Hazardous Assumptions

Report Text:

My yacht was entering harbour and approaching a short narrow channel. We were under sail and had a speed over ground of 9 knots in a strong wind. We could see a commercial vessel leaving harbour approaching the narrow channel from the opposite direction.

As stand on vessel I held my course expecting the commercial vessel to slow down and wait for me to pass through. Instead she increased her speed made a dash to get through the channel before me, so putting me, my vessel and my crew in danger.  I was confronted with a vessel speeding towards me at maybe 10-15 knots and was about to enter the narrow confines of the channel with dangerous shoal water on either side.  I was unsure of which side of me she would pass but as stand on vessel held my course thinking it would be even more dangerous to turn.  Eventually the vessel (when only 50-70 yards from my bows) sounded one short blast and turned rapidly to starboard missing my bows by about 25 yards.

The commercial vessel should (as give way vessel) have waited for my vessel to pass through the channel before coming through herself and so avoided this frightening ‘near miss’ situation.  A collision between my small yacht and this vessel might easily have caused fatalities.

CHIRP Comment:

We sent the text of the report to the manager of the vessel, who responded as follows:

Our vessel was approaching the narrow channel outbound. As he did so the Master noticed a sailing vessel under sail on the other side of the channel. Being committed to his passage through the narrow channel, he was expecting the yacht not to impede his passage as our vessel was only able to safely navigate within the narrow channel (rule 9 para b of ColRegs). Our vessel at no time increased her speed whilst within the channel and remained as far to the starboard side of the centre of the narrow channel as possible in case the yacht stood on into the channel.

In conclusion, our vessel complied with rule 9 of ColRegs. The Master also took additional action to make allowance if the sailing vessel should hold her course.

It appears that this was a situation in which, presumably, neither vessel wanted to meet the other in the close confines of the channel in strong wind conditions, but nevertheless did. We make the following observations:

  1. Both vessels assumed that the other would keep clear. Both assumptions turned out to be not well -founded.
  2. Had a collision occurred, there would no doubt have been lengthy argument as to the respective interpretations of the situation and the applicability of Rule 9(b). The role of CHIRP is not to cast blame but to identify the lessons learned. However it is salutary to remember that it is unusual in collision cases for a court to find that one vessel was 100% liable and that no liability attaches to the other.
  3. Fortunately there was no collision although we can envisage that the close quarter situation would have caused considerable anxiety on both vessels.
  4. The situation could have been avoided if either or both vessels had held back to assess the situation before committing to the channel.
  5. If you are on a power-driven vessel, bear in mind that an approaching yacht may unexpectedly alter course, if, for example, she is affected by a sudden gust of wind.
  6. If you are in a yacht in a strong wind, remember that you must retain the ability to manoeuvre so as to comply with the ColRegs, whether as the stand-on or give–way vessel. The old maxim about shortening sail before you get into a difficult situation remains valid.
  7. In general, ask yourself “What if…” (in this case, that the other vessel carries on.)

Although this report is from a yacht, we have included it in the Commercial section of this journal as we believe that the general lessons are applicable across all parts of the maritime sector.