Equipment that you might need to watch ships

This is a collection of things that I've picked up over the years, some of it may be accurate and it all works for me or I wouldn't mention it here. BUT, there's no guarantee that this information is 100% correct. Some of the camera and binocular information, for instance, is based on things that I was shown maybe 40 years ago, so this page is for information only and you need to do your own research. I accept no responsibility if you use any of this information and something goes wrong or it ends up costing you money that you didn't expect to pay out!.

Binoculars and Telescopes

Tripod / Monopod

Cameras

Radio Scanner

Home Made Aerial

Radio Frequencies

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Binoculars and Telescopes

Binoculars and Telescopes have two or three figures quoted as a method for comparing them with similar sized products. The first figure is the magnification factor and can be shown and a pair, for instance 10 - 20, and this means that it's a zoom lens 10x minimum and 20 x maximum. The second figure is that diameter of the object lens in millimetres, this is the larger lens furthest away from the eye lens. The wider the object lens the more light it lets in, obvious really, but this is important as if there's limited light then the binoculars or telescope won't work on higher magnifications.

You see something that's referred to as 'bounce'. Imagine trying to hold a very long telescope in two hands and looking at something a long way off. it's difficult to hold the telescope steady and at best it jiggles around slightly. With an object lens of 50mm to can use a 10x magnification and not see any bounce, but try that same lens with 20x magnification and it's unusable. There are some standard combinations for binoculars such as 10 x 50... ten times magnification and 50mm object lens. You can also find 8 x 40 is useful while 8 x 30 is starting to run into problems. <>

Telescopes generally have bigger magnifications but they also generally need to be fixed on a tripod (see below) as they're difficult to hold steady.

I have binoculars that are 12 - 60 x 70, 12x minimum, 60x maximum and 70 mm object lens (cost me around £18 off Ebay, 2nd hand). At 12x I have no problems and especially if it's a sunny day. At 60x they're unusable, too much bounce and too dark to see anything. At most I'll take them to just over 25x if I'm looking at something around the Alpha Bouy, about 14 miles away on the horizon. I do have a problem with the weight though, they're quite heavy, so I made a Monopod (see Tripods below) which is a single 'pole' around two feet long with adjustable length. This allows me to hold these binoculars steady by resting the bottom of the ploe on the wall.

I also have a telescope 10 - 60 x 100 and this is usable up to around 40x magnification and on a sunny day maybe 50x. It needs to be tripod mounted though and this adds to the weight of equipment that I have to carry. I've been given a childs trailer seat that attaches to a bicycle and I've been thinking of taking the seat off to make a box-trailer. I could then adapt the tripod 'head' to hold the telescope and my camera, on-going projects!

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Tripod and Monopod

I have an old telescope that's not much use as it only has a 40mm object lens but when it was given to me it came with an old Tripod. This had a odd U-shaped mounting that my new telescope wouldn't fit on, so I removed that and made a new 'head' that allowed horizontal and vertical movement. I also made some winged bolts, a standard bolt with a wing-nut welded on top, so I can quickly adjust the telescope and lock it in place.

If you're looking to buy a tripod then you might want to look for one that has a head mount on an extendible pole so you can bring it up closer to eye level. If you can find one that can also hold a camera or better still a telescope and a camera together then that should be very usable. or you could find something that's basically 'right' and modify it as I've done. It's not hard, it just needs a bit of thought.

A Monopod is a single pole or rod that can attach to binoculars or camera to hold it steady, especially useful if it's blowing a gale or if the equipment is too heavy to hold steady without one. I made my own out of a metal telescopic rod that came off the back (adjuster) of an old garden seat. Friends neighbours and relatives give me old metal items that I can use in my workshop or weigh in for scrap. I needed a monopod around 24 inches long as that's the height that my eyes are above the wall at High Cliff in Cleethorpes, where I usually stand. I just needed to cut this seat adjuster to length and weld a metal washer on the top end to connect to the binoculars with a wing-bolt, stick a rubber walking stick end on the bottom and it was ready for use.

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Cameras

I've had cameras since the 1960's and learnt the basics of photography. It cost a fortune then to buy film and have it developed so it was difficult to experiment too much. There are three basic settings on a camera that are inter-related...shutter speed, aperture and film speed (this is a basic over-view, you'll need to do your own research). 'Normal' film speed is 100 ASA, if it's a bit dark, possibly for indoor use you might buy 200 ASA or 400 ASA and each one of these figures can be considered a single step up or down. The shutter speed will 'almost' double from 1/30th of a second through 1/60th, 1/125th, 1/250th, 1/500th, 1/1000th and again these are single steps up or down. Aperture is set by a ring around the lens and it lets more light in at the lower figures (wider aperture), settings on a 'good' 35mm film camera lens would be f/1.8, f/2.0, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8 and f/16.

