Sunday, December 13, 2009

Vessel Tracking Website Beckons Armchair Seafarers

Let's face it:  I'm a transportation geek--if you haven't noticed already!  On my regular walk downtown to work, during inclement weather or when I am running late, I sometimes take the MAX light rail one stop within Portland's Fareless Square.  Earlier this week, I first noticed Tri-Met's Rail System Map, and managed to miss my stop while studying it!      

My interest does not wane at the water's edge.  I have long been fascinated with the newspaper port calendar that describes the local movements and moorings of ships, ocean-going tugs, and barges.  Local editor and writer Brian Doyle, eloquently explained our common interest in an Oregonian essay earlier this year.  But like most paper publications, port calendars now have online, real-time competitors.   Vessel-tracking websites display information transmitted by Automatic Identification System (AIS) radio transponders.  AIS is a short-range, coastal tracking system in which all passenger ships and all but the smallest cargo vessels must participate per international convention.  There are a number of websites that provide AIS-based geographical information systems (GIS),  most of which charge for their most interesting services.
My favorite vessel-tracking site is Marine, a cooperative venture that provides its services for free!  On its Live Ships Map page, you can select any covered maritime region or port, or any ship within range, and track current and recent ship positions.

Upon spotting a ship moored at a particular port facility, such as a bulk or container terminal, I often wonder what the ship is doing there.  For that purpose, the Columbia River Pilots website is useful.   Putting this all together, I can figure out where the ship is registered (possibly under a flag of convenience), what it is carrying, and, if it is underway, or soon to be, its next destination.  For instance, here is a photo I took of the MV Privlaka, a grain carrier under Croatian registry, in port on November 28 loading grain at an export elevator jointly operated by the Cargill and Louis Dreyfus Corporations.  The Privlaka is likely at sea now, since there there is no AIS data available on          


  1. Nice article Iver. While AIS is definitely a boon to shipping safety and navigational efficiency in busy shipping environments, it is also helping pirates target their prey on the high seas and monitor their activities entering and exiting port. As with all technologies, there are right times and wrong times to use them. We all need to ensure our policy makers understand the potential dangers of requiring the use of AIS and publishing the information widely through web sites like the one referenced above. Unfortunately, piracy is once again "big business" and these pirates appear to know how to use technology to their advantage.

  2. Neil,

    Very good point, thank you. AIS is certainly an ideal tool for a coastal pirate to select attractive targets that are far from any ships that might come to their aid. I fully support the use of security teams and the judicious deployment of both non-lethal and lethal weapons to protect our merchant marine.