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Proactive Voyage Optimization - The Wayfinder Advantage

Melanie Feen

The day-to-day existence of a cargo ship is fraught with challenges. Captains and operators must navigate vessels from port to port as efficiently as possible, grappling with a laundry list of constraints, including fuel cost, time cost, emissions output, charter party constraints, and, most critically, the safety of crew and cargo. To successfully optimize for any of these variables, operators must contend with the omnipresent factor that influences them all: the weather.

Weather in the open ocean is unforgiving. In 2021, there were record high losses for container ships’ cargo due to inclement conditions. 962 containers succumbed to the sea, a dramatic uptick compared to the year-over-year average of 30. Two incidents accounted for the majority of the losses, with one ship losing an astonishing 700+ containers! Current trends in the shipping industry suggest that more losses may be forthcoming; increases in consumer demand have prompted the construction of larger cargo ships, which necessitate higher container stacks onboard and significantly increase risk.

Given the risks that weather poses, how can Captains and operators ensure that their vessel follows the safest and most efficient path to port? At Sofar, our Wayfinder platform offers an impactful solution with two core components:

  • Wayfinder uses the best marine weather forecasts powered by the largest network of ocean sensors.
  • Wayfinder leverages these forecasts to provide fleets with efficient, continuously optimized voyage guidance to meet any business and safety constraint. 

How Sofar Improves Forecasts

In order to understand how we provide Captains with improved forecasts, it is first important to recognize that the traditional forecasts that vessels rely on lack real-time data. In fact, these forecasts use rules, assumptions, and information about past weather and waves to predict how the ocean will behave in the future.

At Sofar, we specialize in the collection of real-time data and use it to give Captains a clearer view of what the ocean has in store for them later in a voyage. Our Spotter buoys gather information about ocean waves, wind, sea surface temperature, and barometric pressure, data that we use to improve the initial state of the Sofar Operational Forecast. By improving this model’s initial state, we, in turn, improve the forecast the model produces days into the future. Real-time data, better models, more accurate forecasts. 

If you’d like to learn more about how we use the ocean data collected by our Spotters to improve forecast accuracy, check out our two-part data assimilation blog series here.

The Wayfinder Advantage

Improved forecasts are a great start, but we also need a way to deliver these weather insights to Captains at sea. Sofar’s Wayfinder voyage guidance system does just that.

How does Wayfinder work? Wayfinder takes a dynamic approach to ship routing. Every day, the platform re-evaluates the route that a vessel is on to see if there is a safer and more efficient option available. This optimization engine is powered by our global network of ocean sensors, which equip Wayfinder with the best marine weather forecasts and inform detailed Vessel Performance Models (VPM). The intricacies of the Wayfinder backend are beyond the scope of this blog, but be sure to check out our existing, deep-dive write-up on the subject.

Now, let’s turn our focus to a real-life example of Wayfinder in action.

Imagine a ship planning to travel from Singapore to Cape Town, South Africa, using a basic great circle route; that is, the route with the shortest total distance between ports. However, a tropical cyclone forms along this route; in this scenario, what would Wayfinder recommend the vessel do?

Let’s dig into the details. In this simulation — displayed in Figure 1 below — the vessel departs on May 8th at 00:00z and plans to arrive at the end of day on May 24th, traveling at about 14 knots. Early on in the voyage, the vessel enters a zone with wind gusts expected to be greater than 34 knots due to Tropical Cyclone Karim. Taking note of the tropical storm, Wayfinder predicts numerous roll alerts (parametric roll indicated by red and synchronous roll indicated by pink) along the vessel’s planned route. Once those alerts are issued, Wayfinder presents the Captain with an alternative storm avoidance route just north of the active route, a detour that reduces both the severity of the roll risks and the amount of time the vessel could potentially be exposed to the roll risks. This alternative route also reduces the magnitude of the wind and significant waves that the vessel encounters.

Figure 1: The Wayfinder dashboard showcases the initial great circle route (black line) and the Wayfinder optimized route (orange line), which was recommended in response to inclement weather caused by Tropical Cyclone Karim. The locations of our Spotter buoys, which provide real-time observations that improve our weather forecasts, are represented by the yellow pentagons.

Not only did the Wayfinder optimized route reduce the vessel’s exposure to adverse weather impacts, it also took advantage of the favorable currents along the coast of Madagascar and South Africa depicted in Figure 2 below. Due to the high cost of fuel — it can account for over 50% of a ship’s operating costs — following these currents also provides financial benefits to the vessel by reducing overall consumption. To learn more about how Wayfinder can help your vessel achieve fuel efficiency and meet climate goals, contact us about a Carbon Intensity Indicator (CII) analysis.

Figure 2: The Wayfinder dashboard features adjustable weather map layers, like the currents view shown here. The Wayfinder optimized route (orange line) follows favorable currents, helping the vessel improve fuel efficiency and avoid the adverse weather present along the great circle route (black line).

This simulated scenario illustrates a key point: the simplest and shortest journey (i.e. the great circle route), counterintuitively, is not always the most efficient. Further evidence of this fact can be found by looking at the hindcast data — retroactive, comprehensive weather forecasts — from the voyage. In Figure 3 below, which compares the hindcasts for significant wave height along each route over time, it is clear that, from May 11th to 14th, the Wayfinder optimized route avoided the larger significant wave heights that the ship would have experienced if it had followed the great circle route. Then, on May 17th, Wayfinder again reduced the significant waves encountered, this time by 0.5 m.

Figure 3: This time-series of significant wave height from our hindcasts shows that the Wayfinder optimized route (orange line) consistently exposed the vessel to waves that were smaller than the waves it would have encountered along the great circle route (black line).

We can also highlight the Wayfinder advantage by showcasing the dense Spotter buoy network along the ship’s route. Figure 4 visualizes the hindcasts from Figure 3 in a side-by-side animation of each route, with the positioning of nearby Spotter buoys represented by pentagons. The Wayfinder optimized route consistently encounters waves with lower significant wave heights than those encountered along the great circle route.

Figure 4: A visualization of the Wayfinder optimized route (top) and the great circle route (bottom) from Singapore to Cape Town, South Africa. The dots along each route are colored based on the hindcast of significant wave height at that point. The pentagons are the Spotter observations of significant wave height along the routes, which are used to power our wave forecasts and, in turn, the Wayfinder optimized route.

Direct buoy observations — and the real-time ocean data that they collect — unlock critical forecast accuracy improvements, and are one of the key reasons why the Sofar Wayfinder platform stands out in the vessel routing and optimization space. Want to learn more about our approach? Schedule a demo with our team to learn how Wayfinder can deliver voyage gains for your fleet.

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