen, I would have box seats for it. It was quite a sight. Water was rushing out of the harbor. You could look at the excursion boat moored across the dock from us and see it sinking against the background of the Finnesterra Hotel perched on the nearby hills. I looked at my watch and noted that the time the Pacific Tsunami Center had predicted was pretty much dead on. It was 1050.

On the first surge, the water dropped about two feet, then turned around without stopping and started flooding back into the harbor. We saw it before we felt it: two boats Med moored to the pier across the channel suddenly swung back to the west and pointed the other direction. And in came the water. Our own lines strained in the other direction, and the deck crew adjusted them and the fenders we had broken out for whatever might come up. The water at the harbor entrance turned brown as the bottom was churned up. Soon it was back where it had started and I checked my watch again. Twelves minutes had elapsed.

Soon the surge was heading out again, then in, then out, then in, each time dropping us about three feet and bringing us back up again. The boatswain marvelled at how those rocks next to the south breakwater nav light tower were exposed in a matter of seconds, then covered again just as quickly.Then it seemed to stop. We thought maybe that was it and everyone headed down for crew lunch. The lull didn't last, though, and when we saw the dock rising past the dining room window like the wall of Snake River navigational lock, we all rushed back to our stations. One of the Med moored boats had come loose, the skipper freeing the lines thinking the worst was over, but then unable to get the anchor up before the surge returned. He struggled to control his boat for the next fifteen minutes before two crewmen from a sport fisher came to his rescue.

This next series was the most extreme, at one point surging out enough to drop the Spirit of Endeavour four feet or more, and strand pangas tied to the opposite breakwater in the sand for a few minutes. The vessel surged a lot more. At one point I saw a whirpool at the entrance to the harbor, brown and blue water swirling in a shallow circle 75 yards wide. The frigate birds, gulls, and pelicans were having a surprise feast, diving down to grab at poor, confused fish. Watching the pelicans drift by on the ebbing water, and the water itself splash against and wrap around the docks and piling, I figured the current at more than three knots at it's swiftest.

It went on like this for another hour and a half. By 1400 the worst was over, but there were still small, quick changes in the water level, complicating our efforts to deal with the tide already lower than normal due to the full moon. A few boats still went in and out, defying the Captain of the Port's order, but for the most part it was quiet, very strangely so for Cabo San Lucas.I checked the still-chatering Inmarsat: it said Cabo San Lucas had experienced a 1.2 foot range. Maybe on the beach, but it was a lot more extreme in the harbor. We were already getting reports off the tsunami making landfall in California, and Alaska was expecting it only to hours later. But for us, it was time to get the gangway down, get the luggage aboard, and get the guests checked in. The tsunami had passed.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Monday Morning Mariner: Deck Licenses

The Coast Guard's Proposed Rulemaking will make several changes to the Code of Federal Regulations to bring deck and engineering license requirements in the United States in line with the provisions of the STCW Convention and Code. Among the changes the new regulations would bring to the deck side:

• Requirement that crew serving on vessels without lifeboats acquire a new endorsement called "Survivalman."

• Eliminates the master or mate 200 gross registered tons/500 ITC tons license because of it's limited use and that fact that it's not used in STCW. Mariners who currently have that license would be able to renew it, but there will be no more new ones or upgrades to that license.

• The current weeks of classes and assessments are now called TEA, for Training, Education and Assessment. For unlimited licenses, the whole TEA regime would be required before issuance of a Third Mate Unlimited (unlike now, when some is require before 3M and some before Chief Mate). The Third Mate could move up to an unlimited Master's ticket with three years of sea service.

• Military personnel will have to jump through more hoops to get an corresponding civilian credential; the CO of a military ship will first have to serve as mate on the civilian side before getting his or her master's ticket.

• Deck officers will no long need an MMD endorsed Able Seaman (but a license is not a substitute for an AB if the mariner wants to sail in the capacity).

• The tonnage requirement for limited mates licenses is lowered to 75 tons. This is also true for limited masters tickets of 1600/3000 tons.

• Due to a quirk in the CFRs, it is currently possible to get a 500 or 1600 ton masters license with fewer classes/assessments than mates of an equivalent tonnage need. These regulations would close that loophole.

• When sailing foreign, mariners on American-built vessels operating at home under gross registered (domestic) tonnage would need a license qualifying them for the ITC tonnage of the vessel.

• There would be no changes for Inland licenses, but obviously rules like this would divorce the inland and near coast/oceans tracks more than they already are.

For the complete text of the Proposed Rulemaking, click here.

