Archive for the ‘PAGASA’ Category

Sea State: A New But Needed Concept

January 16, 2009



No, the term sea state does not refer to some group of atolls in the Pacific or Indian oceans that comprises a small state. This instead refers to the state of the sea much like a weather forecast.

The Philippines, though a maritime country, does not use this concept. At least not in weather forecasting. But events of the last few days and during the first days of January points to the need of using this concept. Repeated suspension of ferry sailing and floodings have been frequent recently [see: “Wicked Weather Count: 2,500 Stranded in Bicol, 50 Homes Destroyed in Cebu, 16,000 Flood Evacuees in Agusan del Sur”, 1/15/09]

Let’s face it. Small ships and fishing vessels sink even without a storm warning, like now. It is because seas can be too rough if the monsoons are in full swing. Like now. But there is a crucial lack of forecasting the state of the seas or sea state.

A sea state refers to the height, period (the two components of a wave in physics) and character of waves of a large body of water (waves can be said to be confused which makes it more dangerous). The strength of the wind is just one factor in creating a sea state. The monsoon swell is another. And tides play a factor, too.

PAGASA, out local forecaster uses the term sea condition. It bases its reading on the old Beaufort wind scale but with 9 gradings (The modern Beaufort wind scale has 12 gradings with the additional grades 13-16 to describe strong tropical cyclones; but some countries even use the 17th grade to describe phenomenal wind forces).

The beauty of an integrated Beaufort scale is that it not only describe wind strength but also the sea conditions including wave height. This is the failing of tropical depression/typhoon forecast we use locally that has only 4 grades and is just the measure of the wind strength, basically.

One small advancement, at least, of PAGASA is that they now use the concept of a gale which is a very strong wind. A full gale, at 63-87kph generally describes our Typhoon Signal #1. So sometimes when PAGASA forecasts gale it is actually describing near-gale winds (not now because half of Philippine seas are under gale conditions and that is why there are waves that are in the range of 3.7-7.0 meters which is more than enough to cancel the trips of regional ferries [not the inter-island ferries from Manila]).

However, more advanced countries than us have sea state forecasts aside from tropical cyclone warnings. Rather than relying on transmissions from passing ships and coast watchtowers it now uses satellite imagery. Shouldn’t we be subscribing to these services? If the government can hardly procure Doppler weather radars there is no way we can launch a dedicated weather satellite.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialized agency of the United Nations has a sea state code. Other countries have their own systems. Even NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) has their “Definition of Sea States” and this one even has modal periods (period between waves). I have seen sea state definitions that even traces different causal conditions which is one reason for the dangerous conditions called confused waves (conflicting waves). With an understanding of the theory of modal periods collosal (or rogue) waves, which capsize boats and launches, can be anticipated.

It seems we are a little bit behind the times.

[Note: Images above describe a full gale or Force 8 on the Beaufort scale]

[Images credit: brianlean, lavoieverte]

Floods in Gingoog City, Northern Samar, and Misamis Oriental drive thousands to evacuate

January 12, 2009

The rain on Sunday, January 11, 2009 brought flash floods that forced 651 families (3,289 people) in Gingoog City scampering for higher ground. About 9 people were reported missing. The same heavy downpour caused waters to rise in Cagayan de Oro City in 23 barangays The same rain caused electrical power interruptions in these areas. Source: GMATV.News (01/11/09)

While Bicol Region is on a flood watch, rising waters washed away at least 20 homes and made a major bridge in Opol town in Misamis Oriental province closed to vehicular traffic.

In Northern Samar, thousands of people were driven out of their homes as rain water rose and landslides swept the area over the weekend. Many people living in low-lying places had to stay in evacuation centers as they waited for the flood to recede. Six people were reportedly killed when they were buried by landslide in a place called Ocad, Lavezares.

Such damages and human suffering brought by the wicked weather have become more common. Weather watcher Pagasa reports an unusual surge in rainful volume in the last few days which authorities believe may extend till February.

Factors like deforestation and increased population in flood- prone areas are also to blame in the spate of flood-related emergencies. Flood prevention programs like tree planting, dredging of rivers, and relocation of people must be a collective community effort. =0=

RELATED BLOG: “Bicol reforestation “ Posted by mesiamd at 12/16/2008

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Storm Signals Lowered, Coast Guard Suspension of Trips Remain, The Classic Conflict and Ten Thousand Stranded in Bicol

January 4, 2009


As of 4:30pm today, Sunday, January 4, 2009 Typhoon ‘Auring’ has changed direction to the North and it will no longer hit land. Consequently, all public storm signals have been lowered except for Eastern Samar.

