Francis Meyrick

Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual Ch.1-D “Radio buoys, Bird Radar, Dirty tricks and Sculduggery “

Posted on July 11, 2009

Chapter 1-D Radio buoys, Bird radar, Dirty tricks and Sculduggery

1) Radio Buoys

I have already mentioned radio buoys a few times. It is a common tool in the tuna industry.
What you have got is basically a long aerial, maybe twelve to fifteen feet high. At the base is a round, circular body, with a diameter of perhaps twenty inches or so. This serves both for buoyancy and as a storage compartment for the electronic components, including the batteries. There is also an ‘off’ and ‘on’ switch, set on this body..
The ship’s name will be boldly painted on top of the body. It is usually clearly legible to a hovering helicopter.

A boat that has a helicopter will usually also have a slightly shorter set of radio bouys, specifically designed for the helicopter. Even so, frequently at ten or eleven feet long, they pose an extreme hazard to safe rotorcraft operations, as will be explained later.

The radio buoy will be attached to a log, or any other floating object, such as as a barrel, a raft, or even a dead whale.
This can be done by two delivery methods. The first is directly from the ship. The ship will arrive alongside, and crew members will attach the radio buoy to the target. The second method is from the helicopter, which descends down, goes into a hover, and attaches the radio buoy.

A signal is then transmitted, which enables the ship to keep track of the log or other object. In particular, it enables the ship to search elsewhere, roaming around elsewhere. Then, first thing in the morning, just before dawn, having returned to the log (by homing in on the radio buoy), the ship can ‘make a set on the log’. Meaning, they will first ascertain by means of the fish finder that there are indeed fish present. Once that is established, the ship will -very quietly- drop the nets, and steam around in the usual circle. The radio buoy on the log, along with side scanner radar, and an attached light, serves, even in semi darkness, to permit the captain to keep the log smack in the center of the set.

For the helicopter pilot, it can be a device with which he becomes TOO familiar. Too quickly…
There are several really horrible, and potentially fatal ‘go-wrong scenarios’. More later…

Ships will quite often literally steal each other’s radio buoys. It gets nasty. The Taiwanese seemed to get on quite well with the Japanese fishing boats. (It was the Japanese who originally taught the Taiwanese how to fish with purse seiners.)
But although our captain had some good Korean friends (he would call them and give them coded directions to rich fishing, and they would reciprocate and do the same for him), he seemed to hate the other Korean ships. He would pinch their radio buoys, and they would pinch his… More time and effort was wasted with this nonsense.
If our ship had found some good logs, and put radio buoys on them, our captain would stand guard on the bridge like a demented Dobermann. Especially when there were other ships about! If and when the signal would suddenly go dead (somebody had retrieved our buoy and switched it off) he would have a fit. More than once I was dispatched in a hurry in the helicopter to investigate. Or he would simply post me as an orbiting guard, to show the Korean vessel that we had a helicopter, and that we were watching! I also worked on a Korean ship, and it was the exact same performance.
A pilot needs to be careful that he does not get drawn in too deep into this pointless vendetta.
More on this later…

2) Bird Radar

As the name implies, ‘Bird Radar’ is designed to specifically trace flocks of birds within a specified range.
They show up on the bridge radar screen as tiny ‘angels’ that persist in a particular area. Oftentime a captain will send the helicopter over to have a look. You may wonder at the interest in birds, when it’s fish we’re after…
Like the ‘dead tree floating in the water’, a flock of birds also draws the attention of tuna fishermen, not because of any great ornithological interest, but purely for the reason that “where there’s lots of birds, there’s often lots of fish “. Few birds that I know will go for a tuna. That would have to be one heck of a bird. It’s more the smaller baitfish that attract the birds. But since the tuna also go for the baitfish, plenty of birds means a good chance of tuna.

It’s worth becoming familiar with the bird radar on the bridge. It’s quite interesting when you learn to recognize flocks of birds. Prior to take off it’s easy to work out range and bearing, and it’s satisfying to navigate straight to your target. Your observer will be pleased too! If you do go wrong, the captain – if he’s on the ball- will usually come on the radio and give you a heading to steer.
If you have never used bird radar before, it’s handy to know there is usually a ‘range ring’. This is merely a circle on the radar screen, which is controlled by a knob. Twisting the knob means the ring slides in or out, and somewhere, often in the top right hand corner, a display in nautical miles will give you range to target when your ‘range ring’ covers the ‘angels’/
After that, it’s just a matter of looking to the top of the screen, twelve o’clock, and working out your clock angle to fly to get to your target.
Let’s say you reckon ten o’clock looks about right. Transfer that ten o’clock over to the display near or on top of the helm. That gives you a rough bearing. Finish. Don’t forget it is only ‘rough’ because the ship will be moving along while you are getting the chopper ready for take off.
The same radar machine will also give you an idea of the density of the water droplets in surrounding cloud masses. You can save yourself a thrill by delaying or canceling a departure, when there’s nasty stuff out of visual range coming your way. A squall line especially is a nasty thing for a helicopter, and they sometimes show up really well on radar.