Next week: Changes for engineers.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Rogue Waves

Out at sea on my sailboat, I once collided with a rogue wave that lifted the entire hull of my forty-eight-foot out of the water and suspended it in midair for a second before we crashed back into the trough. That impact had knocked a filling from my tooth, not to mention turning the cabin in the boat into a disaster area.
-- Jimmy Buffett, A Pirate Looks At Fifty
A rouge wave is not just an unexpected wave, but a very specific, and indeed very dangerous, phenomena. Two passengers were killed and six injured on the cruise ship Louis Majesty last March when three huge waves -- estimated at nearly 30 feet high -- pounded the ship as it sailed off the coast of Marseilles, France. Subsequent media reports called the waves "rogue waves." As we saw in my post on the Beaufort wind scale, waves of this height can be expected in the 60-knot winds the Louis Majesty was experiencing, but the greater-than-average height of the waves and their "Three Sisters" pattern suggest these were indeed rogue waves.

Wind waves and swells tend to behave fairly predictably, this is why forecasters can develop computer models that will predict wave height and direction sometimes days ahead of time. And just as weather forecasters can give mariners a good idea of the direction, height, and period of waves to be expected, mariners at sea can see patterns as well: sets of three or four waves a little higher or lower than average, seas that suddenly get flatter or choppier at a tide ripe, and so on. What looks like a chaos of wind and water to an untrained observer can be predicted by science and is familiar to the experienced mariner. That is not to say the forecasts are always correct or that nasty surprises don't occur. Rogue waves are one of those surprises.

Scientists believed rogue waves were a mariners' legend (or excuse) until the mid 1990s. Instruments at the Draupner oil platform in the North Sea detected the first scientifically measured rogue wave in 1995. Since then several rogue waves have been detected, including a 95-ft wave by the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1995 during Hurricane Luis, and a 91-ft wave detected by US Navy research instruments during Hurricane Ivan in 2004. As scientists learn more about rogue waves, the phenomenon has become suspected in some previously unsolved maritime losses, including low-flying Coast Guard rescue aircraft and the famous 1975 sinking of the Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald.

What causes rogue waves is still a bit of mystery. They are sometimes called freak waves because they are not only higher than the other waves around them, but may travel in a totally different direction from the surrounding seas. They are probably caused by tidal effects and the combining of several smaller waves together. Rogue waves are also mainly a deep water phenomena, although incidents like those of the Louis Majesty and possibly the Edmund Fitzgerald do occur.

For an amateur video shot by one of the passengers on the Louis Majesty, click here.

The film crew for the television series Deadliest Catch caught a 60-ft rogue wave slamming into the crabber Aleutian Ballad in 2006. See a clip here.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


It was our second attempt to cross the Columbia River bar in three days. Rough weather had kept us tied up in Astoria, Oregon for several days but it looked like we might just have a long enough weather window to make the passage up to Cape Flattery before the next front came in. From the west came an eight-foot swell that first built, then broke up with a crash as it came into the shallower waters of the bar. Meanwhile, a strong wind from the southwest pounded the hull with four- to six-foot waves in quick succession, rattling the ship and making even experienced mariners a little seasick. As we clawed our way out over the bar toward deeper -- and we hoped calmer water -- Chief Mate Lostie turned to me and said, "I'll bet this all looks very picturesque from that hill over there."

Waves come in several categories. Most common are wind waves that start to form when the wind on the water blows as little as two knots. These small waves, called ripples or wavelets, are caused by the friction between air and water breaking the water's surface tension. If the wind dies down, the ripples disappear. Once the wind gets above two knots, the waves become more stable, although they are still driven before the wind. If the wind is strong enough and lasts long enough, the waves are no longer reliant on the wind at all and can continue to travel long after the weather that produced them is gone. These waves are called swells they can travel for hundreds of miles.

Many factors effect the size of wind waves: the speed of the wind, the distance the wind has blown over the water (called fetch), and the depth of the water. Although these waves can theoretically reach as high as 200 feet, waves more than 5o feet high are rare. The highest scientifically measured waves on record -- 95 to 98 feet for more than twelve hours -- were observed by the British research vessel Discovery in the North Atlantic in 2000 (mariners are notoriously inaccurate at estimating wave height by eyeball alone. On one north Pacific passage, the vessel I was on consistently recorded a northwesterly swell height of six to eight feet. A friend of mine on a smaller vessel recorded the same swells as 10 feet or more).

Another characteristic of waves is called period, the time it takes the crests of two consecutive waves to pass a fixed point. Waves with a short period are sometimes called "steep" and can make for an uncomfortable ride with even a relatively short wave height. On the other hand, even a large swell with a long enough period can be safe and comfortable.

