I was motor-sailing when a heavy rain shower had just passed over us. Rain obscured all objects on radar. The rain was followed by fog, visibility down to half a mile. Looming out of the mist was a huge vessel. I immediately made a general call on the VHF to which there was no response.
When the mist cleared we read her name. I then radioed with the name and had a brief exchange on a working channel. Although we were not in danger, I wanted to know if we had been aware of our existence. I was told that she would pass us on our port side. We heard no sound signals from the ship, although we made them when we were aware of her existence. If we were 5 minutes earlier then it would have been very close, perhaps catastrophic.
1. Make appropriate sound signals in bad visibility.
2. Buy AIS!
This incident was reported to us several months after it occurred. We nevertheless sent it to the ship’s manager for review. Here is a summary of the response:
The delay in reporting precluded us from reviewing any recorded electronic data. However, we investigated this matter, reviewed the available documentation and interviewed the senior watch officer. Here are a few points:
The ship was in the area at the reported time. The watch officer remembered the voyage in general, but did not specifically recall an encounter with any particular yacht.
The ship’s logbook indicates that the perceived prevailing visibility was at least three miles. The watch officer’s log entries did note scattered showers and good to moderate visibility at the time. The Company has specific guidelines for watch officers regarding restricted visibility and our bridge procedures define what minimum actions are to be taken when visibility is considered less than moderate, including the sounding of signals.
The reporter assumed that the ship was not aware of the yacht’s position. While passing rain showers can temporarily obscure radar targets, it is possible that the sailboat had been acquired and was tracked both electronically and visually before the reported meeting.
The ship did respond and made passing arrangements after radio contact. The yachtsman was correct to alert the ship of its presence, and his actions are welcomed and encouraged.
Our company encourages the use of AIS on vessels, but it is not a replacement for radar and visual watch keeping. Equipping small vessels with AIS systems can aid in vessel identification and detection and we agree that it can be useful in some situations. The ship’s AIS system was operating correctly.
Reported incidents regarding our vessels are taken seriously and can be valuable in evaluating our procedures. It is unfortunate that this incident was reported months afterwards, making a thorough review difficult.
We have included this summary because it illustrates a constructive and open response to a near-miss report.
The reporter has highlighted the requirement to make sound signals in or near areas of restricted visibility. This does of course also apply to small craft. Although such signals may not be audible on a large vessel, they may nevertheless be heard by other small craft.
In this incident, the ship did respond to the VHF call from the yacht, thus indicating that the ship was keeping a listening watch on channel 16 even though there is no longer a mandatory requirement to do so. The reporter has noted as a lesson learned “Buy AIS”. To increase the probability of being able to make contact with another vessel, we would add “Buy DSC”.