The only problem I found is that the different settings often produce better or worse results. When the labels are in Chinese, or Korean, that can be quite a headache! You find yourself staring at a screen that looks all nice and clear, and then the captain reaches over, presses a button, and, –uh-oh!- now you can see all the nasty stuff bearing down on you!
I got myself into a fine pickle of a mess one day, and that story I have described in “Blip on the Radar – Part 2 “.

Flying along, you will develop your own ‘mental bird radar’.
Somehow you know when to ignore birds, and when to study them closely.
If they are flying along steadily, more or less in loose formation, then the chances are that they are doing the same as you: hunting. If, on the other hand, they are wheeling around, swooping down and up, and moving erratically and excitedly, the question is: why?
Often then you will get closer and start seeing maybe a log, with baitfish around it, and now your pulse quickens and the eyes really get to work!

Now that we have talked about logs, baitfish and birds, it’s a good time to introduce a real easy system for simplifying ship-to-chopper communications. How do you describe to the captain what you are looking at? Are you going to say: “Well, uh, I think it’s a pretty good log, it’s got some birds, and, uh, I can’t see tuna but I can see baitfish, and, uh, it’s about five meters long….. “?
A much simpler way is the ‘one to five system’.

No.1 Log: tuna (foamer or breezer) and birds and baitfish
No.2 Log: tuna (foamer or breezer) and baitfish, but no birds
No.3 Log: no tuna, but you can see birds and baitfish
No.4 Log: no tuna, no birds, baitfish
No.5 Log: no tuna, no birds, little or no baitfish

The call above then simply becomes: “No.3 Log, five meters. “
If your observer does not want to use this system, it is still worth your while studying it. It will give you an idea of what the relative merits of a particular log are. Obviously, the value of a log decreases rapidly from Log No.1 down to Log No.5…
You may wonder why anybody would be interested in a ‘No.5 Log’. Sometimes a ship will go and pick one up. Physically. Reel it in with a crane. Then later, if they find a No.1 or a No.2 Log that is rather small, then they will ‘add’ a No.5 log to it (roped together) in the hope that this will attract more baitfish, and therefore, tuna.
It does seem to work sometimes, especially on a ‘double-dipper’. This is where the ship will make a set on a log, but decide to go for a second hit a few days later. They will leave a radio buoy on the two roped together logs, and sail off.
Why would a ship ‘double dip’? Usually because after the first set a nice foamer or breezer has appeared just outside the set, leading the captain to believe he missed part of the fish the first time. You will often see, say, thirty tons the first dip, and fifteen tons the second dip. However, I’ve also seen 150 tons day 1 and 150 tons day 2! That is rare though.
On a handful of occasions, we had so many fish in the net, over 300 tons, that the captain was concerned about his net being damaged. He then deliberately let half the fish out! Next morning, he set again, and caught them anyway.
That takes a cool customer, and against that, I have also seen over excited captains trying to reel the whole thing in, having their nets rip, and losing the whole lot! An exasperated Taiwanese sailor swearing in Chinese over the radio sounds really impressive. You can easily tell they are very, very upset.
Sometimes you have to work hard at keeping your face straight, as you watch the beautiful tuna hop-skipping away towards the sunset, courtesy of a greedy captain’s ripped nets…. I often wondered whose side I was on!

3) Dirty tricks and sculduggery

Remember I talked about the radio buoys above? And captains pinching them?
One variant on this plays out this way: of course nobody will EVER admit to it….
Say a boat sees somebody else’s buoy, attached to a really good log, with a lot of tuna. That radio buoy in theory is like an ownership stake. It’s like “planting your flag ” to claim possession. But it doesn’t always get respected.
If the ‘owner ship’ is going to return to set the next morning, they will be back no later than midnight. I have seen it whereby, if the ‘owner ship’ was not nearby, that a ‘rogue captain’ would very, very quietly, sneak up to the log. They would be quiet and slow, so as not to scare the fish away. Then comes the next dirty trick…
First, they would sneak up, very, very quietly.
Next, they would gently lower ANOTHER log down. Perhaps a Number 5 log they picked up a few days earlier.
Next, after an hour or two, (giving the baitfish a chance to adopt the new log), they would gently raise the ORIGINAL log (plus owner radio buoy) out of the water.
Next, they attach their own radio buoy to their own ‘substitute’ No.5 log….
And finally, they would hide the other ship’s -original- log and radio buoy under a tarpaulin.
Needless to say, the next morning, there would be a boat going round and round trying to find their missing log and radio buoy, and maybe a helicopter searching as well. As the chances are the pilot will be a buddy of yours, you all know the game, and you all play along. Crazy stuff. Pilots need to be really careful not to get drawn in too deep. Shots have been fired at helicopters, and aerial duels have also been fought out. Angry helicopter crew have dropped objects on other purse seiners, and crew have chucked objects at helicopters hovering overhead.
I have point blank refused to fly over and allow one angry observer to drop five gallons of green paint on a Korean ship.
I wasn’t getting into that. That’s childish. It’s not worth it…

