Restricted visibility: yacht has close quarters situation with bulk carrier

Report Text:

A 30ft cutter (CL) and a 33ft sloop (D) were sailing in company across the English Channel. Both vessels had radar and radar reflectors, but not AIS. Crew of (CL) included an Ocean Yacht Master and two Day Skippers, one with a Royal Naval bridge watchkeeping certificate and on (D) a Yacht Master and Day Skipper. Again the latter held a Royal Naval bridge watchkeeping certificate.
We left Alderney at 0600 with a forecast of light/moderate westerly winds and moderate locally poor visibility, improving later, bound for the Needles. Initially we proceeded under power with visibility of one to two miles. Our planned course was to the east of the Casquets TSS. We crossed the east bound shipping lane (not a Traffic Separation Scheme) uneventfully although we did use radar having only one contact which passed at a range of two to three miles without being seen visually. Visibility then improved to three to four miles with a fair wind and we had a pleasant sail without engine for a couple of hours. As the radar is a heavy user of current and visibility was good, we shut it down.
At about 1400 we were approaching the west bound shipping lane when the wind dropped and within the space of less than ten minutes we entered fog with visibility of 100 yards or less. The headsail was furled and we started to motor again and switched on the radar.
Although reasonably experienced yachtsmen we had not had recent experience of radar plotting for collision avoidance. CL’s radar was more reliable than D’s, which only worked intermittently, so CL took the lead with D in station just visible astern, and in VHF communication on channel 6 dual watch channel 16.
We had seen no shipping before the fog but on switching on the radar at 8 miles range there were 6 – 7 contacts, ships proceeding westwards in the shipping lane. One of CL’s crew kept radar watch; the screen was visible to the helmsman and other crew. It was soon evident that most of the contacts were passing clear but one 3 –4 miles away on the starboard bow was a cause for concern. After plotting this contact for five minutes or so we decided that risk of collision existed and that we should alter course to starboard. We made a bold alteration of 90 degrees from a course of roughly north to one of east, when the contact on a westerly course was between two to three miles away.
CL’s radar was set with course up (not the more convenient north up) and so when we altered course all the tracks of radar contacts changed and in the next few minutes it was not clear if the true courses of any of the contacts had changed. However we felt confident that from the previous plot we should be safe. We then suddenly saw a large indistinct visual contact on our port beam at a range of two to three cables. At first we thought this was a ship heading west but after a few moments we saw a bow wave and realised it was a large ship heading straight for us. Seconds later the helmsman saw that we were very fine on the ship’s starboard bow and altered course violently to port reversing our course from east to west, D following. A large, Chinese registered bulk carrier (BC) just passed us at a distance of less than 100 yards (see photo attached, taken from D). This was too close for comfort.



We altered back to our northerly course and had no further worrying incidents although we kept a close visual and radar watch. The fog did not clear until we were within two miles of the Needles lighthouse at about 1900. It took a little time and thought to work out what had happened.
Overview: We had altered course from north to east to avoid the BC, which we had plotted as steering west. However as we came into close quarters she was steering south so she had clearly altered course. Our radar plotting on CL was not accurate enough to have seen this although on D they had just noticed this but did not have time to notify CL. It seems clear that BC had altered course to port and to a course of south at the same time as we had altered to a course of east. We had both altered from one set of converging courses to another at the same time!


Who was to blame for this incident, which clearly could have resulted in a collision with serious, possibly fatal consequences? On CL and on D we felt we had made the right decision to alter course to starboard to avoid BC. She had however altered course to port at the same time to try and avoid us. The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (IRPCS or “Colregs”) Rule 19. Conduct of vessels in restricted visibility paragraph (d) states: –

