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  • 1 Post By Randy Harman
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Old 01-12-2004
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Encounters of the Large Kind


The first part to staying out of the way is to recognize that large ships can't turn on a dime. Taking evasive action early is always the best bet to avoid being crowded out on the high seas.

Large, ocean-going vessels remain a major potential hazard for cruisers. As most experienced cruisers know, those on duty on the bridge of these ships rely on radar to detect/track other vessels in their vicinity. Unfortunately, the sea clutter and gain controls are usually adjusted to a level where a small sailboat may not trigger the alarm—even with the assistance of a radar reflector. Given the speed and inertia of ships, the watch officers on board have limited maneuverability to avoid small boats in their path. Thus it is up to the crew on the sailboat to stay clear of much larger vessels.

In this situation, the adage ‘might makes right' is appropriate and we must be ever-vigilant when we choose to share the same ocean areas with these freighters, tankers, and bulk carriers. The following accounts of first-hand experiences should help illustrate this important point.

Camphor     We had left Pelican Bay on the north side of Santa Cruz, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California, en route to the mainland. It was an easy port-tack beam reach passage under a Force 3 breeze from the west until the fog appeared. Although the mainland had been clearly visible when we left, the fog reduced our visibility to less than 100 yards as we approached the shipping lanes.


Restricted visibility can exacerbate crossing situations and send the pulse of crews racing should a surprise jump out of the fog.

Louise—my first mate and wife—was at the helm while I plotted our position from the nav station down below. When leaving the separation zone and entering the west-bound shipping lane, I told her our position and cautioned her to keep a sharp eye to starboard. Louise responded:"Oh, my God!" Looking out the aft hatch, I saw her clutching the wheel tightly with both hands. She had a fixed stare with a look of fear on her face. Scrambling topside, I saw her reason for that reaction—a freighter was within 20 yards of our starboard quarter and closing rapidly. There was nothing to do but watch in horror as it closely cleared our stern. On the bow and across the stern were oriental symbols and the letters Camphor. After our pulse rates slowed, we reviewed the incident in an attempt to profit by that frightful experience and reduce the chances of a reoccurrence.

Camphor was moving at excessive speed for the restricted visibility; she was not using her foghorn and we saw no personnel on board. We were sailing at hull speed. The engine would not have helped us and could have restricted our ability to hear sounds from other vessels. Had Camphor come from our windward side instead of to leeward, we might have had one or two minutes warning instead of seconds to avoid being run over. We had spent minimum time in the busy shipping lanes by crossing at 90 degrees to the flow of traffic. The location, formation, and dissipation of fog in the Santa Barbara Channel are highly unpredictable, so fog avoidance was not an option.

"With forced restraint, I pointed out that he had no green starboard running light and had very nearly run us down."

In retrospect, I now realize that I should have reported our position on VHF channels 16 and 13 while passing through the shipping lanes. I should also have given a PAN,PAN message to alert vessels in the area of Camphor's derelict actions. This incident was a major factor in our purchase of a  radar detector—unfortunately, radars are often turned off except in areas of probable ship traffic and some are inoperable aboard vessels from under-developed countries.

In situations like the one I've just described, the best protection for the cruiser is three-fold—have an effective radar on board with at least a 16-mile range, have a good pair of 7x50 binoculars, and have a full-time watch that is comfortable using both of those tools.


Safely negotiating ships at night places a priority on interpreting running and masthead lights.

Night Frights    It was early April as we left Isla de Mujeres, Mexico, bound for the mouth of the Mississippi. Because of frequent northers, it took over six days to make that usual three-to-four-day passage. The fourth night out, a small coastal freighter appeared to be on a closing course from starboard. It's red port running light was clearly visible as though our headings were nearly the same. Our radar showed a different story—that vessel and ours were on a rapidly closing, collision course. Because we received no answer on channel 16 VHF, I turned to port until we'd done a 180. With a 33-foot cutter and big seas, it seemed painfully slow! We were still on a closing course so I started the diesel and put a hi-powered spotlight on our sail and then on the ship's bow. After a starboard turn, the watch officer came up on channel 16 and asked what our problem was. With forced restraint, I pointed out that he had no green starboard running light and had very nearly run us down. The response was a terse "Thank you," and then silence.

