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The Lighter Side of AIS

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The biggest advance in marine electronics in recent history is the Automatic Identification System – commonly referred to as AIS. While such electronic tracking units were almost non-existent on pleasure craft two years ago, they are now on virtually every ocean-going yacht in the world. That's an amazingly fast global acceptance. Why? Because AIS is cheap, doesn't draw much power and works perfectly. All Class A vessels (99.9 percent of all ships offshore) are required by law to have one.

This means that every ship I recently encountered while crossing the Indian Ocean appeared on my collision-avoidance AIS long before I saw it visually. And I had immediate access to all its nav data: position, course, speed … even how close, and at exactly what time, it would approach my vessel. (Name, cargo, destination, and dimensions too!)

AIS has almost eliminated collision at sea between freighters and small ocean-going pleasure craft. Excellent, right?


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Alas, every silver cloud has a dark lining – at least aboard our world-weary 38 foot sloop, Wild Card. My wife now can't seem to understand why I insist that she "looks out" while on look-out – when we have an ever vigilant, never-blinking machine which does a far, far better job of it.

"… and besides," she says with a goofy smile, "the AIS can't physically comfort and console the skipper, can it? Shouldn't I be using my carefully-honed womanly skills to your maximum benefit – human skills the AIS utterly lacks? Isn't that logical, Fatty?"

That's the problem with marrying a smart woman – I never quite know when she's running circles around my little pea-brain (but suspect it is most of the time).

"No," I say coldly. "I know where this is leading … and you CAN NOT stand watch while in your bunk sleeping, Carolyn! I mean, standing a watch is called standing a watch because you're supposed to watch, honey. Ocean-sailing isn't a video game to be tel-net-accessed via our NEMA-interfaced nav computer …"

" … I never wear my eye glasses anyway," she pouted. " … can't see the bow of the boat, really. Can't even see you. Why, you look like a handsome guy with a white beard … that's how bad my eyesight is!"

There she goes again, running intellectual circles around me. Was that 'handsome' crack a compliment or an insult?

" … besides," she says, "all that wind and salt air messes up my hair."

Ah! She knows she's on safer ground while retreating to such traditional female complaints.

I'll admit I made a major mistake while installing my AIS unit. It had an outlet for an external alarm – and I stupidly hooked it up to my existing onboard burglar alarm system. Now every time a ship gets within 20 miles of us, strobes flash and sirens blare.

To say my siren is loud is to make a vast understatement. It is 'awaken-the-dead' loud. It is "paralyze-all-thought" loud. It is "pee-your-pants" loud.

This "alarm event" generally levitates both of us out of our bunks in stark-raving, stark-naked terror – and ruins our night vision at the same time. (This is assuming we don't die of cardiac arrest.)

Of course, one of the primary reasons I purchased the AIS is so that I could sleep sounder. Alas, this hasn't worked out exactly as I planned.

First, a little nautical history lesson: traditionally, yachtsmen have felt extremely grateful to freighters – especially during the "where the hell am I?" celestial navigation days of yesteryear.

The crews of the freighters were, in turn, a tad condescending. Why shouldn't they have been – with each passing yacht constantly begging for position reports, demanding to know which ocean they were transiting, or even which hemisphere they'd stumbled upon.

Thus, freighters often didn't respond to non-specific VHF calls. For example, say a super tanker was about to run down a 24 foot sloop named Eggshell and the Eggshell called on VHF " … the large menacing vessel about to run us over,"… the freighter wouldn't respond – but rather would just watch its wake for the resulting jetsam … to satisfactory conclude the encounter.

Nowadays, thanks to AIS, we know the precise length, beam and draft of the tanker – as well as its exact name.

Thus, whenever my wife is slightly bored at sea, she just "chats up" a nearby freighter for some "harmless VHF flirting," as she happily calls it.

"This is the sailing vessel Wild Card," she growls seductively, "calling the Petroleum Oppressor of Saudi Arabia … switch to 69, please?"

She likes talking to Muslim vessels in particular – hinting that her armpits are showing and she wears no scarf. (Her radio handle during these sessions is The Fabulous Fatima – she has, alas, no religious shame!)

Our AIS unit is just a receiver – it isn't a Class B transponder which transmits. Thus, we can see the ships on our AIS but they can't see us on their units. Which is strange, really. I mean, I'm grateful for AIS and often tell the freighters I contact on VHF exactly that … which would kinda be like hearing over your car CB that all the cars around you at night appreciate that you have your headlights on … even though they don't.

And if the fun-loving crew of an AIS-equipped yacht is feeling frisky they can play the increasingly popular game of "hide and seek" with the larger, sightless craft. The rules of the game? Anything goes, at least for the sailboat.

"Ahoy Exxon Profiteer," I heard one yachtie crooning into his mic, "we're the floating flotilla of malpractice lawyers in search of a corporation with deep pockets to sue … just under your port bow!"

This will get even the most jaded freighter-jockey's attention – and, obviously, those tin cans can turn faster than you think.

Such precise technology encourages far more "close encounters" than ever before. It used to be, if we got within two miles of a ship I was sweating bullets. Now, I stumble on deck at night as the slab side of a bulk-carrier slides by menacingly, and Carolyn says sleepily, "… no problem … 2.5, on our port side."

"That's not two miles away," I say in shocked awe as I look straight up its rusty, engine-rumbling topsides. " … meters," Carolyn says nonchalantly while applying her nail polish at the nav table, "2.5 meters!"

Can AIS units be improved? Probably. Carolyn would like a "vibrating pillow" option as a more user-friendly alarm device. I'd like to see, ultimately, the AIS info page sort of merge with Facebook … so I'd know such things as, well, if any of the crew members dig Bob Dylan or Linda Lovelace – or even Harvey Milk for that matter.

Of course, someday I want to have a Class B transponder aboard Wild Card – but instead of such boring, dumb detail-thingies as length, draft and beam … I'll use the digi-space to flog my latest book. I mean, many passing freighters are hooked to the internet already … while shouldn't their literature-starved crews be encouraged to download an eBook edition of "Chasing the Horizons" or "All at Sea Yarns" from Amazon.com to their Kindles?

… and why should AIS units be restricted to boats? Why not elephants and bullies and bill collectors? Or pedophiles? And right now, the list of items and locations which can be targets is restricted to registered vessels, nav aids and wrecks … why not allow harborside bars, brothels and bed and breakfast establishments in on the AIS fun? We yachties are always being accused of being too elitist … might not these commercial inclusions help our international "we're-the-same-as-poor-people-only-richer" campaign?

The bottom line is that AIS is here to stay. And I'm all for it. Don't listen to my smart-alecky wife who tells unsuspecting landlubbers the initials stand for Asinine Insecure Skipper! Or Absolutely Insane Scribe. Or Admittedly Infantile Sailor. The reality is that she's an Aging, Irritable Spouse!

Editor's note: The Wild Cards are currently cruising the Maldives (Indian Ocean) while gathering their courage for the next leg to Oman.


Cap'n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card with his wife Carolyn and cruises throughout the world. He is the author of "Chasing the Horizon" by American Paradise Publishing, "Seadogs, Clowns and Gypsies," "The Collected Fat" and his newest, "All at Sea Yarns." For more Fat-flashes, see fattygoodlander.com.

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Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap'n Fatty Goodlanderhttp://fattygoodlander.com/
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com

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