A vessel, which detects by radar alone the presence of another vessel shall determine if a close quarters situation is developing and/or risk of collision exists. If so she shall take avoiding action in ample time, provided that when such action consists of an alteration of course, so far as possible the following shall be avoided:
(i) an alteration of course to port for a vessel forward of the beam, other than for a vessel being overtaken;
(ii) an alteration of course towards a vessel abeam or abaft the beam.
It seems clear that BC had contravened this rule. CL’s radar plotting was weak being ‘head up’. This was perfectly adequate to cope with CL being on a steady course, but with 6-7 contacts and a major alteration of course, it proved inadequate. However CL / D complied with Rule 19 by altering course to starboard when we considered that a risk of collision existed whereas BC contravened Rule 19 by altering course to port for a vessel forward of the beam.
One of us (the Ocean Yacht master) has discussed this incident with a very experienced professional Merchant Marine Captain and Extra Master who is currently an Officer with the Government Agency. He agrees with this assessment that we were right and BC was wrong although he did point out that we should have kept a better radar plot and that in fog there are no “stand on” and “give way” vessels; all vessels should keep clear of others following Rule 19.
Lessons Learned: The following arise from a discussion between both crews that evening in port:

1. Radar is reassuring and useful in fog but must be used actively. A plot of all contacts should be kept either on a plotting sheet or with a china graph pen on the radar screen.
2. North up stabilised radar is easier to interpret than course up. The Colregs require that “Proper use shall be made be made of radar equipment if fitted and operational”. This does not mean that the latest most refined radar set or AIS is essential but it does mean that the equipment available must be used to the best advantage.
3. Commercial shipping cannot be relied upon to follow the Colregs and so close visual, auditory, and radar watch is essential. We did not hear sound signals from BC; we did not use our own foghorn, although it was available, as we felt it was unlikely to be heard on a large merchant ship and if we used it routinely we were at risk of exhausting the aerosol canister so that it should be conserved for emergency use only.
4. Do not alter course to port, except for a vessel on the starboard quarter, without careful consideration of all other options, except as in our second alteration, as a last resort.
5. An alternative to an alteration of course is to reduce speed or stop which should always be considered. In this case if we had stopped we should still have been at risk when BC altered course towards us. We felt that a substantial alteration of course of 90 degrees was more likely to have been evident to BC than a reduction of speed of five knots.
Fog at sea is always a cause for concern and sometimes frightening. I hope these comments may help others when faced with this difficult situation.

CHIRP requested further information for clarity of their understanding and was advised by the reporter, they didn’t hear any fog signals before the incident, but did afterwards, as they approached the fog bank they heard nothing. They were very surprised when they switched the radar on to have seven/eight contacts in the fog bank, and not a sound from any of them. They now assume everybody relies on AIS. Also whilst BC had a significant bow wave, they didn’t notice much wash after she passed us. In retrospect they believe BC must have slowed. Their feeling was the BC didn’t see their alteration and thought that BC had avoided the collision by BC actions, whereas in reality it was a Stockholm/Andrea Doria collision type situation.

CHIRP Comment

The quality of this recreational seafarers’ end of passage review and their in-depth sharing of lessons learned is commendable.
Seafarers are warned, AIS is not a substitute for radar or for use as a vessel plotting device, it is simply a method whereby vessels can be identified and basic information about them received. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in Resolution A.917(22) ‘Guidelines for the onboard operational use of shipbourne automatic identification systems (AIS)’ states AIS are designed to be capable of providing information about the ship to other ships and to coastal authorities automatically; they are not a device to be used for collision avoidance purposes. Also be aware of the risk of human error and the use/ set up of equipment causing an AIS signal not to be detected by another station. Many recreational craft are fitted with class B systems, vessels over 300gt are fitted with class A systems and research has shown that in some circumstances AIS-B transmissions may not be detected by AIS-A equipment and they can even turn off AIS-B reception.
In addition to the lessons learned by the reporter, recreational seafarers should be aware, even when a large vessel has eased off its propulsion, a significant bow wave will still occur until it has almost stopped in the water. It is also prudent to review the boat’s inventory of safety equipment and allow for redundancy. As there was concern of their air supply for the horn, the crew could have used a hand operated or mouth operated horn as a back up.