Monthly Archives: February 2010


Uncle Ugly reports in from Maine – bad GPS data sinks ships.

People were quick to ridicule the Portland Fire Department after the city’s new $3.2 million fireboat ran aground Nov. 7 in the passage between Cushing and Peaks islands. The grounding caused $90,000 in damage, and sarcastic mariners said it was unlikely that the fireboat had hit a ledge that had gone unnoticed in Casco Bay for the past 300 years.

Some, however, were less quick to judge.Phineas Sprague, owner of Portland Yacht Services, has spent his life on the water off Maine’s coast, particularly in Portland Harbor. He was so shocked when his sailboat hit bottom in Whitehead Passage in 2007 that he hired a diver to investigate.

“I’ve been going through that all my life, and it’s like my home harbor had jumped up and bit me,” he said, recalling the incident and the embarrassment.The diver found a sharp spine of ledge that protruded from the shore of Cushing Island beyond any marker, then dropped off suddenly.

“The diver told me there was red paint all over it, bottom paint from different boats,” Sprague said.

On Nov. 7, Portland firefighters were trying to rescue an elderly man who had fallen into frigid water off Jewell Island and then made it to shore.The Coast Guard had already grounded one of its rescue boats during the astronomically low tide, and firefighters had intentionally grounded a skiff on the island’s shore.The fireboat crew faced a challenging technical rescue that required more personnel to get the man from the rocky shore to the boat, so firefighter-paramedic Richard Wurfel, a licensed captain, headed back to Portland for more firefighters.

Maneuvering the two-month-old boat by instruments in the dark, Wurfel entered the passage just north of the fixed green daymark that denotes the southern side of the channel. He was in a hurry. The boat hit hard.Chunks were taken out of the propellers, supports broke, and a softball-sized hole was punched in the hull. Skeptical sailors assumed that the grounding had occurred outside the channel, and scoffed at the assertion that the fireboat was inside the marked waterway.

But Roger Long, a naval architect and harbor master for Cape Elizabeth, wrote an article for Points East sailing magazine revealing how the phantom ledge is not so far-fetched after all, and is in fact noted on some charts.“I’ve been all over the coast of Maine, and that’s one of the biggest discrepancies I’ve seen,” Long said. Long has seen the rock around the green marker at low tide, but never thought to compare its location with the chart.“I always thought electronic charts and paper charts were exactly the same,” he said. He learned they’re not.

As it turns out, the information loaded into Global Positioning System navigation aids isn’t necessarily the most recent, detailed information available, he said. All but the most up-to-date electronic charts show a 29-foot drop-off at the site of the marker, rather than the ledge extending into the channel just 5 feet below the surface at low tide.Long said it’s not unreasonable to think that the protrusion of ledge would get little notice.

Whitehead Passage is used by far fewer large boats than the main channel into Portland, and the fireboat would rarely pass through it. But on Nov. 7, the passage was the quickest way for the fireboat to get back to the city’s waterfront from uninhabited Jewell Island. Long said that while he doesn’t know specifics about the fireboat grounding, the presence of unmarked ledge doesn’t fully excuse the pilot.

“Going through (a) channel that fast at night … he was on the wrong side of the channel. As a sailor, I’d say you screwed up,” Long said. “You’re not supposed to be following the little cursor around the GPS like a video game.

”Sprague said that when his boat hit the ledge, he was paying attention to his surroundings and was perhaps 4 to 5 feet inside his usual course through the passage.“I don’t think I was being sloppy by the chart, but it didn’t occur to me the harbor that was the center of the North Atlantic fleet in World War II wouldn’t have the correct markings,” he said.“We tend to blindly believe all of the stuff we’ve got in front of us and trust other people that, when they made the charts, they didn’t make an error,” he said.

Sprague alerted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about the discrepancy in 2007. The marker was moved, though only slightly, and the latest charts more accurately describe the bottom there, he said.The Coast Guard checked the navigational markers after the fireboat’s accident and determined they were all in the correct locations.Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne said he plans to meet with the Coast Guard to discuss improvements to the markers in that area.“Individuals navigating inside a channel have a reasonable expectation that it will be hazard-free,” he said.


Filed under Uncategorized

Where all the children are above average

In the D.C. area they’ve tossed out IQ tests so up to 72% of all children are “gifted and talented”. Going on IQ, I could have been considered gifted and talented, yet never amounted to much, so I’m not saying that these tests are the beginning and end of child evaluations but a 72% ratio would seem to dilute the brand remarkably.


Filed under Uncategorized

I don’t see that they have anything to be defensive about

Oceanographers defend their tsunami warning.

Scientists use an earthquake’s magnitude and location as the basis for their predictions and then refine it constantly with data from more than 30 deep-water sensors stationed across the Pacific as the shock wavesweeps across the ocean floor.

The sensors, located at 15,000 to 20,000 feet beneath the surface, measure the weight of the water and beam it to buoys floating on the surface. Scientists then use the data to pinpoint where the surge is and when it will make landfall.

