Whilst anchored and fishing some 3-4 miles south of the Nab tower off the Isle of Wight in clear and open water, with two friends, we observed a large commercial looking vessel making towards us at some distance. We became slightly anxious when this vessel, which could clearly see us, stood on course towards us. We could now see it was very large and getting nearer, about ½ mile. The vessel then sounded several blasts on its whistle and we were at a loss to know why when we were in un-restricted open water and could clearly be seen to be rod fishing.
We heard nothing on our VHF channel 16 and noticed the vessel was going to pass ahead of us. It was then we saw that this vessel was a large tug and was towing another vessel. As the tide was making towards us, the tug appeared to have altered course slightly and plus the tide movement was now towing the vessel ever closer to us. I then released the remainder of our anchor warp and called to one of my crew to stand by to cut our line. Before we had time to do this, the towed vessel passed some 20 to 30 metres ahead of our bows. In all my years of sailing and motoring it was the nearest thing to an accident that I have experienced.
Lessons Learned: If we had been radioed earlier that this vessel required a wide berth we could have taken appropriate action. But on a very clear day in open water when we could clearly be seen to be fishing, it was highly dangerous in our opinion for this vessel to almost run us down and only sound its whistle when close on us!
This very near miss could have resulted in a tragedy. The incident must have been caused extreme anxiety on both the fishing boat and the tug. But has the skipper properly identified the “lessons learned”, as described above in their report?
In encounters between small craft and larger vessels, we encourage the skipper of a small craft to envisage the situation as seen by the watch-keeper of the larger vessel, and vice versa.
Let’s consider how the situation may have unfolded. The skipper of the small boat obviously knew he was at anchor and that he was rod-fishing. But would that have been obvious from the tug whilst still a few miles away when passing the Nab Tower? It would not be safe for the small vessel to assume that the other vessel could see his anchor rope or fishing lines.
(Rule 26 of the ColRegs requires that a vessel engaged in fishing, other than trawling, shall exhibit by day a shape consisting of two cones with their apexes together, or, if the vessel is less than 20 metres long, a basket.)
Whether or not the watch-keeper of the tug could see if the small craft was fishing, he may have been considering that his tug with tow was the stand-on vessel.
(Rule 18 requires that a power-driven vessel underway, or a vessel engaged in fishing when underway shall keep out of the way of a vessel restricted in her ability to manoeuvre.)
Although not stated in the report, we would expect that the tug was exhibiting a diamond shape.
(Rule 24 requires that a power driven vessel when towing, and when the length of tow exceeds 200 metres, shall exhibit a diamond shape where it can best be seen.)
Whilst the vessels were still two or three miles apart, it should have been apparent from the small craft that a close quarters situation was developing and, through binoculars, that the tug was towing another vessel.
(Rule 5 requires that every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision. However, the ColRegs do not provide for the use of VHF as a substitute for keeping a look-out.)
When the vessels were within two miles of each other, it would have been prudent for the small craft to prepare to weigh anchor and to move out of the track of the tug.
Even assuming that the watch-keeper of the tug was considering that he was the stand-on vessel, he still had an obligation to take action to best avoid collision.
The watch-keeper would have been reluctant to slow down rapidly as the tow would catch up, so his available action would probably have been a large alteration of course, although care would have been needed not to catch the boat in the sweep of the tow-line. With hindsight, and bearing in mind how close the tow came to the small craft, such action should probably have been taken earlier.
(Rule 17 requires that when, from any cause, the vessel required to keep her course and speed finds herself so close that collision cannot be avoided by the action of the give-way vessel alone, she shall take such action as will best aid to avert collision.)
We surmise from the report that when the tug was approximately half a mile from the small craft, the watch-keeper on the tug was concerned at the imminent situation and sounded the whistle.
(Rule 34(d) requires that when either vessel fails to understand the intentions or actions of the other, or is in doubt whether sufficient action is being taken by the other to avoid collision, the vessel in doubt shall immediately indicate such doubt by giving at least five short and rapid blasts on the whistle.)
At this stage, the small craft should have taken urgent action to weigh anchor, or to let the line go (being careful not to foul the propeller), and to proceed as quickly as possible away from the danger.
We hope that the three fishermen had been wearing life-jackets throughout the trip as recommended by the RNLI, but, if not, they should certainly have been donned when the hazardous situation was arising.
If the circumstances had been slightly different and such that there was imminent danger threatening life or property and requiring immediate assistance, a Mayday message would have been warranted.
We sincerely thank the skipper of the boat for having submitted this report. It is far preferable that the lessons can be learned from a near-miss report rather than from an accident investigation.