From NOAA Ship Fairweather to Mt. Fairweather: Commanding officer summits ship’s namesake

By Cmdr. Mark Van Waes, former Commanding Officer of NOAA Ship Fairweather

Mount Fairweather stands tall above Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, dominating the skyline for miles around (when weather permits visibility). Only about 12 miles inshore from the Gulf of Alaska and soaring to 15,325 feet, it is one of the highest coastal peaks in the world.

NOAA Ship Fairweather in the Gulf of Alaska, with Mount Fairweather in the background.
NOAA Ship Fairweather in the Gulf of Alaska, with Mount Fairweather in the background.

Named for the remote mountain peak, NOAA Ship Fairweather surveys the waters of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, making maritime commerce safer, contributing to scientific discovery, and locating lost vessels. The ship, commissioned in 1968 and celebrating 50 years of service to the nation this year, is currently hard at work in Alaska’s Arctic waters to ensure safe navigation for increasing traffic in the region.

Climbers look to the summit of Mount Fairweather.
Climbers look to the summit of Mount Fairweather.

Though I had only ever seen Mount Fairweather from sea (usually on board either NOAA Ship Rainier or Fairweather), I have been drawn to it for years. Since I summited my first mountain (Mount Rainier in 2007), I’d thought that a trip to climb this remote, seldom-climbed peak would be a worthy adventure. I was fortunate that a series of happenstances occurred that made possible an attempt this May. While NOAA Ship Fairweather was docked for mid-season repairs in Juneau, Alaska, I was able to make my way over to Haines, and from there set out with a team of climbers to make a bid for the peak.

The high camp, at an elevation of 10,400 feet on the Grand Plateau Glacier.
The high camp, at an elevation of 10,400 feet on the Grand Plateau Glacier.

Having endured numerous days’ delay due to weather (Captain Cook must have caught the mountain on a good day when he bestowed its name), early in the morning on Tuesday, May 29, we set out from our high camp at 10,400 feet en route to the summit. At 1:16 p.m. Alaska time and after 10 hours of climbing we were standing atop the mountain. With bright sun and clear blue skies overhead and a layer of clouds below at about 9,000 feet, we marveled at the view of peaks, such as Mount Saint Elias and Mount Logan, visible in the distance. It was, as is the attainment of any mountain summit, both an exhilarating and humbling experience.

Cmdr. Van Waes holds the NOAA flag atop the summit of Mount Fairweather
Cmdr. Van Waes holds the NOAA flag atop the summit of Mount Fairweather.

The surveyors of NOAA’s predecessor agency, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, would scale mountains such as these in their work to map the land in which we live. The summit of this mountain forms a corner of the border with British Columbia, and the mountain is the highest point in that Canadian province. Surveying such remote locations to define our nation’s borders was a important part of the work of the hardy folks who served in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Though we no longer have the need to do so to the extent that they did in the past, it is interesting and instructive to get an idea of what they had to endure to accomplish the tasks before them.

As a mariner, I had long thought that the vastness of the sea would make anyone feel small. For me, however, it is the mountains that truly help put things in perspective. Their grandeur and ability to inspire awe is unmatched, as is their ability to instill a sense of place. Having spent the majority of my seagoing time aboard the NOAA Ships Rainier and Fairweather, culminating with a command tour aboard Fairweather, climbing these mountains has been a bridge between my time aboard and the history behind the ships. In the fifty years that they have been in service they have been a steady presence in NOAA’s fleet, just as the mountains for which they are named have stood tall above their respective skylines.

 

Online NOAA Custom Chart lets boaters create their own charts

A prototype version of a powerful new online tool, NOAA Custom Chart, is now available for boaters and other nautical chart users. The application enables users to define the scale and paper size of custom-made nautical charts centered on a position of their choosing. Once the functionality of this prototype is fully developed, NOAA Custom Chart will be an easy way for boaters to create a paper or digital back-up for the electronic chart system or other GPS-enabled chart display that they are using on board.

