A yacht was making a night passage motor sailing from the Needles to Cherbourg.
Just after 2300 the watch-keeper called the skipper to help him classify a vessel approaching from the starboard side. The watch-keeper reported a red light above a white light above the bridge with a red navigation light lower on the bridge. He reached the conclusion that it was a fishing vessel in the act of fishing, and we were on his port side. What later turned out to be the area in front of the bridge was a mass of white floodlights, thus confirming our view that it was indeed a fishing boat working nets.
It soon became obvious that the vessel was actually travelling at a speed nearer to 15 knots, – it is not uncommon to find fishing vessels showing these lights when passage making – and after taking a series of bearings it appeared to be on a collision course. We were the give-way vessel and we prepared to take avoiding action to allow the vessel to pass clear ahead.
We were now about 2 – 3 cables away and keeping our attention on the bridge, still thinking that we were dealing with a fishing vessel. As the bridge superstructure approached the skipper looked to port to see the bow of a container ship pass ahead of us. It was connected to the vessel we had been monitoring! The front section of the ship was dark in colour, completely unlit and carried no forward mast head light. It was certainly well over 50metres in length. The red light at the mast head proved to be an “all round red light”. We were not in danger of being run down as we were monitoring the situation closely and able to take the necessary avoiding action in good time, but the inappropriate lights of this vessel could have caused a catastrophic accident! Had she been correctly lit, we would have recognised the situation earlier and altered course earlier. We were not able to establish the name of the vessel.
As the Reporter was not able to identify the container vessel, CHIRP has not been able to follow this up with her manager. If the foremast light was inoperative, there should have been a warning on the control panel on the bridge and action should have been taken to correct the fault. It is difficult to envisage why the vessel was showing an all-round red light at her mast-head. (It may possibly have been a local requirement for a dangerous cargo at a previous port, but, if so, it should not have been shown at sea.) Deck lights should not be on if they impede the keeping of a proper lookout or if they are likely to confuse other vessels.
Clearly this close quarters situation of 2-3 cables was much too close. This would have been so even if the other vessel had been a fishing vessel, as initially supposed, as it might have made an unexpected manoeuvre whilst shooting or hauling nets. As the give-way vessel, the yacht, which was under power at the time, would have been well advised to make a bold alteration to starboard as soon as the risk of collision had been identified.