What keeps ships afloat – luck?

Thomas Erlund
Thomas Erlund

Marine traffic control in Finland is meticulous work, conducted by professionals. Approximately 100 ships visit Finland daily, every day of the year. The combined cargo of these vessels equals 7,000 train wagons, or 11,200 full-trailer truckloads of goods per day. Roughly half of our commercial marine traffic sails to the ports of the Gulf of Bothnia, while the other half uses the ports in the Gulf of Finland. Amongst the countries of the Baltic Sea, Finland is the one most dependent of marine transport: 90% of our exports and approximately 70% of our imports are transported by the sea.

Marine traffic is monitored by marine traffic centres

As a marine area, the Gulf of Finland is one of the world’s busiest and most difficult to navigate. 40,000 vessels sail the Gulf of Finland alone each year, and roughly 6,500 of them are oil tankers. Both sea transportation volumes and vessel sizes are forecast to continue to grow in the coming years. Forecasting marine traffic control and the prevention of accidents are key concerns for both environmental protection and the smooth running of marine traffic. What this essentially means is that marine traffic and situational developments are addressed already before close call situations develop or risks arise.

Marine traffic is monitored at marine traffic centres, of which there are currently five in Finland. They provide vessel traffic services. The centres are located in Lappeenranta, Helsinki, Nauvo, Pori and Vaasa. All marine traffic centres operate around the clock. The purpose of marine traffic control is to increase the safety of vessel traffic, improve its efficiency, and prevent environmental damage caused by vessel traffic. The abbreviation VTS – in Finnish, alusliikennepalvelu – is used for marine vessel traffic services.

Helsinki Traffic is part of GOFREP, the mandatory Gulf of Finland reporting system, which is used by all vessels exceeding 300 net tonnes. The GOFREP system of the Gulf of Finland is monitored in cooperation with Estonia and Russia, based on a trilateral agreement.

Marine traffic centres provide navigation assistance and intervene when risks arise

Vessel traffic management is based on situational awareness comprised of sensor data. The sensors include radars, AIS (automatic ship identification system), camera and marine VHF (also known as VHF talk radio). In Finland, marine traffic management has approximately 100 radars at its disposal: they are located along the coast, and cover all commercial marine routes. There are roughly 25 AIS base stations, which receive vessel identification data. The vessels’ AIS identification data is internationally agreed, including, for example, the measurements of a ship, its speed, direction, current location, destination, and time of arrival at its destination.

Assisted by the sensor network, vessel traffic is managed through the provision of various services, which cover information, traffic management, and navigation. Basic services include notifications which always contain information on other vessels in the VTS area, weather, ice conditions, water levels, pilot and ice breaker operations, conditions and usability of sea lanes and safety equipment, any risks that might be facing the vessel, and other matters that have a bearing on safe vessel traffic.

All ships of 24 metres or more in length must use Vessel Traffic Services. Traffic management services provided by the marine traffic centres are used in Helsinki, for example, where large cruise ships sail to in the summer time. The marine traffic centre manages traffic in the order the vessels come to the pilot boarding area. At the same time, cargo ships are often sailing towards Vuosaari, and ships sail to and from the line destinations of Stockholm and Tallinn. Traffic must be managed together with other seafarers, as the area can have a dozen ships moving in various directions at the same time. This is why it is extremely important that marine traffic centres have up-to-date situational awareness and the ability to forecast situations.

Navigation assistance is needed fairly rarely. This is good, as it can be quite difficult to give guidance to vessels from on land, as the ships all have different characteristics and are impacted differently by changing weather conditions. Navigation assistance can be needed by a vessel with technical problems, for example, that cannot use its own navigation equipment. In such circumstances, the marine traffic centre can issue instructions that help the ship sail back to the harbour or to a calm place where it can anchor until the problems are fixed.

In 2011, marine traffic management needed to intervene with vessel traffic approximately 5,000 times. Each dangerous situation and event that could have led to a dangerous situation where marine traffic management intervened is documented in a report. In 2011, 354 such reports were drawn up. In 22 cases we could prevent a ship from touching ground, which is one of our greatest achievements.

Marine traffic management is an integral part of safe seafaring, logistic chains, and environmental protection

Even though it can be said that Finland is a forerunner in marine traffic management, it is also an internationally recognised fact that marine traffic management is essential to the logistics chain of transportation. It also promotes safe and efficient seafaring. Neither can we underestimate what has been achieved through the prevention of environmental accidents. Our work has been acknowledged by the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation, which, in 2011, granted its environmental award to the Finnish Transport Agency’s Gulf of Finland marine traffic centre.

As we develop our operations, we also participate in a joint project together with the John Nurminen Foundation and other marine stakeholders. The ENSI service (Enhanced Navigation Support Information) created in the project complements vessel traffic management systems by making vessel route plans accessible to VTS operators. Correspondingly, vessels get the navigation information they need from the service for the routes they have submitted. The ENSI service aims at reducing the risk of oil accidents significantly, and improving the safety of marine traffic.


Thomas Erlund
Sea Captain, Head of Vessel Traffic Service
Finnish Transport Agency
(This blog is an abbreviated version of the Centrum Balticum Pulloposti (Message in a bottle) weekly column, published 23 November 2012.)


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