If there are no storm signals prevailing, normally ferries can set sail. However, for prudence’s sake, the Philippine Coast Guard maintained its suspension of sea travel at 10 points. That will mainly be in Bicol, Eastern Visayas and Caraga region.

Reports say over 10,000 people are stranded in Bicol. I will not be surprised if the total number of people right now reaches 30,000 all over the suspension areas.

I have said in a previous article that it is wave heights that primarily matters and not wind speed [“Two Boat Sinkings, A New Year Ferry Suspension in Bicol, Wave Height and Gale, 01/02/09]. But I checked the PAGASA forecast and there is no mention of wave height! It is Mike Padua’s weather service website ‘www.maybagyo.com’ that has a wave height forecast but it is just near the typhoon’s center.

So nobody knows right now how large the wave will be in the ferries’ routes. Though PAGASA enjoins ships to report meteorological conditions in their specific areas I don’t know if this is heeded. And if heeded I don’t know if PAGASA has a way of consolidating and disseminating it.

This is the borderline area that produces sea accidents. Of course, ship companies would want to sail. In the case of overnight ferries to Cebu if they don’t sail they probably won’t have a ship available for the next night because none arrived. And this throws awry their set schedules.

As I write this it is the time for peak departures of ferries. These departures are usually bunched between 7 to 8pm. I know that they will be trying to break free of the Coast Guard leash and try to sail even by midnight tonight so they can still meet their sked tomorrow. So sometimes this becomes a cat-and-mouse situation. If the seas are rough in their ports, the captains may not turn out bull-headed at all. But if it is calm, he will be at the face of the local Coast Guard commander, who in many cases is not of officer rank. But, of course, he will have no way of knowing how strong are the seas in his route.

The situation points out one problem in the Philippines. Even in Spanish days we have watchtowers who are able to observe local sea conditions. This was reinforced by the Americans. Part of this system are the lighthouses. However, in recent decades the old watchtowers started to crumble and some of the lighthouses are already automated, meaning there is no one manning them.

But the problem is this system is not under PAGASA but under the Coast Guard and it is PAGASA that makes the forecasts. Moreover, many of these lighthouses have no communication to a data collection point. Sayang (a waste), because anyway many of these have cell site coverage. And big ships are anyway sailing but I wonder if reports from them are assidously followed up.

Old England has a system of coast watchers. Don’t we need to emulate it given our long coastline and reliance on the seas?

I will be interested in the further development of this discourse. This is a safety at sea question where people, especially the sailing public, should be interested in.

[photo credit:daylite]

Two Boat Sinkings, A New Year Ferry Suspension in Bicol, Wave Height and Gale

January 3, 2009


For thousands of Bicol ferry passengers the forlorn walls of the ferry terminals in Tabaco (Albay), Pilar and Matnog (both in Sorsogon) was their New Year’s eve sight. This came about because government authorities, on the advice of the weather bureau, suspended small crafts from sailing citing forecasts of waves of up to four meters high.

This suspension is probably a reaction to the recent sinking of the motor boat MB Mae Jan which plies the Calayan island to Aparri, Cagayan route in which about half of its 100 passengers died. It was said that the weather was fine when the boat left Calayan but it turned bad before the boat reached its destination. The incident highlighted the disregard of PAGASA (the Philippines weather forecasting bureau) advisories which warned of big waves for that day.

Maybe the suspension is only correct. Forecast of wave heights should be the governing factor in ferry trip suspensions rather than wind speeds which is the basis for typhoon forecasts. It is waves that primarily swamp and capsize ships and not the winds per se. People should probably start to understand now that ships can meet sinking incidents even without a typhoon warning (and I am glad PAGASA now uses the term ‘gale’ to describe stormy sea conditions). I hope that government will stress more the importance of heeding wave height forecasts and educate people accordingly.

Sometimes I wonder if we need MB Mae Jan incidents for us to learn these things. But with the new system I hope the lives lost in that incident and in the MB Don Dexter Cathlyn sinking off Dimasalang, Masbate which killed about 40 people would not have been in vain.

This day, this change had a new twist. Ferry trips in Bicol were again suspended but this time the reason for the suspension is the refusal of the ship captains to venture out to sea combined with the barring of sea travel by the the Coast Guard. I hope this development augurs a new era of more pro-active observance of sea safety. I think we have needlessly lost enough lives in sea tragedies over the years because of the bahala na (leaving things to providence) attitude.

