Overtaken in the Alboran Sea

Report Text:

My vessel was sailing in the Alboran Sea (the westernmost part of the Mediterranean) approximately ten miles west of the Cabo de Gata Traffic Separation Scheme.  It was just before midnight. Traffic conditions were not too dense, maybe there were about eight to ten other ships around.  There was a strong westerly wind force 7, very rough seas and a westerly moderate to high swell.  There was a good visibility.  Our vessel had reduced her speed because of the sea conditions and was doing around 7.5 knots.

At 2330 hours local time, we made way for a vessel that was approaching us on an opposite course.  Our original course was 259° and we changed to a new course of 285° in order to pass the other at a safe distance.  When I changed our course I noticed a vessel astern of us at a speed of approximately 22 knots and to make sure that she would pass us at a safe distance I started to plot this vessel.  After 15 minutes we passed the oncoming vessel and we returned to our original course of 259°.

After we returned to our original course I noticed that the CPA with the overtaking vessel was nil.  I kept monitoring the CPA which remained nil.

When the vessel was approximately 1.7 miles away, I called her on the VHF.  After going to a working channel, I asked her duty officer what he considered to be a safe passing distance with other ships.  He then replied that we need to keep our course and speed and that he will pass with no problem.  Since the duty officer did not reply to my question I again asked him what he considered to be a safe passing distance, whether he considered 1 cable or 2 cables or more a safe passing distance.  I then heard him laugh on the VHF and he then informed me that it might be zero cables.  My reply to him was that I found him very funny but that I would like him to pass us at a safe distance of minimal 5 cables, half a mile.  By this time the vessel was at a distance of about one mile.

He was then called by the Vessel Traffic System station on VHF channel 16.  By this time I noticed that the overtaking vessel had started to change its course. Her duty officer informed the VTS station that he was changing course and that he now had a CPA of 5 cables and that he did not understand what “this guy” wanted?  The vessel passed us at a distance of 5 cables just before midnight.

CHIRP Comment:

We sent a disidentified copy of the report to the manager of the overtaking ship and we received a comprehensive reply.  The company had contacted the Master who had not been on the bridge at the time, but had discussed the report with the duty officer.  The officer stated that he had another vessel ahead of him on the same course, less speed, plotted on the radars.  The CPA was zero with TCPA 15 minutes or more.  At the same time there were a few vessels on the port side on the same and opposite courses.  On his starboard side he had a vessel on an opposite course, CPA about I mile and TCPA a few minutes.

The Officer talked to the vessel being overtaken and said that after the vessel on the opposite course on his starboard side had passed clear, he would pass the vessel being overtaken at a safe distance. The person on that vessel then started asking him questions as to what he considered to be a safe distance.  He took exception to this questioning as he construed them as instructions from the other ship. He categorically denied that he was laughing.  The Officer stated that the VTS station subsequently called him on the VHF and he explained his intention, by which time the CPA was 0.6 to 0.7 miles.

It is not the role of CHIRP to attribute blame but rather to facilitate learning from hazardous incidents.  In this respect, we make the general comment that it is often the case with reports received by CHIRP that the OOW on the give way vessel where there is a small CPA does not appreciate the anxiety being felt on the bridge of the stand-on vessel.  Rule 8 of the ColRegs specifies that “Any action taken to avoid collision shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, be positive, made in ample time and with due regard to the observance of good seamanship.”

Whilst recognising that VHF is frequently used, considerable care is needed that communications are not misconstrued.  The content and tone of inter-ship communications should be professional and concise. (Refer to the Marine Guidance Note MGN 324 regarding “Operational) Guidance on the Use of VHF Radio and AIS at Sea”).