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On the trailing edge: Brownlee on Rena

Written By: - Date published: 1:41 pm, September 28th, 2012 - 11 comments
Categories: Gerry Brownlee, transport - Tags: , ,

I was reading an article looking at the aftermath of the Rena shipwreck in the Herald. In it I read some ridiculous statements by Gerry Brownlee that seemed (like so much from him) to come from the early part of the last century. It appears that he (and his minons in the M0T) haven’t quite caught up on rapid progress of the digital age in nautical circles.

This was the section of the article that caught my attention.

Balomaga (the captain of the Rena) said he hoped lessons could be learned from the disaster, and agreed New Zealand should have mandatory shipping lanes.

Such lanes have been recommended by the Maritime Union and the Green Party.

But Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee says the lanes are expensive to set up and police.

And Ministry of Transport officials told the Herald the lanes did not necessarily guarantee compliance or prevent accidents involving navigational error.

Italics are mine.

These days all commercial vessels over 300 tonnes entering NZ waters are required to have a AIS (Automatic Identity System) transponder. I have no idea if it is mandated, but it is hard to find commercial vessels without AIS receivers and linkages to their charting systems. Many people watching the Rena disaster cleanup did so watching apps and websites relaying AIS information mostly picked up by amateurs and put on sites like marinetraffic.com. An example of their limited efforts is shown below.


AIS broadcasts using VHF radio the details of vessels, their current position, heading, and speed and a host of other information when available. This means that for commercial vessels and a increasing number of class B private vessels it is quite inexpensive to monitor any vessel from a few aerials mounted in the tops of nearby hills that will cover a radius of up to 40 nautical miles.

But this doesn’t mark the shipping lanes in harbours. This was traditionally done using buoys, beacons, and other hardware. These are known generically as AtoN’s (Aids to Navigation). Setting up and maintaining these was always expensive. Dropping hardware out in the harbours or on convenient exposed coastal land is to put them in some of the roughest environments that humans put any of their hardware. They are also relatively ineffectual in that to be useful you have to tell vessels that might only come into port a few times a year where they are and how to use them.

However these days there are AIS AtoN’s. These are either on actual AtoN’s like buoys with all of the problems of harbour hardware, or they can be virtual or synthetic. In the latter case they just need aerials like those mounted on the top of Mt Victoria and Rangitoto in Auckland Harbour and a device to transmit the locations of the virtual locations in the harbour. They can mark shipping lanes as easily as they currently mark hazards.

These have been in use around various parts of the world – just look at google. In fact I’m sure that some of the AIS AtoN’s in the chart above are virtual – I wasn’t aware of an aerial or AIS beacon at the top of Little Barrier for instance.

None of this is particularly expensive to set up as the aerials are already in place, the AIS message protocols already handle what is required, and most if not all commercial vessels already have the required AIS transponders, VHF hardware, and most will have modern AIS receivers that can plot the AtoN’s marking shipping channels.

Now the last part – policing. Now you have to admire this following statement in the Herald article which is a quite carefully worded misdirection that the Herald reporter, Jamie Morton, was a complete sucker for accepting at face value and printing. He should be required to watch a series of Sir Humphrey making the same self-serving and essentially meaningless types of statements in Yes Minister.

..Ministry of Transport officials told the Herald the lanes did not necessarily guarantee compliance or prevent accidents involving navigational error.

I merely contemplated what this approach to lanes would mean for traffic on the motorway. Having lanes there also does not “..guarantee compliance or prevent accidents involving navigational error”. In fact there is no traffic lane system in the world that even attempts to do either of those things. It is a bit of nonsense. What traffic lanes are intended to do is to provide a guide to the people using them and to provide a definition on when people are transgressing the rules and are therefore liable to be punished. It is not the lanes that enforce compliance by sticking up spikes. Nor do they even attempt to prevent accidents. What causes lanes of traffic to be observed and which therefore reduce accidents is the expectation of policing of transgressions.

As some readers of these pages are aware I am a programmer. These days I spend some of my time using or programming AIS RMC and VDM messages so I know what information that they carry and how the locations are generated from GPS. And unlike cars all commercial vessels carry an transponder that broadcasts their position that can be picked up from well out to sea.

