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Right of way and lookout: sharing the water with ships

At Cowes Week 2011, the 33-foot Irish-registered yacht Atlanta of Chester collided with the LPG tanker Hanne Knutsen while trying to tack across the ship’s bow during racing in the Solent off England’s Isle of Wight. The yacht slid down the tanker’s side, snagging its spinnaker on the ship’s anchor, losing its mast and tossing two crewmembers overboard.

This sailboat-tanker collision during Cowes Week 2011 resulted in a Marine Notice on staying clear of ships.

The August accident, on the first day of racing, left Atlanta of Chester’s men cut, bruised and shaken, but rescue boats plucked them from the water. They were fortunate. The collision unleashed a storm of online commentary on what the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea — the COLREGS — say about a mariner’s duty to observe right of way and keep a proper lookout at all times.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority weighed in on the matter in January, issuing a Marine Notice on “Collision Risks to Offshore Yachts,” a helpful primer on steering clear of ships. The notice says the risk of collision is particularly acute in busy shipping lanes such as the Solent. It says Rule 18 prescribes “that a power-driven vessel under way shall keep out of the way of a sailing vessel,” presuming that the powerboat can see the sailboat — either visually or on radar — can assess what the closest point of approach between the two vessels will be and can take action to avoid the sailboat.
However, it also notes that Rule 2 says this right-of-way rule does not exonerate a mariner from exercising “any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case.” In other words, skippers of sailboats still have a responsibility to do what they can to avoid a collision with a motor vessel, especially in special circumstances. Rule 2 states that one of those special circumstances may be the “limitations of the vessels involved” — in the case of a tanker, its inability to stop or turn quickly or maneuver outside the channel — which “may make departure from the right-of-way rule necessary.” So the sailboat may have to give way to the tanker — which Atlanta of Chester did not do when it collided with Hanne Knutsen — because the tanker can’t quickly change course.
Rule 9 of the COLREGS highlights this exception to Rule 18: “A vessel of less than 20 meters in length or a sailing vessel shall not impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway,” the Marine Notice says. And Rule 10: “A vessel of less than 20 meters in length or a sailing vessel shall not impede the safe passage of a power-driven vessel following a traffic lane” — that is, a lane of a traffic separation scheme. Also under Rule 18, if a vessel is able it should “avoid impeding the safe passage of a vessel constrained by her draft” — one that can’t change course without risk of grounding. The Marine Notice also warns yachts to be wary of ships at anchor, night and day.
Boaters often take ship crews to task for not keeping a lookout and nearly running them down. One boater tells of launching aerial flares at night within a couple hundred yards of a ship and getting no response. But the notice says accident investigations repeatedly show that “yachts are extremely difficult to see from the bridge of a major vessel in some circumstances. … As a result, yachts should not presume that they can be seen by an approaching vessel and should act accordingly.”
Ship watchstanders often can’t see yachts — sailboats in particular — because white or pastel-colored hulls blend in with the seascape, their fiberglass construction and size make them poor radar targets, they make unexpected course changes in close quarters with ships, and “at night the lights prescribed by the COLREGS for yachts (small yachts, in particular) have very limited visual range — as little as one mile for yachts of less than 12 meters.”
The Marine Notice says investigators have found that these factors often contribute to yacht-ship collisions: Ships can’t alter course or reduce speed quickly; the visual lookout from yachts, particularly in a seaway, is often inadequate; and in channels and on some routes, ships cannot deviate from their designated course without risk of grounding.
The Australian safety authority recommends that yachtsmen exercise caution when they are around ships and take the following measures:
• Keep a good visual and radar lookout.
• Avoid recognized shipping routes where possible.
• Fit and activate a radar reflector, an anti-collision radar transponder or radar target enhancer on the boat.
• Fit and use an AIS transponder (a navigation and traffic control aid that emits a signal with a vessel’s name, call sign, size, position, heading, speed and destination embedded in it).
• Maintain a listening watch on VHF channel 16.
• Do not make unexpected course changes in the vicinity of other vessels.
• Do not impede large vessels that have restricted room to maneuver.
Yachts passaging offshore also are advised in the Marine Notice to carry a registered 406 MHz EPIRB with GPS and a marine radio, maintain an agreed check-in schedule with contacts shoreside or on other boats, and leave a float plan with emergency contacts.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.