Rocking in a calm sea at night aboard a beamy center console, a gentle breeze and a full moon overhead, you set out some swordfish baits and settle into a beanbag chair to wait and doze. Suddenly, you're jolted awake by the booming bellow of a gigantic horn and the wake of a passing freighter. Your captain never saw the ship, and its crew never saw you.
Anyone who fishes offshore at night or runs to far reaches, such as the Northeast Canyons, Catalina Island or the Bahamas, knows the dangers of operating in the shipping lanes. Many blue-water fishing boats have radar, which helps, but radar doesn't give you the speed, heading, closest point of approach, size and name of that giant red blotch on the screen looming off your aft quarter.
AIS (Automatic Identification System) units do. In fact, the freighter that just about crushed you most likely carries a Class A AIS unit - and must by regulation. You could have bought one too. But it would have cost you more than $5,000.
Not anymore. You can now buy Class B AIS - a less powerful, less expensive version of the A units - for less than $2,000. The FCC approved Class B for use in the United States in late September. By early October, several companies were already selling approved units.
Safety and Security
"AIS really started as a navigational safety device for the rivers of Europe," says Chris Wahler, director of marketing for ACR, which makes the Nauticast B ($1,180). "The ships would be going up and down rivers and around bends, and radar couldn't see around corners, but VHF (which carries the AIS signals) could. That would allow two vessels to verbally communicate in time to determine if there was a chance of collision."
At the same time that AIS began gaining popularity in Europe to resolve maritime traffic issues, American officials found a new use for the technology - port security. After terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security recognized that AIS could help identify ships farther out at sea and match up their documentation with their location.
By late 2001, the International Maritime Organization had adopted a resolution requiring many commercial cargo and passenger vessels to install Class A AIS over a five-year phase-in period. By late 2002, the U.S. Congress mandated new federal rules to complement the international requirements. As of Dec. 31, 2004, affected vessels operating in U.S. waters had to comply.
For the Masses
Class B came along as maritime and security interests - as well as recreational boaters - began to warm to the AIS concept. Electronics companies speculated how to make less expensive units that would be easier to install.
The International Electrotechnical Commission published a Class B standard in March 2006; the first Class B systems sold to Europeans later that year; and in January 2007, the U.S. Coast Guard approved Class B. But it was not until September 2008, when the FCC approved Class B, that companies could begin selling units domestically.
The Coast Guard expects to expand AIS carriage rules to more vessels soon but at present does not require its use on private recreational vessels. However, recent terrorist activities, such as the attacks last November in Mumbai, India - possibly launched, in part, from boats - raise safety questions.
Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen said, in an interview with the Federal Times on Dec. 2, that he is pressing the international and domestic boating communities on the need to have small boats carry identifying transponders (AIS).
"This is not an easy issue to deal with," Allen told the Times, "but this is a conversation that has to be had. This is a serious vulnerability we have."
How It Works
AIS resembles the kind of technology used in air-traffic control. Airplanes carry transponders that squawk their identity, position, direction, altitude and speed to a control tower, which manages traffic. But with AIS, individual vessels must see and communicate with each other as well as to port-traffic coordinators. And in crowded places like New York and Miami, that can be a bit like a party line on New Year's Eve.