Writing a traffic control program that reads the AIS GPS positions and looks for transgressions against lanes locations marked by virtual AIS AtoN’s seems like a no-brainer. Automatically sending transgressors a message over VHF of a traffic violation from the program using both AIS and voice seems only marginally more complicated. Non-performing hardware is in itself a transgression. A digital maritime radar would be sufficient to check for vessels without a transponder or with one with a inaccurate position and putting one in place for harbours without it looks like the only significant cost.

When transgressors next dock at a NZ port levy the appropriate punishment that must be paid or otherwise complied with before they may undock. If a vessel transgresses and never returns to NZ waters, it still fulfils the purpose. None of this appears to violate any of the international maritime law and I’d expect would require mere regulation rather than legislation to put into place. In fact I can’t see any reason why it could be operating next year.

Could someone please, please educate Gerry Brownlee about which century he is living in, and what inexpensive tools are actually available for his portfolio. Having a minister of the crown living on the trailing edge of humanity and making his judgements based on the best practice when he was a youth seems like a waste of everyone’s time. What is worse that next thing you know he’ll extend this same numbnuts logic to the roads that I drive on and abolish policing of the roads because it is too “expensive”. But really I suspect that he is just simply too damn lazy to think about what need to be done and getting around to doing it.

11 comments on “On the trailing edge: Brownlee on Rena ”

  1. Draco T Bastard 1

    Considering increased shipping it should be a no brainer to put in place such lanes and tracking system and, as you say, make it mostly automated. We wouldn’t leave the aircraft uncontrolled because of the dangers and we shouldn’t be leaving ships uncontrolled either.

    Here’s something scary in regards to tracking. Proves that it can be done.

    • lprent 1.1

      I don’t think that you’d leave it unattended despite it being possible.

      After all the system would be running under the authority of whoever is the harbour master. They do tend towards being ummmm (reaches for rare use of diplomatic speech) irritable whenever anyone usurps their authority. I suspect that they’d feel the same about any automatic system. But human control would be more in the order of keeping an eye on the system to make sure it isn’t going nuts rather than doing its job.

      But what I was really pointing out was that it wasn’t expensive to put in lanes because they can be largely automatic. Our existing system of having no control is a damn sight more dangerous as the Rena showed because when a problem happens it can screw up large areas of harbour and cost.

    • Jokerman 1.2

      in the Brown lee of the Bay of Plenty sea, Lies the Ichthyosaur…

  2. KJT 2

    AIS is already in place on the Navigation markers in Auckland, and being added in Tauranga and other ports.

    I still would not like to see visual markers disappear. A screen cannot replace the real thing for knowing your position in real time.

    Traffic volumes are extremely low around New Zealand, except in Cook Strait which already has lanes for the ferries..

    In fact I cannot even remember any collisions between large ships on the NZ coast, since RADAR.

    Can’t see how monitoring will help. Except to allocate costs after the event.

    We had a de-facto lane system in place for decades, sort of by mutual agreement/seamanship.
    Tanker used to go 3 miles off, Coastal ships 1 to 2 miles depending on size and most overseas ships seemed to prefer 5 miles. MNZ buggered it up by making the coastal tankers go 5 miles off. Instead of increasing safety that increased the amount of potential collisions.

    What needs to be addressed is standards of training, manning and equipment.

    As well as recognition by port authorities, MNZ and others that seafarers need to sleep once in a while.
    At the same time crew numbers and standards of qualifications are being drastically reduced the expectations of the time spent in dancing attendance on all sorts of visitors from shore, being ready to arrive and depart on the ports schedule, regardless of crew rest time, compliance paperwork and other demands are being hugely increased.

    The only publication that addressed the Rena crews working hours was NZ geographic. Looking at their schedule in Napier, plus all the port State inspections and the usual port, immigration and other crap there is no way they had adequate sleep.

    • lprent 2.1

      Auckland has AIS in some of its physical AtoN’s – but they seem to spend more of their time not working than working – which makes them somewhat useless. There are some virtual AtoN’s appearing around the Auckland harbour. Recent AIS software shows having a ‘v’ in the diamond rather than the ‘+’.

