About prevention of collision at sea - Regulations and examples

You are at sea to enjoy yourself when you go sailing. Even so there are very clear rules about how you behave at sea. In this article we will look at a case where a boat was wrecked and its crew nearly killed when another vessel hit them.

We will also take a look at the Volvo Ocean Race where a collision killed a fisherman off Hong Kong, and discuss how the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collision at Sea (ColRegs) work.

Oregon River – keeping a proper lookout

Watch this video of the horrifying moment a speedboat mows down a fishing boat on the Oregon River in the United States.

The ColRegs clearly state,
"Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and or the risk of collision."
They have been put into law in all seafaring countries around the world by the International Maritime Organisation.

A local news report said that one of the three people who jumped overboard to escape the collision is suing the arse off the skipper of the speedboat. They have every right to, and from my perspective it may make sense for the speedboat skipper to get on and settle the case out of court to avoid looking a complete tit in the world’s media.

The skipper of the powerboat that caused the accident, Marlin Lee Larsen, was sat down and unable to see over the bow. The local news outlet Oregon Live reported, "the 75-year-old told investigators he couldn’t see where he was driving because he was sitting down and the dash of his boat was blocking his view. "

To add to this blasé attitude toward other vessels on the water, Oregon Live reported, “Larsen’s son-in-law, who also was on the boat, told investigators that he had warned his father-in-law to pay attention, that he sometimes sees his father-in-law using his cell phone while driving the boat and that his father-in-law had been off-and-on his cell phone the morning of the crash, according to the sheriff’s report.”

While it isn’t against Oregon law to use a mobile phone, it still could be considered part of not keeping a proper lookout while under way. You need to be switched on, especially when travelling at speed.

Why does this apply to a Kavas yacht charter?

When in control of a vessel of any size it is your responsibility to monitor the activities of all vessels in your sight. In low visibility where you have the technology you should use radar. I have even been known to stand on the bow and listen out – my family avoided a ship in Falmouth Harbour when I did just that in thick fog once.

The ColRegs are a complicated yet extremely clear means of deciding who should do what under every normal circumstance. If you are under sail and your engine is not propelling you then a motor vessel should avoid you. If you are a small craft in a big shipping channel then the motor vessel might be considered ‘constrained by draft’ and would then have right of way over you.

On a Greek yacht charter the crew of the other yacht may be pissed out of their tiny minds and unable to walk in a straight line (let alone sail a boat) so a proper lookout will be able to see their errant behaviour and the skipper will be able to make a decision to avoid the idiots altogether.

Hey Skip, you seen that fishing boat?

From my own experience on keeping a good lookout the crew should generally be looking out to sea at all times and should they see something they aren’t sure the helmsman has, they should raise it in conversation – “Hey Skip, you seen that fishing boat?”

When you do look out to sea your eyes shouldn’t glaze over and focus on infinity but instead you should be looking at the near, middle and far distances, 360 degrees around the boat. On a slow and gentle day at sea, perhaps on a yacht charter in Greece, generally nothing happens too quickly so a good lookout may well have at least a minute or two to do something if there is urgency.

Fishing boats

Under the ColRegs fishing boats with their gear down have priority over all sailing vessels. This brings us to a sickening fatality that happened over this weekend.

The fleet of Volvo Ocean Race boats were screaming into Hong Kong from Australia in the early hours of the morning local time. The headlines were set to be that one of the slowest boats in the fleet had won the leg, and thanks to Hong Kong being their sponsor’s home city this was great news for the crew who had fought so hard for that sponsorship. That was not to be.

At around 0230 local time Vestas 11th Hour Racing hit a fishing vessel. According to reports, the fishing vessel sank and all 10 fishing crew went into the water. A rescue operation took place and nine of the fishermen were recovered. The skipper however was found unconscious a little later, and died in the helicopter on the way to a hospital in Hong Kong.

At Kavas Yachting we send our sympathies to the family of the dead fisherman and to the crew of Vestas 11th Hour Racing. How you all may feel now must be awful. Will people be arrested and tried in China? That could cause an involuntary bowel movement or two…

There are a lot of unanswered questions about what actually happened. In European waters the first thing investigators would be asking is whether the fishing vessel was properly lit?

The ColRegs clearly state:

"(a) A vessel engaged in fishing, whether underway or at anchor, shall exhibit only the lights and shapes prescribed in this Rule.
(b) A vessel when engaged in trawling, by which is meant the dragging through the water of a dredge net or other apparatus used as a fishing appliance, shall exhibit:
(i) two all-round lights in a vertical line, the upper being green and the lower white, or a shape consisting of two cones with their apexes together in a vertical line one above the other;
(ii) a masthead light abaft of and higher that the all-round green light; a vessel of less than 50 metres in length shall not be obliged to exhibit such a light but may do so;
(iii) when making way through the water, in addition to the lights prescribed in this paragraph, sidelights and a sternlight. (c) A vessel engaged in fishing, other than trawling shall exhibit:
(i) two all-round lights in a vertical line, the upper being red and the lower white, or a shape consisting of two cones with their apexes together in a vertical line one above the other;
(ii) when there is outlying gear extending more than 150 m horizontally from the vessel, an all-round white light or a cone apex upwards in the direction of the gear;
(iii) when making way through the water, in addition to the lights prescribed in this paragraph, sidelights and a sternlight."

In China this is not always observed rigidly. A Yahoo News report quoted the skipper of Dongfeng Charles Caudrelier as saying, "It is always very dangerous when sailing in these fishing areas when there are so many boats and some have no lights." If the fishing boat had no lights Vestas had no hope at all of seeing the other boat until far too late to take action. Under the ColRegs (and we hope under Chinese law) the fisherman would have been the author of his own demise.

Also aboard Dongfeng was top French sailor Frank Cammas who said, "We had to slalom a little bit... We were almost at the boat's maximum speed, around 20 knots, with boats where everyone is concentrating on controlling the sails, with a lot of water in your face too, so it's going fast, and there's a lot of noise." That noise, water and speed would have impacted their lookout but these are elite sailors who should have been able to see every danger near and far, and been able to react quickly, unless of course the vessel was poorly lit or had no lights at all.

You don’t get onto a Volvo boat unless you are among the very best sailors in the world. These aren’t some jumped up little upstarts who aren’t paying attention. They will be able to read a collision situation in fractions of a second and take action to avoid. However, they had raced several thousand miles on extremely fast boats – at 20 knots plus you have to look a good distance ahead to make decisions that will affect the boat in a matter of seconds.

Ice gates

Racing folk love to drive their boats hard. This isn’t always appropriate. As a cruising skipper I’d slow the hell down in these waters but the fleet was so tightly packed in the Volvo, with several boats coming in just minutes apart that they had to go balls out to get their place on the podium.

In the Southern Ocean the Volvo Ocean Race organisers have set up something called an ‘ice gate’. This is an effective boundary line across which boats cannot cross so they do not hit icebergs. Again, being racing types they would normally go as far south as possible to take a shortcut across the ocean and would sail through iceberg fields if they could – at 20 knots in the middle of the night as necessary. Icebergs are also unlit and hang about in packs, and can sink ships. Not unlike Hong Kong fishermen.

Also like Antarctic waters, the hazards of packs of unlit fishing boats are well known to everyone who sails in that region of the world. Was there an error of judgment made by the Volvo Ocean Race management team in sending the race to Hong Kong in the first place? Does the responsibility lie not with the crew of Vestas but higher up?

See also ↠ Rules of the road - Safety briefings at sea

Richard Shrubb