So in reasonable sunlight in the UK with maybe the off bit of cloud around, using 100 ASA film, you might set the shutter to 1/250th and the aperture to f/8 and get OK results. If you needed more speed due to the object moving then you could set the shutter to 1/500th and the aperture to f/16 to keep the balance, one steps up plus one steps down. If it gets darker due to clouds then you can drop the shutter or the aperture one stop down and let more light in. Digital cameras work in much the same way except they'll usually allow up to 1600 ASA and several seconds to 1/4000th shutter speeds. Digital cameras tend to have one drawback where the aperture on a lot of cameras has f/3.5 - f/5.6 and that's it!

You may think it doesn't make much difference but I usually find that anything above 400 ASA gets poor results, the picture is 'grainy' and you can almost see individual pixels on the higher ASA settings making them useless. One effect that you can create using the aperture is blurring the background and is especially useful with a person. Say you have someone standing there with a 'view' behind them, looking across the River Humber, for instance. You can control the 'depth of field', basically how much of the background is in focus, by changing the aperture. If you set a higher figure, f/8 or f/16 then you get more depth so the subject and the background are in focus. By turning the aperture to a lower figure, f/2 or f/3.5 then the subject will be in focus while the background is blurred making the subject stand out more. One other point that I see time after time around the beach is people taking photgraphs of their children looking down...get down on one knee to look across the beach to see some decent background rather than just 'the sand'.

Digital cameras are getting very good now but even at 12 million pixels they're well behind the number of pixels that a good film camera can capture. They make up for this by allowing multiple shots at slightly different setting for no extra cost (developing) and they do have decent zoom lenses built in. If you're choosing a new camera then concentrate of the Optical Zoom, the Digital Zoom does nothing extra and it tends to cut down on the number of pixels so the picture can quickly get 'washed out'. Digital zoom basically takes smaller and smaller middle portions of the picture and spreads them out over the original dimensions of the frame. You can get the same result from just taking Optical zoom pictures and using an editor on you computer

Speaking of picture editors, I prefer Irfanview (click the name to go there) as it's easy to use to manipulate pictures, flip them around, resize, correct colours and brightness, etc, and it's free. I used this program for all of the photographs / images on this site

Some of the photos on here were taken with my Panasonic Lumix FZ70 (16 mega pixels 60x optical zoom) as a lot of the time the ships are between 4 miles and 7 miles away. It's possible to read the ships names when they're passing Spurn Point around 5 miles away. I sold that camera when Nikon brought out their Coolpix P900 (16 mega pixels 83x optical zoom) so now I can read a ships name as it passes the Bravo Bouy around 8 miles away.

One important point to note here, like binoculars, a camera with a long zoom will cause 'bounce' so it needs to be fixed down, tripods, etc. Where I stand on Cleethorpes High Cliff there's a wall in front of me and my camera sits on that. To protect the base I took part of the sleeve off an old white work-shirt and stitched one end closed then I added a 2p in each corner and stitched them in place (as I didn't want the wind to blow the cloth over the wall if I lifted my camera up for any reason), then I stitched up the other end of the sleeve. To adjust the elevation I cut a large pencil eraser into a wedge shape and I use this under the front of the fixed part of the camera lens moving it in and out as required.

You can use a digital camera in fully automatic mode and that's fine for snapshots of people or objects close by. I found that it doesn't work too well for long distance shots as the camera tends to adjust the ASA too high to get decent pictures. I have my camera set for aperture priority and I fix the ASA at 100, but I need to keep an eye on the shutter speed and tweak the ASA up to 200 if the shutter drops below 1/250th. The reason for this is 'camera shake' which is slight movement of the camera as you press the shutter release and causes a slight blurring on the picture. You can see it in a number of my photos but in my defence a lot of it is down to wind-speed rattling me around, just look at the sea to find where that was a problem.

Mentioning weather, on long zoom shots you need a bright day but not in the summer as you get a lot of 'heat haze'. Also if there's any mist around then you get odd effects where you get a grey background even with the ship well lit by the sun. Another problem In the Humber Estuary is the position of the sun where it's around my right shoulder during the morning and only gets behind me after around 1.00pm. This doesn't affect shots across the river but quite often a big tanker at the Mono Bouy (between the forts) has the side facing me in dark shadow. I have the camera set on 'point' or 'spot' focus where the 'reading' for cameras 'auto' setting is taken from a small dot in the middle of the frame. I can point at a dark part of a ship half-press and hold the shutter release, frame up the shot and take a photo with 'dark' settings then do it again pointing at a lighter part of the ship.

This is called 'bracketing' and is a technique for getting 'something' out of a tricky shot. Along with object 'shadows / contrast' problems, to combat camera shake I usually take around 6 - 8 shots of every photograph and delete the dodgy or spare shots when I transfer the photos to my PC.

