An Alarming Encounter

31st July 2009

An Alarming Encounter

Initial Report

Report Text:

While sailing our yacht, we had an incident!!

We  had changed watch-keeper at midnight.  Wind was Force 5 and weather fair with sea state slight. We were sailing well (5 knots) and had the tricolour lit.

We observed a number of ships making their way either in or out of a nearby port and safely passed between them.  Our yacht was sailing well in open water  when a ship was heard, then seen 50 feet or less from our stern and some 30 feet to starboard travelling at circa 15 knots.  We made an emergency turn to port and the ship passed down our starboard side causing much turbulence and pounding hearts.

The vessel appeared black and had no one on watch.  The bridge lights were on and therefore the watch-keeper must have been undertaking a task such as filling in the log or chart corrections etc.  No one appeared to look over the side.

Our yacht has a radar reflector and the helmsman had looked behind him and not seen the vessel approaching some 5-10 minutes prior to the incident.  It could be that the lights were hidden by the town lighting, however the merchant vessel should have seen the yacht with full sail and lights.

Our suspicions are that the watch-keeper had put the vessel on auto at “full away” and was undertaking other tasks.  The crew of the yacht could have ended up as another Ouzo!!

CHIRP Comment:

We can well envisage that the circumstances were most alarming.  As we do not have the name of the ship, we were not able to follow it up with the manager, so we do not know whether the assertion that the ship had no one on watch was in fact the case. Nevertheless we can make the following observations in respect of the navigation of the ship.

  1. Even if the Officer of the Watch was engaged for short periods in other essential duties such as plotting the vessel’s position, he should still have been keeping a proper lookout, visually and using the radar. He should not have been engaged in routine tasks such as chart correcting (if that is what he was indeed doing.).
  2. Furthermore, during darkness there should have been another person on the bridge dedicated to keeping a look-out.
  3. It would be completely unacceptable for the wheelhouse lights to be on as this would impair the keeping of a proper look-out.

There are also aspects that can be considered in respect of the yacht.

a) As the weather was fair, the ship was probably readily visible at least three miles distance. Assuming the ship was travelling at, say, 15 knots and the yacht was going in the same direction at 5 knots, their relative speed would have been about 10 knots. If these assumptions are correct, the ship should have been visible from the yacht for at least 20 minutes prior to the incident.

b) By the time the ship was within, say, two miles, (or about 12 minutes before the incident), it should have been apparent that there was a risk of collision.

c) At this stage, the following actions may have been appropriate:

  • Skipper to be called.
  • Direct a series of at least five short and rapid flashes on a flashlight towards the ship. (Refer to Rule 34 d of the ColRegs.)
  • Illuminate the sails with the flashlight. (ColRegs Rule 36)
  • Endeavour to contact the ship by VHF.
  • If the crew are not already following the RNLI advice always to wear a lifejacket when afloat, this may be a good time to do so.
  • Consider what action the yacht can take to avoid collision under Rule 17(b) (Action by Stand-on Vessel) if the ship fails to give way.
  • Consider starting the engine to assist in such avoiding action.

In summary, “Sail Defensively”.

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