Thursday 20th Sep, 2018

THE SHIPPING LIFE: Navigating the high seas


Our Tasmanian flop

EVERYTHING in our business didn’t always turn out to be beer and skittles, far from it, but in any dynamic business with such a variety of shipping matters as Orient Shipping developed and experienced, we should probably be happy with a score of eight out of ten.

One episode that stuck in my mind was the matter of the sale of Spirit of Tasmania III in 2006.

My old friend Sven-Olof Brax, CEO and founder of the Swedish Brax Shipping company, was running one of the most vibrant ferry and other passenger ships brokerages anywhere (Footnote: We were at the Nautical Academy together from the tender age of 19, and we have remained very close friends ever since). We also collaborated on the Beirut Evacuation.

He contacted me in 2006 stating he had a potential and reputable Norwegian buyer for this ship. They asked for my help in securing it. Their offer was to be “A$5 million above the highest offer”, which is somewhat difficult to arrange in the case of confidential biddings.

In any case, I travelled to Tasmania and tried repeatedly to make contact with the ship’s management, which proved very difficult, since calls were not returned. In any case I managed to pass on the offer, I was acting totally on local legal advice, and my lawyers invited the media to interview me on TV news. I then repeated that we were offering for the ship, but that I was still awaiting any communication back.

Eventually I received a response, stating that we had missed out on the tender deadlines, and that a firm and final offer would have been required in any case.

My response was, that as with any other tender, the sellers are never under any obligation to accept any of them, and that it may be very profitable for them if they reopened the tender process, and for which we could offer $120 million.

But this suggestion was rejected, no re-opening, and the sale to Corsican interests had been concluded (at a much lower price).

As a result, the Tasmanian taxpayer missed out on maybe an extra A$10-15m, the Norwegians missed out on the purchase, and Brax and Orient missed out on any sales commission. Different ways to do business. A pity.

What happened to navigation?

It seems that little or no focus is given to the means of actually moving shipping – navigation. So I will try to give a tour d’horizon of the recent history in the field with which I grew up professionally.

Some time ago I was invited to visit a ship at its maiden voyage in Sydney. The bridge called me like a honeypot does to a bee, and the captain showed me their toys.

Satellite navigation has always fascinated me, since I never navigated by it, myself being too early in life.

Anyhow, the ship’s Satnav indicator gave us a position right on Sydney’s South Head. This was, fortunately, in contrast to our real position in the harbour water at Circular Quay, several km to the southwest. I was told that they (the GPS) often “play up”, and that the satellite navigation almost always was verified by conventional navigational means. It meant two systems in operation, and possibly conflicting.

Recently, I also saw this in practice on a ship I was on at the Kimberleys. In this case, the dual navigation also required doubling up of the navigator officers, and I had to reflect over the confusion, even if only slight, which you must not have on the bridge at any time.

It certainly brings this old timer squarely back to my own days with the conventional navigation tools.

In Terrester Navigation we refer to virtually all non-astronomical methods, and the range of charts, gyro and magnetic compasses (the magnetic used for checking on the gyro), all landmarks, beacons, lighthouses, distance and speed log, depth sounder, radio beacons (RDF), radar etc.

In the no-man’s land in between to Astronomic Navigation we found radio position finding coordinates systems like Decca Navigator and Loran, but the former existed only in the North Sea and the US-based Loran covered only the North Atlantic and needed special Loran receivers and charts, which many shipowners were unwilling to spend money on.

Terrester Navigation depends on a wide range of technology but is dependent on visibility when close to land. When clear, it offers the safest means of moving ships, at night and at other times radar is also a very helpful tool.

The science of tides

This whole field of very complex science offers an extremely complicated science for the navigator to work with.

The extremes of tides up to 12 metres create correspondingly absurdly fast and strong currents, all depending on the phases of the Moon in combination with the Sun and the Earth’s rotational pull.

Northern Australia is notorious for these effects, as are, for example, Britain and the far north coast of America.

Much care must be taken with both phenomena, especially, for example, when anchoring at high tide for an overnight stop. It may be tempting to do so close to wind protective land in order to minimize anchor drift, but it is not much good if the proximity brings your ship aground at midnight with the falling tidal depth. The currents may be devastating. 


Fog is a huge problem especially in highly trafficked waters like the English Channel, Malacca Strait, Tokyo Bay, the Caribbean, the Sweden/Denmark Sound and the South China Sea.

Fog also opens up the matter of the international legal requirement for ships to be able to stop at half the visibility distance. Followed to the letter it would mean that ships’ movements would come to a standstill in total fog, playing havoc with tight schedules generally, but in particular for ferries, which are under pressure to proceed (“with care”) and have the added burden of hundreds of thousands of passengers.

At our Swedish Nautical academy, separate training for radar certificates was compulsory. It enabled fast and accurate plotting and directions for evasive movements to avoid other ships which, if on collision course, should be left three nautical miles (5.6km) of space.

This theory isn’t fine in reality, since there often simply isn’t enough such space, and the presence of maybe 30 other ships makes plotting of them all as an exclusive tool impossible. The collision risk is always present and collisions occur daily.

Some are incomprehensibly in broad daylight with good visibility such as my own experience on the Elbe River, where we were struck by a fully-laden Dutch America Line ship (which sank on the spot). The Dutchman received 100% of the blame in court. We needed three weeks in a Hamburg shipyard.

