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Avoiding Collisions at Sea—A Proactive Approach

This article was originally published on SailNet in April 2001.

Even if the conditions are perfect, finding your boat on a convergence course with a larger vessel in close quarters is serious business. It's best to make your course alterations early before a scenario like the one depicted above starts to play itself out.
A converging course with commercial traffic on the high seas is an unsettling experience to say the least. Not only are containerships, cruise ships, and other vessels much larger and faster than the average sailboat, but their maneuverability characteristics are markedly different. The ocean's vastness leaves reference points few and far between, and the speeds of these ships can be easily misjudged, especially if viewed from head on or at night. In reduced visibility, the time between first sighting a ship and a collision can be as little as a minute. While there's plenty of ocean for everyone to navigate safely, reduced visibility, fatigue, engine problems, fickle winds, inexperience, or any combination of the above can make crossing situations extremely dangerous for sailors aboard smaller vessels. While any close encounter at sea won't be stress-free for the crews of small sailing craft, these situations can be made safer if you know what you're dealing with.

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.

Large ships like the one above ordinarily rely on radar for avoiding other vessels, but there's no guarantee that your boat will register on their screen in any meaningful way. The onus for avoidance is on you.
Keep in mind that these ships are using their radar as a primary means to look out for other ships, and that a small fiberglass or wooden boat gives a poor radar return on most screens. The size discrepancy between the two types of vessels means that the average sailboat is essentially operating in stealth mode. In a seaway, you may be tuned out entirely as sea clutter—or register no more than a momentary and inconsistent blip, indistinguishable from any other wave in the area. You should ensure that your boat gives as strong a radar return as possible by mounting a radar reflector as high as possible and in the catch-rain position. Many cruising boats have a radar reflector mounted near the spreaders, and there are still other models that mount forward of the mast and even one model that mounts on the masthead. You'll have to check out the manufacturers' specs and your own rig arrangement to see which is best suited for your vessel. One boat we cruised with on a trip from San Francisco to Charleston made use of two radar reflectors mounted in the shrouds, and fellow buddy-boats that had radar consistently gave it high marks for its strong return. Radar is a useful tool to identify, track, and confirm that courses are not converging, as well as to confirm that what the eyes register is what's actually occurring, although plenty of cruising boats have sailed successfully without radar, having a reflector is always a prudent idea.

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.

In high-current areas and narrow channels, ships must maintain speed to preserve their steerage, which means you'd better not get your vessel in their way.
On our boat, we've found that an extra set of eyes always helps, especially when you're sailing shorthanded, as is the case on many cruising boats whose crew is often a couple. Ideally, it's best to operate outside of prescribed shipping lanes, but sometimes it's not entirely possible. On our way to Panama City and the Canal we once encountered nine ships making their way down along the Pacific coast of Panama, all of them less than a mile off the coast creating a traffic scheme that bordered on mayhem. In tight quarters it may be necessary to keep track of several courses simultaneously—no small feat for one set of tired eyes. While you may not want to wake up your partner, this is one of those situations where it's better to ask for help than to go at it alone. You can either wake him or her up early, or have the disconcerting sound of a ships engine do the waking up—not a real confidence booster and a lousy way to be rousted from a bunk.

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.

The author and his mate during their first transit of the Panama Canal—proof that there's plenty of room for ships and small sailing vessels to coexist in the same waters.
A ship's masthead lights (the white lights that are mounted over the vessel's centerline fore and aft) are likely to be seen before its red and green running lights. These white lights are brighter and mounted higher than the running lights, and must be visible for at least six miles, while the red and green running lights are visible for half of that, three miles. The aft masthead light is higher than the for masthead light. How close the white light in the back lines up with the white light forward indicates how near the ship will pass. The farther these are apart, the more you are viewing the ship from its beam. If two white lights are lined up on top of each other, the boat is headed at you. If the lower, forward range light is to the left of the higher aft white light, the vessel is heading to your left as you face it. Binoculars can help discern running lights and masthead lights, and taking a bearing on the ship with a hand-bearing compass is also useful. If the bearing doesn't change, your courses are converging. A vessel over 50 meters will show the above configurations, while vessels less than 50 meters will show only one masthead light.

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.

Suggested Reading:

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

Mark Matthews is offline  
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