I was crossing the Channel in my yacht with one other person on board. We had left the Channel Islands in mid afternoon and were due to arrive at our South Coast destination at 0730. We were motor-sailing under mainsail but primarily using engine power. The autohelm was engaged and we were making 6 knots. While crossing to the west of the Off- Casquets Traffic Separation Scheme I was using our radar and AIS to track shipping. We had crossed north-east bound traffic without problem and were now encountering the south-west bound traffic.
I had been tracking a particular tanker on radar and it then came into the range of my AIS receiver so I tracked it on our chart-plotter mounted in the cockpit. The AIS showed a CPA of just under a mile. I had to determine whether to pass in front or duck behind the tanker. In the last 5 minutes as the tanker approached I decided to duck behind it. I turned ninety degrees to starboard. Momentarily, as my bow swung around the AIS alarm sounded as our courses appeared head on. I passed around 200 yards off the port side of the tanker. When clear of her stern, I resumed my course.
I called my crew onto deck (it was time for a watch handover anyway) and called the tanker on VHF ch16. I received an immediate response and we changed to a working channel ch8. I said that I was the yacht that had just passed close to her port side and asked had they seen me. The tanker replied to the effect of “what yacht”. He asked my position, which I gave him and he said that he did not have me on radar. I was surprised at this as we had a large passive radar reflector hung from the crosstrees which should have given a 20m² paint and we were still within 1 mile of the tanker. The officer of the watch on the tanker spoke broken English and had struggled to understand some of what I had said. He said “what do you want me to do” – he seemed not to understand my concern. Needing to continue my own radar watch as we were not yet clear of the shipping, I terminated the conversation.
- Once the tanker appeared on radar I should have made an earlier decision to duck behind her.
- I should have had a “tanker scarer” torch to hand, and a white flare. These were stored below in the saloon.
- Was the tanker keeping a proper watch “at all times and by all means” and was their radar set correctly?
Our reading of the situation is that the tanker was on the starboard side of the yacht, which was being propelled by her engine, so the yacht was the give-way vessel. We would anticipate that the tanker must have been visible to the yacht when five miles away or more. As the yachtsman has identified in the “Lessons Learned”, an earlier alteration to starboard would have been prudent.
Rule 16 of the Col Regs says “Every vessel which is directed to keep out of the way of another vessel shall, so far as possible, take early and substantial action to keep well clear“. In a case such as this, the risk in not taking action until a late stage is that if the approaching ship belatedly sees the yacht at a close distance and assessed that there is imminent risk of collision, it might alter course to port (albeit in-advisedly) at the same time as the yacht is altering course to starboard, thus exacerbating the situation.
As the yachtsman has also identified, a powerful lantern can increase the probability of being seen. The use this is prescribed in Rule 36 – “If necessary to attract the attention of another vessel any vessel may make light or sound signals that cannot be mistaken for any signal authorized elsewhere in these Rules, or may direct the beam of her searchlight in the direction of the danger, in such a way as not to embarrass any vessel.“
We had not previously heard of such a light referred to as “a tanker scarer”. This would be a misnomer because
- Tankers are generally at the higher end of the spectrum of ship quality.
- Mariners should treat each other with courteous respect. The aim should be to attract the attention of the other vessel, not to scare it.
As the incident occurred during the hours of darkness, the tanker should have had a dedicated look-out as well as the officer of the watch. In good visibility and smooth sea, the lights of the yacht should have been seen by the tanker. This does call into question the effectiveness of the look-out being maintained on the tanker. We have alerted the manager of the tanker to the incident.
We also note also that the yacht was equipped with white anti-collision flares. Bearing in mind the serious accident to a yachtsman in 2006 when one malfunctioned, it is worthwhile checking that such flares are in apparent good condition and in-date, and any one who may use one is fully familiar with the instructions.