This article was originally published on SailNet in April 2001.
Might Makes Right When it comes to dealing with commercial traffic, make no doubt about it, might makes right. Ships are well designed to transit large expanses of ocean at high speeds in essentially straight lines. They are not designed to maneuver around small sailboats at the last minute, and crash stopping one of these giants is likely to take several miles. Compare your own engine against a veritable factory, churning out 27,000 horsepower via a 25-foot-diameter prop located 30 feet below the surface of the water, and you'll know that you need to act accordingly.
Some of these modern-day leviathans travel 20,000 nautical miles between pitstops, and at 20 knots, they're likely to be traveling four to five times faster than the average sailboat. Given the globe girdling these ships do and the nature of international commerce, such vessels are likely crewed by non-native English speakers, which may complicate radio conversations should the need arise for you to contact the ship via radio. In most cases, it's likely that there's only a handful of crew actually on the bridge, and the autopilot is probably on duty. I once had the opportunity to tour an Iranian bulk cargo carrier while cruising off Italy in the Mediterranean. When I asked the crew if they had ever seen a sailboat underway, they said no—a scary answer given the extremely high number of cruising boats in the Med.
Look, Listen, See, and be Seen The best step to avoiding close encounters is altering course early on. This can only be done if you have a proper lookout, one that can use his or her full faculties on watch. In instances of reduced visibility or at night, a ship can often be heard before it can be seen. Conditions will dictate whether this is the case—for instance in strong breezes with the ship approaching to leeward, it wouldn't. Still, lookouts should not underestimate the power of hearing as a means of early warning.
Visual and Radio Contact Another effective way to make sure you are seen at night is by shining a bright spotlight on your boat's sails. Under most circumstances, the reflected light can be seen for a long distance, and when used in conjunction with VHF, this approach can ensure that your boat is evident to other vessels in your vicinity. Incidentally, don't be shy about using the VHF either. Many new cruisers find the VHF a little intimidating, especially when hailing commercial traffic. A typical radio hail would go something like this: "Motor vessel off my starboard bow, motor vessel off my starboard bow, this is the sailing vessel Radiance, the green light three miles off your port bow, do you read, over?" Be ready to reply with your position, and remember it's always better to call early in a crossing situation than to wait, especially if it looks like it's going to be close. Try Channel 13 as well as Channel 16. You'll find that a handheld VHF can be invaluable in these situations as it allows you to make that broadcast from the helm, which is where you want to be when there are other vessels in your area.
Know Navigational Lights Clearly, the earlier you can identify a ship's heading, the better. Generally, the idea is to present the same color light that the nearing ship displays. If you see a green light, or its starboard or right side, show that vessel your own green light. You are now poised to pass starboard to starboard. If you see a red light, show a red light, and pass port to port. If you see a red and green light, the ship is coming at you and it's time to get out of the way, whether by changing course or by starting the engine. Aiming for the stern in crossing situations is also prudent.
Above all, keep your cool when encountering ships at sea. It might help to know that a Panamax ship, despite measuring a maximum of 965 feet long, is merely 105 feet wide, equal to only three or four-odd boatlengths, a span easily covered within any reasonable amount of wind. That fact should not encourage the master of any vessel to risk crossing in front anywhere but miles ahead. If that ship happens to be altering course at the same time you are crossing, you'll be a deer in the headlights. For those that sail long distances, encountering ships at sea is practically unavoidable. With the right knowledge and experience, however, there should be ample room and time for both vessels to cross safely.
Navigating with Radar by Jim Sexton
Rules of the Road by John Rousmaniere
Crew Safety Briefing, Part Two by Liza Copeland
SailNet Store Section: Radar and Randome Systems
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