Overnight, I have become a connoisseur of marine vessels. The living room has three large windows which look out over Puget Sound and the shipping lane to Tacoma harbor. The hot-tub faces the same way. Ferries criss-cross between the mainland and the island and many small fishing boats spend hours moving slightly here and there in morning and evening.
Its hard not to be curious when you see the size of the container ships passing. They are massive hulks - nothing like the slim, low to the water profile of ships when I last had time to gaze at them. When did container ships grow so large?
Cultivating my obsession, I have found a host of websites set up to follow vessels and learn about them. They include the shipspotters (shipspotting.com), who post photographs of ships they see, the ports themselves (eg. Port of Tacoma) who post vessel schedules and my favorite find, marinetraffic.com which offers a global network tracking vessels via GPS in real time.
Now, when I see a large ship approaching in the distance, I use marinetraffic.com to navigate to my region (on google maps) and can see all the large vessels in the vicinity. For example, I saw a huge hulking container ship approaching, still shrouded by morning mist. On marinetraffic, I saw the ship and clicked on it. There, I could see where it had come from, its destination, a photograph, its name, its registration number, some cargo information and then watch it come into view. Once it passed, I could track it into harbor.
The really cool thing comes when you want to follow your ship. For instance, we saw two huge car transport ships called the Trianon and the Glorious Leader. If you go to the website you can see where they are now [Trianon is in Longview and the Glorious Leader is en route to Yokohama].
I have never been particularly interested in geography but seeing all the ships moving around the world (the English Channel is insane. I wouldn't sleep if I was sailing there) make geography seem more fluid, about the world rather than those pesky puzzle pieces of political borders. Oceans flow together - sure, they have invisible lines and territories in them - but they allow you to look at the shape of the world in a different way.
Another neat feature is that you can look at a particular port and see all the ships in and around it. As a child I lived in Durban, South Africa. Durban has a large port and it featured in our lives: I sailed my little dinghy in the harbor head, we ate fish and chips nearby, gathered bullet casings from the gun that fired off the start of the yacht races, saw the whaling station in the days when whales were killed and processed at the bluff, saw the QE2 come in and wandered around taking photographs at the docks.
It was common to look out to sea and find a line of ships anchored off the coast, waiting to come into harbor. I remember one year when there were 70 (I seem to remember this?) ships waiting because the Suez Canal was closed from 1967 (when I was an infant) until 1975. Water taxis would ferry the sailors to shore so they didn't have to wait so long at sea. I looked up Durban on the website and it seems to be a busy port - nothing like the Mediterranean or English Channel but many more ships than Tacoma.
Here are my recent ship sightings (I don't like shipspotting.com because they deleted the ship photo I uploaded because it was Of Poor Quality). Dorks.
Hanjin New Orleans
I've started to wonder about the life of merchant seamen. What is it like being on one of those small ship-icons on the big google map? I want to spy on them further and am looking for more sources. Do seamen on large cargo ships keep blogs?