However, I hope this will not augur a new era of over-cautious sailing when ships are grounded when a storm is still far away and it so happened only that there is already a typhoon warning. Economic oppurtunies are lost this way. There is no need to automatically suspend ships when it is still shining and wave forecast is still moderate.

For prudence, maybe a finer distinction between small ships is needed. Old sea travellers know that outriggers and motor boats which are wooden are more vulnerable than steel ferries and there are bigger ferries that can handle waves better. The should not all be lumped under the category of ‘small sea craft’.

More passengers will be stranded in the future, for sure. But maybe it will also teach them how to read weather forecasts especially those that are available on the Net which is numerous enough and is up-to-date.

[photo credit: freewebs]

Tropical Depression "Tonyo": A Rare Occurrence

November 14, 2008



It was raining in Davao since last night and it rained the whole day today. This is rare in this place where rains seldom last more than two hours. I was not aware early that a rare weather occurrence is happening, that we are under Typhoon Signal #1.

I do not know of the last time that the provinces of Davao del Sur, North Cotabato, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur were included in a typhoon signal since these areas never experiences typhoons and where people do not know what is a “bagyo”. To them “bagyo” is just plain heavy rain and they have no understanding that to us what we fear is not the rain but the winds.

At 10am this morning, November 14, PAGASA (Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration) said that Tropical Depression “Tonyo” is located 70 kilometers west of Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur, a town in the southern portion of the elongated province. That means “Tonyo” is smack at the middle of Agusan del Sur this morning. This is the first time I heard that a typhoon passed Agusan del Sur, which lies beyond the typhoon belt.

I “hope” the current direction of the typhoon does not change and it does not dissipate soon. For maybe it will be the first in a long, long time that a typhoon will pass by Bukidnon, Misamis Oriental, Lanao del Norte, Misamis Occidental and Zamboanga del Norte, if ever. Anyway at 45kph “Tonyo” is too weak to do structural damage.

I hope our own Mike Padua, “Mr. Supertyphoon” can clarify what typhoons in history passed by the aforementioned places. People would be interested for sure. Just moments ago a local TV announcer was saying that this is the first time in 30 years that Davao City was under Typhoon Signal #1.

I do remember that in the 70s and 80s two typhoons passed Celebes Sea and one reached Zamboanga City. They were not the typhoons that hook through the mainland Asia and Japan but wayward typhoons of the Southern Hemisphere which normally hooks through New Guinea, Indonesia and Australia.

I have not the time to check but I wonder where this typhoon came from. A rare “visitor” indeed.

(Credits: http://www.maybagyo.com)

The Blame Game and Other Musings

July 13, 2008

It was 14 years ago when my attention was first caught by a sea tragedy.  One of the ferries that we use to ride to Mindoro, the Kimelody Cristy caught fire resulting in the loss of lives.  When the heat was intense (no pun intended), the Governor of Mindoro Occidental joined those who were condemning Moreta Shipping Lines, the owner of the vessel.  It did not matter that they were friends.  It also did not matter that Moreta is just an upstart shipping line (and probably undeserving of kicking) trying to break the stranglehold of the combined Viva Shipping Lines/Sto. Domingo Lines/D.R. Shipping who were lording it over the Mindoro routes with predatory pricing and suspected sabotage against competitors. (Well, SuperCat of Aboitiz Shipping Corp. used to keep overnight its catamarans inside a holding pen with underwater extensions and with floodlights and armed roving guards to boot in Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, away from the Batangas City base of the 3 shipping lines of “Don” Domingo Reyes, the supreme warlord of Bondoc Peninsula, Quezon; after all the competitors of the Domingo trio used to have one “accident” after the other).  It also did not matter that Kimelody Cristy was the best ship plying the Mindoro route and that the fire was an accident (LPG tanks that are part of the cargo exploded, triggered by welding activities; to the uninitiated, welding activities as part of maintenance work is normally done while a vessel is sailing).  Charges of “floating coffin” and “rust bucket” abounded as if all ships that meet accidents are not seaworthy.  Accidents are operational hazards. We do not easily call a bus that met an accident a “rolling coffin” nor a plane that crashed as a “flying coffin”.  I note that most media people and politicians that make attacks after a marine accident do not ride ships (let’s take away those photo-ops activities of politicians and bureaucrats because that is not real-world sea travel). Moreta became a punching bag maybe because it cannot afford a platoon of high-priced lawyers and PR practitioners. 

