Like Sailingdog, I am glad Labatt's experience was positive. Most merchant ships do not feel that they own the canal or the right of way-they just want to avoid to get from point A to point B without scratching the paint.(g) In confined waters, such as the C&D canal, it is quite appropriate for even a small sailboat to make a "securite" call, especially in restricted visibility. "This is sailing vessel 'Emily Marie' southbound at can 32, running just outside the channel, standing by for all concerned traffic", is all that is needed. The mate on watch will glance at his radar to pick you out. He may call back, if necessary. If he doesn't spot you, he's going to get real concerned about that damn sailboat out there somewhere. Things that you might hear back from him include such as; what type vessel, length, manoeuvering difficulties, or the fact that "he's gonna edge her over to the other side of the channel to be able to make the next bend against the current." Hearing such on the VHF is a lot better than having hundreds of feet of tug and barge appear ahead and wondering why he's on your side of the "road".
It's not a bad idea, especially in restricted visibility, to jot down the names and positions of the traffic you hear on the VHF. The mate on watch is much more likely to answer your call if you are calling with the name of his ship.
Manoeuvering decisions on ships, as well as tug/tows, are made much further in advance than on small boats. Labatt's 3-4 miles is getting down to the inner limits of decision making. At that distance, which seems quite a ways off on a sailboat, it is advisable to call the on-coming vessel if you intend to alter course such as, "this is sailing vessel Emily Marie to northbound tug with barge on the hip, I intend to alter course to port, cross the channel, and run inside the buoys towards XYZ Point. I will stay clear of you but cannot go outside the channel." Communications such as this are why you bought the VHF in the first place. It is very difficult for the small craft to envision the perspective of the mate or pilot on a much larger ship or tug/tow. A mile, on my sailboat, is a substantial distance. A mile, on a ship, may well mean that the die is already cast as to whether or not two vessels will collide. The ship may be able to make a course alteration, whose only effect may be that while he doesn't hit you with the bow he catches you with the stern on the swing. When a ship makes a course change, at a mile, to miss you, it is probably likely that you will have to make a radical course change to avoid collision as well. Crossing situations at that distance are very nerve wracking on the bridge of the ship. As you disappear from view, under the port bows, silent prayers are offered that you appear shortly under the starboard bows and pass safely down the side.
Your radar reflector will "light you up" as well as a buoy and, the mate on watch, while not necessarily knowing who or what you are, will endeavor to miss you. If he's got doubts he'll be on the VHF expressing them. It's really nice, with the reflector, to have picked up the sailboat at distance and already plotted her track, versus her just appearing at short range with no idea, and limited time to ascertain her course. It's even worse to have the phone ring, and hear the bow lookout report a sailboat close aboard (that you can't see!) and express doubts about her clearing you. The result of that can be going full astern, in an attempt to back down hard, losing control of the ship, and drifting off out of the channel to ground, as Sammy Sailor motors on by with an oblivious wave of the cap.
I am sure the fellows on the tug were quite devatated by the collision as well. Please fly your radar reflectors and use your VHF appropriately.
“Scientists are people who build the Brooklyn Bridge and then buy it.”
Wm. F. Buckley, Jr.