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November 16, 1989
Tankers full of trouble

Sound System?
Outdated radar tracking ships

Puget Sound has the nation's biggest and best Coast Guard radar system for tracking and guiding commercial ships.

But that honor is a hollow one. Most U.S. harbors have no traffic-control system, and the harbors that do — including Puget Sound — use outdated equipment.

At first glance, the heart of the Puget Sound Vessel Traffic System (VTS), in a room on Seattle's waterfront, looks like an airport tower control room. Controllers are seated at radar screens and speak to ship captains by radio. But air-traffic controllers would laugh at the obsolete, noncomputerized equipment in the Coast Guard facility.

The $6.5 million the Coast Guard spends annually operating all of its VTS facilities is less than two-thirds the amount of money the Federal Aviation Administration spends running just one of its air-traffic-control systems, in Seattle ($10.9 million).

Last year, budget cuts forced the Coast Guard to shut down traffic systems in New York and New Orleans. Recently, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the New Orleans shutdown contributed to a September 1988 tanker grounding and 966,000-gallon oil spill in the Mississippi River. Congress is considering appropriating money next year to reopen those stations.

Coast Guard vessel-traffic systems are very different from air-traffic-control systems. The Coast Guard systems are advisory; ship captains are rarely told what to do in the same way airplane pilots are directed.

But Coast Guard studies show that even poorly equipped VTS facilities give much-needed advice that prevents groundings, collisions and rammings. Case in point:

Last year, a fully loaded crude-oil tanker and a 580-foot container ship were sailing on a collision course in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, 3 miles from Port Angeles. The captains got confused while talking by radio; one thought they had agreed to pass each other on the port side while the other was expecting a starboard approach.

A Coast Guard radio operator at the VTS facility in Seattle overheard the confusion and straightened the captains out just in time to avoid a head-on collision, says system supervisor Jim Richardson.

"This happens a lot, unfortunately," Richardson says.

Coast Guard Cmdr. Michael Haucke, the man in charge of the Puget Sound system, says the inland waters of Washington state are the busiest in the nation. Some 650 ships and ferries move around every day in Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Rosario Strait, and they must dodge thousands of commercial fishing boats and pleasure boats that aren't required to report their positions to the VTS.

On a recent night, there were so many gill-net fishing boats near one shipping lane that the radar screen looked like it had measles.

To help ships avoid fishing boats and each other, 10 Coast Guard radars cover Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Rosario Strait. That compares with two radars at the next largest sites in San Francisco and Valdez, Alaska. In Seattle, eight operators and supervisors work each shift, and the system operates 24 hours a day.

Despite the number of radars, the system has huge gaps. The radars don't cover anything south of Seattle — including Tacoma, where more than 80 tankers called on two refineries last year.

The radar stations give no information on weather, and if Coast Guard personnel want to know the weather in a particular area, they must call a ship.

The radars are so outdated that operators are forced to keep track of vessels on little slips of paper that they post like confetti around their radar screens. As ships approach each other, the operators calculate in their heads whether they are on a collision course.

"This is the way air-traffic control used to be, years ago," Haucke said.

Modern, computerized radars display a ship's speed, direction and the time it will take to approach another ship — all at the touch of a finger. Air-traffic-control systems have been so equipped for years, as have vessel-traffic systems in Europe.

It would cost about $4 million to buy computerized radars for Puget Sound and $4 million to cover the area south of Seattle, says Rear Adm. Robert Kramek, district Coast Guard commander.

In the wake of the Exxon Valdez accident, Congress has appropriated $4 million to extend the radars south, and President Bush is expected to sign it.

The Exxon Valdez accident in March underscored VTS problems. Radars in Prince William Sound should have picked up the Exxon Valdez heading for its fateful grounding on Bligh Reef but did not.

Only eight U.S. harbors have vessel-traffic systems. They are: Puget Sound; Houston-Galveston; San Francisco; Prince William Sound; Berwick Bay, La.; Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.; and Louisville, Ky., (which operates only 50 days a year).

The first operational traffic system was a Coast Guard experiment in 1968 in San Francisco Bay. After two tankers collided beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in 1971 — spilling 800,000 gallons of oil — the system was upgraded and made permanent.

The Puget Sound system began operation in September 1972. It was primitive at first. There were no radars; ships reported by radio, and their positions were plotted with models on a tabletop map.

By comparison, the system is much better today. Still, it has serious limitations.

Violation of a VTS directive can draw a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $25,000 fine. But there aren't many directives. Ships are ordered around only during extreme conditions such as heavy fog. Although traffic lanes are designated, there are no speed limits.

And as is often the case with mariners — even within the Coast Guard — there is resistance to changing any of that. Kramek, the local admiral, says only captains know what is best for their ships.

"I don't think there is any system where a person at a desk or a radar scope can tell a person what to do in a marine environment."

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