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Giving ships a wide berth can save lives

A marine safety officer’s experience tempers the lessons of his youth

As a kid growing up around boats, I learned that the marine environment can be a wonderful and rewarding world in which to work and play.

The Rules of the Road should be accompanied by comon sense when meeting big ships.

I also learned it can be harsh and unforgiving. I recall with vivid memory a very sad case of a fatal boating accident in Long Island Sound more than 25 years ago that involved a large commercial ship and a small recreational vessel. Because of the disparity in size between the two vessels, everyone went home from the larger commercial vessel; two people from the smaller recreational boat did not. Three decades later, I still think that leaving some distance between those vessels may have saved two lives.

I later attended Massachusetts Maritime Academy and earned a Third Mate’s license, and was lucky enough to make a career in the marine field as Marine Safety Officer in the Coast Guard. Both as a license holder and Coast Guard officer, the topic of the commercial and recreational vessel interface has been a professional interest of mine. My current position of Deputy Commander of Sector Northern New England has offered varied opportunities to work with vessel masters, pilots, and small boat operators in improving “big boat-little boat” navigation safety.

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International and domestic navigation regulations were developed to organize Rules of the Road to help mariners safely negotiate traffic as well as better identify vessels both during the day and night. I offer, though, that there are considerations beyond the rules of the road to assess situations involving ships, tugs, barges and other large commercial craft.

Going back to my youth, I picture my father at the helm of our 23-foot boat trying to calm my frantic mother by explaining that the big ship in front of us was required to get out of our path as we were under sail, availing us the right of way, assuring our safe passage. Well … not exactly.

Only in some cases do sailing and fishing vessels have the right of way over deep-draft vessels. If a ship is in a narrow channel or otherwise constrained by its draft, for example, all bets are off for smaller vessels.

Periodically, again as a kid, I would also hear that the crew of nearby ships had radar and that they had been monitoring us for an hour or more. Yes, ships closely monitor radar. But lower-profile boats, especially those made of fiberglass and wood, don’t appear on radar as well as larger boats made of denser materials.

Another consideration is eye-to-eye visibility of vessels under way, especially container ships and tankers. While ships vary, the aft house configuration on most modern ships creates a blind spot in front of the bow. In some cases, the blind spot can extend a third of a mile directly in front of the ship. Crossing a deep-draft ship’s path could take a boat into the ship’s blind spot.

Why does this matter? Big ships are designed to carry big heavy loads, generally speaking, in a fairly straight line. While they can maneuver, they aren’t as nimble as small boats. A tanker of 650 feet operating at a modest 6 knots coming into port could require up to two miles to completely stop using emergency full-astern propulsion.

Brian Downey Jr. with his father, Brian Downey, in 1991.

If there is adequate sea room, which is doubtful for most ships entering a port, this same tanker could need a half-mile to complete a full 90-degree turn. Add darkness, bad weather or poor visibility and it doesn’t take long to figure out this can be a losing proposition for the small boat.

Communication is a quick and easy way to stay safe. If you were on my family boat in 1981, however, communication would not have been an option as we didn’t have a VHF radio. While incredible for me to fathom now, that was my reality then. Operating a boat without a VHF radio is simply a bad idea. Early and effective communication will assure safe passage in most traffic situations. Deep-draft ships monitor VHF channel 13 for bridge-to-bridge communication and make regular sécurité calls to advise other vessels of their presence. Most ships’ crews will be happy to make passing arrangements over the radio.

The commercial shipping industry is safer now than ever. Rigorous ship engineering and design standards, state-of-the-art technology, and demanding international professional licensing requirements contribute to a strong safety record. Keeping our waterways safe and productive, however, requires everyone’s cooperation. My advice is to stay safe by giving our commercial operators a wide berth; there’s plenty of ocean for all of us.

Cmdr. Brian J. Downey Jr. is Deputy Sector Commander of Sector Northern New Engalnd, based in South Portland, Maine.

This article originally appeared in the Mid-Atlantic Home Waters Section of the September 2009 issue.