Reduced visibility is a common condition at sea, putting an even greater emphasis on having a sharp lookout. A converging course with commercial traffic on the high seas is an unsettling experience. Not only are containerships, cruise ships, and other vessels much larger and faster, but their maneuverability characteristics are markedly different. The ocean's vastness leaves reference points few and far between, and the speeds of these ships can be easily misjudged, especially if viewed from head on. In reduced visibility, the time between first sighting a ship and a collision can be as little as a minute. While there's plenty of ocean for everyone to navigate safely, reduced visibility, fatigue, engine problems, fickle winds, inexperience, or any combination of the above can make crossing situations dangerous. While a close encounter at sea is not likely to be stress-free for the crews of small craft, it can be made safer if you know what you're dealing with.
Might Makes Right. When it comes to dealing with commercial traffic, make no doubt about it, might makes right. Ships are well designed to transit large expanses of ocean at high speeds in essentially straight lines. They are not designed to manoeuvere around small boats at the last minute, and crash stopping one of these giants is likely to take several miles. Compare your own engine against a veritable factory, churning out 25,000 kw via a 7 m.diameter prop located 10 m. below the surface of the water, and act accordingly. Crew of such vessels are likely to have limited English language, which may complicate radio conversations should the need arise to contact the ship. It's likely there's only two crew actually on the bridge, and the autopilot is probably on duty.
Look, Listen, See, and Be Seen. The best step to avoiding close encounters is altering course early. This can only be done if you have a proper lookout, one that can use his or her full faculties on watch. In instances of reduced visibility or at night, a ship can often be heard before it can be seen. Lookouts should not underestimate the power of hearing as a means of early warning. Large commercial vessels are required to give one long hooter blast every minute in fog conditions.
Wondering what kind of radar return your vessel gives? Call up the watch of the next passing ship (ch 16 ) and ask.You might be surprised.
Keep in mind that these ships are using their radar as a primary means to look out for other ships, and that a small fiberglass or wooden boat gives a poor radar return. The size discrepancy between the two types of vessels means that the average boat is essentially operating in stealth mode. In a seaway, you may be tuned out entirely as sea clutter, or register no more than a momentary and inconsistent blip, indistinguishable from any other wave in the area. Ensure that your boat gives as strong a radar return as possible by mounting a radar reflector as high as possible and in the catch rain position. Many cruising boats have a radar reflector mounted near the spreaders, and there are still other models that mount them forward of the mast and even one model that mounts on the masthead. You'll have to check out the manufacturers' specs and your own rig arrangement to see which is best suited for you. Radar is a useful tool to identify, track, and confirm that courses are not converging, as well as to confirm that what the eyes register is what's actually occurring. A spare reflector, in any event, is a prudent idea.
Visual and Radio Contact. Another effective way to make sure you are seen at night is by shining a spotlight on the sails. The reflected light can be seen for a long distance, and when used in conjunction with VHF, ensures that you have been seen. Incidentally, don't be shy about using the VHF either. A typical radio hail would go something like: "Motor vessel off my starboard bow, motor vessel off my starboard bow, this is the sailing vessel Radiance, the green light three miles off your port bow, do you read, over?" Be ready to reply with your position, and remember it's always better to call early in a crossing situation than to wait, especially if it looks like it's going to be close. Try Channel 13 as well as Channel 16. Being able to listen to the VHF while in the cockpit is another plus.
In high-current areas and narrow channels, ships must maintain speed to preserve their steerage. Ideally, it's best to operate outside of prescribed shipping lanes, but sometimes it's not entirely possible.
Know Navigational Lights. Clearly, the earlier you can identify a ship's heading, the better. Generally, the idea is to present the same color light that the nearing ship displays. If you see a green light, or its starboard or right side, show that vessel your own green light. You are now poised to pass starboard to starboard. If you see a red light, show a red light, and pass port to port. If you see a red and green light, the ship is coming at you and it's time to get out of the way, whether by changing course or by starting the engine. Aiming for the stern in crossing situations is also prudent.
A ship's masthead lights (the white lights that are mounted over the vessel's centerline fore and aft) are likely to be seen before its red and green running lights. These white lights are brighter and mounted higher than the running lights, and must be visible for at least six miles, while the red and green running lights are visible for half of that, three miles. The aft masthead light is higher than the for masthead light. How close the white light in the back lines up with the white light forward indicates how near the ship will pass. The farther these are apart, the more you are viewing the ship from its beam. If two white lights are lined up on top of each other, the boat is headed at you. If the lower, forward range light is to the left of the higher aft white light, the vessel is heading to your left as you face it. Binoculars can help discern running lights and masthead lights, and taking a bearing on the ship with a hand-bearing compass is also useful. If the bearing doesn't change, your courses are converging. A vessel over 50 meters will show the above configurations, while vessels less than 50 meters will show only one masthead light. Vessel light configurations are detailed in the | The Qld. Small Ships Manual |, or in leaflets available from VMRG.
Above all, keep your cool when encountering ships at sea. It might help to know that a Panamax ship, despite measuring a maximum of 295 m. long, is merely 32 m. wide, equal to only three or four-odd boatlengths, a span easily covered within any reasonable amount of wind. That fact should not encourage the master of any vessel to risk crossing in front anywhere but miles ahead. If that ship happens to be altering course at the same time you are crossing, you'll be a roo in the headlights. For those that sail long distances, encountering ships at sea is practically unavoidable. With the right knowledge and experience, however, there should be ample room and time for both vessels to cross safely.
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