Juneau tech works to avert world's shipping disasters

Posted: Wednesday, May 21, 2008

In a nondescript walk-up office on Harbor Way, near the end of a bridge in this Southeast Alaska city, Capt. Ed Page watches a loaded tanker 2,000 miles south in real time, maneuvering toward the dock in Long Beach harbor.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

With a flick of mouse, he looks 2,000 miles in the other direction, watching the Cosco Xiamen navigate Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands en route from China.

"Where's the Columbia?" Page asks, seeking the whereabouts of one of Alaska's state ferries. Another tap on the mouse. An oblong ship symbol appears on a map of Ketchikan on the display, showing the Columbia in drydock undergoing repairs in the city's shipyard.

A few more clicks and Page checks on ships headed to and from ports in New York, Boston, New Orleans, Houston and San Francisco. Their images flash across the screen. Roughly 1,700 ships are precisely located and identified at any given time, and all in real time.

Page and his crew staff the Marine Exchange of Alaska, a nonprofit association of shipping companies and Alaska vessel owners.

Why is the Alaska exchange here, in a small city tucked away in the mountains and fjords of Southeast Alaska, tracking ships in almost all of the nation's major ports?

Partly it's because the Alaska exchange, one of 14 similar organizations in the nation, had an advantage coming into the field late. But the group also had to adopt the latest technologies to monitor vessels along several thousand miles of coast. "We took the lead in the technology," Page said.

With satellite communications and Web-based information technology, almost anything can be done from anywhere. Once the Alaska system was up and running, other marine exchanges and the U.S. Coast Guard started using the Alaska system, Page said.

The Coast Guard gets real-time access to all exchange tracking information, relies on it for coordinating maritime security operations and uses it extensively during emergencies.

In May 2007, the cruise ship Empress of the North, with 220 passengers onboard, hit a rock and started taking on water. Using the Marine Exchange system, the Coast Guard quickly located a state ferry seven miles away, and requested that the ferry both assist the stricken vessel and take on all passengers. Simultaneously a tug and barge headed into the area were ordered to stand clear.

Later, the Marine Exchange was able to give the National Transportation Safety Board a record of the vessel's precise track and speed, which showed the ship hit a different rock than was previously believed to be the case.

The precision of the system was dramatically illustrated a year earlier, when the Coast Guard used the system to pinpoint the location of the ill-fated freighter Selendang Ayu. The ship, loaded with soybeans, lost power in rough seas, ran aground and broke apart on Unalaska Island.

Coast Guard headquarters in Juneau used the system to tell the Coast Guard cutter on the scene, where the weather and visibility was bad, that the ship's anchor wasn't holding and that the freighter was moving. Clustered around display monitors in Juneau, the Coast Guard watched in horror as the Selendang Ayu was pushed by wind and waves toward the rocky shore.

Ultimately, lives were lost, and the ship couldn't be saved.

While working to save lives and property gets the adrenaline going for Page and his staff, the day-to-day business of the Marine Exchange, and others like it around the nation, is to support everyday commerce, because precise vessel location and tracking creates efficiency for exchange members.

"If we're able to help a pilot or a tug meet a ship at the right place at the right time, our members don't waste time and money. That's our return," Page said.

Consumers benefit directly, too. If a state ferry is running late because of weather, passengers waiting to board at the ship's destination would have a way to know.

The technology involved is conventional and straightforward by today's standards. Virtually all commercial vessels engaged in international trade today are equipped with a Global Marine Distress and Safety System, and an Automatic Identification System. These systems send frequent position reports to a satellite while the ship is well offshore or to shore side receiving stations when the vessel is within 50 to 100 miles of a station.

The vessels can be tracked by satellite equipment, which can be set to send signals every few hours, or more frequently if far out to sea, and tracked by the AIS network every minute when near shore.

Marine exchanges have always had their origins in commerce, and date back to the 19th century in the U.S. and to the 14th century in Europe, said Paul Fuhs, president of the Alaska Marine Exchange board.

The technology was different then. Someone with a telescope on a hill or tall building spotted sailing ships appearing on the horizon and signaled for teamsters to assemble horses and wagons and head to the docks, Fuhs said.

The principle is still the same, however.

With modern information technology, vessels today can be tracked over the horizon any anywhere in the world.

"The good old days of the ship disappearing over the horizon are long gone," Page said. "Shipping is a high stakes game, and the liabilities are huge. Managers want to know where their assets are."

The cost to track vessels is about $3 a day, Page said.

There are now 52 receiving stations at different points along Alaska's coastline. Using a $1.2 million state capital appropriation approved by the Legislature this spring, the number is to increase to 70, and is to include stations in the Arctic, where there is increasing interest in maritime operations.

Gov. Sarah Palin must first approve the appropriation.

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