NOAA Custom Chart creates a geospatially referenced PDF (GeoPDF) from the NOAA electronic navigational chart (NOAA ENC®) database. In the final operational version of the application, chart notes and other margin notes will be placed at the bottom, below the chart neatline, similar to USGS topographic (US Topo) maps. The user may download, view, and print the output.

NOAA Custom Chart makes it easy for users to create a personalized chart.
NOAA Custom Chart makes it easy for users to create a personalized chart.

There are several options for customizing the appearance of the chart data. The prototype creates charts with either the “traditional” or “simplified” symbology of the Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS) used by professional mariners. Future versions of NOAA Custom Chart will add a full paper chart symbology option.

U.S.CustomChart_Interface
Simple interface lets users choose a scale, paper size, and the center of their own chart.

If you are interested in customizing your own nautical charts, visit NOAA Custom Chart. Then tell us your ideas for improving it through NOAA’s Nautical Inquiry & Comment System. 

 

NOAA navigation response team investigates hazardous shoal off Rockaway Point, NY

Recently, NOAA navigation response team 5 (NRT5), responded to a survey request from U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Sector New York following several groundings near Rockaway Point in Queens, New York. Waves and currents often influence the size and shape of nearshore sandbars, and the USCG was concerned that a sandbar may have expanded beyond the area depicted on the nautical chart. Lt. j.g. Dylan Kosten, Eli Smith, and Michael Bloom traveled from New London, Connecticut, to Jersey City, New Jersey, to launch their vessel and start the survey of the area.

NRT5’s survey area around the large sandbar off Rockaway Point.
NRT5’s survey area around the large sandbar off Rockaway Point.

The location of the shoal and characteristics of the sandbar created challenging conditions for the survey team. In addition, the crew was asked to survey at a tighter contour (6-foot) than the standard 4-meter (13.1-foot) contour so that they could more clearly define the boundaries of the shoal. To fulfill this requirement, the crew of NRT5 took strong precautions to mitigate risks associated with surveying in shallow water with breaking waves and strong currents, and closely monitored conditions for changes throughout the day.

The shoal, located off Rockaway Point at the northern end of Raritan Bay, is exposed to both open ocean swells and strong tidal currents (left image, from surveyed area). The interaction of tides, currents, and waves surrounding the shoal produce rolling breakers (right photo). Wave energy stirs up the sediment and suspends large volumes of sand in the water column. Wave energy fluctuates as the tide ebbs and flows, and sand is washed away and deposited elsewhere – in this case, it formed a mostly permanent sand bar off of Rockaway Point.
The shoal, located off Rockaway Point at the northern end of Raritan Bay, is exposed to both open ocean swells and strong tidal currents (left image, from surveyed area). The interaction of tides, currents, and waves surrounding the shoal produce rolling breakers (right photo). Wave energy stirs up the sediment and suspends large volumes of sand in the water column. Wave energy fluctuates as the tide ebbs and flows, and sand is washed away and deposited elsewhere – in this case, it formed a mostly permanent sandbar off of Rockaway Point.

Conditions changed quickly. The northeast experienced unseasonably warm temperatures, and a thick blanket of fog engulfed New York Harbor as the warm air met the cold water of the ocean, harbors, and bays. With weather conditions thought to be better outside of the harbor and to likely improve later in the morning, the team cautiously transited to the project area and found conditions were indeed much more favorable.

Lt. j.g. Dylan Kosten keeping a steady watch through the thick fog.
Lt. j.g. Dylan Kosten keeping a steady watch through the thick fog.

Despite the challenges, NRT5 successfully completed the survey of the area by the end of the week. While the 6-foot contour was not reached in all areas due to breaking waves, the data was interpolated to that scale using lines of data run across the shoal in between wave sets. NRT5 has processed and analyzed the acquired data and Coast Survey will use it to create products to improve the resolution of the charted shoal and prevent future incidents.