Fog collisions

As an aside, it is difficult to explain the horror story of the 1956 collision by the Italian Andrea Doria and the Swedish Stockholm in the fogbound North Atlantic area near Nantucket.

These passenger ships were carrying 1706 and 747 people, respectively.

Both ships were going at full speed and relying on their radars. The Stockholm was spotted by Doria’s radar at 17 nm (31 km) and the Doria was seen by the Stockholm at 12 nm (22 km).

There was ample time to take evasive action, but the court found the Italian captain for some reason turned port instead of the correct move to starboard, and in my mind it just beats me why neither of them, in desperation, didn’t make a 180 degree turn around and run away.

Some 51 people died, and only the midnight arrival of Ile de France saved many hundreds from drowning. A fascinating tale is how 14-year old passenger Linda Morgan was tossed out of her bed on the Doria and into Stockholm’s bow, allegedly and incredibly not waking up.

This whole horror story illustrates that in the end, the fragility of the humans in charge of anything of this magnitude can often be the decisive factor and reason for the tragedies.

Great circle navigation

The converging sea paths nearing Nantucket are a result of the customary following of the great circle navigation (GCN) trail between that area and Europe, whether the ships emerge from and to south or north of Britain.

GCN follows the contours of the Earth’s globe, which means that distance and time is saved.

The courses are plotted on GCN charts and their cross reference latitudes and longitudes are then transposed to a normal Mercator’s Projection chart, where the courses will resemble half circles. The savings are considerable, but full advantage cannot always be taken, depending on seasonal weather.

For instance, a GC route from Durban to Sydney would almost touch on Antarctica, and for much of the year weather conditions in the Southern Ocean are so bad, that the GC curve is interrupted by the navigator some way further north of its apex, goes into a straight latitude parallel until the curve hits that parallel again.

In the North Atlantic summers, icebergs are a notorious problem and, coupled with fog and massive trans-ocean traffic, the conditions call for keen focus and care by every ship’s command.

Radar is not totally reliable when it comes to detecting icebergs, which like the sea are only water, but the US Coast Guard has extensive tracking and sends out regular reports of the movements and positions of the bergs.

Astronomic navigation

Astronomic navigation is a personal favourite, mainly because it falls back to science and exact celestial facts.

The tools you need is a sextant, correct GMT time to the second on a high quality chronometer (its accuracy recorded daily from time signals), astronomic tables, a sharp and good horizon and steady hands.

In daylight hours it may be supposed that the sun is logically the only celestial body available in daylight, but that is not so. The moon often shows up in broad daylight and offers its upper or lower edge for observation.

The visually strongest planets’ arch altitude and direction can be located from the tables and time. They can then be spotted and its arch measured down to the horizon and recorded on your sextant and stopwatch.

Ideally for best accuracy the navigator tries to find at least three objects, with a horizontal bearing spread of about 60 degrees between them, which will give a perfect three-way crossing of a common point, which is your position.

In this manner, with some practice, a skilled navigator can pinpoint his position to within 200 m in the middle of any ocean. The whole job may take fifteen minutes.

I have navigated across every ocean and in every main waterway in our world many times and without GPS.

Without satellite navigation the astronomic version is the only means with which to tell you with any accuracy where you are in the open ocean, but the problems are, of course, with lack of visibility or clear sky.

Often, our ocean-going ship would for days be without any confirmed position other than Dead Reckoning, which is calculated on logged distances and estimated currents influence.

One example here is the 100 fathoms line along Australia’s east coast, which could always be relied on to give you two knots southbound, so northbound ships would keep closer to the coast to avoid the current.

Another is the North Atlantic Gulf Stream, which also is bringing warmer climate to Northern Europe’s Atlantic Coast. In those parts very few ocean obstacles are on record, but one exception is Rockall, a bare cliff some 400km west of Scotland. No holiday resort.

A regular visitor is Brax Gustav, also a master mariner like his dad, who spends his summers on his yacht with his girlfriend sailing the parts up to Iceland and Scotland.

Keep in mind, that the tabled locations of the celestial bodies are exact and have been so since the beginning of astronomical navigation, and so can be calculated also for a thousand years ahead.

Fascinating by itself, but more so that mankind has learned to take full advantage of these navigational assets and since very long ago.

A very much superior fallback to satellite navigation, even if it finding us on top of the South Head is not a regular problem.

And if everything else fails, there is the ultimate fall-back saying from the ancient Baltic: “If you are lost, anchor, row ashore, walk to the next bakery, buy bread rolls, and then read on the bag where you are”.

From the print edition September 21, 2017

* Captain Harry Mansson AM is a Master Mariner, a retired ship’s Captain, with a subsequent varied background as an international consultant to the United Nations/World Bank to a shipping management entrepreneur. He has enjoyed a stellar career at sea and onshore.

Starting with the Swedish Merchant Navy, he also served as an officer in the Swedish Royal Navy sweeping active mines. In 1972 he established Orient Shipping Services Pty Ltd as the general agent for the entry of the Orient Overseas Line (now OOCL) into the Asia/ Australia trade. In 1993 he was deservedly awarded the Order of Australia for services to shipping and international trade.

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