Technology helps shoreside eyes monitor every maritime move

During the summer between our sophomore and junior years at the California Maritime Academy, we were required to do an internship at a maritime company or organization to get a glimpse of how things worked shoreside. Being from Washington state, I was assigned to the Port of Seattle, and under the tutelage of Mr. Fox learned a lot about the port’s business and operations. One day we were at Terminal 90/91, which was in front of — and in plain view of — an area of very expensive homes. Pointing up at them, he told me that many of the doctors, lawyers and local “movers and shakers” who lived there were not enthused about the unglamorous cargo ships working within sight of their houses — and made it their business to know the environmental and operational rules the terminal had to follow. “They watch us like hawks,” Mr. Fox continued, “and make official complaints about the noise or air pollution coming from the terminal all the time. They have been an ongoing problem.”

Until that sunny Seattle summer day, I had never given any thought to the idea that people were so closely monitoring commercial ships working in port. In fact, during my time at school I’d always viewed a merchant ship as its own entity, crewed by professional mariners who did the work of the vessel largely outside the realm of anything ashore. After beginning my seagoing career, however, I found out that Mr. Fox was right about the scrutiny mariners face from the general public.

Working on a chemical tanker berthed at Los Angeles, I had just woken up and was walking down the gangway to call my wife from the phone booth on the pier, having just enough time for a good conversation before my watch started. Waiting at the base of the gangway was the terminal’s dock operator, looking stressed and gloomy. “Good afternoon, Steve,” I said. “What’s going on?” Agitatedly, he answered, “Someone in one of those expensive-view homes overlooking the terminal dropped a dime on us because your ship was spewing out too much black stack smoke. We’re probably going to get fined because of it.” I heard later that they had.

Sometimes, those monitoring ships in port go beyond just keeping an eye on us — something I found out once while working on an oceanographic vessel. The science party we had on board was studying the amount of certain chemicals in the water column of the Salish Sea (aka Puget Sound) by collecting a series of samples. Coming up for watch one morning at 0345, I saw that we were in Burrows Bay, at the northern end of our working area. The second mate told me, “The chief scientist wants us to stand by here until 0800, and then head out to the next testing site a few miles away.”

Up on a hill above the bay was the huge 500-home Skyline housing development, where some friends of ours lived. I looked out of the wheelhouse windows during watch, wondering how many of the people in those 500 houses were checking out our ship. It didn’t take long before I got the answer. Relieved by the third mate at 0745, I headed down to my stateroom to wash up before getting some breakfast. Knowing my watch schedule, my wife called and asked, “Are you up by Anacortes?” I replied that we were. “I thought so,” she said. “Sherry texted me that she heard on her marine radio that your ship was up her way, and when she looked out her kitchen window, there you were.” It was amazing to me that within a few short hours, the word of our being in Burrows Bay had already spread at least 60 miles from where the ship was sighted.

Beyond the traditional binoculars, spotting scopes and various radios, when it comes to monitoring ships in port, the use of more advanced computerized technology has really upped the game. Our island friends, Jim and Karen, are passionate about protecting our local beaches from oil spills so they regularly monitor ship movements by computer using automatic identification system (AIS) readouts from one of the many tracking websites. They recently invited my wife and me over to their beautiful-view home overlooking the traffic lanes in and out of Seattle. We were all sitting on their deck when an inbound cargo ship went by. Jim rushed into the house and came back with his laptop, pulled up the tracking website MarineTraffic, and a minute later announced, “That’s the North Star, a ro-ro/container carrier registered in the United States and heading to Tacoma. It’s not doing anything weird, like getting too close to shore or acting erratically.” I said, “Wow, Jim, do you always keep such close tabs on the ships out there?” He replied, “If something happens, we want to be on it so we’ll be able to report the details to the Coast Guard right away.”

With news reports proliferating about the effect of ship operations on air and water quality — and their impact on climate change — it should come as no surprise that now more than ever, residents of port cities throughout the United States are closely monitoring and tracking commercial ships working in their localities. These citizens have a vested interest in making sure that we follow all applicable rules, and as it has been shown time and time again, they will not hesitate to report us when we slip up and make a mistake. So the next time you are working on a vessel and feel paranoid because you think you’re being watched, don’t worry — you really are.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff