The Bermuda Maritime Operations Centre (BMOC) ensures the safety of mariners every day, but at times of storms is vital to our survival.
The operations centre plays a key role in the EMO (Emergency Measures Organization), in coordinating public safety and in disseminating information on tropical storms and hurricanes.
Whenever a system enters the ‘black box’ on the BMOC’s regional storm map, the team swings into action, intensifying its everyday duties to not just protect mariners but the general public at large.
The BMOC has three main functions: Coast Radio Station (Bermuda Radio); Vessel Traffic Management; and Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC Bermuda).
As a coastal radio station, Bermuda Radio broadcasts regular Maritime Safety Information including weather forecasts, from its headquarters at Fort George.
As soon as a system comes within 1,000 miles of Bermuda and crosses the black line, the team starts broadcasting information on approaching storms.
“As soon as a storm runs north of the Bahamas we will watch it very closely,” said Denis Rowe, chief maritime operations controller.
The team receives initial reports from NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) National Hurricane Center and examines the size, strength, speed and projected path of the storm, as well as water temperatures.
The Bermuda Weather Service provides a vital support role to the BMOC through its storm analysis.
Bermuda Radio broadcasts weather information using NavTex (Navigational Telex), which transmits its reports hundreds of miles off Bermuda. Marine vessels also receive a report of conditions either in paper copy or digital format.
The information is also transmitted by voice on MF and VHF radio frequencies.
“Our main function is to get that information out to mariners as quickly and accurately as possible, should a system be approaching, so vessels can alter their course to stay clear of the projected path,” said Mr Rowe.
The BMOC is responsible on a daily basis for Vessel Traffic Management, which involves the policing of craft in Bermuda’s waters.
“We can see the vessels on our two radars, at St George’s (Fort George) and the other on top of Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, so this gives us a 360 degree view around the island,” said Mr Rowe. All vessels are required to contact Bermuda Radio with details of their intended journey, so the duty officer can obtain vital safety information should the vessel start having problems.
“For example, if there is someone sailing from St George’s to Hamilton, we would ask how many people are on board and what is their estimated time of arrival.”
The duty officer also has to ensure ships are aware of the Area To Be Avoided (ATBA).
Under international regulations, vessels carrying potentially-dangerous products such as pollutants and those over 1,000 gross tons, have to keep clear of the ATBA.
Apart from the container ships and cruise liners, most of Bermuda’s passing traffic is yachts.
In 2011 the BMOC handled 498 ship arrivals and departures. A total 286 ships passed within 30 miles and there were 833 visiting yachts.
At the moment the team is busy monitoring the migration of yachts from North America and the Caribbean over to Europe for the summer.
They are also watching arrivals from the Atlantic Cup, ‘ARC Europe’ Rallies and the Newport Bermuda Race.
Migrating yachts stop by to refuel, effect repairs and gather supplies on the island every year.
Each craft has to call Bermuda Radio on approach to Bermuda, to ensure it arrives safely and clears Customs on arrival.
Their details include estimated arrival time and number of crew/passengers.
During hurricane season, marine traffic across the Atlantic is relatively quiet.
In November, the yachts migrate back from Europe via Bermuda.
Mr Rowe said: “We don’t have many yachts transiting during hurricane season. Most people will not attempt a crossing.
“It’s a common sense thing, and a lot of insurance companies won’t cover vessels who transit during hurricane season.”
It can take a yacht on average two weeks to sail from Bermuda to the Azores.
In the event of a hurricane, the Bermuda Maritime Operations Centre is manned by two staff members, 24-hours a day.
“If there is a hurricane system approaching Bermuda there will be two people on watch — one person on the radio and one assisting in the background, mainly with telephone calls and disseminating other information,” said Mr Rowe.
All eight staff at the BMOC have maritime experience, having worked onboard ships as radio officers, electro-technical officers, deck officers, or with Coast Guard or military experience.
The Government also runs a trainee programme. One Bermudian trainee is currently studying at the Warsash Maritime Academy in the UK.
Once he completes his three-year training programme he will become a Controller at the BMOC.
The BMOC is also responsible for Marine Rescue Coordination on a day-to-day basis.
Bermuda comes under the search and rescue area for RCC (Rescue Coordination Centre) Norfolk in Virginia, US, with RCC Bermuda liaising with staff there on a daily basis.
BMOC duty officers handle any incidents on the water, ranging from engine breakdowns to life-threatening emergencies hundreds of miles out to sea.
On average RCC Bermuda deals with up to 600 incidents a year.
They also liaise with the Marine Police in enforcing the law and handling accidents involving snorkellers, swimmers and divers.
“Any type of incident on the water, we’re involved in it,” said Mr Rowe.
“This is a fantastic facility. The Government has put a lot of money into it and we get very positive feedback about the station. It runs to a very high standard.
“RCC Bermuda is not only responsible for local Search and Rescue but has a responsibility to all Bermuda-registered ships and aircraft worldwide.
“Once a beacon is activated onboard then this alert comes to RCC Bermuda.
“We are responsible for determining if an emergency exists onboard, and how best to assist the distressed ship or aircraft and search and Rescue authorities overseas.
“We then contact the aircraft or vessel to confirm whether it is a genuine distress signal and that the local Search and Rescue authorities are dealing with the incident.”
A recent example of this was the Russian air disaster on April 2 when an ATR-72 operated by UTair crashed in Siberia, killing 31 people.
As for hurricane incidents, the last major one was in 2003 when four people died during Fabian.
Mr Rowe said: “We also have other incidents, such as when people refuse to come ashore and try to ride out the storm on their boats.”
Some boat owners are also too eager to get out to check on their vessels for damage.
Mr Rowe said: “People go out when there’s a lull as they are anxious about their boats, but the most important thing for us is public safety.
“During a storm, you should never go out if there’s a lull, thinking it is all over. It could just be the eye of the storm, so you should wait until the storm has completely passed the island.
“If a system is coming, mariners must decide a few days beforehand how best to secure their vessel. This may involve taking it out of the water. It is at their discretion.
“Mariners should ensure their moorings are in good condition, and there is enough chain for the swing on the mooring. The length will vary according to where the mooring is and type of the boat.
“But it’s most important the chains are fine and everything is battened down.
“Post-storm, you should check your boat. We receive a lot of calls about boats adrift or run aground, so we contact the owners and help to implement a plan for recovery.”
The BMOC is part of the Department of Marine and Ports Services.
After a storm it assists in ensuring that all the shipping channels are clear and that buoys have remained in-place.
During any marine incident, it is also the responsibility of boat owners to come to the aid of a fellow mariner in distress.
BMOC staff stressed that vessel owners must ensure they listen to VHF Channel 16 once out on the water, with the radio set to an audible level.
“Once mariners are out on the water they should always monitor Channel 16 with the volume turned up,” said Mr Rowe.
“This will allow you to immediately call for assistance, while other vessels in the vicinity will also be aware of your plight.
“Bermuda Radio can pinpoint your position using ‘Direction Finding’ equipment.
“The last thing we want is for a boat to be half-a-mile away in distress and for another boat not to be able to respond because their radio is switched off.”
Steven Pegg, senior maritime operations controller, added: “A lot of people think having a cellphone is enough to call for help, but they forget that you may be able to receive a call but you will be unable to put the call out for others to assist.
“As part of the marine community you need to have your VHF radio switched on and able to listen to others around you.”
For more information on the Bermuda Maritime Operations Centre see www.marops.bm. Contact 297-1010. For more on the EMO, storm Causeway closures and other developments go to www.emobermuda.com or tune into 100.1 FM. For the latest weather go to www.weather.bm