Channel Encounter

31st January 2011

Channel Encounter

Initial Report

Report Text:

We were approximately 11NM north of Cherbourg’s outer breakwater, 2.5hrs into our passage towards the Needles Channel on our sailing yacht.  My one crew and I were well-rested and both on watch. My crew was steering while I concentrated on navigation.  We were both keeping a good lookout, especially as we were approaching the eastbound shipping lane.  My vessel is equipped with a VHF radio, GPS and a stand-alone radar, but no chart plotter, AIS system or DSC-enabled VHF)  We carry a medium-sized  radar reflector permanently mounted on the mast.

Our yacht was on a heading of 000 degrees, fine-reaching into a west-north-westerly force four with some gusts, and there was a slight to moderate swell from the west-south-west.  We were making between 4.5 and 5.0kts through the water  under all plain sail.  The weather was fine and visibility very good.

At 1133 BST I saw the first eastbound ship in the distance and noted its bearing as 315 degrees using the hand-bearing compass.  As a check I also marked the ship as a contact on our radar..

At 1139 the ship, now close enough for its red hull colour to be clearly discernable, was still on the same bearing of 315 degrees, and a quick check of the radar showed the contact directly on the EBL indicating a possible collision.  There was no shipping visible ahead of the red vessel, although a more distant vessel astern of it had also been sighted on a bearing of 300 degrees.  At this stage I attempted to contact the red ship’s bridge on the VHF.  Although unable to properly identify the vessel by name at this distance even using binoculars, I called up the vessel “Red ship, red ship in approximate position 49 deg 54 min N 1 deg 30 min W” twice on Ch16, then on Ch13, but without any response.

I was now extremely concerned that this ship did not appear to be aware of our presence, nor of the developing close-quarters situation.  At about 1145, with the ship now less than 0.4NM away and on the same bearing of 315 degrees, I told my crew to bear away sharply (ie turn clearly to starboard) in an attempt to avoid being run down.  Now sailing by the lee, with the wind almost dead astern, our attention was fully on ensuring that the yacht gybed safely around.  When we turned to look astern, we saw the red ship at a distance of no more than about 300-400m altering violently to starboard, heeling as it turned.

After the red ship had safely passed under our stern, we quickly resumed our original course and I made no further attempt to contact it, my attention now focused on the next eastbound ship approaching in the middle-distance.

Lessons Learned: My immediate thoughts after this near-miss concerned whether the red ship had indeed be aware of us early on, and had – before we turned to starboard – originally planned to pass astern of us by a narrow margin.  However I quickly came to the conclusion that this was unlikely as the CPA was always too tight and it would have been extremely hazardous to have risked doing so.  This, and the fact that we had got no response to our VHF transmissions, confirmed my original view that the ship was completely unaware of our presence until the last moment (possibly it was only our changing aspect as we gybed around that alerted him to our position right on his bows).  I also immediately decided to treat ALL commercial vessels in the shipping lanes with even more caution than usual, later on bearing away or gybing around early, despite being the stand-on vessel, to ensure that two other ships which were approaching on barely-changing bearings passed safely ahead of us. One of these vessels which passed close ahead of us, also didn’t respond to my transmissions on Ch16.

My subsequent thoughts (not substantiated by any professional maritime experience) questioned whether commercial shipping now relies solely on other vessels, including leisure boats, being widely equipped with DSC and AIS – assuming that they will usually be contacted directly only using only modern digital means rather than traditional VHF broadcasts.

POSTSCRIPT:  Concerning a reassuring encounter later on the same passage.  Under power only and with navigation and steaming lights on, at 2145 BST off Bembridge Ledge on the Isle of Wight and heading north towards Portsmouth, a large ferry approached us heading south-west at slow speed. I was about to shine a 12v spotlight onto our deck, when a powerful searchlight from one side of the ferry’s bridge briefly illuminated us, turning off after a second or two.  Although surprised by how close inshore the ferry was operating, I was most reassured by its slow speed and use of searchlights.

CHIRP Comment:

The yachtsman acted correctly in keeping a careful watch on the approaching vessel, and in not assuming that officer of the watch had seen him.  It is important not to make such an assumption as it can be difficult to spot the white sails of a yacht amongst white-topped waves from the bridge of a ship. Furthermore, whilst the fitting of an effective radar reflector is very prudent, it still does not guarantee that a yacht will be detected.  (The MAIB report on the loss of the yacht Ouzo (Report No. 7/2007) describes the issues that can impact on the efficiency of radar reflectors.)

In saying this, we do not condone the failure of a ship to keep a proper look-out.

From the account, we share the assumption that the red-hulled ship had not seen the yacht until a late stage.  The yacht took appropriate action to avoid collision under Rule 17 of the ColRegs when it became apparent that the ship was not taking appropriate action.

The yachtsman mentions that this ship and another did not respond to a call on VHF channel 16.  Although many ships keep a listening watch on channel 16, it is no longer mandatory to do so.  The advent of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System has meant that all emergency, safety and routine messages are received without needing a dedicated listening watch.  When a message is sent to and received by a specific ship, an audible alarm is sounded on the bridge.

Digital Selective Calling (DSC) is a component of GMDSS.  Whilst it is voluntary for small craft used solely for leisure purposes, the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency strongly recommends that these vessels have DSC radios.  More information can be found in the MCA leaflet No 103 which can be accessed via www.mcga.gov.uk/c4mca/gmdss.pdf or by entering mca dsc in a search engine.

To send a message to a specific ship, you need to know its Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) which can be obtained from its Automatic Identification System transmission.  Therefore it appears implicit in the recommendation to have DSC radio that you also need an AIS receiver if you wish to call other vessels to obtain assurance that you have been sighted. 

In summary, our general advice to yachtsmen is:

  • Be aware of the possibility that you have not been seen.
  • Be prepared to take avoiding action, as prescribed by the ColRegs, in good time.
  • Sail defensively.

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