Manoeuvres and meteo: The eye wants to be satisfied, too

John GattiBy John Gatti2 Marzo 202112 Minuti

Weather forecasts are of interest to everyone, but, for some, the information – as precise as possible – of the evolution of atmospheric phenomena is one of the fundamental ingredients of the short and long-distance strategic plan.

We have talked about naval gigantism and how the intensity of the wind and the strength of the sea affects their ability to manage.

We have seen how the Technical Table, which meets daily to study the forecasts of port movements for the next day, pays particular attention to weather conditions.

Indeed, the wind and the sea dictate the rules of the game.

In the overall view, it is necessary to evaluate normality:

  • number of ships arriving and departing
  • port movements
  • contemporaneity
  • special manoeuvres.

Each described situation needs – or not – pilots, tugs and mooring men. Correct programming allows time optimization – which translates into saving money for users -, risk containment, and general efficiency.

The “normality” described above can be attacked by various factors, such as:

– management of large ships at the same time;

– particular manoeuvres that require the long-term commitment of technical nautical services;

– negative weather conditions;

– etc.

In this case, it is necessary to carefully evaluate the weapons available to deal with any unforeseen events or worsening conditions.

If a powerful wind is expected, for example – based on the available number of tugs, any shore-tension, the expected berth and the size – the number of ships that can be simultaneously in a given quay and the sequence of manoeuvres and the intervention strategy in case of worsening of the situation, is planned.

So far, we are in the ordinary.

Things change when the crystal ball breaks…

It was a quiet summer night, and, with a colleague, we went out in the pilot boat to meet two ships: a 140-meter-long container carrier for him and a small 90-meter Ro-Ro for me.

Flat sea and no wind; both were ships that frequently visited our port; nice captain—non-essential ingredients, contributing to a relaxed atmosphere.

The N. was an “old” ship, equipped with two engines, without thrusters, with little draft and, squeezing the few horses she had, and she could barely reach the speed of 8/9 knots.

As I passed the red abeam of the entrance, I heard my colleague on the VHF calling the usual tugboat provided for his manoeuvre.

I was chatting quietly with the captain when I realized that a little further on, in the outer port area, the sea’s surface was no longer reflecting: a light breeze was drawing alternating streaks of light/dark flickering against the background of the portlights.

Nothing to worry about. A little fresh air flowing from the mountains would only cool us off from the summer heat, at least that’s what I thought until then.

Ten minutes later, I began to worry; I distinctly saw a cloud of coal, illuminated by the light towers present in a quay, moving south: the breeze had turned into the wind and, from what I perceived, it was blowing at least 20 knots.

I called my colleague on the radio to warn him but, of course, even where he was, the situation was changing quickly.

Keep in mind that it was not yet an emergency if we can say so, an increase in attention, a manoeuvre that, from being easy, was becoming more and more challenging. I was convinced that the wind had peaked; on the other hand, it was summer, the forecast was for excellent weather, and until a few minutes before, it was flat calm.

The next ten minutes, we proceeded close to some port obstructions, and, consequently, the wind dropped considerably. Still, the almost horizontal smoke of a chimney located far to the West revealed the persistence of a situation that one should never underestimate.

At the end of the protected part of the canal, the wind hit us again, and I had to increase the engines to contain the drift towards the breakwater. We reached a balance with 8 knots of speed and a close-hauled pace.

There was no time to call a tugboat, and always counting on the mistaken belief that the wind would not increase any further, I went on.

Also, because by now, we had almost reached the point of evolution.

30 knots.

I was starting to get worried.

At that point, I had two possibilities: not to rotate, to put the bow to the wind, to drop the anchor and wait for the arrival of the tug, or to continue as planned.

The ship was old and far from powerful, but she was small – and therefore, I had a fair amount of space -, two engines – which would have helped me in rotation – and I had managed to get over the wind in a good way.

And I had managed to get over myself for good.

I opted for the second solution.

I aimed the bow on the western corner of the first quay, speed 7 knots. I was counting on the shelter of the pierhead to gain a few more meters on the wind.

I put the engines full astern.

When the speed dropped to 5 knots, I stopped the port and, shortly after, the direction of the bow shifted, freeing the edge. A minute later, I lost the shelter and the wind, beating on the bow, helped me in the evolution… this until the whole ship came out into the open, because at that point a determined leeway began, indeed, very decisive.

I waited for the bow to fall better and, to help it, I used a kick ahead with the starboard engine and the rudder hard a port.

I had to carry the stern to the wind despite the fear of not having enough power to stop the race towards the concrete of the breakwater.

Finally, it was time to put the engines full astern.

The ship slowed down, steadily but very slowly.

We stopped a few meters from the obstructions. We stood in a stalemate for a few interminable minutes.

Then, finally, we began to pick up the wind.

It was not easy to get to the quay, also because, without thrusters and with little engine power, the wind prevented us from keeping track of the direction, causing us to fall now on one side and now on the other.

It was a manoeuvre that we recalled numerous times with the captain in the following years. Neither of them had ever happened to be in the midst of such a sudden change in the weather situation.

Ph: J.Gatti

What do we take home from this experience?

Actually, many things, but today I want to emphasize the importance of picking up the signals.

A careful eye – and that of those who manoeuvre must always be so in a particular way – must be able to grasp the signals that arrive from the environment in which it operates.

The anemometer, present on almost all ships, indicates the strength and direction of the wind at that moment and in that precise position.

The situation a few hundred meters ahead could be completely different.

Let’s try to make a list of how we may obtain the information that interests us:

  • In the first place, we have an accurate weather forecast; there are many possibilities to clear your mind, finding what is of interest from the numerous sites available and, for more in-depth needs, there are consolidated companies with great experience and reliability such for example, navimeteo.com, which provide highly personalized data depending on needs;
  • in second place, I put the weather stations located in the area of ​​interest: those managed by the System Authorities, those present in the terminals, in the various airports, up to the anemometers with which the quay cranes are equipped. Usually, good coverage of the wind situation is achieved by looking carefully;
  • third place, but no less important, I dedicate to natural indicators. A glance at the ships at anchor can make us understand if we are in the presence of current and if this wins over the wind; smoke, of any kind, gives us a fairly precise indication of intensity and direction; the surface of the sea, flat, barely marked, streaked with white, the presence of “sheep” or even wave motion within sheltered waters, are exact signals.

The new “Torre Piloti” design, coming from the pencil of the architect Renzo Piano – a person with incredible human and professional qualities – includes a long and thin pole, resembling an antenna, on its top. Its bending movements will instantly indicate the strength and intensity of the wind to ships entering the port.

Let us remember that the general orography changes the situation radically, even at a distance of a few tens of meters. For this reason, it is important to have as many indicators as possible and, above all, never underestimate them.