The very next evening, we were again on a closing and potential collision course with another freighter. I called when it was still some distance away and got an immediate answer. I answered his questions—yes, I was under sail power on a port tack, displaying only a masthead tricolor light and confirmed my magnetic heading of 050 degrees. Then came the assurance that he had a visual contact and he would take my stern.

All went fine until we were less than two miles apart—I suspect my speed was grossly over-estimated to account for that minimal separation. As I watched, the relative positions of that vessel's range lights started changing—in the wrong direction! The freighter was changing course toward us instead of away from us. When my call on the hand-held VHF went unanswered, I turned on the iron genny, gave it maximum power and screamed into the VHF that we were being run down. First his red light disappeared; then his green disappeared and all I could see was that big, black bow bearing down. The watch officer came on VHF with the question: "Are you clear? Are you clear?" I answered back: "You've got us! We're dead!" As he repeated the question, we slipped under—and past the ship's bow and the port light came into view.

"Believe it or not; we lost the helm at the worst possible time...and there was nothing we could do to avoid running you down."
After regaining some semblance of composure, I asked what had gone wrong. The officer sounded as unnerved as I was when he answered: "Believe it or not; we lost the helm at the worst possible time. Prop torque turned us to port and there was nothing we could do to avoid running you down." After exchanging best wishes for a safe passage, we cleared the frequency.

Less than eight months had passed since our Panama Canal transit. The close proximity to large vessels lulled me into a false sense of security during and after the transit. Those two close calls on successive nights caused me to re-evaluate my personal criteria for action in possible closing situations. I now take evasive action if a large vessel comes within five miles of us unless assurance is given that our right-of-way will be honored. If the distance closes to three miles, I will express my concern on the VHF as well as specific comments detailing my intended efforts to increase that distance. It should be noted that the vessel with right-of-way is obligated to maintain course and heading until it is believed that a collision is imminent. I define imminent as a distance of three miles on my radar screen.


A small boat can be almost invisible to the crew of a large ship in a seaway. A large ship can likewise be difficult to see should its lights be obscured. Vigilance is the key in both scenarios.

Caribbean Concerns   Our memories of the West Indies are very positive. However, the night passage east from the British Virgin Islands across to St. Martin was one of our least favorites. The guides we'd read regarding the Anegada Passage proved to be prophetic—it was quite uncomfortable. Shortly after midnight, a west-bound cruise ship was approaching our port bow and another was overtaking us off our starboard quarter. Their range lights were masked by the profusion of lights throughout the superstructures. Directly off our bow, a fishing vessel was approximately five miles away in a stationary position. My attempts to contact the cruise ships on VHF were unsuccessful.

In recent years, Love Boats seem to be much like freighters, which often either ignore or are very slow in responding to VHF calls. Such was also the case with the fishing boat. Hearing nothing from those around me, I took the safest way out. The fisherman's radar reflectivity was likely much better than ours, it was better lit and would hopefully warn us if we got near his nets so we continued on our present course, but backed the headsails a little with the main to reduce speed. When the overtaking cruise ship came abeam, I jibed and headed for his stern.

Another near-incident took place a little farther north. We had left the Florida Keys that morning. That afternoon, our cruising chute was barely pulling us northward near the offshore edge of the Gulf Stream. However, progress toward the Little Bahama Bank in the Exumas was better than the sails indicated because of the current's assistance. We planned to go onto that bank through the nice, wide area south of Memory Rock early the following morning. A tug with a barge in tow was slowly overtaking us to starboard. It appeared there would be a five-mile separation as he passed. However, that wasn't our only concern. A south-bound freighter was rapidly closing on a collision course with us. Unless he altered course to starboard, I had a problem. The sun lit our sails nicely as I attempted to contact the freighter. I wanted assurance that he intended to alter course as the burdened vessel. At a closing distance of seven miles, with no response from the freighter, I called the tug Captain on VHF channel 16, indicated my concern, and asked if I could "hide" near his good RADAR-reflecting masses. He agreed that action was prudent. We were less than two miles west of the tug and tow when the freighter finally altered his heading—giving us less than 2.5 miles clearance.

In case you find yourself in predicaments similar to these, don't leave anything to chance. Get on the VHF while there's still time and make contact with the other vessel(s). If that doesn't yield results, take action early to avoid getting any closer to the approaching vessel. Once you've waited to see what that skipper will do, it may be too late.

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