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Don’t mess with the big boys

Don’t mess with the big boys

By William Sisson

here is an unofficial rule known as the rule of gross tonnage. In plain English, it means to stay the hell out of the way of big ships.

Several recent incidents make this point only too clearly. The Coast Guard in November concluded its investigation into the fatal collision between the 92-foot sailing yacht Essence and a 623-foot coal carrier that occurred shortly after 4 a.m. on Long Island Sound in September 2006 (see story Page 10). Investigators found that the chief cause of the accident was the failure of the mate skippering Essence to properly interpret the lights on the freighter Barkald. He wound up turning the sailboat directly into the path of the ship. The collision sank Essence and claimed one life.

The mate obviously was confused about either what he saw or where he thought he was relative to the Barkald as the two vessels steamed toward one another on a collision course about 12 miles southeast of New Haven, Conn. The mate initially spotted the ship when it was more than 10 miles away, according to the Coast Guard. Starting at that distance, he should have been able to determine whether he was at risk of colliding with the freighter by watching for a change in the appearance or aspect of the Barkald’s masthead lights (range lights) and side lights. If the appearance of the lights didn’t change appreciably, it should have been an indication that his relative bearing from the other vessel was constant — constant bearing, decreasing range, a clear sign of danger. (Remember, at very close range, however, you still are at risk of collision even though the bearing and aspect of the ship changes.)

What is less clear — and no less troubling — is why the crew on the bridge of the freighter didn’t see the 92-foot sailboat, either visually or on its radar. (The Coast Guard investigator didn’t know whether Essence had a radar reflector.) The Barkald was faulted for failing to adequately determine that a risk of collision existed, including not maintaining a proper look-out, but the Coast Guard referred to those as “contributing factors” rather than the primary one, which it has placed on the mate’s actions.

Other than darkness, conditions do not appear to have been a factor that morning: 2- to 3-foot seas, light winds and good visibility. There were four people on the bridge of the outbound Barkald — pilot, helmsman, watch officer and second mate. The bottom line is this accident — as well as the three incidents below — could have been avoided with a healthy dose of good seamanship.

• In June, a barge being pushed by a tug struck a 24-foot powerboat anchored and fishing near the edge of a channel in western Long Island Sound in daylight. One person died, and the skipper of the pleasure boat reportedly said he thought the barge would turn and avoid his boat. When it became clear that a collision was imminent, the victims jumped into the water.

• On a foggy, predawn morning in September on Puget Sound near Port Townsend, Wash., the pilots on four deep-draft ships, not to mention the people on duty in the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service, had more than a few tense moments when a small vessel meandered through the traffic separation lanes. The small boat — the Coast Guard believes it was a recreational angler — was unaware of the large northbound and southbound ships that had to be hastily diverted from their charted lanes. The unknown operatordidn’t answer radio calls and didn’t appear to be using radar.

“It was a potentially very hazardous situation,” says Mark Ashley, a retired Coast Guard captain who is operations director for the Puget Sound VTS.

• Around 11 p.m. on a clear night in October, a 24-foot sportfishing boat in lower New York Bay turned between a tug and the barge it was towing, struck the hawser and capsized, killing two passengers. The tug operator had been blowing the danger signal — five blasts on its horn — shining its spotlight on its hawser and barge, and trying to reach the small boat over VHF radio, according to reports.

We all need to remain particularly vigilant when operating in waters also shared by large ships. It seems basic, but it’s probably worth repeating: large commercial vessels are severely restricted in their ability to maneuver and stop, so keep your distance and make your intentions known early and clearly. Keep in mind that tugs and barges, and ships can take anywhere from about 1/2 to 1-1/2 miles or more to stop. And they often are traveling faster than they appear, so trying to “outrun” one can be hazardous to your health.

Also, never assume that another vessel, regardless of its size, sees you and will somehow steer around you. Maintain a high level of situational awareness and be proactive. The rules on this are clear: You must take all available means to detect and avoid a collision.

At night, we need to be able to properly read and interpret the lights of all vessels we encounter. If you have radar, learn radar navigation and collision avoidance in the daytime so that you’ll be comfortable and proficient operating it once the sun goes down and in limited visibility. If there’s any doubt regarding intentions, try to communicate with the commercial vessel using channels 13 and 16.

Next month each Soundings subscriber will receive the third edition of our Master’s Series digests, this one titled “Seamanship & Safety.” In it you’ll find reference to the rule of gross tonnage.