Coastal inundation models based on topographic mapping add another layer of analysis, helping scientists make assumptions about how the surge will behave in shallower waters and how it might affect shoreline communities.

“There are all sorts of assumptions that we make in trying to figure out how big the waves are going to be. If we can avoid some of those assumptions, maybe we can do a better job,” said Fryer.

“If this event happened tomorrow, even with this knowledge, we would be forced to do the exact same thing.”

Those models could be more accurate if scientists had more deep-water sensors and could build coastal inundation models for vast parts of the Pacific Rim where the topography hasn’t yet been well-surveyed, Wang said.

Because complete data doesn’t exist for every coastal area, scientists must play it safe in their wave predictions, he said.

“Even for Hawaii, we only have a forecast for less than 10 locations, we don’t have inundation models for every coastal point in Hawaii and it’s the same story for the U.S. mainland,” Wang said. “We’ve got to be a little conservative. One point doesn’t tell you that’s going to be the maximum everywhere else.”

In areas were inundation models exist, scientists’ predictions were close to accurate, Wang said.

Residents and tourists alike in Hawaii said they weren’t bothered by the evacuation and supported the scientists’ actions—even though the waves never showed up.

Eugene Okamoto, 33, said he came to Honolulu from Hilo to visit some tourist attractions with his father and was disappointed the two had to cancel their plans because of the evacuation orders.

But Okamoto said his family understands the tsunami threat better than most because some of his relatives lived through the tidal surge in 1960. They remember how the water was sucked down the beach moments before the wave hit.

“My uncle was on the top floor when all the water washed away and all the kids ran out to grab the fish and before they could get back, the wave came. He was way up top, he saw all his friends get washed away and none of them were found, ever,” Okamoto said, as he sat with his father in a hotel lobby. “They did the right thing.”

I’m with Mr. Okamoto.


Filed under Uncategorized

USA vs. Canada

Where are you?

Should be a good game but  for sheer poignancy,will anything ever top USA goalie Jim Craig, after the win against the USSR in 1980, carrying our flag and searching the stands for his father? Not in my lifetime. A bunch of college kids defeating professional, older, better (?)  Soviet players? An amazing day.

Hard to work up much of a dislike for a band of Canadians, for crimminy’s sake, eh?

BUMMER: 2nd period, Canada 2, US 0. No miracle on ice this year, looks like.


Filed under Uncategorized

Hey, it could have been worse

My neighbors had a Toyota end up in their yard yesterday – this lady had a bull in her parlor. Everyone got away, in the end.


Filed under Uncategorized

The law professor masquerading as our President doesn’t understand car insurance

Hmm. I wonder if there’s anything else that’s eluded his wisdom too?


Filed under Uncategorized

Walk away from your mortgage?

If you’re deeply underwater, this WSJ columnist says you’d be a chump not to.

How widespread is this? More than 11 million families are in “negative equity”—that is, they owe more on their home than it is worth—according to a report out this week by FirstAmerican Core Logic, a real-estate data firm. That’s a quarter of all families with mortgages. And for more than five million of those borrowers, the crisis is extreme: They are more than 25% underwater—the equivalent of having a $100,000 loan on a property now worth just $75,000 or less. That’s true for a fifth of mortgage holders in California, nearly a third in Florida and an incredible 50% in Nevada.

Are you in this situation? Are you still battling to pay the bills each month, even when it may make little financial sense to do so?

It’s time for some tough talk.

Stop trying to chase your lost equity. That money is gone. Don’t think like the gambler who blows more and more cash trying to win back his losses. That’s how a lot of people turn a small loss into a big one.

And do the math. Even if you hope the real estate market is near the bottom—it’s possible, but by no means certain—it may still take years to see any meaningful recovery. If you are 25% underwater, your home will have to rise by 33% just to get you back to even.

Is that likely? And over what time period? Even if home prices rose by 5% a year from here, that would still take six years. And during that time you could instead be building fresh savings elsewhere.

If you are reluctant to give up on “your” home, realize that it isn’t “yours.” If you are in negative equity, it’s the bank’s home. You’re just renting it. And right now you may be paying way above market rates. You need to be ruthless about your cash flow.

Are you worried about the legal consequences of walking away? Certainly, you should check with a lawyer before doing anything, but the consequences will probably be more limited than you think.

In “non-recourse” states, the mortgage lender may have no right to come after you for any shortfall. They may have no option but to take the home, sell it and eat the loss. According to a survey last year by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, such states include negative-equity hot spots California and Arizona. Even in “recourse” states, lenders may have limited ability to come after you. Often they’d have to jump a lot of legal hurdles, and it’s just not worth it for them. They’re swamped with cases anyway.

“In my experience, right now they’re not really going after anyone,” says Richard Nemeth, a bankruptcy attorney in Cleveland. “They just don’t have the resources.”

If you’ve taken smart steps to protect your money, you may be safer still. For example, money held in a 401(k), Individual Retirement Account or pension plan is sheltered from creditors.


Filed under Uncategorized