Near Collision – Single Handed Yachtsman

Near Collision – Single Handed Yachtsman

Report Text:

I was sailing single-handed in my yacht which had been substantially refitted during the course of this summer for the purpose of the cruise, of which this was the first stage. I have been sailing, mostly but not exclusively single-handed, for over 40 years. I have held the Yachtmaster Offshore certificate since the early eighties and I also have considerable racing experience in my home waters.  I believe I understand the risks of single-handed sailing well and, on voyages such as this one, restrict my sleep breaks to 20 minutes and often wake earlier than this.

As an aid to keeping a lookout, I have fitted two forward-facing windows in the coach roof – there are the standard three each side as well. Otherwise the yacht is fitted out conventionally for this type of sailing, with Hydrovane self-steering and roller-reefing genoa. The fully-battened main rolls round the boom for both reefing and stowage. To aid daytime visibility a top section of the mast is covered with fluorescent orange vinyl and, most importantly, for this trip I have invested in an active radar target enhancer in place of my previous 18-inch conventional square reflector. It is mounted on a separate spar at the stern and stands about 3m above water level. The control box flashes a red LED every time it replies to a radar interrogation, does not use much current even when doing so, and the makers assure me that the effect on the receiving radar’s screen is similar to the echo from a super tanker.

The incident took place at about 49d 52′ N 003d 24′ W. We were heading for Ushant and right on the rhumbline of 220 degrees, close reaching on port tack under Hydrovane, with the tiller lashed. Both genoa and main were part-reefed as the wind had earlier risen to the lower end of Force 5, and I had left them like that, although it had dropped back to F3, because there was quite a spectacular thunderstorm in the direction of the Channel Islands and also because that raised the foot of the genoa and thus improved visibility from inside. I was thus making about 4 knots and exhibiting only the masthead tricolour light. I had just had “20 winks”, taken a look round from inside, without seeing anything, and checked the course and track. The radar enhancer showed that there must be a few radars around. I was sitting on the port saloon berth considering what best to do next when a very loud horn blast precipitated me into the cockpit.

One look round the genoa showed a large vessel behind it coming up Channel. By the time I had reached the tiller, I had rejected the possibility of tacking – it takes too long with the self-steering (and meant turning to port and sailing along with the threat). Whatever I did with the helm, after I had unfastened it, would be immediately counteracted by the self-steering anyway, so I went straight past it and turned the vane, which I never clamp solid, through 90 degrees. Fortunately the Hydrovane’s own rudder was up to this challenge and we immediately started to bear away to starboard. Meanwhile the ship’s bow had appeared round my forestay (still hooting) and I became concerned as to how wide her beam was…  I returned to the tiller, freed it and used the main rudder to finish off the turn, finding that we had less than a boat length clearance when we came to the parallel hull. We continued thus down her side, and I waved at the bridge but couldn’t make anyone out. When we got to her stern I was unable to read her name (other than that it seemed very long, possibly three words) against the deck lights. There was no lettering down the side; she was not heavily laden. I would estimate her size as approximately 90 000 tons. At the time she seemed to go on for ever.

I was very grateful for the warning that was given me, late though it was. Had it been any later, or had I been unable for some reason to get to the controls as quickly as I did, or indeed done the wrong thing in the initial surprise, I would not be writing to you now. I think I have drawn all the useful lessons that apply to me from this experience and now look around the genoa at least thrice, but I still wonder how the ship came to be in such a potentially disastrous situation in view of my use of the ARTE.

CHIRP Comment:

This incident; so nearly a tragedy, took place close to the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) off the Casquets in the English Channel; one of the busiest commercial waterways in the world.  Unfortunately the reporter was unable to see the name of the vessel involved and CHIRP has not been able to trace it.

Merchant vessels navigating in this area will often be lined up for the TSS well before they enter the lanes and therefore traffic is concentrated along the course lines associated with the TSS for a considerable distance before and after the Scheme itself.

Eastbound traffic will generally be following a course of around 075o(T) and westbound around 255o(T); the 220o(T) track reported therefore crosses the lines of traffic obliquely and may cause uncertainty as to whether the yacht is crossing or following the direction of traffic flow.  In addition the course selected increases the period of time the yacht is exposed to encounters with merchant vessels.

The “20 winks” reported would appear to have been taken whilst crossing the westbound lane.

The particular radar enhancer in use should have been effective provided the merchant vessel was operating its 10cm radar and this was the radar being used by the Officer of the Watch (OOW).  It is entirely possible the OOW may have been observing the 3cm radar on which the radar enhancer would have been ineffective and the yacht more difficult to detect. (See “Collision with Fishing Vessel” earlier).

The Board makes the following comments:

  • It is not possible to comply with Rule 5 of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea if you are asleep!
  • If necessary at all, single handed transits must be approached and planned with particular caution considering factors such as length of transit, avoiding known areas of dense traffic and/or crossing them as quickly as possible.
  • At night shining a light on the sail is often of assistance.
  • Radar enhancers may be useful, but their limitations should be borne in mind; the handbook for this particular equipment states it:

“…does not obviate you from your responsibility under the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea to both keep a good lookout and to take whatever action is required to avoid a collision.

  • Boats under 12m LOA are only required to carry side lights with a visible range of 1nm, which when sailing close hauled and heeled > 5o may be reduced to 0.5nm. 0.5nm will be covered by a ship making 20 knots in 90 seconds i.e. giving just enough time to lean on the whistle if you’re spotted instantly!
  • There appears to be an assumption the onus is on the larger vessel to detect the smaller; there is in fact a joint obligation so make sure your life is in your hands!