From the Stevens campus on Castle Point, there is a commanding view of the Hudson River and the many kinds of vessels that dock in the New York Harbor – commuter ferries, container ships, tour boats, kayaks, tugboats, yachts and cruise ships.
The marine traffic in this area is among the largest and busiest in the nation, outranked only by Los Angeles and Long Beach, California. Dense traffic, however, isn’t the only challenge confronting vessels that go in and out of the New York Harbor. The currents in this body of water are treacherous because it’s the junction where the Hudson River meets the Atlantic Ocean.
When large ships come into the harbor to dock along the New York piers, the feat is by no means routine or simple. In addition to the currents, the narrow width of the river makes maneuvering especially challenging for large cruise ships like the Norwegian Breakaway, the largest ship ever to come into New York.
In its weekly return trip from Bermuda, the Breakaway comes into New York Harbor under the Verrazano Bridge, past the Statue of Liberty, and past the campus of Stevens Institute of Technology. As it travels along the river slightly north of the Stevens campus, the Breakaway must make a sharp right turn to go into Pier 88, bringing the ship perpendicular to the flow of the current. According to Dr. Alan Blumberg, professor of ocean engineering and director of the Davidson Laboratory at Stevens, there is almost no room for error.
“The right turn puts the ship in the worst position of all regarding the currents in the river. The docking that the captains have to do with Norwegian Breakaway is probably the most challenging of all that captains in any harbor have to do.”
To get into the berth safely, and without incident, Blumberg says the ship’s captain needs to determine: 1. the direction and size of the current, and 2. whether it is high tide or low tide.
This critical information is gathered and made available online only by Stevens Institute of Technology.
“We have lots of data and a forecast system in place. The captain of the Breakaway now looks at our information three days in advance to know how to plan when to come into New York Harbor,” says Blumberg.
The important benefit of the Stevens data to the Norwegian Cruise Line is made possible by the work Blumberg and his colleagues perform at Stevens’ Davidson Laboratory in studying the impact of water on the urban environment, and vice versa.
“When a hurricane comes in, there’s a huge storm surge, the water has a big impact on the city. When there’s pollution and sewage spills, they end up in the river, and then the city has an impact on the water,” Blumberg explains.
Blumberg adds that Stevens’ location overlooking the Hudson River and across from one of the world’s great metropolises is ideal for this kind of study.
“We’re trying to understand how the Atlantic Ocean flows into the Hudson River and how the fresh water from the river goes out into the ocean, and how they mix and generate currents, as well as the temperature and salinity distributions. It happens primarily right here in front of campus.”
Captains Evans Hoyt and Hakan Svedung, the captains of the Norwegian Breakaway, check out the Stevens data prior to each arrival to New York.
“As captain of the largest cruise ships to homeport in New York, I have had many opportunities to use the data that Stevens provides on the Davidson Urban Ocean Observatory website,” says Captain Hoyt. “Because of the difficulties in accurate prediction due to the variables of rainfall, snowmelt and wind, the real-time data and complex forecast models on the Stevens website provide critical information we cannot find anywhere else.”
Blumberg credits his Stevens colleagues at the Davidson Laboratory – Dr. Thomas Herrington, research associate professor, and Dr. Nickitas Georgas, research assistant professor – for their work in collecting this information.
“Tom and his group actually put the instruments into the water that the captains use, and Nickitas is responsible for the forecast system. So not only do we have data in real time to look at, but we forecast out 72 hours in the future.”
Breakaway’s use of Stevens data was not known to Blumberg until he was contacted by Hoyt, who was seeking an explanation of the information.
“I get a call from the captain one Friday afternoon from somewhere out in the Atlantic Ocean who says, ‘we are looking at your information, can you explain to us what it says?’ And I told Captain Hoyt that if he comes in at 6 a.m., he was going to have a difficult docking. As the captain looked at our website, I explained what he was looking at, and he didn’t come in to dock at 6 a.m., he came in later at 7:30,” recalls Blumberg.
That initial contact led to regular communications between Blumberg and the captains of the Breakaway – Evans Hoyt and Hakan Svedung – as well as a face-to-face meeting when the Breakaway was docked in New York Harbor.
During the meeting, Captain Svedung invited Blumberg to travel on the Breakaway to get a “real feel” for the oceanography from the ship when it comes into New York Harbor.
The Breakaway departs Sunday afternoon and returns the following Sunday. But rather than staying a whole week on the ship, Blumberg flew to Bermuda and boarded the Breakaway for the return trip to New York.
“I was on board Thursday night, Friday, Saturday, and we came into New York Harbor Sunday morning. I spoke with the captain and his staff every day about the Stevens data – how we collect it and how much confidence they should have in it. So now they’re really up on what we do and how to use it. The trip was very cool; I spent a lot of time on the bridge with Captain Svedung and got to enjoy the pools and spectacular waterslides and dine at great restaurants. Not a bad way to do research.”
According to Captain Svedung, the accuracy of Stevens’ real-time data makes it possible for the Breakaway to plan its approach to Pier 88 in advance. Prior to using the Stevens website, the captains of the Breakaway relied upon a printed navigation guide – the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book – which only provides approximate information about tidal flows and currents to harbor entrances and destination ports.
“From having used the old books, which use the phases of the moon to predict the strength of the currents, it is a huge leap forward to the scientific accuracy of Stevens’ current calculation on its website when it comes to safe navigation and maneuvering,” says Svedung.
Norwegian isn’t the only cruise line to sail into New York Harbor. Blumberg says as the number of cruise lines increases, so too does the potential use of the Stevens data by the industry as a whole.
With thousands of passengers onboard, Blumberg says the responsibility these cruise lines bear in getting them safely back on land makes demand for the kind of information Stevens gathers essential.
“It is amazing to me that funding for basic ocean research, for example from the New Jersey Department of Transportation and the Hudson River Foundation, can end up helping to protect lives. This is tremendously gratifying,” Blumberg says.