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Dodging Sea Monsters Page 2

Most commercial ships are run by competent professional crews. Still, close encounters with yachts are not uncommon. Every once in a while a ship arrives in port with a mast wedged in her anchor—and no one knows how it got there.To an offshore sailor a large merchant vessel can seem like a modern-day sea monster, capable of obliterating a yacht and spitting out the scraps
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If there is a threat of collision, you should determine who has right of way. It’s each captain’s responsibility to know the applicable rules and act accordingly. Again, Navigation Rules for International and Inland Waters is your best reference.

Be aware that being under sail doesn’t give you right of way in all situations. The relevant rule (18) states in part: “A sailing vessel underway shall keep out of the way of: a vessel not under command; a vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver; a vessel engaged in fishing.” Of course, when your engine is running, even if your sails are up, you must yield to any ship approaching from your starboard side.

If you believe you’re on a collision course with a ship that has right of way, alter your vessel’s course abruptly and substantially to pass behind her. Continue taking bearings until it is clear you’re passing at a safe distance. Resume your original heading after you see the ship’s stern light.


If, on the other hand, you have the right of way, your responsibility is to maintain your speed and course—up to a point. The question now is whether the other crew knows you are there. Don’t take for granted that they do. Often they do not, which is where yachts sometimes get into trouble.


There are many reasons why a ship’s watch officer might not see a yacht. He could be busy. He could be distracted by something else going on up on the bridge. He might even have dozed off. It’s a sad truth that not all commercial vessels maintain a proper watch at all times—which is why you must.


Even if the other crew is keeping a lookout, they still might not see you. Ships carrying stacks of containers forward of the bridge often have a substantial blind spot ahead, and even with a clear view they may not see your running lights. Nor should you assume your boat is visible on their radar screen. You should, of course, carry a radar reflector aloft—this helps a lot—but some ships turn off their radars at sea to reduce maintenance costs.


Even if the other crew is keeping a lookout, they still might not see you. Ships carrying stacks of containers forward of the bridge often have a substantial blind spot ahead, and even with a clear view they may not see your running lights. Nor should you assume your boat is visible on their radar screen. You should, of course, carry a radar reflector aloft—this helps a lot—but some ships turn off their radars at sea to reduce maintenance costs.


If the ship’s watch officer spots you and determines you have the right of way, he will alter course to avoid you, usually, but not always, passing behind your vessel. You might perceive a change in the ship’s angle, though it may be slight. After that you’ll note changes in her bearing, confirming that she will now pass safely. Keep a close eye on her until she is clear astern.


Getting Their Attention

If you have the right of way and a ship does not alter course early and obviously, you should assume they haven’t seen you. Hail the other crew on VHF channel 16 while they’re still a few miles away.

Assuming you don’t know the ship’s name, initiate the call by saying something like, “Vessel heading southeast near (your position).” Repeat this two or three times and add, “This is sailing vessel (your boat’s name). Over.” Repeat the call several times at frequent intervals.


If they respond, you can then negotiate a safe pass. If you can’t raise the ship on the radio, and it still hasn’t changed course, your next step should be to draw attention to yourself. If it’s night, switch on your spreader or deck lights. You might also momentarily flash a spotlight at the ship’s wheelhouse, and then redirect the light onto your sails.

White “attention” flares—handheld, meteor or parachute—are another great attention-getter. Keep them close to your steering station, ready for immediate use. With meteor flares, fire at least two, 10-15 seconds apart, the first to catch the other ship’s attention, the second to help them pinpoint your position. Do not use any other color flare!

Whether it’s hailing the other ship by VHF or flashing it with a spotlight, do everything you can to alert the other crew to your presence while they’re still at least a couple of miles away. The watch officer needs time to assess the situation and alter course. Ships cannot change direction quickly.


Avoiding a Collision

You’ve done all you can, yet this deaf, dumb and blind giant is still bearing down on you. You clearly have the right of way, but as the old adage goes, you could be dead right. Now what?

There comes a point when you simply have to get out of the way. With some quick maneuvering, perhaps involving a 180-degree about face and a prodigious burst of auxiliary power, you can avoid an oncoming ship. Announce your intention on VHF 16. Then change course abruptly and substantially so that it’s obvious to an observer.

Above all don’t wait too long to do it. Don’t let an unresponsive ship get closer than a mile before taking evasive action. Farther is better. Remember, if the ship is approaching at 20 knots, one mile is a mere 3-minute window of opportunity. Also, never change course to try to pass in front of an oncoming vessel.

Once you have changed course, take nothing for granted. Immediately take more bearings to be sure your nemesis hasn’t also turned and put you onto a new collision course.

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Fundamentals of Seamanship: Navigation Rules

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