New In Every Wheelhouse

There were days when ship lights in the distance were mysterious, sometimes even a little threatening. Those lights belonged to an unknown vessel until it was spoken to and identified. In many cases the lights of an unknown ship would remain unidentified as they gradually moved off to the distant horizon.

All that is history now as a black box has made its appearance in the wheelhouse of most U.S. tugs that provides identification and loads of other information on almost every vessel in sight, including most other tugs operating in the same area.

The AIS (Automatic Identification System) equipment has been a mandated as part of bridge electronics on large ships for several years. But it is only in the last year or two that AIS has become commonplace in the wheelhouse of tugboats.

The United States Coast Guard has recently mandated installation of AIS equipment on tugs that operate in ports where there are vessel traffic services (VTS) or on tugs that make international voyages. Almost all new tugs built in the past year or two have AIS equipment and many companies have installed AIS throughout their fleets, or are in the process of doing so.

At a cost of $4,000-$5,000, an interactive AIS receiver-transponder can be acquired and installed in most applications, but costs can be higher depending on the extent to which an operator has AIS information displayed on radar, ECDIS or other navigational displays.

Baydelta Maritime, a San Francisco-based tug company, has installed AIS on three of its tugs, mostly because it is required in that port, which is monitored by a Coast Guard VTS. Company officials said they could not say if it helps with government security concerns, but there are several advantages to having it installed. “Our captains use it mostly to ID other traffic and for hailing purposes,” said a Baydelta tug skipper. “But also it is a good tool for staying in touch with our client ships. We can track the progress of an inbound vessel and more accurately predict its time of arrival at a meeting point.”

AIS equipment acts as both a receiver and transponder from each vessel, providing a ship’s identity, course, speed and other key bits of information. The GPS-based AIS receiver also monitors and displays information for all other vessels within range and provides a true range and bearing to each of those targets.

A tug skipper operating at night can glance at his AIS receiver and instantly see a list, by order of proximity, of the five or ten vessels closest to his own. He may only have an interest in one, so if he knows the rough bearing to the vessel in question (he can probably see it), he can select the target listed with the same bearing, choose it and instantly have complete information on that vessel, including the correct spelling of its name (the operator might do the same thing using a range to the unknown vessel taken from radar).

“With AIS you know who’s out there and where they are going, so even if it’s not required in our particular area it can still be very useful,” said Michael Mariner, general manager of Providence Steamboat in Rhode Island. Mariner said the two newest tugs in his company fleet are equipped with AIS.

Foss Maritime, which operates more than 40 tugs, mostly on the West Coast, reports that it is installing AIS equipment made by Saab on all of its tugs in a program expected to be completed this year. Foss operates numerous tugs in West Coast ports monitored by Coast Guard VTS including Los Angeles/Long Beach, San Francisco and Seattle.

The Coast Guard, either on its own or through partnerships with the private sector, operates eight VTS in U.S. ports. Others covered by VTS include New York, New Orleans, Houston, Port Arthur and Valdez. With the advent of AIS, the Coast Guard VTS has been able to dramatically improve its formerly radar-based systems of monitoring shipping traffic in ports.


AIS is designed to fulfill three functions: It is a collision avoidance tool that works between ships anywhere in the world; it is a VTS management tool; and it provides valuable security information about ships arriving at any country, particularly when combined with computers that can track a vessel’s history of movements.

All that does not translate into a pressing need for many of the tugs operating in smaller U.S. ports, however. Tugs operated by Cape Fear Towing in Cape Fear, N. C., are not equipped with AIS receivers, nor are most of those operated by Portland Tugboat and Ship Docking in Portland, Maine.
AIS can also be used as a dispatching tool. Moran Towing of Port Arthur, Texas, which has AIS on all of its tugboats, recently acquired AIS receiver-only equipment for its home base along with software from Nobeltec/Admiral. The software displays the location of all ships in the region, plus that of its own tugboats, on the dispatcher’s computer screen.

“The best advantage to that for us is that we can monitor what’s happening in the port system without bothering our captains so much,” said Rob Cowling, office manager for Moran’s Texas operation. “Very often that means not bothering the crew when they are waiting for a ship and trying to keep to a rest period. We can stay aware of when a ship is late or early and we know just when to get the crew up to get underway in time to meet that ship.”

“The more information we have about what’s going on on the river, the more we can make our own operations more efficient and the more we can improve our own service to our customers,” Cowling said.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, seven of nine tugs operated by Island Tug and Barge are equipped with AIS, according to Bob Shields, president of that family-owned company.

“We are using Furuno AIS equipment and in most cases we have been able to integrate the AIS data with our radar displays to give the watch officer an instant view of everything around him,” said Shields. “These devices have proved to be very useful for navigation and collision avoidance purposes, but because all this information is broadcast by every vessel, I’m not sure how good they are as a security devise,” he added.

“The way it is now, anybody can get access to the AIS data on the Internet, so it seems like an enthusiastic terrorist can discover when a cruise ship, for example, will bed passing under the Lions Gate Bridge here in Vancouver and be ready to drop a bomb down its funnel. All that information is being provided to him by AIS, which the ship must fit by requirement of the International Maritime Organization,” Shields said.

Crescent Towing of Savannah, Ga., has AIS gear installed in the wheelhouse of its newest tug, Bulldog, but not on its other four vessels, according to Ed Bazemore, manager of Crescent’s operation there. Bulldog, more than any of the Crescent vessels, is likely to find itself meeting ships at the offshore sea buoy, so it is very helpful for its skipper to be able to identify all other vessels around him, said Bazemore. Most other tugs rarely get out of the confined spaces of the Savannah River where a captain typically knows who else is underway on the river. Next to get AIS gear will be the 4,000 hp tractor-style tug, Savannah, he added.

In Tampa, Fla., all four tugs in the fleet of Marine Towing of Tampa are equipped with AIS, mostly because the local Port Authority operates a (voluntary) VTS used by most traffic in the port, according to Norman Atkins, port operations manager for MTT.

“It’s great for the captains,” Atkins explained. “It’s overlaid onto their radar displays, so they can see all the other vessels on the bay, and our local pilots are also able to monitor all ship traffic at any time.”


AIS is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. The system is likely to filter its way down to the wheelhouse of virtually every workboat operating in the United States. It is also becoming an appealing electronic device for yacht owners.

By Professional Mariner Staff