My vessel has been drifting off a Caribbean island waiting for berthing for over one week. Annoyingly, a large percentage of the vessels drifting in this area, especially at night display Not Under Command lights and change their AIS status to Not Under Command as soon as they stop and start to drift. This is commonly twice per day. Day signals have been much less obvious. Apart from the fact that this use of the signal and status is blatantly false and against the content of the ColRegs and the UK MCA MGN 152 ‘reminder’, the few of us not using this signal are penalised by the idleness and intransigence of those that do. On occasions where my vessel and another have been drifting into a close quarters situation and the other vessel has been called, the response is invariably on the lines of “You move, I’m not under command” or “You move, I am not under command and it will take XX minutes to get my engines ready – you are under way and can move”. Either response could, at best, be termed rank bad seamanship in the circumstances.
Can these vessels offer a satisfactory explanation for this obviously incorrect behaviour and misuse of the NUC Signal? Would any of the vessel’s owners care to comment on the advisability of their crews allowing their vessels to repeatedly drift within a few miles (often less than 3, sometimes 2 or less) of the coast if genuinely not under command? Possibly the local coastguard may also care to share an opinion on this subject.
As the reporter states, this general issue is the subject of Marine Guidance Note MGN 152. This was published in 2000 by the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency. It points out that the definition in ColReg Rule 3 of a vessel not under command is “a vessel which through some exceptional circumstance is unable to manoeuvre as required by these Rules and is therefore unable to keep out of the way of another vessel.” MGN 152 goes on to say that “In some cases, vessels erroneously or falsely display NUC signals when their main engines or auxiliary machinery are shut down for reasons other than breakdown or necessary maintenance. Such vessels must adhere to their collision avoidance responsibilities as power driven vessels underway (Rule 18 of the ColRegs).”
In case there is any argument on whether a vessel which is drifting with engine stopped could be construed as a vessel not under command, we emphasise that the definition in ColReg Rule 3 refers to “exceptional circumstance” i.e. something that is a rare instance or extraordinary. Routine stopping of the engine to allow the vessel to drift would not be an exceptional circumstance. Furthermore, although it may be inconvenient to restart the engine, this does not mean that the vessel is “unable to manoeuvre”.
Although not raised in this report, we have also heard that some vessels turn on their deck working lights as an indication that they are drifting. There is no provision for this in the ColRegs other than for a vessel at anchor (Rule 30).
In terms of the degree of risk associated with misuse of NUC lights and shapes, we cannot recall an accident report in which this has been identified as a contributory factor. Nevertheless, it is of concern when informal practices develop which are not in compliance with regulations. In particular, a “pick and choose” attitude to the ColRegs can lead to confusion, and sets a poor example to junior officers.
The reporter has also stated that some vessels are sometimes drifting to within two or three miles of the coast. The risk of this would be that if the engine failed to restart, the vessel may go ashore before tugs could arrive. We have alerted the national Maritime Administration to this.