      I still would not like to see visual markers disappear. A screen cannot replace the real thing for knowing your position in real time.

      Sure – for reefs and other navigational hazards. But I was specifically referring to traffic lanes and Brownlee/MoT’s claim that they’d be too expensive. That isn’t the case unless you’re planning on marking the things out with buoys.

      But I’m also sure that the number of physical navigational markers is reducing around Auckland harbour compared to what I saw 20 years ago. They’d be a pain to maintain, and I think that as the vessel sizes have increased and the possible routes into the harbour have diminished with increasing draft some have not been replaced.

      The only publication that addressed the Rena crews working hours was NZ geographic. Looking at their schedule in Napier, plus all the port State inspections and the usual port, immigration and other crap there is no way they had adequate sleep.

      Agreed that appears to be the biggest ongoing issue. Basically the vessels are undermanned with officers for these short hops and short stays in port. The underlying problem is that the owners of the ships are trying to shave costs finer and consequently the officers are trying to shave time.

      This would be a pretty simple backup/checking system to put in place. Apart from anything else you’d pick up vessels run by cowboys at either the owner or officer level from the larger fishing vessels to container vessels. That would mean that more time can be focused on them and less on people that aren’t pushing the bounds.

  3. It’s a good idea, yas could even make some cash from it, Gerry.

  4. Jackal 4

    You might be interested LPrent in an excuse that was given for not upholding an OIA concerning what exactly the MV Rena was carrying:

    The particular routes that goods are shipped by can put a shipping company at a commercial advantage over its competitors, as the particular route taken may cost less or take less time than the route a competitor shipping company may take. If this information were to be released, it would be likely to unreasonably prejudice the commercial position of the shipping company who supplied the information.

    Mei Chan
    Legal Executive
    Maritime New Zealand

    I find this response most annoying, being that my request wasn’t even for the route the MV Rena had taken. But what this tells me is that instead of following well defined shipping lanes, shipping companies are cutting corners in order to be more competitive.

    But really I suspect that he is just simply too damn lazy to think about what need to be done and getting around to doing it.

    I expect it’s more a case of the shipping companies lobbying the government to ensure such measures are not introduced. The inexpensive and workable system you describe to increase safety would ultimately hurt their bottom line, because they’re currently profiting from being unsafe.

    With piss weak legislation that fails to ensure shipping companies pay when an accident occurs, most of the costs are socialized, meaning that there’s no financial incentive for shipping companies to put safety above profits.

    Gerry Brownlee has failed to properly amend the legislation that could have increased safety… Negligence in other words. He has also shown a gross ignorance of the technology available that could ensure another Rena disaster does not occur again… What an idiot!

    • Draco T Bastard 4.1

      Gerry Brownlee has failed to properly amend the legislation that could have increased safety… Negligence in other words.

      That’s, IMO, criminal negligence and if he’s doing it to maintain profits for the shipping companies then we have to consider outright corruption as well.

      • KJT 4.1.1

        Successive Governments since 1984 have been slack on shipping standards. Basically because if they applied them we would not be able to have cheap overseas ships carrying coastal cargoes. Many of the ships that come here would not be accepted by the US coastguard for trading on the US coast.Which would cut the hazard by half.

        The sad thing is standards of manning and training on NZ flag ships have also been cut in the name of competition.

        All supposedly to make freight rates cheaper for farmers. The laugh is on them because the shipping cartels set whatever rates they like and the service levels are now rather indifferent.

        Shipping is exempt from anti-cartel legislation.

        Despite all the BS about port competition Mearsk put NZ rates up, not Australian. Australia still has a few of their own international ships.

        http://kjt-kt.blogspot.co.nz/2011/10/rena-neo-liberal-failure.html

    • KJT 4.2

      That is comical. Where ships go is certainly not a secret. A bit large to hide.

  5. tc 5

    I thought we did have shipping lanes and they operate as you’ve suggested lp. has anyone asked the port of tauranga (officially) why their alerts systems weren’t acted upon as Rena drifted out of the lane.

    Kordia do some manned monitoring also and as for educating brownlee you can’t teach an arrogant old Nat dog and former woodwork teacher any new tricks unless they involve pillaging on behalf of the hollowmen.

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