Sounding the Depth, Sea Marks and Bridge Lights

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 11th, 2013

Technology 101

It’s Important to know both the Depth of the Water beneath you and the Hidden Dangers below the Surface

On November 10, 1975, the Great Lakes bulk ore carrier S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a powerful Lake Superior storm.  Waves of 35 feet crashed green water across her deck.  But time and again she bobbed back up from under the waves.  Until she began to lose her buoyancy.  No one knows for sure what happened but the Fitzgerald was taking on water prior to her sinking.  One theory said that she bottomed out on Six Fathom Shoal off of Caribou Island.  As she fell into the trough between two huge waves.

A fathom is 6 feet.  So six fathoms would be 36 feet.  Though the water over Six Fathom Shoal could be as shallow as 26 feet.  Which is pretty deep.  But is dangerously shallow for a ship like the Fitzgerald.  For she had a draft of 25 feet.  At best she had 11 feet (36-25) of clearance between the shoal and her hull.  Or in the worst case, 1 foot (26-25).  With the gale force winds pushing the waves as high as 35 feet that would put the trough approximately 17.5 feet (35/2) below the ‘calm’ surface level of the lake.  Which would bring the top of the shoal above the hull of the Fitzgerald.  Thus making a strong case that she bottomed out and fractured her hull and began to take on water.

The theory continues that as she took on water she settled deeper and deeper into the water.  Growing heavier.  And less buoyant.  Until a wall of water swept across her that was too great for her to shake off.  Sending her to the bottom of Lake Superior so quickly that the propeller was still spinning when the bow hit bottom.  Causing the hull to break.  With the torque of the spinning shaft rotating the stern over until she rested hull-up on the bottom.  This is only one theory of many.  People still debate the ultimate cause of her sinking.  But this theory shows the importance of knowing the depth of the water beneath you.  And the great danger of unseen objects below the surface of the water.

Ships use Sea Marks to guide them Safely through Navigable Channels

Those mariners who first crossed the oceans were some of the bravest ever to live.  For if a ship sank in the middle of the ocean chances are people never saw those sailors again.  For there’s nothing to sustain life in the middle of the ocean.  Everything you ate or drank you brought with you.  And crossed at the greatest speed possible to get to your destination before your supplies ran out.  Which was easy to do in the deep waters of the middle of the ocean.  But very dangerous when the water grew shallower.  As you approached land.  Especially for the first time.

If a ship struck a submerged object it could break up the hull and sink the ship.  Especially if you hit it at speed.  This is why they had lookouts high up in the crow’s nest looking for land.  Or indications that the water was growing more shallow.  And they would ‘heave the lead’.  Big burly men (leadsmen) would throw a lead weight on a rope as far out in front of the ship as possible.  Once the lead hit bottom they’d pull it up.  Counting the knots in the rope spaced at 6-foot intervals.  Or fathoms.  Sounding the depth of the water beneath them.  As the sea bottom raced up to the water’s surface they furled their sails to catch less wind.  And slow down.  As they approached land they would approach only so far.  And safely anchor in a safe depth of water near a promising location for a harbor.  Some sailors would then board a dinghy and row into the shallow waters.  Sounding the depth.  And making a chart.  Looking for a safe channel to navigate.  And a place suitable to build a deep-water dock.  Deep enough to sail in to and moor the large sailing vessels that would sail to and from these new lands.

Of course, we could do none of this during the night.  It may be safe to sail in the middle of the ocean at night but it is very dangerous in the shallow waters around land.  At least, for the first time.  After they built a harbor they may build a lighthouse.  A tall building with a beacon.  To guide ships to the new harbor in the dark.  And even add a fog horn to guide ships in when fog obscures the light.  This would bring ships towards the harbor.  But they needed other navigational aids to guide them through a safe channel to the dock.  As time passed we made our navigational aids more advanced.  As well as our ships.  Today a ship can enter a harbor or river in the black of night safely.  Thanks to sea marks.

