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Too Close for Comfort

A sobering reason to review tips for collision avoidance in a narrow waterway
Large vessels have limited maneuverability and cannot stop on a dime, which means smaller vessels cannot insist on right of way and often should give way.

Large vessels have limited maneuverability and cannot stop on a dime, which means smaller vessels cannot insist on right of way and often should give way.

In June 2019, the 85-foot pilot schooner Elbe No. 5, known to many of us as California’s ex-Wander Bird, collided with the 462-foot container ship Astrosprinter on the Elbe River near Hamburg, Germany. The schooner was 136 years old and had just completed a $1.7 million restoration. She had 43 people on board, all of them rescued by five response boats that were nearby for another accident. The historic schooner sank shortly after being towed to a shallow area.

Her demise is a sobering opportunity to review some fundamentals about avoiding ships in narrow channels and rivers. Because of draft and limited maneuverability, ships in those types of waterways often cannot deviate from their track. They cannot stop easily or even slow down like a smaller vessel can. Because a ship’s navigation bridge is so far away from the bow, the crew often have a significant blind spot ahead of the ship—sometimes more than 1,000 feet. You can see them all right, but they often cannot see you dead ahead.

Nothing in the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) exonerates any vessel from avoiding a collision. Rule 2(b) lays out the basics: “Due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.”

What exactly are special circumstances and limitations? Those vessels that are fishing, sailing, not under command, constrained by draft, and towing are examples. We recreational vessel operators need to assess our own boats and others around us. A narrow channel with an oncoming ship is no place to insist on right of way because you are making way under sail alone.

Rule 9(a) addresses the conduct of vessels in narrow channels: “A vessel proceeding along the course of a narrow channel or fairway shall keep as near to the outer limit of the channel or fairway which lies on her starboard side as is safe and practicable.”

For most of us with recreational boats, Rule 9(b) certainly applies, going further to clarify by stating that “a vessel of less than 20 meters (65 feet) 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.” That means it’s safest to run along the edge of the channel, even if it means running the left edge of the channel and passing starboard to starboard.

Vessel traffic separation schemes also address what should happen in narrow channels and rivers, and International Rule 10(j) speaks plainly to us again: “A vessel of less than 20 meters [65 feet] in length or a sailing vessel shall not impede the safe passage of a power-driven vessel following a traffic lane.”

You should anticipate the ship’s upcoming movements. Is he swinging toward the right or left, or shaping up to a new heading in the channel? Be aware of the channel’s layout. Which way will the channel curve next?

If a ship has a steady bearing and decreasing range, then you are headed for a collision. This is the time to act: Ease your sheets and bear away for a safe passing. Make the course change large enough to be readily apparent to the ship, and avoid small, incremental course changes.

Ships are always making way faster than you think they are, so don’t pass just ahead of a ship, and avoid tacking in front of a fast-moving ship in a narrow channel. Many sailing vessels will lose speed when tacking. Finding yourself at reduced speed with a big bruiser bearing down on you is the best way to ruin your day.

Once you are established on your new heading, check your bearing on the ship again. If you have made a sufficient effort to move out of the way, then you will see his bearing opening. Electronic collision avoidance equipment is used in the same way as visual bearings. Always reevaluate and confirm your new information after changing course.

Assessing conditions at night is more difficult. Your watch-standers and your designated lookout should know the basics of navigation light configurations. Make sure they know to call for a second set of eyes if they are concerned or confused. Lights on land make it even more difficult to discern moving ships’ lights, so watch for black silhouettes and for barge side lights, which can blend in with shore lights.

If you are on a sailboat and concerned that a ship does not see you, then shine a flashlight or spotlight steadily into your mainsail. Never shine a spotlight into another vessel’s wheelhouse.

If you need to cross a channel, then cross at a perpendicular angle to the channel. Wait for any nearby ship to pass, and if it’s a tugboat, watch for a possible tow behind it, then cross astern of the ship if you won’t impede another vessel.

If you don’t need to be in the ship channel, cross, or run the edge where ships will not transit.

The working VHF radio channel for vessel-to-vessel communications is 13. Ships have pilots aboard in inland waters, and you should monitor that channel. Combined with radar and/or AIS, the VHF radio information will tell you about inbound and outbound ship traffic and the ships’ names. Even if your vessel is not equipped with AIS, you can receive AIS cellular identification information on your smartphone or iPad with the Marine
Traffic app (visit

Ship pilots are happy to hear from recreational boaters who call to identify themselves, make passing agreements and give assurances that they will stay clear of the ship in the channel. When you hail a ship, identify yourself relative to a buoy, known reference point or GPS position. Remember, a ship’s crew might be looking at a dozen other small boats. Identify yourself clearly, and make your position obvious. There’s nothing more frustrating for a ship’s bridge team than a VHF call from a small boat identifying itself as the “white sailboat on your starboard bow.”

Anchoring in a ship channel is illegal and life-threatening. If you find yourself disabled, call an approaching ship’s crew on the VHF well in advance of their arrival to your proximity. Ships often travel inland waters at maneuvering speed—12 to 15 knots—so do not expect a ship to slow or stop. Reversing a ship’s engine could cause loss of control, and even if a ship wanted to stop for you, doing so could take more than a mile. The worst-case scenario is what happened to Elbe No. 5; online news photos show her at precisely the moment she was T-boned. As horrible as this collision was, it could have been worse. No one was killed.

An investigation is ongoing to explain how Elbe No. 5 came to be directly in the path of Astrosprinter. One thing is for sure: Ships have their own operating burdens and are often unable to maneuver clear of a vessel in a narrow channel. It’s incumbent upon smaller vessels to stay out of harm’s way.

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.



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