Forecasts. In weather forecasts, wind wave heights are sometimes referred to as seas. Some forecasts will give separate heights for seas and swell, other will refer to combined seas. Wave height predictions can be deceptive: a forecasted height of 10-ft seas does not mean every wave will be ten feet high. Instead, forecasters take the average height of the highest third of the waves expected and use that in their public forecasts. Thus, most waves in a given forecast time and area will actually be smaller than the reported height, but about twenty percent will be higher, some nearly twice as high.

Other waves. Not all waves are wind waves. Seismic activity can produce a tsunami, or tidal wave, that reaches speeds of 400 knots. The highest tsunami ever recorded was in Lituya Bay, Alaska in 1958; it measured more than 1700 feet high. Another type of wave is a storm surge, which occurs in relatively shallow water (like the Gulf of Mexico) during the low barometric pressure preceding a storm. A third type of non-wind wave is the tidal bore, caused the force of the tide pushing against prevailing local current or flows in a narrow channel.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Monday Morning Mariner: Is STCW un-American?

Is STCW un-American? After the Coast Guard published its intent last November to bring license and documentation requirements for US mariners more into line with the international standards set by the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping Convention and Code, reaction among American commercial mariners was mixed. Some approved of the new standards and said the change was overdue. But many felt the Coast Guard was ignoring the special needs and history of American mariners by imposing foreign standards on us. Captain Anchor Chain described the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to me as “a bunch of busy-body retired British mariners telling other people how to run their lives.” Captain Dip Correction called it an attempt to impose a European-style social class system on the merchant marine of a classless American society, an attitude Captain Pillager summed up when he called the new regulations “the end of the hawespipe.”

But whatever the effects of the new regulations (I’ll discuss them in more detail in the next couple Monday Morning Mariner posts), the US is not a helpless victim in the development of STCW. In fact, the US had a leading role in developing the current manning and certification regulations.

Prior to 1995, STCW didn’t even address the idea of human error in maritime casualties; the original 1978 convention was more focused on structural and equipment requirements. The tanker Aegean Sea was in compliance with all these requirements when it went aground off the coast of Spain in December 1992, spilling more than 70,000 gallons of oil. Subsequent investigation showed that human error was a major factor in the grounding and indeed in many maritime incidents. It was the US that first proposed to other IMO members that STCW ’78 be reviewed with an eye to taking human error – and avoiding it – into account.

The new regulations – known as STCW ’95 – resulting from the US proposal had several effects on mariners worldwide, and on American mariners in particular, at least for those that might ever want to sail outside the US. Where previously most licenses and merchant mariners documents could be had simply by accruing enough sea time and passing a Coast Guard exam, STCW required hands-on training with actual equipment to earn certification, a boon to maritime training schools and a major expense for mariners and their employers.

The latest round of changes to US regulations would bring not just certifications but the license structure itself into compliance with STCW. The US Constitution gives treaties the force of US law, and the IMO (and thus it’s regulations) is an arm of the United Nations, to which the US is bound by treaty. The STCW Convention also requires participating nations to enforce the provisions of the code on all vessels in their ports, whether that vessel hails from a participating nation or not. Thus, US mariners run the risk of not having their credentials, however hard-earned, not recognized by the “port state authorities” of other nations.

Next week: the proposed changes to the deck license structure. For the text of the Proposed Rulemaking, click here.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Beaufort Scale

If someone told you there was a "storm" coming, how fast would the winds be, and what would the effect be on objects on the ground? What about a "breeze" or a "stiff breeze?" In our everyday conversation, these are inexact terms and often two people using the same term will mean two very different things.

This is the problem the Royal Navy had in the early 1800s. The more precise the weather observations the navy's officers could record in their logs, the easier it would be to predict the weather long-term in a given location, an important advantage to trade and defense for a sea-going empire like Britain's. Enter Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort. In 1809, Beaufort developed the scale that bears his name today, But this early version didn't measure wind speed at all, simply the effect of the wind on the sails of a square-rigged man-of-war. Consisting of thirteen "force" levels numbered from zero to thirteen, Beaufort's scale made it easy for officers on ships to record the wind: simply subtract the number of sails the ship had up from thirteen. The scale was adopted by the Royal Navy in the 1830, and by the 1850s non-military ships began to use. Gradually, it was adopted by ships of other maritime nations.

In the early 1900s, as sails were replaced by steam engines, the Beaufort scale was changed to reflect the effect of the wind on the seas. Thus a Force 0 indicated flat calm seas, while Force 12 winds were called hurricane force winds generating seas of 46 feet or more. While Beaufort's original scale stopped at Force 13 (later 12), force levels up to 17 were added as the system was adopted by maritime nations dealing with tropical typhoons in the western Pacific.

