Southern Cal sailors make good use of VTIS

A summer passage across the San Pedro Channel from Catalina Island to Long Beach in heavy daytime fog gave me a real appreciation for the value of commercial vessel traffic information systems (VTIS) to recreational vessels. The Marine Exchange of Los Angeles/Long Beach operates a private, non-profit, state-sanctioned VTIS controlling merchant shipping on two major traffic separation systems feeding the port complex. Recreational vessels can monitor the system on channel 14.

Because the VTIS has very powerful radar covering the sea approaches to the Los Angeles harbor complex, recreational vessels are strongly encouraged to fly radar reflectors so their movements are identifiable to the VTIS. If in an emergency you need to contact VTIS, you will be easily spotted by VTIS operators.

The traffic system controls merchant vessels entering the approaches to the Los Angles port complex on two major lane systems. Each system features one-mile-wide inbound and outbound traffic lanes with a two-mile-wide separation zone between them. One set of lanes comes in from the west, while the other set of lanes is for traffic coming up the coast from the south. Both lane systems empty traffic into a roughly trapezoidal area four by nine miles in size called the Precautionary Area outside the L.A./Long Beach breakwaters. Another system controls waters inside the breakwaters.

For the small boat operator, any return to the mainland from Catalina or the other offshore Channel Islands requires crossing the shipping lanes to get to the mainland small boat harbors. In reduced visibility, and without radar, crossing the lanes is too chancy a proposition if one is trying to navigate by listening to sound signals from large ships.

On this passage, my friend Mike and I were coming back midweek from the west end of Catalina toward Alamitos Bay in a C&C 32 sailboat. Alamitos Bay is located just inside of the east end of the Long Beach breakwater. At 1030, we were about 22 miles southwest of Alamitos Bay motor-sailing at six knots on a northeast course when a heavy fog set in.

Mike and I had gone through the same drill last summer. So we started plotting our GPS positions and altered course slightly to head for the elbow off Long Beach where the southbound traffic lane departs from the Precautionary Zone. This would be our point of departure for crossing the shipping lane. We also ran up the radar reflector.

In possible close quarters or hazardous situations, a recreational vessel can also contact the VTIS for information and announce its name and position if absolutely necessary.

There are three types of commercial ship traffic that the recreational sailor must concern himself with in the San Pedro Channel: merchant shipping, cross-channel ferries carrying passengers between Los Angeles and Long Beach and Catalina Island, and tugs towing barges with rocks from Catalina for the port expansion going on in Long Beach Harbor. On the hour, the VTIS broadcasts a complete traffic situation for the area: merchant ships, ferries, and towboats.

The merchant ships are in the shipping channels or precautionary zone, so a sailor can see on the chart where this traffic might be. If you are outside the lane, merchant traffic should not be an immediate concern. But the cross-channel ferries can be anywhere in the channel moving along one of four general routes. Ferries depart from either Los Angeles or Long Beach and go to either Avalon or the Isthmus on Catalina. The ferries typically move at around 20 to 25 knots; they really fly. We would be crossing all four ferry routes. Last, there are the tugs towing barges and moving at five to seven knots.

Our first great revelation was that all the cross-channel ferries and tugs were reporting their movements to the VTIS. As a ferry left either the Los Angeles or the Long Beach sea buoy (the buoys situated directly outside the harbor entrances), or Avalon, or the Isthmus on Catalina, the ferry checked in with VTIS and reported its departure and ETA at the other side of the channel. The tugboats did the same. All vessels reporting to VTIS also noted that they were standing by on both channels 14 and 16. Based on the ETAs provided, it was possible to calculate these vessels’ approximate speeds and plot probable positions along their probable tracks. This helps in determining where they might be in relation to your track and your probable positions.

We started listening to the ship reports at 1030, heard the hourly traffic situations at 1100 and 1200, and felt we had a pretty good understanding of what was going on this Wednesday afternoon. You can record each vessel announced on the VTIS on a small yellow post-it note and stick it on the approximate position on the chart. This lets you visualize the traffic better and you can move the notes around as VTIS broadcasts changes.

About 1225, a Catalina ferry announced its departure at the Long Beach sea buoy and gave an ETA of about 1335 at Avalon. This implied a cross-channel speed of around 25 knots. We were in the general vicinity of the ferry’s pathand visibility was about 40 yards. My anxiety level went straight up. I called VTIS and gave our name, lat/long, course, and the designation letter of the buoy at the Precautionary Area that was our immediate destination, and I asked for a traffic update for the immediate area. The VTIS replied to our call and gave us a brief rundown.

My real motivation in calling VTIS had been to call attention to our presence and position to the outbound ferry. Next time I am going to just plain say so in clear language, or hail the ferry on channel 16 and give our position. The ferry boat beginning its cross-channel dash loomed up in my imagination bigger than any supertanker; if for some reason we were in the ferry’s path and if we didn’t register on the ferry’s radar

My appreciation of what constituted a safety threat had just undergone a radical change. Before this trip, my concern had been merchant ships in the shipping channels. By listening to VTIS, you can learn where the big guys are and what they are doing. Staying out of the way is simple plotting. However, ferries traveling at high speed in reduced visibility outside of the shipping lanes or precautionary zone are a different threat. Prudence dictates planning the shortest possible course across probable ferry routes to reduce your time of exposure to close-quarters situations. Plotting of your position on a chart in relation to estimated probable positions of crossing ferries seems wise. All the while you should also be paying attention to the departures, destinations, and ETAs of the ferries and other vessels as announced by VTIS.

We arrived at the edge of the shipping lanes just prior to 1300. We throttled back and listened to the 1300 traffic rundown. There was a merchant vessel in the northbound traffic lane abut three miles south of the precautionary zone and heading for a berth designated Foxtrot 9. This berth was labeled on our chart and was located just outside the Long Beach breakwater and east of the precautionary zone. So we knew where this vessel was going. We took off east across the southbound lane and into the separation zone. We heard the merchant ship announce that it was dropping anchor and VTIS say that the northbound lane was clear.

We also heard a fascinating series of exchanges from the Norwegian master of an outbound merchantman to an inbound merchant vessel and a sailboat. In the first exchange, the inbound ship proposed a passing situation requiring the Norwegian to make a turn. The Norwegian replied, "Negative, there is a sailboat on my port beam." The two merchant vessels then settled on a passing strategy. Then the sailboat asked how it should pass the Norwegian. A very even Norwegian accent responded, "I recommend you pass me astern."

We reached the other side of the traffic lanes approximately a half-hour later and turned north toward Alamitos Bay. Shortly thereafter the fog lifted and we could see a warm, hazy summer afternoon off Long Beach. The approaches were devoid of traffic, just a lone merchant ship anchored in Foxtrot 9.

Paul A. Myers is a sailor based in Southern California.

By Ocean Navigator