Meet the team who stop boats and ships from running aground and sinking in the Humber

By Hull Daily Mail | Posted: 23 Nov 2018

Every 30 minutes, a ship travels up or down the River Humber.

That may not sound like a lot in principle, but when considering that figure applies 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, it makes the Humber one of the busiest channels in the country.

The Humber is also one of the most unpredictable routes in Britain. Its constantly shifting sand and mud banks means every five days, depths can change by as much as 20cm.

So how do ships know where is safe to sail, and where will see them run aground? That is where a very important team of just 10 people at Associated British Ports fits in.

The hydrographer team comprises of six surveyors and three coxswains, led by senior hydrographer Mike Abbey.

Watch: What it's like being a hydrographer for ABP

The group carry out 700 surveys every year, using state-of-the-art sonar technology to map the shifting sand banks, and keep the Humber trading.

Covering a distance from 20 miles out into the North Sea, right up to Goole on the River Ouse and Gainsborough on the Trent, it is an imposing task.

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Mike Abbey said: “It is about safety and it is about navigation. We survey every five days, because in five days the river can change by 20cm, which is the minimum clearance we have for ships.

“The boats are fitted with a sonar system, which goes pinging down into the river and bounces off the seabed. We then measure the speed of sound in the water, put it all together with some very clever GPS technology, and create a detailed chart of where ships can go.

Tom Wilson, a surveyor in the hydrographer team at ABP. (Hull Live)

“I suppose the hardest thing about the job is getting perfectly accurate results every time without fail. If we don’t, then there is a very expensive lawsuit on our hands.”

Surveyors can spend anything from a couple of hours, up to eight and even 12 hours at a time out in the Humber.

Their boats are, fortunately, fitted out with all the mod-cons – think hob, microwave, the full works.

Once their survey is completed, the data is processed into a chart which is made available, free of charge, for any shipping company that needs it.

The team can spend up to eight hours out on the river surveying. (Hull Live)

Tom Wilson has been a surveyor for four years. He said: “I studied at Hull University, and came here for some work experience for a few weeks once I’d graduated.

“My dad is a pilot on the river, and I got thinking there must be lots of jobs that involve the Humber, and what could I do to be part of that?

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“There can be some early starts in the job. You can start surveys from 5am or 6am depending what the tide is doing, and can spend around eight hours out at a time.

“It is a brilliant to get into if you like a mixture of office work and field work.”

Equipment used by the team to record the Humber's sand and mud banks. (Hull Live)

The team is out in all weathers, and Mr Wilson admitted it took him a while to get used to life at sea.

“For a while, I would feel ok while on the boat, but when I would get home and try and go to sleep, you would feel a rocking motion when you closed your eyes.

“You get used to it pretty quickly though. You see the Humber in all conditions. Some days it is sunny and warm and the water is calm, and others it is very different.”

Mr Abbey said the Humber was important for the whole country’s economy, and therefore keeping ships sailing safely up and down it was paramount.

The Humber Sounder vessel used by the team at ABP. (Hull Live)

The hydrographers are a team few outside of the ABP and shipping circle would be familiar with, yet spending just an afternoon with them, the importance of the work they do quickly becomes clear.

Tirelessly working to keep the Humber trading, they deserve a whole lot of respect.

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