During NRT5’s responses in areas surrounding the New York Harbor, the USCG Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) in Bayonne, New Jersey, offered the team a spot to dock their vessel at the end of the day. This sheltered station provided safety from poor weather conditions and allowed the team to quickly transit to project areas. Here, NOAA survey vessel S3007 is moored alongside at the USCG station.
During NRT5’s responses in areas surrounding the New York Harbor, the USCG Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) in Bayonne, New Jersey, offered the team a spot to dock their vessel at the end of the day. This sheltered station provided safety from poor weather conditions and allowed the team to quickly transit to project areas. Here, NOAA survey vessel S3007 is moored alongside at the USCG station.
Survey data coverage acquired around the sandbar. The black line marks the 12-foot depth contour and the red dashed line marks the interpolated 6-foot depth contour. The wreck symbols indicate where vessel groundings occurred in the weeks prior to this survey.
Survey data coverage acquired around the sandbar. The black line marks the 12-foot depth contour and the red dashed line marks the interpolated 6-foot depth contour. The wreck symbols indicate where vessel groundings occurred in the weeks prior to this survey.

Coast Survey’s NRTs conduct hydrographic surveys to update NOAA’s suite of nautical charts. The teams are strategically located around the country and remain on call to respond to emergencies speeding the resumption of shipping after storms, and protecting life and property from underwater dangers to navigation. NRT5 team members contributed the content of this story.

NOAA survey ships adopt laser scanners to improve safety at sea

How tall is that rock, really? Is that islet charted correctly? Mariners will have greater confidence in the location and height of charted features as NOAA’s hydrographic ships increase their use of newly adopted laser technology to measure and locate topographical features like rocks, islets, and small islands.

Recently, Lt. j.g. Patrick Debroisse, junior officer on NOAA Ship Fairweather, trained his NOAA Ship Rainier colleagues on how to use the topographic laser that they will soon be receiving.

Fairweather used this laser throughout this past season for feature attribution, and I was tasked with creating the procedures and training other ships,” Debroisse reports. “Rainier will be the next ship to receive the lasers, followed by the East Coast ships [Thomas Jefferson and Ferdinand R. Hassler].”

laser image of NOAA ships
Laser image of NOAA Ships Fairweather, Rainier, and Shimada moored at Marine Operations Center – Pacific, acquired during training

 

NOAA charts features such as rocks, piles, islets, kelp beds, and buoys, to give the mariner a clear picture of the dangers that could be in the area. Along Alaska’s and Maine’s rocky shores, for instance, features can be especially important because the tide ranges can be large. It’s especially important to accurately measure a rock at low tide, so a mariner will know its depth when they can’t see it at high tide.

Features on chart 16604
This area on chart 16604 illustrates features that could use the precision of topographic laser scanning.

 

Charted features are also used for visual points of reference during navigation.

Until recently, hydrographic ships’ launches were used to locate the features. To get a reasonable location, the launch would carefully approach the rock or other feature, and “kiss” it with their bow. They would then add the five feet from the boat’s GPS unit to the feature, and mark it on their field hydrographic sheets for use by the cartographers. If the seas are too heavy, or the area too rock-strewn, the surveyors stand on the ship or shore, and use a hand-held laser range finder to measure the height and distance of the feature, and then note the time so it can be corrected for the tide.

One of Rainier's four launches at work in Uganik Bay.
One of Rainier‘s four launches at work in Uganik Bay.

 

This laser technology will be safer than using a launch, and more precise than is possible with the human eye. The laser uses focused light to find and place objects accurately, similar to the way sonar is used to find the seafloor. The laser head produces sixteen laser beams, which reflect off the target object and are received back by the laser head. The computer then uses that data, along with precise positioning and attitude (roll, pitch, and yaw — or orientation) data, to determine the height and location of the object.

These infrared lasers are invisible and completely safe to the eyes of humans and any animals in the area. Also, unlike airborne lidar units that obtain shallow water bathymetry, the ships’ laser cannot penetrate the water.

Fairweather worked with the Coast Survey Development Lab to test this laser scanner, to determine its feasibility as a topographical tool in the Alaskan environment,” Debroisse says. “We found that this laser method increased the speed and accuracy of data acquisition, and increased the safety of the boat crews completing these surveys.”

And safety, after all, is important for everyone from the NOAA charting teams to the millions of chart users.