If Ships wander just Inches off their Course the Results can be Catastrophic

Landmarks are navigational aids on land.  Such as a lighthouse.  While a sea mark is a navigational aid in the water.  Typically a buoy.  A buoyant vessel that floats in the water.  But held in place.  Typically with a chain running from the bottom of the buoy to an anchorage driven into the bottom of the water channel.  Holding it in place to mark the edge of the navigable channel.  In North America we use the colors green and red to mark the channel.  With the “3R” rule “Red Right Returning.”  Meaning a ship returning from a larger body of water to a smaller body of water (and ultimately to a dock) would see red on their right (starboard).  And green on their left (port).  If you’re leaving dock and heading to open water the colors would be the reverse.

As ships move up river the safe channel narrows.  And there are bridges to contend with.  Which compounds the problem of shallow waters.  Fixed bridges will have red lights on piers rising out of the water.  And a green light over the center of the safe channel.  A vertical lift span bridge or a double leaf (lift) bascule bridge will have red lights at either end.  And red lights over the center of the channel when these bridges are closed.  When the center span on a lift bridge is open there will be a green light marking the center of the channel on the lifted center span.  Showing the center of the channel and the safe height of passage.  When the bascule bridge is open there will be a green light on the tip of each open leaf.  Showing the outer edges of the safe channel.

Ships are massive.  And massive things moving have great momentum (mass multiplied by velocity).  The bigger they are and the faster they go the harder it is to stop them.  Or to turn them.  Which means if they wander out of that safe channel they will probably hit something.  And cause great damage.  Either to the ship.  Or to the fixed structures along the waterway.  Like on an Alabaman night.  When a river barge made a wrong turn in poor visibility and entered an un-navigable channel.  Striking a rail bridge.  Pushing the bridge out of alignment.  But not enough to break the welded rail.  Which left the railroad block signal green.  Indicating the track was clear ahead.  The river pilot thought that one of the barges had only run aground.  And was oblivious to what he did.  And when Amtrak’s Sunset Limited sped through and hit that kink in the track it derailed.  Killing 47 people.  About twice the loss of life when the Fitzgerald sank.  Showing the importance of navigation charts, sea marks and bridge lights.  For if ships wander just inches off their course the results can be catastrophic.

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Corduroy Roads, Positive Buoyancy, Negative Buoyancy, Carbon Dioxide, Crush Depth, Pressurization, Rapid Decompression and Space

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 9th, 2012

Technology 101

Early Submarines could not Stay Submerged for Long for the Carbon Dioxide the Crew Exhaled built up to Dangerous Levels

People can pretty much walk anywhere.  As long as the ground is fairly solid beneath our feet.  Ditto for horses.  Though they tend to sink a little deeper in the softer ground than people do.  Carts are another story.  And artillery trains.  For their narrow wheels and heavy weight distributed on them tend to sink when the earthen ground is wet.  Early armies needing to move cannon and wagons through swampy areas would first build roads through these areas.  Out of trees.  Called corduroy roads.  It was a bumpy ride.  But you could pull heavy loads with small footprints through otherwise impassable areas.  As armies mechanized trucks and jeeps with fatter rubber tires replaced the narrow wheels on wagons.  Then tracked vehicles came along.  Allowing the great weights of armored vehicles with large guns to move across open fields.  The long and wide footprints of these vehicles distributing that heavy weight over a larger area.  Still, nothing can beat the modern rubber tire on a paved road for a smooth ride.  And the lower resistance between tire and road increases gas mileage.  Which is why trucks like to use as few axles on their trailers as possible.  For the more tires on the road the more friction between truck and road.  And the higher fuel consumption to overcome that friction.  Which is why we have to weigh trucks for some try to cheat by pulling heavier loads with too few axles.  When they do the high weight distributed through too few wheels will cause great stresses on the roadway.  Causing them to break and crumble apart.   

Man and machine can move freely across pretty much anything.  If we don’t carry food and water with us we could even ‘live off the land’.  But one thing we can’t do is walk or drive on water.  We have to bridge streams and rivers.  Go around lakes.  Or move onto boats.  Which can drive on water.  If they are built right.  And are buoyant.  Because if a boat weighed less than the water it displaced it floated.  Much like a pair of light-weight, spongy flip-flops made out of foam rubber.  Throw a pair into the water and they will float.  Put them on your feet and step into the deep end of a pool and you’ll sink.  Because when worn on your feet the large weight of your body distributed to the light pair of flip-flops makes those flip-flops heavier than the water they displace.  And they, along with you, sink.  Unlike a boat.  Which is lighter than the water it displaces.  As long as it is not overloaded.  Even if it’s steel.  Or concrete.  You see, the weight of the boat includes all the air inside the hull.  So a large hull filled with cargo AND air will be lighter than the water it displaces.  Which is why boats float. 

