Last week’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) symposium on the Sustainable Maritime Transportation System was a measured and balanced approach to the problems facing the industry as it expands and develops against a background of environmental constraints. But there were also some serious practical messages about the role of technology in making ship operations safer and more precise.

Some warnings were issued too. Mr. Robert Ward, President of the International Hydrographic Organisation, inferred that the shipping industry’s enthusiasm for bigger and bigger ships and new trade routes on which to run them was actually outstripping the ability of the world’s hydrographers to provide up to date charts. And despite all the technology available to mariners, the need for what he called “maps in the sea” remains undiminished and is still the key to safety.

The demand for deeper draughts – and new destinations and shorter routes – also has to be taken in context in a world where maritime space has to be shared by a lot of different interests, whether this is offshore energy in its several forms, fishing and aquaculture, marine mining and the protected areas now spring up around the world. So it was somewhat alarming when he pointed out the paucity of up to date surveys – or indeed any surveys – of substantial parts of the undersea world up to the depth of 200 metres.

Some 80% of West African and Caribbean waters, 40% of the US coasts, 65% of the Australian coasts, 30% of UK waters and 95% of southwest Pacific waters are unsurveyed, or have charted depths that were sounded before the arrival of modern methods. Virtually all survey data before the 1980s, he noted, would mark obstructions to tolerances thought unacceptable today, when more precise position-fixing is possible.

Hydrographic surveyors would, given the resources, remedy these deficiencies in time, but Mr. Ward points out that there is a shortage of survey craft, and the IHO is now appealing for commercial shipping to help with the effort, by assisting with data collection.

But it is quite sobering to realise these deficiencies and remember that while the presentation of the data on our amazing ECDIS systems might give the appearance of the utmost precision, ships should be operated in a prudent manner, with as much water under the keel as possible and mindful that the actual position of some obstruction may be at variance from that on the chart, in some parts of the world, more than others!

The story of hydrography is an astonishing one and the dedication of the old surveyors with their soundings and sextant angles in open boats something for the modern mariner to admire, as he notes their charted depths on remote coasts. But perhaps we also need to recall that even with modern position finding precision and the amazing equipment for translating data into accurate charts, the hydrographic community works under pressure, not least from the demands shipping continues to put upon it.

Author: The Watchkeeper                              Source: BIMCO