Upon taking the con it was noted that an echo was being received on the radar (approx 5nm on the port bow) yet no visual indication was present. This was surprising as the visibility was very good and noted to be more than 10nm. Being in the Gulf of Aden and transiting the newly appointed Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA) my pulse rose at the thought of a possible pirate attack. Yet as the range closed to approx 2.5nm a large shadow more consistent with a tanker or bulk carrier was visible. Checking with the AIS I was astonished to come to the conclusion that a Merchant vessel was underway and making way without any navigational lights displayed! After safely overtaking the blacked out vessel I decided to call up the vessel using VHF just to check that she was alright and had not fallen in to the wrong hands. After correctly identifying the vessel using all available means, I hailed her on VHF. The following is a transcript of the conversation: Own Vessel: “Good Morning Captain, are you aware that your vessel is not exhibiting any navigational lights? Is everything alright onboard?” Other Vessel: “Yes, we have turned our navigational lights off in order to hide from the pirates!” Own Vessel: “Captain, your vessel is now a serious navigational hazard, are you aware of your responsibilities under the Collision Regulations with regards to the displaying of navigational lights?” Other Vessel: “Yes of course, but we are trying to hide from the pirates!” Own Vessel: “Captain, that does not relieve you of your responsibility to display your navigational lights during the hours of darkness! Can you please turn your navigation lights on as I see you may have some head-on traffic approaching. You are substituting one danger for another!” Other Vessel: “No, I won’t turn my lights on, I will call any approaching traffic on VHF. You are already clear now, continue on your passage, have a good watch, out”. End of transmissions. Own vessel monitored the blacked out vessel as the expected end-on traffic approached and contrary to the Captain’s claims of informing other vessels by VHF (hardly a substitute for navigation lights), this was not followed through which led to what can only be described as a barrage of VHF transmissions directed at the vessel to ascertain her condition.
Lessons Learned: An appropriate security strategy should have been implemented so as to transit this particularly risky area without contravening the ColRegs. A good Ship Security Plan would have been able to direct the Master on how to achieve this. Adopting a procedure which invalidates another is unsafe and pointless. Every attempt should be made to maintain integrity and not substitute one risk for another. Navigation lights should be displayed during hours of darkness from sunset to sunrise, during periods of reduced and/or restricted visibility and any other times deemed necessary. Not to do so is waiving the lives of your crew, ship and yourself away. Relying on VHF to prevent collision is not just foolish but shows an element of incompetence. However, failing to even make contact with other vessels to make them aware of your condition is just asking for a disaster.
Everyone involved in international shipping is concerned at the threat to vessels from armed assailants in the Gulf of Aden and other parts of the world. Whilst we hesitate to criticise from the safety of our office the actions of a master in a high risk area, we do not believe that sailing without navigation lights is appropriate, unless this were to be sanctioned by the authorities. If the Master determines it prudent to reduce the illumination from the vessel, this could be achieved by switching off deck lighting, but leaving the navigation lights on.
In general, CHIRP often receives reports in which there has been protracted, and sometimes heated, VHF communication with a vessel that has contravened the ColRegs. In this case, the reporter refers to the “barrage of VHF communications” directed at the unlit ship from other vessels. We would make the point that such communications probably achieve nothing and may distract from watch-keeping duties. In areas such as the Gulf of Aden, the transmissions may attract the attention of the assailants who may well have VHF equipment.