Early sail ships had great range.  As long as the wind blew.  Their range only being limited by the amount of food and fresh water they carried.  Later steam engines and diesel-electric engines had greater freedom in navigation not having to depend on the prevailing winds.  But they had the same limitations of food and water.  And when we took boats under the water we had another limitation.  Fresh air.  Early submarines could not stay submerged for long.  For underwater they could not pull air into a diesel-electric engine.  So they had to run on batteries.  Which had a limited duration.  So early subs spent most of their time on the surface.  Where they could run their diesel engines to recharge their batteries.  And open their hatches to get fresh air into the boat.  For when submerged the carbon dioxide the crew exhaled built up.  If it built up too much you could become disoriented and pass out.  And die.  If a sub is under attack staying under water for too long and the levels of carbon dioxide build up to dangerous levels a captain has little choice but to surface and surrender.  So the crew can breathe again.

Rapid Decompression at Altitude can be Catastrophic and Violent

Being in a submarine has been historically one of the more dangerous places to be in any navy (second to being on the deck of an aircraft carrier).  Just breathing on a sub had been a challenge at times while trying to evade an enemy destroyer.  But there are other risks, too.  Some things float.  And some things sink.  A submarine is somewhere in between.  It will float on the surface when it has positive buoyancy.  And sink when it has negative buoyancy.  But submarines operate in the oceans.  Which are very deep.  And the deeper you go the greater the pressure of the water.  Because the deeper you go there is more ocean above you pressing down on you.  And oceans are heavy.  If a sub goes too deep this pressure will crush the steel hull like a beer can.  What we call crush depth.  Killing everyone on board.  So a sub cannot go too deep.  Which makes going below the surface a delicate and risky business.  To submerge they flood ballast tanks.  Replacing air within the hull with water.  Making it sink.  Other tanks fill with water as necessary to ‘trim’ the boat.  Make it level under water.  When under way they use forward propulsion to maintain depth and trim with control surfaces like on an airplane.  If everything goes well a submarine can sink.  Then stop at a depth below the surface.  And then resurface.  Modern nuclear submarines can make fresh water and clean air.  So they can stay submerged as long as they have food for the crew to eat.

An airplane has no such staying power like a sub.  For planes have nothing to keep them in air but forward propulsion.  So food and water are not as great an issue.  Fuel is.  And is the greatest limitation on a plane.  In the military they have special airplanes that fly on station to serve as gas stations in the air for fighters and bombers.  To extend their range.  And it is only fuel they take on.  For other than very long-range bombers a flight crew is rarely in the air for extended hours at a time.  Some bomber crews may be in the air for a day or more.  But there are few crew members.  So they can carry sufficient food and water for these longer missions.  As long as they can fly they are good.  And fairly comfortable.  Unlike the earlier bomber crews.  Who flew in unpressurized planes.  For it is very cold at high altitudes.  And there isn’t enough oxygen to breathe.  So these crew members had to wear Arctic gear to keep from freezing to death.  And breathe oxygen they carried with them in tanks.  Pressurizing aircraft removed these problems.  Which made being in a plane like being in a tall building on the ground.  Your ears may pop but that’s about all the discomfort you would feel.  If a plane lost its pressurization while flying, though, it got quite uncomfortable.  And dangerous. 

Rapid decompression at altitude can be catastrophic.  And violent.  The higher the altitude the lower the air pressure.  And the faster the air pressure inside the airplane equals the air pressure outside the airplane.  The air will get suck out so fast that it’ll take every last piece of dust with it.  And breathable air.  Oxygen masks will drop in the passenger compartment.  The flight attendants will scramble to make sure all passengers get on oxygen.  As does the flight crew.  Who call in an emergency.  And make an emergency descent to get below 10 thousand feet.  Almost free falling out of the sky while air traffic control clears all traffic from beneath them.  Once below 10 thousand feet they can level off and breathe normally.  But it will be very, very cold.

