Marianne Molchan, President Molchan Marine Sciences

As more cruise vessels traverse the waters near the poles, we look at the tech designed to navigate safely.

NASA scientists call the accelerated melting of polar sea ice the “new normal,” an ice melt that has created an unprecedented increase in unexplored and uncharted waters. January 2017 satellite imagery revealed the lowest number of square miles of sea ice measured in the previous 38 years of record, and 100,000 square miles less than 2016. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists estimate that within the next two decades the Arctic Ocean will be free of multi-year ice in the summer. As the ice retreats the vessel traffic in the uncharted areas increases, and simultaneously there is a growing number of purpose-built expedition cruise ships in the fleet.Ponant

Mitigating a Risky Business

Alianz Global Safety and Shipping Review 2016 noted, while total losses at sea continue to drop the number of maritime incidents in the Arctic jumped nearly 30% to 71 in 2015, the highest level in a decade. Polar vessel accidents typically include hull breaches due to ice or unexpected groundings. Mariners expect published charts to have the latest information on soundings and aids to navigation, accurate shoreline depiction and reliable tide and current predictions. Charts for polar regions come up short in each of these areas. Ice bergs, bergy bits, growlers and ice flows all move and change in size based on changes in temperature, wind and currents. Shorelines change annually due to storms and ice movement.

Operators of polar vessels are well aware of the marine safety concerns navigating in these waters. With an increase in polar storms and anomalous magnetic effects, ship captains have to be vigilant and focus on safety equipment redundancy. One technology that is relevant to navigation safety in polar regions is a Three Dimensional Forward Looking Sonar (3D FLS). This article provides information about the value 3D FLS of from the perspective of a cruise ship Marine Operations Manager who has facilitated the installation of the technology and a vessel captain who was an early adopter of the 3D FLS.

The Rules

The International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code) requires operators to “address any limitations of the hydrographic, meteorological and navigational information.”

Operators are coming to find that 3D FLS adds an additional layer of safety by providing a forward look capability oft bottom contours and potential floating and submerged hazards and obstructions.

There are a small number of 3D FLS manufacturers, but here we focus on the 3D FLS from FarSounder, which uses a phased array in its hardware package. FarSounder sonar generates a real-time 3D image with a single ping. The largest private residential ship on earth, The World, purchased its first FarSounder 3D FLS in 2007 and have continued to upgrade since. In 2012 The World, made news as the largest passenger vessel to complete an “unassisted” voyage through the Northwest Passage.

John Schneider, a vessel manager for Wilhelmsen, formerly holding technical management positions at Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and Celebrity Cruises, managed the technical aspects of The World when it upgraded FarSounder’s 3D FLS hardware and software. In assessing the pros and cons of changing out hardware and software for FarSounder’s 3D FLS, he was impressed that sonar transducer was able to be changed while the ship was in the water, facilitated by a robust wet-mateable connector. It is clear to Schneider that each ship captain has their favorite navigation hardware. One captain he worked with on The World, Captain Dag Saevik, was keen on FarSounder 3D FLS and its features. Captain Saevik appreciated redundant nature of FarSounder and its unique capability designed specifically for navigation safety. In 2012, with the assistance of FarSounder, he safely navigated The World through the Canadian Arctic passage (Northwest Passage). In 2017, The World set sail to the southern limits of the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest ice shelf off Antarctica. Captain Saevik explains why he was an early adopter of the FarSounder sonar.

“When it became apparent to me how poorly charted parts of the world are coupled with the increased demand from our residents to go to these exotic places, I made it clear to the owners that we needed equipment to transit these areas in a safe way,” said Captain Saevik. “We looked at several types of sonars and finally selected FarSounder due to the 3D capability that would make it easier to decipher what you see ahead of the ship.”

According to Captain Saevik, when using the sonar “it is important to use it also in well-charted areas in order to see how the seabed looks on the sonar screen when you know the bottom contour. You can then better understand the images you see in poorly charted areas. In polar waters, we mainly use it for what you have already described above. When in poorly charted areas we go slow in order to be able to stop in case there are obstructions ahead. We also often use the sonar together with sending one of our rescue boats ahead equipped with depth sounder with live feed to the ships bridge and sidescan sonar. We use FarSounder in ice and bad visibility so we can see growlers and small icebergs ahead that might not be so easy to detect on radar. You will also get a good picture of the extent of large icebergs under water.”

But when traversing some of the most inhospitable waters on the planet, it is advisable to have back-up, too. “We are also using a crowd-sourcing software called Olex, which is primarily used by fishing boats but is now also used by many of the Expedition ships,” said Captain Saevik. “By having all of these tools available and used in connection with each other, we provide as safe a passage as possible.”

But Captain Saevik is a firm believer in the 3D FLS tech, and recently upgraded with FarSounder’s Local History Mapping software upgrade.

“We are finding it useful especially when you are going into a poorly charted anchorage and the safest way out of a tricky anchorage is always to follow the same track out that you came in on. Local History Mapping helps a great deal with that.”

Local History Mapping

In 2017, FarSounder released software, which creates realtime sonar imagery in 3D while the vessel is underway. Filling in the hydrographic blanks with current sounding and bottom contours is addressing the hydrographic limitation mentioned in the Polar Code. The Local History Mapping software updates soundings instantaneously and displays them in a colorcoded overlay on top of the existing electronic chart. (See image right), a necessity when navigating in an area of limited and unverified soundings. In the image below FarSounder’s chart overlay shows sonar images of the seafloor and in-water targets. Screen Shot

The 3D FLS standard user interface software includes automated alarms, GPS compass, depth sounder display and vector-based chart plotting capabilities. A FarSounder 1000 model allows users 3D forward-looking navigation information out to 0.5 mile (1000m) ahead of the vessel. Other adopters of FarSounder 3D FLS include Hapag Lloyd who is outfitting both of its two new expedition cruise ships with this technology.

Recognizing the risk-reducing value of having FarSounder 3D FLS on Le Soléal and three other ships from their current series of vessels, PONANT is adding a FarSounder to the navigation suite of each of its four new 131 meter long Ice Class 1C Certified Expedition Cruise Ships. The newly built Royal Polar Research Ship RRS Sir David Attenborough, a state of the art National Environment Research Counsel vessel, is also installing the 3D Forward Looking Sonar for use in both their navigation and oceanographic work.

Safely navigating polar waters requires a multitude of safety considerations. One way to mitigate the risk is to make a “sound” investment in navigation equipment. The ability to see and preserve a 3D image of the bottom contour ahead of the vessel while underway might just be “The New Norm.”