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The Ouzo report: lessons, questions

An exhaustive probe of the tragedy has valuable tips for boaters but few answers as to how it happened

An exhaustive probe of the tragedy has valuable tips for boaters but few answers as to how it happened

A report from the British agency that investigated the loss of the sailing

yacht Ouzo in 2006 in the English Channel is filled with valuable lessons for anyone who operates a boat. The detailed report was compiled by investigators from the United Kingdom Marine Accident Investigation Branch, Southampton. The agency is the British maritime equivalent of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

The Sailfish 25 and her three crewmembers were lost about six miles off the Isle of Wight. The bodies were recovered within days, but no trace of the boat has ever been found. Expert post-accident analysis — as performed in this country by the NTSB — is an exacting, exhaustively detailed process and almost always reveals the sequence of events that led to an accident. It is commonplace here in aircraft disasters but rarely used when an accident involves small pleasure boats.

The U.K. report is especially valuable because of its intense attention to every available detail of the yacht’s fatal voyage and of the movement and actions of the ship involved. Unfortunately, the failure to recover Ouzo deprived investigators of valuable physical evidence.

All of the accident detail here is taken from the official, 49-page investigation report.

What happened

The accident occurred in open water about 6 miles south of St. Catherines Point on the Isle of Wight at 0107 (U.K. daylight time) on 21 August 2006, when Ouzo, a 25.5-foot sloop-rigged sailboat with three men aboard, apparently collided with or was swamped by a close encounter with the 580-foot ferry Pride of Bilbao. Conditions were reasonable for the area, with winds in the 16- to 21-knot range and occasional gusts to 27 knots. The moon had not yet risen. Sea temperature was 64 F. Visibility was not specifically reported, but no fog or mist was noted by those on the bridge of the ferry.

Equipment, skill of crew

The equipment on Ouzo was about what you would expect on a similar size vessel in U.S. waters. It was fitted with a 12-hp diesel and equipped with a magnetic compass, VHF/DSC radio, 1 million-

candlepower hand-held searchlight, gas canister-type fog horn, 6-inch octahedral radar reflector, running lights, including a masthead tricolor light, distress flares, life jackets for the crew, and a deflated three-man dinghy in a locker.

The crew was familiar with the boat and the waters in which they were sailing. Like many British sailors, they had received training under the auspices of the Royal Yacht Association, and the skipper had the required Short Range Maritime Radio Operator certificate. The crew was known to use an hourly rotation watch system, with two in the cockpit and one, fully dressed in foul weather gear, below. When recovered, the bodies of the crew were dressed in yachting clothing appropriate for the conditions and were wearing manually inflated life jackets.

Identifying the vessels

The discovery of the body of an Ouzo crewmember just before noon on 22 August was the first evidence that an accident had occurred. (The other two bodies were recovered at about 1900 on 23 August). Authorities reviewed the information from the Vessel Traffic Services and the Automatic Identification System reports from shipping that transited the area of the accident on the night of 20/21 August and obtained the Voyage Data Recorder information from VDR-equipped ships that had been in the area. This information led to the identification of the P&O Line “ro-ro” ferry (roll on, roll off for vehicles) Pride of Bilbao as the vessel involved in the accident.

On Bilbao’s bridge

The ferry, proceeding at its normal cruise speed of 19 knots, had completed a course change from 221 degrees to 243 degrees at approximately 0103. The lookout, standing on the port side of the enclosed bridge, noted a dim white light on the starboard bow. Using binoculars, he noticed a brighter, red light at the same location and told the second officer, who was in the adjacent, partially curtain-enclosed chart room, “He’s showing a red, that one.” The second officer took no immediate action. The lookout realized that the light was from a small vessel close ahead and immediately reported his observation to the second officer, who left the chart room, saw the lights and moved to the autopilot control and initiated a turn to port.

The lookout saw a small yacht with two white sails close to the starboard bow a few seconds later. The yacht passed down the starboard side of the ferry. The second officer altered course to starboard in an effort to avoid having the stern of the ferry strike the yacht as it swung to starboard. The lookout next reported seeing a red light about 1 point on the starboard quarter. The aft deck lights of the ferry were switched off to improve visibility, after which the second officer reported seeing a single red light 4 or 5 points off the stern on the starboard quarter. A short time later, with the Bilbao back on its original course, the second officer noted a single white light 2 points to port of the stern. He assumed the light to be the stern light of the yacht, which would have indicated it was not in trouble. The ferry continued on its voyage.

Relevant facts

• The yacht was never detected on the ferry’s X band or S band radar.

• The yacht’s running lights were seen.

• There was no radio traffic between the yacht and the ferry or between the yacht and any other station.

• No flares were visible from the ship nor were any reported by any other vessel.

• Subsequent tests of a similar sailboat showed that it would have been visible on the shore radar with or without a radar reflector. (What may have been the radar image of the yacht was seen on the Vessel Traffic Service radar on the night the yacht departed and was visible until 2230.)

Why did it happen?

