You shall, not should, keep a watch

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Whenever there’s a collision on the water, one of the first questions a marine investigator will ask a vessel’s crew is, “Were you keeping a watch?”

“It’s one of the basic Rules of the Road,” says Jerry Dzugan, director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, a national fishermen’s safety organization. “Every boat is required to keep a watch. The Rules of the Road say you shall keep a watch. It doesn’t say you should. You are required to — by sight and by sound.”

If a crew is not keeping a watch and there is a collision and casualties, the skipper or crew could be held criminally, as well as civilly, liable, Dzugan says. It’s foolish for a fishing vessel, pleasure boat — any vessel, really — not to keep an eye out for ships in a busy seaway, he says. “You cannot assume the other guy is keeping a watch.” Often he is not, not a proper one anyway.

Dzugan says he was taking some training on the bridge of a Baltic ferry years ago, and the third mate who was on watch at the time was reading a magazine instead of keeping an eye on the radar and the seaway ahead. “I could see a fishing vessel off our starboard bow,” Dzugan says. “[The watchstander] was not paying attention to it. He knew he was big, and the other guy would have to give way.” A watchstander could be derelict or fatigued, his attention wandering as he gazes out a window instead of looking at the radar or his attention to detail blurred by hours of scanning the horizon.

Without excusing poor watchstanding habits, Dzugan says there are reasons fishing boats are notorious for not keeping proper watches:

Fatique: “When you’re fishing, you don’t pay any attention to your diurnal clock,” he says. Fishermen work day and night — fishing, getting under way,

unloading at the dock, dealing with bad weather, fixing broken equipment and gear. It is a bone-wearing job. Commercial fishermen, obviously, aren’t the only mariners adversely affected by fatigue. Lack of sleep and attention has played a role in many recreational boating accidents, as well.

• Regulatory regimes: When Dzugan was fishing, the halibut season in Alaska went from seven days to five to three. “By the time you get down to three days of fishing, you get no sleep. We got 1-1/2 to 2 hours sleep a night. … What are you going to do, sleep or make money?”

• Inexperience and lack of formal training: The least experienced hand often winds up on the 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. watch. “The skipper says, ‘If you see anything unusual, call me,’ ” Dzugan says. Often the novice watchstander can’t make heads or tails of what he sees on the radar, particularly in bad weather or heavy seas. Yet he’s probably not going to wake the captain every time he sees an indecipherable dot on the radar because he’ll get yelled at.

• AIS will help: It’s not easy to keep a proper watch on a busy seaway, even for an experienced hand, Dzugan says. The watchstander should keep an eye on the water; keep an ear out for horns, whistles or bells; monitor channel 16 on the radio; and watch the radar, the chart plotter and depth sounder. If the watchstander notices another vessel in the vicinity, he’s responsible to “be proactive and set up a communications schedule with that vessel,” Dzugan says.

“[In heavy traffic] it can be hard sometimes to figure out what’s going on,” he says. Watchstanding is not a catch-as-catch-can job.

Dzugan recommends equipping boats with AIS. AIS, or Automatic Identification System, was developed as a collision-avoidance tool to enable commercial vessels to electronically “see” each other in all conditions. The system transmits a vessel’s information — position, course, speed, whether it’s under way or at anchor, and name and type of vessel — to other AIS-equipped vessels and receives the same information about them, overlaid on radar or a chart plotter. Class A and B systems transmit and receive data, while Class C units only receive data.

All ships today are required to carry AIS. The Coast Guard is considering expanding the carriage requirements for AIS to fishing vessels 65 feet or longer, high-speed passenger vessels, and vessels carrying or moving dangerous cargo, among others, and require them to carry it in all U.S. navigable waters.

“It’s an excellent tool for telling other boats where I am and who I am,” Dzugan says.

The Coast Guard says Class B models for recreational and light commercial vessels can be found for $600 to $5,000. “It’s certainly an aid to helping other boats identify you,” he says.

And it can help prevent deadly collisions.

See related article: "Mystery: What sank the Lady Mary?"

 This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue.