My vessel was approaching a salvage operation. Due to a concentration of north-bound vessels to the west with which I was slowly converging and overtaking, I elected to pass to the east of the salvage works whilst maintaining a minimum passing distance of 1 nautical mile.
I was contacted by the guard vessel and informed about the location of the salvage operations and the recommended safe passing distance. This I acknowledged. When I was approximately 2.5 miles from the salvage operations with a passing CPA from the salvage operations of 1.4 miles, the guard ship contacted me again on Channel 16 and proceeded to give us instructions to ‘alter course to port’. After two attempts I was able to get the VHF operator on the guard ship to go to a working channel.
When I questioned his reasoning for this instruction, he pointed out a vessel on my starboard quarter at a range of approximately 3 miles stating that there wasn’t enough room for both vessels to the east. I pointed out to him that the other vessel’s CPA was 0.9 miles and in my opinion this was sufficient room for both vessels to take this route. He disagreed with me and repeated his instruction to alter to port. I reminded him that his role was to ensure that vessels did not pass within the safety zone surrounding the salvage operations and this it did not extend to operating a VTS service.
I re-stated my intention to pass to the east of the salvage operations at which point he said he would be making a report of my actions. My vessel safely transited east of the salvage operations whilst maintaining a minimum distance of 1.1 miles and a minimum CPA off the other ship of 1 mile.
Lessons Learned: I fully appreciate that the operator thought he was acting in the best interests of the safety of navigation, however a full appreciation of the navigational situation can only be undertaken by the vessels concerned and I doubt the guard ship has the equipment necessary to be able to fully assess the risk of collision between other vessels.
Vessels whose officers are unfamiliar with the area may interpret these instructions as having come from a body with the authority to direct shipping. This was particularly pertinent in this case as blindly following the instructions from the guard ship to alter to port would have put me into conflict with at least two vessels transiting to the west of the salvage operations.
We contacted the Operations Manager of the salvage company who has responded as follows:
The guard ship is contracted by our company. The vessel is deployed in compliance with the terms of an agreement entered into with Government Authorities (non-UK) to remove the wreck.
At the time of signing the wreck removal agreement we expressed serious misgivings about the use of VTS officers in this way but were unable to convince the Authorities that a different approach would be safer and more suitable.
Because of our concern, which is almost exactly confirmed by the incident you report, we issued detailed instructions to the sub-contracted VTS officers before the work commenced.
Following receipt of your incident report we have again emphasised to the VTS officers the rules of engagement for this operation which specifically do not include giving instructions to the watch keeping officers of passing ships.
We thank the reporter for the report and the Operations Manager for his follow-up and response. It is fortunate that the reporter is an experienced mariner who was able to see the risk in the “instructions” being issued by the guard-ship, which went beyond the Terms of Reference of the VTS officers.