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Radio Scanner

The ships communicate with each other and Vessel Traffic Services by radio on the Marine Frequencies range (see below). VTS Humber is the company whose staff 'control' shipping movement in the River Humber from the Ouse / Trent out to the Alpha Bouy around 18 miles outside Spurn Point. There are specific navigation channels and ships need to stay within them, maintain a safe separation, and call in to VTS as they reach specific points in the river. VTS has a list of all expected shipping movements and controls which ships go where and when.

I bought a scanner off Ebay, a Uniden EZ133XLT that cost £58 new, and it covers the whole Marine and Air Frequency ranges. The Marine Frequency covers a range from 156 MHz to 161.925 MHz spread over 86 channels. My Uniden can allow a scan over all channels but also has four preset frequencies that I can switch to by pressing individual buttons. In and around the Humber Estuary ships use channels 8 to 16, so I've set my scanner to check each of these in turn (scan), and I have presets for channels 14 (general ship movements around the area) and channel 16 (distress channel).

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Aerial

The basic aerial isn't too good for any distance so I made three extension aerials using 20mm plastic tube (water pipe). The Aerial needs to be a 38.5 inches dipole meaning the cable connects the scanner to the middle of the aerial. You can't use TV co-ax, it needs to be RG58 co-ax and 50 ohms rather than 75 ohms. The first aerial that I made is full length so the pipe is around 45 inches long. I drilled a hole near the middle and fed the cable through that and out at one end. Then I cut the outer sheath off at 19.25 inches and separated the inner core from the outer braid. The inner core goes up (positive) and the braid goes down (negative) the outside of the pipe. Then I held each end straight as I taped the wires to the pipe. To complete it I fixed a BNC connector to the end of the cable. The BNC comes in three parts, you slip the 'ring' over the outer sheath, remove the outer sheath about 20mm in from the end and fold the braid back, then trim about 4mm off the inner insulation. Solder the wire to the pin, push the pin into the BNC until it clicks into place, fold the braid over the back of the BNC plug and crimp the sleeve over it to hold it in place.

I use this aerial at home around 1 km back from the sea front and it gives great reception while I'm watching on marinetraffic.com.

I made a smaller aerial for taking to the sea front, same design but half the size as I folded the wires at each end and ran them back down the pipe. It works OK but obviously receives over a slightly reduced distance. The third aerial is a similar size but instead of folding the wires back I wound each wire in a spiral around the pipe, one up, one down, with approximately one inch between each turn.

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Marine Radio Frequencies

In the River Humber channels 8 to 16 are used. You'll need to check what frequencies your own areas uses.

ChannelShip TxShip Rx
0156160.6Private and Coast Guard A
1156.05160.65
2156.1160.7
3156.15160.75
4156.2160.8
5156.25160.85
6156.3156.3Ship-to-ship, Ship-to-Air A
7156.35160.95
8156.4156.4Ship-to-ship A
9156.45156.45Frequently used by pilots A
10156.5156.5Frequently used by HM Coastguard A
11156.55156.55Port Operations
12156.6156.6Port Operations
13156.65156.65Bridge-to-Bridge Working A
14156.7156.7Port Operations
15156.75156.75On board working (limited to 1 watt) A
16156.8156.8International distress, safety and calling A
17156.85156.825On board Working A
18156.9161.5
19156.95161.55
20157161.6
21157.05161.65
22157.1161.7
23157.15161.75HM Coastguard Maritime Safety Information
24157.2161.8UKSAR G/A Winching A
25157.25161.85
26157.3161.9HM Coastguard Maritime Safety Information
27157.35161.95
28157.4162
60156.025160.625
61156.075160.675
62156.125160.725UKSAR Calling and Helicopter Channel A
63156.175160.775UKSAR TWC (simplex)
64156.225160.825UKSAR TWC (simplex)
65156.275160.875
66156.325160.925
67156.375156.375UK Small Ship Safety Channel
68156.425156.425
69156.475156.475Port Operations
70156.525156.525Digital Selective Calling A
71156.575156.575
72156.625156.625Ship-to-ship A
73156.675156.675HM Coastguard Safety Broadcasts
74156.725156.725British Waterways/Canal and River Trust Channel
75156.775156.775Navigaton related communications (limited to 1 watt)
76156.825156.825
77156.875156.875Ship-to-ship A
78156.925161.525
79156.975161.575
80157.025161.625UK Marina Channel
81157.075161.675
82157.125161.725
83157.175161.775
84157.225161.825HM Coastguard Maritime Safety Information
85157.275161.875UKSAR TWC (simplex)
86157.325161.925HM Coastguard Maritime Safety Information

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© Padco.net 23rd Feb 2017, Update: 4th Mar 2017