Finally, you should watch when the bird radar is cluttered with really bad weather. Now imagine yourself stuck out there in the helicopter, trying to find your way back without penetrating any ‘cunims’. (Cumulonimbus -remember?)
Now reflect for a second what major assistance a clued up captain could give you by using the radar screen! I’ve had a captain do just that..

If you fancy a good giggle, you’ll get a laugh out of the expressions on some of the larger sea birds as the ship approaches to tie up to a log! Especially towards late evening. Some of them look really ticked off!
They are often MOST reluctant to shift, and do so at the last second after throwing looks of pure poison up at the ship!
You can hear their thoughts:

“Huh! There I was, all ready to bed down for the night, and here comes this bloody big THING. This is MY log. I’ve been sitting here for HOURS, so why don’t you lot BUZZ OFF and go and find your own log!! “

Francis Meyrick


Note 1: Aeroscuttle’s say!

Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual Ch.1-D “Radio buoys, Bird Radar, Dirty tricks and Sculduggery

The pool of tuna spotter pilots breaks out into roughly thirds.
A third are lifers.
They have fulfilled at least 5 one year contracts, and plan to tuna spot until they retire.
I met an ex Phillipino police officer who was 70 who fit into this category.
This third has for all intents and purposes topped out in their salaried compensation scale.
Then there is another third who have finished anywhere from 1 to 4 one year contracts and are building hours for a more attractive helicopter flying job.

Then there are the rookies, like I was when I was reading Moggy’s mentionables.
The rookies are almost literally thrown to the wolves.
They are low time pilots who know nothing about the industry.
They get little to no formal or even informal training before they are sent to meet up with their ship.
Their first everything starts the day they first fly off their ship.
If they are lucky they will have a good mechanic who will give them some times that will come in handy.
Otherwise they have to figure it all out by themselves.
And there is pressure.
A Captain or a Fishmaster will not hesitate to fire a tuna spotter pilot and make the spotter pilot company come up with one more to their liking.
So it’s “straighten up and fly right ” as they may say.
And your idea of “right ” better closely align with what the Captain or Fishmaster wants.
That is where the musings and advice of a grizzled veteran like Moggy comes in.
If you took the time to read his screeds before you had gotten yourself into another fine mess, there would be little to no surprises.
The surprises you might have would be very manageable and or tolerable.
But if you didn’t, you were in for a culture shock that many times caused a new pilot to quit.
There is probably a 50% new pilot attrition rate if you count to finishing a 1 year contract.
You may quit.
You may get fired by your Captain/Fishmaster.
You may get fired by your spotter company especially if you broke something more valuable than you(which is most anything).
You may crash and be injured.
You may get sick, and be unable to continue.
You may crash and not survive.
You may disappear into a crowd in a port and not return.
You may fall overboard and never be heard from again.
Which reminds me. If you do fall overboard it’s all but certain you will never be heard from again.

That brings me to what I learned from Chapter 1-D in the Moggy Tuna Manual that saved my grits or saved my gravy.
By the time I made it out to the tuna fishing grounds, radio buoys were nearly obsolete.
We still had a full inventory of them, but the solar powered GPS buoys had all but replace them.
But If I did have to carry and deploy a radio buoy, I would have been safely ready thanks to Moggy.
I’m just glad I didn’t. We didn’t even as much as load one much less use one.

Now the bird radar was a whole nother thing.
That was still all the rage.
Almost every flight was a dedicated bird radar flight, or included a visual reconnaissance of birds spotted on the ship’s radar.
I really worried about bird strikes reading Moggy’s manual, but those preconceptions turned out to be unfounded.
As long as you didn’t counterflow the swirls the assorted fish chasing birds made, you were some level of invulnerable.
I found that the birds were much more interested in baitfish than tuna.
So if the tuna were forming a breezer, I almost never saw birds attracted to them. That is unless there were baitfish nearby.

As for the skulduggery. There was still plenty of that. There didn’t seem to be any rules except, the last ship to attach their buoy…owned the log.
Any other ships who previously had a buoy attached may or may not ever see theirs again.
I remember a day I had to launch 3 additional times to protect a log where other ships were trolling around.


Last edited by Francis Meyrick on August 8, 2015, 9:27 am

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