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Saturday, April 21, 2007

The More Things Change...

Remember when the Coast Guard decided everybody needed to get rid of their Class C VHF channels-15/16 EPIRBs in favor of the ten times more expensive Category I and II 406 mHz satellite EPIRBs? Of course you do. Because you had to shell out $1000 instead of $100. If you recall, the argument for the phase-out was a good one. There were just too many false MAYDAYs with the Class C EPIRBs.

So, I ask you, if there were too many false distress calls on VHF channel-16 twenty years ago, why is it almost all VHF radios today come equipped with a DSC emergency distress button? Isn't this just opening up a whole new can of worms? In fact, if you go to the USCG Navigation Center web page you will find the following statement:
The International Telecommunications Union Sector for Radiocommunications has indicated that excessive test calls on MF/HF DSC distress and safety frequencies are overloading the system to the point where interference to distress and safety calls has become a cause for concern.. To minimize possible interference, live testing on DSC distress and safety frequencies with coast stations should be limited to once a week as recommended by the International Maritime Organization.
The ITU is acknowledging too many distress calls on MF (Medium Frequency) and HF (High Frequency) radios. These are radios and frequencies typically used by trained mariners on commercial and/or high seas vessels. If we're having problems with these radio operators, what can we expect from untrained and inexperienced VHF radio users in the recreational sector?

I'm at a loss to understand the logic of giving up a problematic MAYDAY system only to replace it with a similarly problematic system twenty years later. Just how problematic is DSC? Here's more from the Coast Guard Web Page:
The single largest operational problem of the U.S. Coast Guard concerning DSC had been responding to the large number of MF/HF DSC distress relays being sent by ships. ITU regulations require each relay to be individually acknowledged. The Coast Guard treats each distress alert relay as if it were a separate distress. Worse, certain radios insert the identity of a ship sending a relay, rather than a ship sending a distress, into the menu of a relay message, and ship operators are transmitting this relay falsely identifying the ship in distress to Coast Guard rescue coordination centers. The USCG requested that vessels not relay any DSC distress message which has already been acknowledged. If you do relay a distress message, make sure the identity of the vessel in distress is correct, and send the relay to a USCG radio station using an identity such as 003669999, rather than sending it to all ships.

Since this problem was identified, radio operators have cooperated to reduce the number of relays transmitted. Consequently, this is far less of a problem now.

If we were to identify the single largest operational problem of the U.S. Coast Guard concerning DSC today, it would likely be the lack of follow-up voice communications after transmission of a DSC call.

Continuing DSC problems include:

  • the lack of follow-up voice comms after transmission of a DSC call, particularly a distress call
  • Unnecessary and frequent alarms
  • Distress alerts without accurate location information
  • Distress alerts with unregistered MMSI identification
  • Limited use of DSC for routine communications
  • Inconsistent and illogical software menu defaults
  • Alarms disrupting ongoing radiocommunications

The biggest problem listed above (important enough to mention twice) is the lack of follow-up communications. If I'm not mistaken, the lack of comms with the MAYDAY vessel was one of the two reason for getting rid of the old EPIRBs. The second reason, which obviously contributed to the first, was the anonymousness of the Class C EPIRB.

Regarding the latter point: In order to make a DSC-equipped radio identifiable it must be programmed with a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number. How do you get a DSC MMSI? Commercial users, or those who travel outside the U.S. or Canada, must apply for a ship station license, or an amendment to a ship station license, to obtain an MMSI. Non-commercial users (e.g. recreational boaters) who stay in U.S. waters can obtain a U.S. MMSI through BOAT US and SeaTow. Canadian vessels should contact Industry Canada.

But if you call a retail store and ask someone there, they'll likely be at a loss as to where to send you. I know, because I just called three retailers and nobody knew where to get an MMSI, even though, collectively, they have over a hundred DSC-equipped radios on their shelves.

How many DSC-equipped radios do you think will be sold? Answer: Millions. Of those radios, how many will represent unidentifiable and untraceable potential MAYDAYs?


Ah, Spring!

I love a launching. Whether the boat’s brand new or just freshly painted, I can’t help noticing how pure and unsullied the thing looks. As Madonna would say, “Like a virgin.”

And yet, lot’s of things can go wrong at a launching. For example, I heard this story about a big, wooden dragger. . . . The builders never put weights on the cradle, so after the boat slid into the water, stuck was the baby, cradle and all. Kind of embarrassing.

There’s also the story about the multi-million dollar sloop that slid off the ways and kept on going. It turned out that the sloop’s transmission failed, and the yard skiff the builders had standing-by to tend the boat didn’t have the power to control it.

And how could I forget one of the most famous launching disasters of all time, that of the poorly designed and extremely top-heavy, Vasa?

On August 10, 1628, the flagship of the King of Sweden left her launch site in Stockholm with all her flags flying. She sailed less than a half mile, ran into a sudden squall, and tipped over. The 1300-ton warship took water through her open gun ports and sank. Very embarrassing, yes, but also fatal. A good number of the King’s best fighting men, as well as a few members of the aristocracy went to their graves amidst the wreckage.

In comparison, my launching experiences are kind of anticlimactic, although they didn’t seem that way at the time. At one yard, my lobsterboat got thumped on the bottom when an overanxious hoist operator lowered it too quickly in too little water. I was a bit miffed but . . . no serious harm done. Another time, at the same yard, while backing out of the slipway, my prop sucked an old canvas dodger off the bottom. It stopped the engine cold and set the boat adrift toward a grout pile.

My favorite was this one guy who told me I had plenty of tide. Famous last words. I came down the ways -- in a 50’ wooden deadrise-style party boat this time -- only to get stuck in the mud. He assured me I had lots of water and could back her out. When I tried, the bow came off the cradle and dropped a foot through open air. Thanks to his great advice, my stopwater leaked all season.