A few years later the Dona Marilyn sank in a storm in almost the same circumstances as the sinking a few weeks ago of the Princess of the Stars.  The Dona Marilyn left Cebu City under a storm Signal # 2 (yes, it was allowed then, when Signal #2 typhoons were stronger than current Signal #2 typhoons) and it intended to proceed to Tacloban City towards the direction of a typhoon that was shortly expected to intensify to Signal # 3.  Against the pleadings of some of the passengers, the captain of the ship proceeded reasoning he will seek shelter somewhere if the seas become too rough (one must understand that old captains are veterans of this “seeking-shelter” strategy since they were products of the small ships of the ’60s; the remnants of these ships still ply the Cebu-Bohol routes so one can still see their size or lack thereof and its design). As fate would have it the elements literally tore into Dona Marilyn.  The tarpaulin covers of the sides of the ship was not able to contain the rain and wave surge (folks, don’t worry ’cause big ships nowadays have cabins), deluging the inside of the ship causing it to list (to tilt on its side). Even though the passengers helped in baling water, it went to no avail ’cause soon the engine of the ship conked out (one must suspect it became inundated in water).  A ship without power in a typhoon is practically a dead ship since it can no longer maneuver.  Many lives were lost in that tragedy. 

The Board of Marine Inquiry ruled the sinking as “force majeure” (?!!?).  Sailing into the storm and it is declared a “force majeure”???  Maybe, as the say, “Tell it to the Marines”!  Now with a probe where some congressmen are more content in questioning PAGASA (makes on wonder where their loyalty is; anyway it won’t probably matter in the next elections because their constituents do not ride ships and maybe so because they probably come from Luzon; but I doubt the wisdom in appointing in an investigating body someone who do not ride ships just like the question put forward by the newspaper Malaya editor-in-chief against the DOTC Undersecretary who is the government pointman in the Princess of the Stars tragedy), the investigation might just turn into a blame game. Through the ticket it is still possible to see the canniness of the Sulpicio attacks against PAGASA and its labeling of the accident as an “act of God”.  Are the “motions to inhibit” against some independent-minded Board of Marine Inquiry members a prelude to another verdict of “force majeure”?

When the Dona Paz burned and sank in a collision with the tanker Vector (thus putting us on the world map of marine disasters because of the size of the casualty) and Dona Marilyn sank in a storm, the Sulpicio Lines changed the names of its ships from the Dons and Donas to Princesses (as in Princess of the Stars).   But it seemed there was no change in their “luck” as the Princess of the Orient and Princess of the Stars sank in storms and the Princess of the World and Philippine Princess both burned (the latter in anchorage).  Well, I do not think that “luck” is an essential thing in navigation.  If it is then the study of it must be mandated as part of a naval curriculum and degree but it is not.

It was 1995 when I first rode a “Sacrificio” (a.k.a. Sulpicio) ship (yes, it is the monicker of Sulpicio Lines just as “Gutom Shipping” is the monicker of Gothong Shipping Corp. [so Gothong made sure then that its passengers are well fed, but not now]).  I noticed a picket line inside the company premises in the North Harbor.  “Claimants” (daw) against Sulpicio in the Dona Paz sinking.  But porters and cigarette vendors told me they were not legitimate claimants but unscrupulous persons out to fleece Sulpicio Lines with bogus claims.  That incident made me think and research.  After a few years of riding ships of Dona Paz‘s size during the Yuletide rush, i no longer believe the claim that up to 4,000 passengers died in that accident (the company admitted 1,568).  No way that a ship intended for 1,518 passengers will be able to take in more than double its capacity.  It is not just a question of passenger space but also the capacity of the ship to take in all those people (folks, meals in local inter-island ships are, in general, free so all of them will want to be fed during meal times).  But the bad thing is we became the world record-holder in the number of casualty due to a peacetime ship sinking.

Fighting all the way in courts is a grim battle for the families of the victims.  Searching the Net, it seems it takes more than 20 years before a final decision is reached at the Supreme Court level (so probably the idea of the Chief Justice to set up a maritime accident court makes sense).  And I think if the reasoning of the Sulpicio Lines is it’s a force majeure then probably it will reach the highest Court if one intends to claim to claim the full extent of damages against Sulpicio Lines.

