Single Handed Yacht and a Small Cargo Ship

An honest and frank account of a near miss between a yacht and a small cargo vessel, with several safety learnings identified by this experienced sailor.

What did the reporter tell us?

I have 30+ years experience of sailing small boats.  Recently on a passage from Ramsgate to Harwich on a cloudless day, the planned route was to pass through a channel in the sand banks off the Thames estuary called the Fisherman’s Gat. The wind’s strength and direction was such that, in order to reach the Fisherman’s Gat on time, I had to motor-sail with the auto-pilot steering the boat.  There were no other vessels in sight when I started the engine, and the risk of going forwards to rig a motor-sailing cone was pointless when there was nobody to see it.

When there was about four miles left to run, I automatically looked around to check if there were any other vessels on the deserted sea, and then went below into the cabin to check the boat’s progress on the chart. Checking the boat’s progress properly may have taken four or five minutes, possibly longer.

When I returned to the cockpit, I was shocked to see the stern of a small cargo ship perhaps 100 metres away and moments later my boat crossed over its wake.  This is the nearest I’ve ever been to any cargo ship.  My normal response is to make a big and obvious course alteration if I’m likely to get within half a mile of any ship.

The ship that I never saw was, at a guess, doing 15 knots.  If it was doing 15 knots and visibility was four miles, the bridge crew had my boat, with its sunlit white sails, in sight for about a quarter of an hour. The aluminium mast and copper wiring in the boat’s hull provide a good radar return at four miles.

My boat’s VHF radio is normally always turned on when at sea, but was turned off because I’d got fed up with the constant incomprehensible chatter in French on channel 16.  I can thus not know if any attempt was made to contact my boat.

If the ship’s bridge crew intended to frighten me by allowing such a close encounter to occur, they definitely succeeded. However, I view it as a very dangerous way to teach a single-handed skipper a lesson about the need to keep a good lookout. The ship could have, as the least inconvenient action to the bridge crew, sounded its whistle rather than remain silent.

I hope that this account will make for interesting reading by bridge officers who have experienced small sailing boats failing to respond to the presence of their ship.  There are many small vessels with a single person on board, including fishing boats with one person working in the stern whilst an auto-pilot steers the boat.

Clearly, I was the major ‘fault factor’ in this matter, but I was left wondering why the ship came so close to me when a small alteration of course would have widened the clearance when it was obvious that there was nobody in my boat’s cockpit.

The lessons to be learnt

Questioning why the reporter got so dangerously close to the cargo ship, he came to the following conclusions:

Humans do not have necks that can turn through 180° in either direction. When I automatically scanned the horizon, I did so whilst seated on the starboard side of the cockpit with my back to the east.  When I’d glanced around the boat, the far distant cargo ship was directly behind me, out of sight, and I thus believed that there were no other vessels to consider.  This was how it had been for well over an hour.  I saw what I expected to see and didn’t have any reason to make a second check when I stood up to go below into the cabin.  Visibility was about four or five miles.

My boat does not carry any form of AIS receiver. (Yes –this deficiency will be rectified.)

CHIRP Suggests

CHIRP complemented the reporter on the honesty and the lessons learned. Complacency and a lack of situation awareness were the main causal factors. 

CHIRP expresses that caution should be exercised when sailing single-handed and highlights the associated high risk, not least because of the speed at which risks can materialise.  See also MAIB Safety Digest 2/2016 Case 7 ‘Look out by all available means’.

CHIRP questions the reporter’s assumption that the yacht is visible at four miles distance, see MFB 41, pages 3 and 4 and comments on radar identification of yachts with GRP structure and alloy masts. Also as a general comment, yachts typically have white or light coloured sails; these are not easy to see in rough weather or restricted visibility and CHIRP notes that lifeboats in World War II had red / orange sails to assist with their identification.