Joining the Club

Take Two’s latest piece of electronic gadgetry is an AIS transceiver. This broadcasts our name, position, course, and speed for others to see. We’ll appear on the navigational displays of vessels equipped to receive AIS and they’ll be notified if our courses converge. They’ll be able to hail us on the radio by name, or by “dialing” our number. There are even base stations that receive the AIS information and publish it on the internet.

For years, we’ve been content to only receive AIS data from others and had no interest in transmitting our own. Typically I prefer to be anonymous, but recent experiences have shown me a few reasons to transmit.

In August, we were off Cape Canaveral when a big thunderstorm rolled off the coast as two cruise ships left the port. Visibility was zero and our radar display was just a big green blob. Fifty knot gusts were kicking up a nasty chop, and our best option was to run with it. I would like to think that the ships could see us on radar, but if ours couldn’t see a cruise ship, how could I be sure that theirs could see a sailboat? It was too loud to call and ask. Knowing they could see us on AIS would have greatly reduced the stress of that situation.

When entering Chesapeake Bay in the middle of the night, we were hailed by Virginia Pilots as “sailing vessel approaching the north tunnel”. There was a ship behind us heading for the same tunnel crossing that we were, and Virginia Pilots wanted to make sure we saw it, and were not going to be in the way when it got there. It was a very pleasant exchange, and I was grateful for the call, but also somewhat chagrined that they felt it was necessary. Had we been transmitting, I think they would not have been concerned.

On our 5-day passage back from the Chesapeake, we were in the company of a boat named New Moon. We very rarely saw them, and then only as a light or a sail on the horizon. But because they were transmitting AIS we were aware of their presence. I actually found it comforting that they were there, experiencing the same conditions we were. Tanya called them once on a lonely night watch hundreds of miles from anywhere, and I think they were surprised to learn of our existence. The camaraderie we felt was totally one-sided.

Somewhere off Georgia, we were hailed by the US Navy with “sailing vessel in vicinity of 30 degrees 49 minutes north, 79 degrees 22 minutes west, this is Warship 59”. They had to repeat this several times before I figured out they were talking to us. The coordinates they were giving were not very close to our current position and it wasn’t immediately apparent if we were “in the vicinity”. I think the Navy receives AIS, but generally does not transmit for obvious reasons. If they had our AIS information, hopefully they would have hailed us by name. Incidentally, Warship 59 was clearing a box so they could play with their guns and wanted us out of the way.

Originally, I only saw AIS as information for my own navigational use (and entertainment). I wanted to see everyone else, but didn’t want anyone to see me. That position forced us to act defensively in every situation, and also denied others the use of our information. Now I see that there are advantages to transmitting, even if they don’t benefit us directly. Transmitting AIS data makes us part of a community, and in any community there is a give-and-take. We are giving up some anonymity, but the more vessels that transmit, the more it benefits the community as a whole. Eventually, some kind of EPIRB or AIS transponder will probably be mandated for anyone going offshore, but we’re choosing to transmit now voluntarily, despite the extra cost, in the interest of better navigational information for everybody.