Avoid big ships when sailing

Sailing with the big ships

Sailing with the big ships

In the narrow waterways of the Finnish lakes and archipelago you often do not only cross shipping lanes, but actually end up sailing in the shipping lanes together with commercial vessels. Therefore it is important to be on guard to avoid big ships when sailing in Finland.

Discussion has lately been vivid on the subject of sailboats vs. ships on various internet’s sailing forums. Locally, we had a recent court case where two skippers of yachts, participating in a sail race, were fined for steering their boats too close to a 250 meters long tanker ship. A more serious incident happened in UK during the Cowes Week 2011, when a yacht, participating in the regatta, actually collided with a tanker. Yachting Monthly wrote on their May issue about the incident, where luckily were no casualties. Check out this following video of the incident:

Revisiting COLREGs

These two cases, and the discussion around them, made me revisit the COLREGs (Collisions Regulations) and re-think our routines on-board s/y Dolphin Dance for avoiding ships. After all, a collision with a ship is one of the most serious incidents, that can happen at sea. It seems to cause controversy whether a sailboat is a give-way or a stand-on vessel in respect to commercial ship. By the way, COLREGs do not give a right of way to one vessel over another; the stand-on vessel has to keep a steady course and speed and be ready to take action, if the action taken by the give-way vessel is not sufficient to prevent collision.

As a general rule, a powerboat gives way to a sailboat. However, there are exceptions to this rule if the former has a restricted maneuverability. Following is the order of increasing maneuverability; a boat lower in the list has to give-way to the vessel higher on the list (source http://sailing.about.com):

  1. a disabled boat
  2. a boat that is difficult to maneuver, like a dredge or barge in tow
  3. a boat whose maneuverability is restricted by size or draft, like a freighter
  4. a boat engaged in commercial fishing, like a trawler
  5. a boat being rowed
  6. a sailboat
  7. a recreational powerboat

When talking about the large ships, it is good to presume (also by common sense or self-protection instinct) that they have restricted maneuverability due to their size, and thus a sailboat is a give-way vessel in respect to the ship. This is especially true in the shallow and narrow waterways of the Baltic Sea archipelagos.

Queen Elizabeth 2

M/S Queen Elizabeth

Collision avoidance in practice

However, in practice the situation is not always as simple as that, since in offshore it is often the case, that ships do alter their course several miles in advance to avoid a crossing course with a leisure boat. Therefore, it is important to monitor if the ship has already taken actions to avoid you. Inexpensive AIS-receiver is particularly handy in this, since it has information on the speed and course of the ship.

When visual, AIS or radar contact is made of the another vessel, it is important to assess the risk for collision before taking any significant action. In addition to the radar and the AIS-device, a bearing compass is helpful tool: it is good idea to take a bearing of the ship, when you see it in the horizon and monitor changes. If the bearing remains the same or changes very slowly, you are probably on a collision course.

There was an interesting story also in the May issue of the Yachting Monthly about collision between a 50 ft sailing yacht Whispa and a freighter Gas Monarch in 2007 in UK waters. Due to the dense fog and misinterpretation of the radar image on the location of the ship, the sailboat altered her course 50 degrees to starboard which actually put the vessels onto a collision course. Without (mis)use of radar, the vessels would have passed each other within a good distance. Thus, actions based on a imperfect knowledge may lead to a worse situation, than keeping an initial steady course. As always, there were many contributing factors to the incident  the complete report is available here.


Tanker in Öresund

When it is assessed that vessels might be on a collision course, and you are a give-way vessel, it is important to make an early and significant alteration to your course to clearly signal for the other vessel your intentions. Course change should be merely several tens of degrees  preferably 60 degrees or more. If still  after the course change  the situation seems unclear, it is wise to call the ship’s bridge by VHF to discuss how the situation is handled. AIS receiver is handy in this situation as well, since it usually shows the name and the MMSI-number of the ship, so you can call it by the name. Even better, if you have a VHF-radio with a DSC-function: you can then contact the ship directly.

As a conclusion, it is also good to keep in mind that ships do not always keep a proper lookout and the radar does not see everything. Therefore, a good assumption is that the ship does not see you. Also if crossing a busy shipping lane, the crossing should be made as close to the 90 degrees angle as possible.

Cruising Ships

Morning rush hour in Stockholm Archipelago

So far the busiest shipping area, that we have experienced, was in the Southern Baltics near Bornholm. However, I guess that the North Sea and especially the English Channel are much more challenging in this respect. I have mostly written about good weather conditions, but poor visibility makes the life a lot more complicated.

Text and photos by Antti Laine. The article previously published at S/Y Dolphin Dance sailing blog.

One thought on “Avoid big ships when sailing

  1. Unwritten and most important rule: if crash occurs everyone is guilty!

    Any action taken to avoid a collision is to be made decisively and in a timely manner as it should do a good seaman, if the circumstances of the case permit.
    Any changes to the course and / or speed taken to avoid a collision, if the circumstances of the case permit, must be large enough so that the other boat, which looks visually or by radar, can immediately notice. Successive small changes course and / or speed should be avoided.
    If there is enough space to maneuver, just change the course can be very successful action to avoid dangerous position close, subject to do at the right time, that is distinct and not to bring the ship into position dangerous proximity compared to other ships.
    The action that has been taken to avoid a collision with another vessel, must allow passing at a safe distance. The success of these actions must be carefully checked until the other vessel and finally pass safely departed.
    A ship that is required, by any provision of this Ordinance that does not interfere with the passage or safe passage of another vessel shall, if the circumstances so require, to undertake the process to ensure sufficient water area for the safe passage of another vessel.
    A ship that is required to not interfere with the passage or safe passage of another vessel is not relieved of this obligation if approaching the other vessel so that there is a danger of collision, and must take the process to take full account of the procedures that would be required by the rules of this part.
    Ship which may hinder the passage remains fully obliged to stick to the rules of this part when the two vessels are approaching one another so that there is a danger of collision.

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