Why didn’t the ferry, with its professional crew and equipment, see, warn and avoid the yacht? Why didn’t the Ouzo crew see the ferry and take evasive action, or alert the ferry to its presence by radio, its high-intensity light or flares? Why didn’t the Bilbao know that a collision or near-collision had occurred?

The answers to these questions can provide information that, used properly, can save the lives of other yachtsmen. Most of the following comments are taken from the accident report.

Ouzo had a radar reflector, so why didn’t it show up on the ferry’s radar?

Although radar reflectors on small sailboats such as Ouzo may be visible using land-based radars equipped with very narrow horizontal beam angle antennas, they provide minimal targets for shipborne radar sets. Small radar cross-section targets may not be noticed unless the operator of the radar is closely monitoring the screen. The bridge watch on the ferry was devoting considerable time to maintaining a visual lookout. The radar was set to the 12-mile range with the sea clutter control on automatic, diminishing the likelihood of picking up any signal return from the yacht or its small radar reflector. The effectiveness of small, passive radar reflectors of the type used on the yacht varies greatly, depending on how the reflector is hung in the rigging and its momentary position relative to the searching radar.

Why didn’t the lookout see Ouzo’s running lights until the two vessels were very close to one another?

1. The yacht’s navigation lights may not have been as bright as they should have been. Although the navigation lights on Ouzo were apparently in conformance with the requirements for a vessel of her size (1 nautical mile for side lights, 2 nautical miles for the stern light), the normal heeling of the yacht might have reduced their visibility due to the design of the lenses. In addition, the plastic lenses used in these lights can become crazed over time, reducing the luminosity of the light. It is possible that a lower-wattage bulb may have been installed in the lamp and/or that full voltage was unavailable at the lamp. (Reducing the voltage to an incandescent lamp by 5 percent can reduce the light output by 20 percent, while more than doubling lamp life.)

2. Post-accident testing confirmed that the lookout’s glasses were not transmitting all of the available light. Although the lookout’s vision was tested after the accident and found to be normal, he was wearing glasses with photochromic lenses, the type that react to ultraviolet energy and darken to reduce light transmission. Tests showed that the optical transmission of the lenses was no more than 80 percent efficient. Light transmission of normal and coated lenses is 94.7 to 99.4 percent.

3. The bridge watch likely had deficient night vision. The night vision of the bridge watch on the Bilbao was adversely affected by a lack of adequate dark adaptation time. The lookout first saw the yacht’s lights about nine minutes after entering the wheelhouse. The British Institute of Ophthalmology noted that 20 to 30 minutes would be an appropriate dark adaptation time. The American Optometric Association recommends 30 to 45 minutes in total darkness to attain maximum sensitivity after exposure to bright light. (Other parts of the Bilbao were brightly lit with white lights.) The chart room on the bridge of the Bilbao used lights fitted with red filters in an effort to minimize the loss of night adaptation that occurs with exposure to normal white light; however, the filter wasn’t in use at the time of the accident. (Most red filters are ineffective in achieving this end. Monochromatic red light at 630 nanometers or above is the optimum light source when preservation of night vision is desired). The wheelhouse of the Bilbao had a significant amount of white light pollution from poor blackout practices. In addition, the removal of the red filter from the light in the adjacent chart room provided a significant amount of white light that can materially degrade night vision adaptation.

Why didn’t the crew of the Ouzo alert the ferry with a radio call or by using the powerful searchlight they carried?

With no survivors, there can be no definite answer to this question. The accident investigators think it is reasonable that the crew of Ouzo would see the brightly lit ferry at a considerable distance. They further believe that the navigation situation might have made the yacht’s crew believe that the Bilbao would pass at a distance of 0.5 nautical miles. However, the Bilbao’s Voyage Data Recorder shows that at 0101 she began a slow turn to starboard. Accident investigators have speculated that the Ouzo crew might have interpreted the Bilbao’s course change as intended to steer clear of their boat (in accordance with Rule 18 of the COLREGS). However, the Bilbao’s very slow rate of turn and the fact that she was on her new course for only four minutes before the probable collision (or close passage — it hasn’t been established if actual contact occurred or if the ship’s wash swamped the yacht) would have given the crew of the yacht very little time to take evasive action. It is possible that any effort they were making to evade the Bilbao might have distracted them from trying to attract the attention of the ship by radio, searchlight or flares.

Why did three experienced sailors, with life jackets, not survive the accident?

It is likely that the yacht was either damaged by contact with the ferry or was swamped by the wave created by the vessel’s ice-strengthened bow. This scenario is in accord with the fact that although the yacht’s lights were visible abaft the Bilbao, no flares were seen and no radio calls received. Under this scenario there would have been insufficient time for the crew to inflate and launch the dinghy. It is likely that all three crewmembers were on deck at the time of the accident, and possible that the companionway hatch was open. The crew likely found themselves in the sea within a few seconds. Research data shows likely exhaustion or unconsciousness in two to seven hours in the 64-degree water at the accident site.

The complete accident report can be found at