Base Lines project

Interview with Andy McGill, talking to Pat Kenny OSi

“The Baselines Project effectively defines our territorial waters”

The task of map making would usually be associated with people in yellow jackets taking readings from instruments mounted on tripods on very firm ground or carefully drafting detailed maps in quiet, even dusty offices. Recently a very different project came our way which challenged that perception and it’s known as the Baselines Project. I spoke to Andy McGill – Senior Operations Manager – Surveying Infrastructure & Technology – OSi, who took a lead role in this project.

Pat: So what is the Baselines Project?

Surveyor on the Water's edge

Surveyor on the Water’s edge

Andy: “The Baselines Project effectively defines our territorial waters. In 1958 the Geneva convention defined how territorial waters or limits would be defined internationally. In a nutshell, it’s got to do with sovereign territories. In 1959, The Irish Maritime Act came into effect which allowed the Irish Government by order to prescribe straight baselines in any part of its territory and the closing lines of any bay or mouth of a river, otherwise the baseline is the Low Water Mark. In cases like Ireland where you have a very rugged coastline to the west and south, you really don’t have much in terms of a LWM. These points had to be agreed internationally, which they were. There are 50 points starting at Malin Head running all the way down the west coast and around the south coast to Carnsore Point which were fixed back in 1959.”

“The problem today is that, nobody really knows how these 50 points were fixed. We suspect some of them were fixed from admiralty charts, some could have been fixed from OSi one inch maps, from OSi six inch maps, we don’t really know. In other words, if somebody has been apprehended doing something at sea that they shouldn’t be doing, they could legally challenge it. Effectively, that’s what the project is about. It’s re-fixing, or re-establishing those points in a modern geodetic framework.”

Boat attempts to reach the shore line

Boat attempts to reach the shore line

“The Baselines project brought together multifarious resources of the state. The Department of Foreign Affairs own the project because it is international territorial limits that are being established. The Attorney General’s office, because of the legal interpretations. The Department of Defence because they enforce the law of the sea with the Navy and with the Air Corps. Geological Survey of Ireland because they have completed the seabed survey called INFOMAR. Ordnance Survey Ireland was requested to carry this out because this comes under our remit.”

“This is what we do, we fix points. But what we didn’t entirely understand is where these points were and how we’d get to them. The first thing we did was a recce from aerial photography to identify where these points were. We had descriptions of the points from 1959. Based on that, we took modern vertical photography and tried to establish where they were. The Geological Survey of Ireland was able to give us an indication that some points may or may not be accessible from a boat. Some of these points could be up to 2 or 3 kilometres off the coastline. Some of them were on the coastline and some in between. We then formed an opinion as to what points we thought we could do ourselves and what points we would need to access from the sea. Some of the points we knew we’d access by neither, so we approached the Department of Defence to get support from the navy and the air corps and this was quickly put in place.”

Pat: How were OSi personnel prepared for this project?

GPS receiver on a rock in the Atlantic Ocean

GPS receiver on a rock in the Atlantic Ocean

Andy: “The Air Corps took a team of five OSi surveyors to Baldonnel and spent the day training in winching and helicopter operations. Then we spent another day down in the National Maritime College down in Haulbowline, where the team again were trained up in seafaring activities and also in the potential of ditching helicopters in the sea and how you survive and get out of that. Then the team did some team-building exercises: rope work, rock climbing and abseiling so they would be able to work together as a team and be safe in the hazardous environment of our rocky coastlines. Special boots were needed for walking on wet rocks and about 100 meters each of climbing rope, which would be a classic climbing rope. We needed climbing harnesses, helmets, knee pads and other equipment. After that it was down to the mercy of the weather.

Of course, we’re used to monitoring the weather ourselves from our own flying operations, so that was easy enough. What we didn’t have the experience in is sea conditions. Because even though the sun is shining, you still have sea swell and depending on where you are and how close you are to the water, this can play a huge role. When we laid out the scheme for the project some of these points were quite some distance from some of our active stations which would mean we would have to observe for maybe 2 – 3 hours and in sea conditions with high tides and low tides, you may not have that kind of time. We then put in additional points all around the coastline to minimize the distance between a land station and the station we were going to fix, so that the maximum amount of time we would need observing at a point was a half an hour. We knew at that stage then that if we got our tide times right, we could get onto the point, insert the base point, observe for the half an hour and get off the point safely again.”

Pat: Did everything go smoothly after that?

Base Lines brass plate

Base Lines brass plate

Andy: “For the most part yes and that’s all thanks to meticulous preparation and top grade training provided to us. However, there was one incident that could have been a lot more serious, but thankfully wasn’t. The Atlantic Ocean is an extremely hostile environment to work in. You just can’t take chances on that. In fairness, the Air Corps and the Navy, they provided us with great support. These guys can read the sea and read the conditions, it’s second nature to them. They don’t allow any chances to be taken either, which is great from our perspective because we depend on them.”

Pat: What stage of the project are you at right now?

Andy: We’re 90% complete at the moment. I would estimate, if we got three days of suitable weather and suitable sea conditions we’d wrap it up. But to get that three days, it could continue on into the summer.

Pat: So I take it the Baselines Project is a one off, it won’t need to be done again anytime soon?

Andy: Hopefully, it will never have to be done again, but who knows what the future will bring. If we were doing this on the east coast of Ireland, where you have erosion, then maybe. But on the west and south it’s such a rocky, rugged coastline we don’t envisage it’s going to significantly change. We’re fixing these points to sub-centimetre or centimetre accuracy, so I think the issue, primarily, would be the process that’s put in place so it’s the best surveying methods and practice and will be recognised to be so, long into the future. Well, I suppose 200 years from now, who knows. We won’t have to worry about it.

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