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Yachtsmen too trusting when ships get too close?

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #112 March/April 2001

From Ocean Navigator #112 March/April 2001

Several recent articles have addressed the issue of interaction between the yachtsman and large commercial traffic ("A view from the bridge," Issue No. 110, Nov./Dec. 2000, "GPS waypoint error leads to near collision" Issue No. 108, Sept./Oct. 2000). As a deepwater sailor in the Atlantic and Pacific, I'd like to share another perspective regarding collision avoidance in situations in which the rule of gross tonnage exists but does not seem to be appreciated by the smaller player.

You see, my particular job places me in the unique position of intentionally creating close-quarters situations with small vessels. As commanding officer of a Coast Guard cutter performing law enforcement, my job is to intercept vessels. I am constantly surprised just how close the average yachtsman will allow me to approach with no visible show of concern.

In daylight I am sure this is the result of my vessel being clearly identified for what it is, and our approach is assumed to be purposeful. I'm not sure I can make the same assumption at night, however. It constantly amazes me that I can maintain what must appear as a "collision course" to the target (for me it is an intercept) with no apparent reaction from the small private vessel. I fear this is a case of blind trust in the skills, abilities, and intentions of the larger vessel with strict application of the steering and sailing rules, especially 18, with less of an eye toward Rule 7. Evidence of a tendency to be lax with regard to Rule 5 is strong given the number of times I've been able to - nay, found it necessary to - come close aboard at a range of less than 500 yards and illuminate the cockpit or pilothouse with a blinding light and sound my whistle to prompt acknowledgement of my hail on VHF and initiate "right of approach" questions. Or, perhaps the white hull of a cutter is so identifiable on a starless night, and the confidence placed in our seamanship skills so bountiful, that we're entrusted unfailingly ... but I doubt it.

Recently I witnessed an example of this dangerous tendency. In the evening's full darkness, just as the moon was rising, we detected on radar a very small intermittent contact at a range of eight miles. Only by very diligent radar observation were we able to track the small, unlit target. I planned to intercept for investigation, but I also observed a large, 20-knot merchant vessel approaching my projected intercept point. I suspected that the merchant had no idea the small vessel was in its path; I therefore stood off and maintained my aspect so as to not complicate the situation for the merchant vessel. Although I was only 6,000 yards away and the moon was rising, I had not yet seen the small vessel. I held the target on radar so I knew where to look, but he was invisible to seven sets of eyes, even using binoculars and night-vision devices.

As I watched, the range between the target and the merchant vessel closed to less than 1,000 yards, at which time the sailing vessel finally turned on its lights, kept them on for less than one minute, and then turned them off. The target had just become visible to us as we maneuvered to place the target before the moonlight.

I wonder if the merchant ever saw the sailboat. I wonder if the sailboat skipper realizes that a 1° variation of course by the merchant might have had a significant impact on his evening.

The recent correspondence piece on the loss of a yacht ("Delivery cut short off the isle of Nevis," Issue No. 110, Nov./Dec. 2000) supports my hypothesis about Rule 5: "I hope that people reading this will take extra special care when on watch, especially at night, and remember that there may be someone ... that needs some help." As a sidebar to this particular incident, I'll don another of my professional personalities. I note one significant omission from the survival gear employed following the vessel loss. I hope the author will never again sail without an EPIRB. Though not perfect, a properly registered and employed EPIRB can significantly reduce the search in search and rescue. I vividly remember launching a helo at first light in the southern Yucatan in response to an EPIRB alert and finding within 30 minutes a solo sailor clinging to the remains of his vessel. Following his safe arrival on our cutter, weather deteriorated significantly. I know that without the EPIRB we would never have known he was in trouble or gotten close enough to see a flare.

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