Marine Traffic & the OGA, 2013

Julian Cable explains how we tracked all the boats during the OGA Round Britain Challenge with help from Marine Traffic in order to create this ‘travelogue’ of their passage linked with ‘historic tales of sail’.

When the OGA were planning their celebrations for the Golden Jubilee in 2013 the activities receiving most support were a circumnavigation of Britain and a big party. Many would say that this was a fitting choice for an organisation whose members pride themselves on sailing hard and partying equally.

We also wanted to provide ways for the majority of members to feel involved, although only a few would have the time to participate in the sailing. We had at least three ideas for this, and they all involved the Internet. We may love old boats and traditional rigs, but many of our members are also dedicated netizens.

Many of the participating boats would blog on the way. One of our members created ‘Sailing By’ a dedicated and professionally curated website that would feature maritime history as well as summarising the exploits of our circumnavigators as they went. Then we wanted something more real-time to let us know where the boats were.

After some false starts we found a smartphone based tracking mechanism which could track the boats when in range of the mobile phone. However, our members are as individual as our boats. Whilst several were both capable and eager to use the mobile phone app., some were less technology focussed, whilst others had their own ideas.

‘Bonita’, the oldest boat on the circumnavigation, decided to carry the MarineTraffic app. rather than the one we provided. ‘Annabel J’ had an AIS transmitter and could be found on MarineTraffic without any effort on the part of the skipper or crew. It was clear that if we wanted to track all the boats, we would need to support a mixed economy of multiple mobile phone apps, AIS and word of mouth. This was when I got involved. Since Bonita would only be visible on MarineTraffic, I considered the idea of trying to get all the boats onto that platform.

Demitris Memos at MarineTraffic was incredibly helpful and kindly offered a dedicated raw data feed of the boats defined in the OGA ‘fleet’ for the duration of the circumnavigation. He also offered technical support and to keep us informed of any site outages.

MarineTraffic had nearly all the tools I needed. The website would let me add boat details and pictures and the map could be filtered to show just our fleet. I could add boats that don’t have an MSSI and there was an API to report a boat’s position. Despite this, I decided to build our own map to integrate the raw data from the different sources onto it. Why? Mostly, because I wanted to.

The decision did come with some advantages. The page could be clean and simple, without advertisements and easy for our less technical members to use. I could change things around as I had new ideas, or wanted to change the emphasis of what was presented. Perhaps most importantly, I had control over the look of the map, and of the icons representing the boats. This made it easy to have different colours for different classes of boat, and to have icons with pictures of gaff rigged boats!

There was only one short period where Demitris warned of problems with the data feed. Other than that it worked flawlessly and MarineTraffic were a delightful company to work with. All through the summer of 2013, the map showed the progress of the OGA Round Britain circumnavigation. The automatically tracked boats moved around the map with no intervention but the others needed manual curation. Several skippers would text or email on a regular basis, letting me know where they were and which other boats they had seen.

Early versions of the system required manually typing in the longitude and latitude. I had to do this using the administrator log-in to the site. Then it was time for me to join in the sailing. I couldn’t be there all the time to keep the boats up-to-date so I added a map editor log-in and a ‘drag-and-drop’ feature. Now our map administrators could keep the map up-to-date by just dragging the icons to the appropriate port. Sometimes, even automatically tracked boats needed manual ‘tweaking’ when out of range of an Internet connected AIS receiver, or when the skipper would go home for the weekend with his smartphone app. still reporting!

In August 2013, the circumnavigating boats were joined by boats converging on Cowes for the final large party. There were so many boats that I had to add a feature which would spread them out and I added icon colours to show which boats were circumnavigating boats and which, like my own ‘Robinetta’, were just heading for the final party. When we got to Cowes it made a fine sight!

Boat tracking by MapQuest, 225 boats in Cowes. OpenStreetMap, MarineTraffic

Throughout the summer, members of the association would let us know that they were following the boats on the map and how much they enjoyed feeling a part of the whole thing. I think we achieved our aims.

Many thanks to MarineTraffic for the excellent service they provided.
The various software technologies used are documented here.

Julian Cable, East Coast OGA