Strait of Juan de Fuca, VTS, AIS, and not getting squashed
by Andrew Malinak
[Originally published in Please Tap on the Glass at USMS Blogs on 27 June 2013.]
From the beginning I knew that if I was swimming across a shipping channel, at least one person, or one government agency, would care about it. Without the right permission, this and future attempts at this swim would be jeopardized, and that is the opposite of my goal. So I Googled “Coast Guard Seattle.”
After several phone calls up and down the chain of command, many including the phrase, “yes, swimming,” I ended up with the number to Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) Sector Puget Sound. VTS is a part of the US Coast Guard that controls America’s ports, waterways, and shipping channels; they are the air traffic controllers of our inland waters. The Strait of Juan de Fuca west of Victoria is controlled by VTS here in Seattle and not VTS in Victoria. Lucky! This is where I first spoke with LCDR MK, who did not ask me “swimming?”
A week later, MK and I met at her office in the Seattle Port along with VTS Director MA. The two of them explained their procedures, how VTS works, and what they would expect from me as far as safety goes. Since this is a one-swimmer deal, there would be no permit. As we talked about the route I had in mind, and they really made me believe this was possible. We were talking logistics and a way forward rather than Danger! or Cold! or Boats! or Common Sense!
VTS would require an AIS Class A device on board during the swimi. An AIS, simply put, sends and receives GPS signals by VHF so boats can see each other, and so VTS can see the boats. A Class A is required by 33CFR164.46 on all boats of a certain size, bigger than…yawn…oh, sorry. Oil tankers and ferries have ‘em, your uncle’s boat doesn’t. So finding a small, swim-escort size boat with a Class A was a challenge.
Spoiler alert: I still haven’t found one. I got two prices for such boats. The first was a commercial tender, 65 feet long, and expensive. I’d basically be hiring these guys to not deliver supplies to ocean going ships for a day. Option Two was a recommendation of the VTS director (did I tell you they were awesome?), an ex-VTS staffer who had put a Class A on his private sailboat. After letting him name his own price, he was at 80% of the commercial boat’s Really Expensive price. Having someone so knowledgeable on my crew felt right, so I bit the bullet and went for it. Then, the day after I told him he was my guy, he got sent to Mississippi to run their VTS for the summer. Bummer.
Fortunately, this left me with only one option. Buy a Class A device and hire anyone that looks like they won’t sink halfway through the swim. Since Class A’s are federally mandated devices meant for really big boats, they don’t run cheap. The best I could do was $2,500, from a nearby Miltech Marine. I asked if there was a Groupon, they said, “huh?” But even for that price plus hiring a boat for a day, I’d still come out a few hundred dollars ahead than if I’d gone with the first two options, plus I’d own a Class A at the end. Sold!
After I got to the yeah-we-remember-who-you-are level with the AIS dealer figuring out if making this thing portable was possible, it finally arrived. Long, long story short, after I figured out how to connect it to a 12v plug fused at 4 amps, soldered a connection onto a 3′ VHF whip antenna, sorted out a VSWR error, put the whole thing in a waterproof case, and got to the yeah-we-remember-who-you-are level at West Marine: it works!
So now VTS can watch me swim. And so can you! One side benefit of the AIS is I’ll show up on all those vessel tracking websites. You can search for my MMSI (367575160) or look for “Swimmer In The Water” in the area of my swim once we get going. Check out shipfinder.co,vesselfinder.com, or marinetraffic.com.
I’m meeting with MK and MA at VTS in two weeks to talk more about how to not get run over by an oil tanker, and they’re guiding me through my Coast Guard safety stuff as well. They’ve been way more supportive than I ever would have expected. After this is over, they’ll be getting a very good Yelp review.
iIf you want to know why a cheaper Class B wouldn’t work, I can explain after class.