With the switch to the metric system, many countries dispensed with the Beaufort scale in favor of meters/second or kilometers/hour descriptions. The UK still uses the scale in civilian weather advisories, and many other countries issue weather warning based on the Beaufort scale.

Force 0, calm. Winds are less than 1 knot. Seas are flat. On land, smoke rises vertically.

Force 1, light air. Winds 1-2 knots. Seas begins to ripple. Smoke drifts downwind, but solid objects are unaffected.

Force 2, light breeze. Winds 3-6 knots. You can feel the wind on your bare skin and light objects like leaves and paper litter start to rustle.

Force 3, gentle breeze. Winds 7-10 knots. Seas begin to form some whitecaps. Small objects likes twigs start to move.

Force 4, moderate breeze. Winds 11-15 knots. Small waves with breaking crests, tree branches moving.

Force 5, fresh breeze. Winds 16-20 knots. Some sea spray, small trees start to sway.

Force 6, strong breeze. Winds 21-26 knots. Long waves, white foam crests, some airborne spray. On land, you hear whistling in overhead wires and empty plastic garbage cans turn over. In Canada this is called a strong wind; in the US winds at this level will result in a small craft advisory.

Force 7, high wind/moderate gale/near gale. Winds 27-33 knots. The seas begin to pile up. On land, it's tough to walk against the wind.

Force 8, gale/fresh gale. Winds 34-40 knots. Seas approaching 20 feet or more, the wind starts pushing cars around on the road. In Canada, this is called gale force; in the US, winds at this speed will result in a gale warning.

Force 9, strong gale. Winds 41-47 knots. Seas approaching 30 feet or more. Small trees blow over.

Force 10, storm/whole gale. Winds 48-55 knots. Seas 40 feet or more, large patches of form give the water a white appearance. Trees are uprooted, shingles are torn from roofs. Canada calls winds this speed storm force; the US will issue a storm warning at this level.

Force 11, violent storm. Winds 56-63 knots. Seas may reach 50 ft or more, and spray reduces visibility. Many plants, trees, and structures are damaged.

Force 12, hurricane force. Winds more than 64 knots. Huge seas. Lots of damage and debris on land. Corresponds to a Category One (on the Saffir-Simpson Scale) hurricane.

Hurricanes. Forces 13-17 roughly correspond to the higher levels on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale. Thus Hurricane Katrina, which was a Category 3 hurricane when it came ashore in Louisiana, would be expected to have Force 14 or 15 winds.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Before I went to work on offshore supply boats in the Gulf of Mexico, I called up a former captain of mine that had worked for the same company to ask him what I should wear at work. He told me to bring normal work clothes, like Dickies or something similar, and steel-toed shoes. I made a quick trip to the army/navy surplus store and stocked up, stuffed by brand new clothes and shoes into my sea bag (this is back before I saw the light of luggage on wheels), and headed off for Louisiana. When I turned to for my first watch wearing my stiff khaki work clothes, I saw that I was bit overdressed; t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers were the uniform of the day. Many of my fellow ABs didn't even wear socks. The only thing anyone ever required us to wear: hard hats and life vests, when the work required it.

My experience in the Gulf was very different than what I saw in the small passenger industry. Passenger vessel crews may be the last ones to wear the old-style merchant marine uniforms like you see me and Capt. Norway wearing above. These uniforms are similar to military uniforms, are are indeed based on navy usage. What you see pictured above is the standard uniform: navy or black pants, white shirt and navy or black tie. I was chief mate at the time of this photo, so my shoulder boards, or epaulets, have three stripes (the captain has four) and the "fouled anchor" insignia indicating the deck department. On American vessels, the engineers would have a propeller insignia and the stewards department crossed quills. On some vessels, including many foreign flagged yachts, the interior crew will have a "crescent moon" insignia in silver or grey instead of gold. The hat, or "cover," has the merchant marine insignia on the brim, and a vessel captain may have the gold-trim "scrambled eggs" on the brim.

Non-officer crew members, and even officers on many private yachts and some small commercial passenger vessels, may simply wear a "day uniform" consisting of a polo shirt and matching or complimentary pants or shorts. On a private yacht, bare feet may be required to protect the deck and carpeting on the vessel. Engineers may wear simply coveralls or a black uniform with the proper insignia.

Uniforms for women. While many vessels require the same uniform for men and women, on some the women may wear women's blouses, skirts, and the "combination hat" worn by women in the military. The private yacht industry is turning to a more "modern" look for women especially, with more form fitting shirts, skirts, and "skorts."