Man’s Desire is to Go where no Man has Gone before and where no Human Body should Be

Space flight shares some things in common with both submarines and airplanes.  Like airplanes they can’t fly without fuel.  The greatest distance we’ve ever flown in space was to the moon and back.  The Saturn V rocket of the Apollo program was mostly fuel.   The rocket was 354 feet tall.  And about 75% of it was a fuel tank.  In 3 stages.  The first stage burned for about 150 seconds.  The second stage burned for about 360 seconds.  The third stage burned for about 500 seconds (in two burns, the first to get into earth orbit and the second to escape earth orbit).  Add that up and it comes to approximately 16 minutes.  After that the astronauts were then coasting at about 25,000 miles per hour towards the moon.  Or where the moon would be when they get there.  The pull of earth’s gravity slowed it down until the pull of the moon’s gravity sped it back up.  So that’s a lot of fuel burned at one time to hurl the spacecraft towards the moon.  The remaining fuel on board used for minor course corrections.  And to escape lunar orbit.  For the coast back home.  There was no refueling available in space.  So if something went wrong there was a good chance that the spacecraft would just float forever through the universe with no way of returning home.  Much like a submarine that can’t keep from falling in the ocean.  If it falls too deep it, too, will be unable to return home.

Also like in a submarine food and fresh water are critical supplies.  They brought food with them.  And made their own water in space with fuel cells.  It had to last for the entire trip.  About 8 days.  For in space there were no ports or supply ships.  You were truly on your own.  And if something happened to your food and water supply you didn’t eat or drink.  If the failure was early in the mission you could abort and return home.  If you were already in lunar orbit it would make for a long trip home.  The lack of food and hydration placing greater stresses on the astronauts making the easiest of tasks difficult.  And the critical ones that got you through reentry nearly impossible.  Also like on a submarine fresh air to breathe is critical.  Even more so because of the smaller volume of the spacecraft.  Which can fill up with carbon dioxide very quickly.  And unlike a sub a spacecraft can’t open a hatch for fresh air.  All they can do is rely on a scrubber system to remove the carbon dioxide from their cramped quarters.

While a submarine has a thick hull to protect it from the crushing pressures of the ocean an airplane has a thin aluminum skin to keep a pressurized atmosphere inside the aircraft.  Just like a spacecraft.  But unlike an aircraft, a spacecraft can’t drop below 10,000 feet to a breathable atmosphere in the event of a catastrophic depressurization.  Worse, in the vacuum of space losing your breathable atmosphere is the least of your troubles.  The human body cannot function in a vacuum.  The gases in the lungs will expand in a vacuum and rupture the lungs.  Bubbles will enter the bloodstream.  Water will boil away (turn into a gas).  The mouth and eyes will dry out and lose their body heat through this evaporation.  The water in muscle and soft tissue will boil away, too.  Causing swelling.  And pain.  Dissolved nitrogen in the blood will reform into a gas.  Causing the bends.  And pain.  Anything exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation will get a severe sunburn.  Causing pain.  You will be conscious at first.  Feeling all of this pain.  And you will know what is coming next.  Powerless to do anything about it.  Brain asphyxiation will then set in.  Hypoxia.  The body will be bloated, blue and unresponsive.  But the brain and heart would continue on.  Finally the blood boils.  And the heat stops.  In all about a minute and half to suffer and die.

Man is an adventurer.  From the first time we walked away from our home.  Rode the first horse.  Harnessed the power of steam.  Then conquered the third dimension in submarines, airplanes and spacecraft.  We are adventurers.  It’s why we crossed oceans and discovered the new world.  Why we climbed the highest mountains.  And descended to the oceans’ lowest depth.  Why we fly in airplanes.  And travelled to the moon and back.  When things worked well these were great adventures.  When they did not they were horrible nightmares.  While a few seek this adventure most of us are content to walk the surface of the earth.  To feel the sand through our toes.   Or walk to the poolside bar in our flip-flops.  To enjoy an adult beverage on a summer’s day.  While adventurers are still seeking out something new.  And waiting on technology to allow them to go where no man has gone before.  Especially if it’s a place no human body should be.

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