On other hand, I also bemoan the knee-jerk reaction of government functionaries that mandated that under Signal #1 ships irregardless of size cannot sail. It will just create a lot of stranded passengers. Passengers will lose, bus companies, truck companies and shippers will lose.  The only winners will be the vendors and eateries in the port terminals.  Now I wonder what kind of economics is that.  It only betrays the ignorance of land-bound people in government who regulates ships but do not ride ships. It is not even proven at this point nor will it ever be proven that laxity in regulations led to the Princess of the Stars‘ sinking.  Maybe it was just plain recklessness combined with poor navigation and making the passengers and shippers pay for this is just a lot of hassle and pure lack of common sense (well, I forgot our government was never ever known for good common sense).

 

I do not see in these modern times why sailing restrictions for sea vessels are still governed by the typhoon signal when in my experience for sea people including fishermen the more important measurement is the wave level.  All we hear at the forecasts disseminated by the media is the wind speed measured in kilometers per hour and typhoon direction and speed when also part of the forecast is the wave height which is far more important when one is at sea especially during the night.  Also I wonder why PAGASA is now the de facto final arbiter in the sailings when everybody knows the level of forecast of PAGASA is just at the province or island/island group level.  It cannot define in real-time a local weather condition like if it is still safe to cross  San Bernardino Strait or Lagonoy Gulf or Ticao Pass/Black Rock Pass (in the Net, several weather forecasts and satellite pictures are always available and in real-time).  A re-tooled Coast Guard might be able to do a better job since its units are scattered in all the ports (after all, they are tasked with clearing the sailings of the vessels) and they can visually see the roughness of the sea and gauge the strength and direction of the wind (and I thought in earlier times there were coast watchers). Comparing it to air travel, it is still the local airport and the Air Transport Office (ATO) that declare the airport closed for landings and take-offs, not PAGASA.

In the last typhoon (“Frank”), PAGASA forecasted wave heights of 10-14 feet while other international weather agencies forecasted wave heights of up to 18 feet (in general, PAGASA’s wind speed and wave height forecasts are lower than the international weather agencies’ forecasts).  Does anybody need a translator how strong a sea is that?  And wave heights of up to 10 feet are sometimes forecast in Mindoro waters even when the storm is still in Samar, especially during the southwest moonsoon period when the seas are rougher.  With the advent of cell phones and the the general availability of phones, the government should make clear to all localities how strong the waves are when there is a typhoon so as to prevent the sinking of fishing boats which are also part of the sea casualties in a typhoon (in the last typhoon over 20 fishing boats sank resulting in over 1,100 dead and missing which is higher than the Princess of the Stars‘ casualty, aside from a few cargo ships sunk).  Preventive measures should be done because for all the hullabaloo about conversion to GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress Signal System), the simple truth is that our Coast Guard personnel will not venture out to sea under storm conditions just to save your ass.  Remember it was fishermen in small fishing boats who were first on the scene of the Princess of the Orient sinking because as one said in an interview he simply cannot bear the sight of a lady being swamped by big waves.  Does one need to be reminded who were first on the scene of the Princess of the Stars‘ sinking?

In the final analysis, to put things in the proper perspective especially for those who don’t travel by ship, the chances of getting killed in a road accident is still far higher than getting killed in a ship accident although the chances of getting killed in a plane accident is much slimmer than both.

[To be fair to Sulpicio Lines, let it be said that its main competitor WG&A (the SuperFerries) with about the same number of ships has about the same rate of mishaps in the same period. SuperFerry 6 burned off Batangas and SuperFerry 7 burned in anchorage.  SuperFerry 14 burned off Corregidor (not due to Abu Sayyaf according to Malacanang but everybody knows the truth and this is probably a true case of force majeure if acts of sabotage are such).  SuperFerry 12 was involved in a collision with San Nicholas (a wooden-hulled ship locally called a batel) in Manila Bay resulting in the sinking of the latter.  To this total, the collision and sinking of Cebu City (a William Lines ship) in Manila Bay just before the merger of 3 major shipping companies that resulted in the creation of William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) should also be include since this happened after the Dona Paz and Dona Marilyn sinkings.  WG&A and its passengers are just more fortunate that these mishaps produced far less casualties than the Sulpicio Lines mishaps.

Does anybody want a safer trip?  Then maybe sail via Negros Navigation Company.  It has no comparable mishaps during the same period and I do not know how they managed that feat though it is only a third of the size of either Sulpicio or WG&A.  Luck, perhaps?  Or is it a matter of naming the ships after the saints (as in St. Peter The Apostle and San Paolo)?]

(The writer has sailed in more than 120 long and short voyages in over 65 different vessels in the last 14 years. Ship is his favorite mode of transport in going to Luzon.  He has been a passenger aboard 7 different Sulpicio ships covering some 15 voyages.)