Safety Digest

Below is a reprint from the 2/2002 Safety Digest, published by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) of the British Department of Transport ( Although the vessels involved are quite large and the locale is distant, the lessons learned are applicable to craft of any size and are particularly relevant to boaters in the Puget Sound, who are very likely to find themselves sharing the waterways with ships of all speeds and sizes both within and outside the boundaries of the Puget Sound VTS lanes.

In US waters, the US Coast Guard security zone include passenger vessels greater than 100 feet in length, in addition to military vessels and tankers, giving boaters another reason to give these ships a wide berth. Craft passing within 500-yards of such vessels, which includes all but one Washington State Ferry, must reduce speed to the minimum necessary to maintain a safe course. (The one exception is the 94”4’ high-speed ferry Tyee, which typically runs the Seattle-Vashon route.)  An approach within 100 yards is allowed only after receiving approval from the protected vessel via monitored VHF channels. Violators can be fined up to $27,500, while egregious offenders may by charged with a felony, punishable by up to six years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. We discussed these rules with the Washington State Ferry Customer Information Office, who indicated that their main concern was fast power boats underway within the 500-yard limit, but confirmed that the operator of any pleasure craft who must pass within 100 yards of a ferry in restricted channel such as Rich Passage should most definitely contact the bridge on channel 13. Do not assume that you can reach these ships on channel 16—VTS participants are only required to monitor 13 and the VTS channel. With respect to the ferries, the WSF representative said that the decision to monitor channel 16 is made by the captain—some do and some do not.

Every boater should read Safety Digest. The journal publishes accident reports and lessons learned as an educational tool to prevent future incidents. In many of the incidents, crews of large commercial ships made mistakes where lives and ships were endangered or lost. Groundings because a ship strayed well out of the navigable channel are surprisingly common. In the Pacific Northwest, we navigate with large vessels from all over the world. We take collision avoidance seriously and don’t assume the crew of ship bearing down on our boat sees us and will act according to the navigation rules, or that the ship will stay in the traffic lanes.

Safety Digest often contains reports of small boats sinking in minutes—many might have been saved had their captains realized water was rising in the bilge. These stories prompted us to install a high-water bilge alarm for early detection of excessive bilge water. We have also mounted an automatic EPRIB in case we don’t have time to make a distress call. We recommend that all pleasure craft carry both at a minimum.


Near Miss in Dover Strait TSS








The 6,391gt reefer vessel, Saratau, was proceeding in the south-west bound lane of the Dover Strait TSS on a course of 227°. Another reefer vessel, the 4,574gt Polestar, was in the opposite lane and heading north-east, but bound for the pilot station off Dover . To achieve this she made her heading 350° to cross the TSS. It was not an uncommon situation.

Saratau first detected Polestar at a distance of 6 miles, and determined that a risk of collision existed. As the stand-on vessel in accordance with Rule 17 she maintained her course and speed. She was watching Polestar carefully and expected her to take avoiding action. By the time the distance between the vessels had reduced to approximately 1 mile, the bridge team onboard Saratau had become very concerned that the other vessel appeared to be doing nothing to give way. She tried, first, to attract the other vessel’s attention by using sound signals in accordance with Rule 34(d), and then by VHF radio, channel 16.

As the distance between the vessels continued to close, Saratau altered course to port. Polestar, the give-way vessel, eventually reduced speed and then stopped her engines. The vessels passed each other at a distance of 1 cable. Polestar passed ahead of Saratau.


The Lessons


The situation described above is all too familiar. Two vessels are approaching one another in such a manner that risk of collision exists. The watchkeepers on the stand-on vessel are watching the other one carefully, and start to become anxious when the other one appears to be doing nothing to give way. Too many of us have vivid recollections of such occasions. CPAs of about a cable tend to expedite old age.


1. In this instance, Polestar was the give-way vessel in accordance with Rule 15 and should have taken effective avoiding action. She didn’t. The Rules are quite clear: with Saratau on her starboard side, and a risk of collision existing, she was required to keep out of the way. She could have altered to starboard in good time, or even slowed down. She did reduce speed eventually, but it was far too late. And to add insult to injury, she passed ahead of the stand-on vessel.


2. Vessels obliged to keep out of the way must always consider what the watchkeeper in the stand-on vessel is thinking. Common courtesy and good seamanship demand that you make your intentions clear at an early stage. Rule 16 is, in the meantime, uncompromising in its bluntness. As the fourth-shortest Rule in the book, even the most inexperienced watchkeeper should know it off by heart: “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.”


3. The Dover Strait is one of the world’s busiest waterways, and the watchkeeper of any vessel crossing the lanes must have their wits about them. One of the most important priorities is to determine whether risk of collision exists. Needless to say, this requires a good lookout as the most basic of all watchkeeping duties.


4. Saratau’s watchkeeper was obviously becoming very anxious as the two vessels closed, but even he left it very late before taking action to avoid a collision. He had several options open to him and, with one exception, the Rules leave the choice to the watchkeeper. The exception is the directive not, “so far as the circumstances of the case admit, alter course to port for a vessel on her own port side.” It is not known why Saratau altered course to port but it only served to aggravate the situation.


5. There is always a temptation to look for some acceptable explanation for the actions taken in such situations, or to blame the ‘other’ vessel. There might well have been some unknown reason for the actions taken on this occasion, but the point is made that we all have a responsibility to avoid collisions. We must learn from incidents such as this, and realise that this close quarters situation was very nearly an expensive accident. Had there been one, there would have been no excuses.


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