Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Fidley Watch: Vado a Bordo

By Chris Philips, Managing Editor

Get on board. These are the words Francesco Schettino heard as he stood on the jetty in the small town of Giglio and watched as his ship sank 500 yards away. 

Last month an Italian Court began considering whether Francesco Schettino, captain of the Costa Concordia, will face trial for the 2012 disaster grounding off Tuscany that killed 32 people. Schettino is accused of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship before all the 4,200 passengers and crew had been evacuated. At least 30 passengers died – two are missing and presumed dead.

Schettino ordered the ship taken off course to bring it closer to the island of Giglio as a favor to friends, but hit a reef off the island, leaving a 230-foot gash in the hull and causing the liner to capsize.

Captains of passenger vessels have done similarly silly things in the past, although few as flamboyantly as Schettino, who allegedly abandoned ship as the vessel foundered, leaving most of his passengers to fend for themselves. (Schettino radioed from a lifeboat to the Coast Guard to explain the situation. (“What do you mean,” the Italian Coast Guardsman asks over the radio, incredulous. “You’ve abandoned ship?” Captain courageous quickly contradicts himself: “No. No way have I abandoned ship. I’m here.”)

There’s no indication Captain Schettino was using his charts – electronic or paper – when he ran aground. If he had, perhaps the evening would have turned out differently. 

Navigation has come a long way, and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) deserve much of the credit for increasing navigational accuracy. In the US, the satellites that make up the GPS system are supplemented by fixed, ground-based reference stations (DGPS) that broadcast the difference between the positions indicated by the satellite systems and the known fixed positions.

The US and Canadian Coast Guard each run a DGPS system, and last month a notice was posted in the Federal Register that the US Coast Guard and the Research and Innovative Technology Administration are analyzing the current and future user needs and requirements of the Nationwide Differential Global Positioning System (NDGPS). This analysis will be used to support future NDGPS investment decisions by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Transportation beyond fiscal year 2016.

The notice seeks comments from federal, state, and local agencies, as well as other interested members of the public regarding current and future usage of the NDGPS, the need to retain the NDGPS, the impact if NDGPS signals were not available, alternatives to the NDGPS, and alternative uses for the existing NDGPS infrastructure. The Agency is specifically requesting comments regarding the following questions:

To what extent do you use the NDGPS in its current form for positioning, navigation, and timing?

What would be the impact on NDGPS users if the NDGPS were to be discontinued?

If NDGPS were to be discontinued, what alternatives can be used to meet users’ positioning, navigation, and timing requirements?

What potential alternative uses exist for the existing NDGPS infrastructure?

Commercial mariners have come to rely on the accuracy of satellite-based GPS for navigation, and harbor pilots at the most recent eNavigation Conference (www.enavigation.org) were vocal about the utility of the more precise Differential GPS in navigating harbors and local waterways.

Those of us who rely on DGPS need to get on board and let the Coast Guard know how valuable it is. Comments and related material must reach the Docket Management Facility on or before July 15, 2013. You may submit comments identified by docket number USCG-2013-0054 or RITA-2013-0001 using any one of the following methods:

(1) Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov.
(2) Fax: 202-493-2251.
(3) Mail: Docket Management Facility (M-30), US Department of Transportation, West Building Ground Floor, Room W12-140, 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE, Washington, DC 20590-0001.
(4) Hand delivery: Same as mail address above, between
9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, except Federal holidays. The telephone number is 202-366-9329.