Danger lurks to starboard

Rules of the Road

Danger lurks to starboard

    Situational ambiguity can lead to conflicting actions. Two vessels approaching on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses are considered to be head-on when one sees the other ahead or nearly ahead — seeing both sidelights and/or mastheads in or nearly in line being the determinants at night. Necessarily a bit fuzzy at the edges of the sectors delineating meeting from crossing, ColReg 14 can result in uncertainty on the bridges of those vessels in what is arguably one of the two most dicey approach aspects; the other being at the edges of crossing and overtaking to starboard. Collision history suggests that the boundaries of those sectors should flash mental yellow lights. Why?

    This article will look at fine crossing to starboard and leave crossing versus overtaking to starboard for another time.

    Vessel A (63,000 tons) was outbound with a full load of Mideast crude. Steaming on course 142° T/16 knots under a starry night and peaceful seas, her bridge watch comprised the second officer, a cadet and two seamen. The unusually clear visibility allowed binocular search to pick up vessel B at about 14 miles showing two mastheads nearly in line (sidelights unrecorded). No plot was started. Thus at the time no info regarding B’s course was available (leaving unanswered whether they were on reciprocal courses). The mate came right 3° to 145° T, placing B about 3° to port — presumably to effect a port-to-port passage as required in what he likely saw as a meeting situation.

    Vessel B (64,000 tons) was steaming inbound in ballast on 322° T/16 knots. The watch comprised the second officer, a cadet and a seaman. The mate noted a radar contact (vessel A) at approximately 10° to starboard at roughly 15 miles. At about 10 miles he picked her up visually, mastheads open to the right on about the same bearing. A short time later she showed her green sidelight. There was no plot but the mate estimated her closest point of approach (CPA) to be three-quarters to 1 mile to starboard. He went with that.

    So, at this point, two vessels are approaching nearly (but not quite) head-on, A apparently assuming a meeting situation and thus edging to starboard to effect a port-to-port passage, and B assuming that a safe starboard-to-starboard passage was developing. The night was clear, the visibility virtually unrestricted, the seas calm, and both were radar equipped with each detecting the other at sufficient ranges; yet one of the bridge crews had only minutes to live.

    This situation is one of the most threatening encounters, that of two vessels meeting on what are assumed to be reciprocal (or nearly so) courses, each holding the other slightly to starboard. The danger develops because of the possibility that the two bridges will interpret the situation differently. Vessel X sees it as a meeting situation and comes starboard for a port-to port passing. Vessel Y sees it (since each is already slightly to starboard of the other) as a green-to-green and either holds her course or comes to port to open the CPA a little. Situational ambiguity resulting in conflicting maneuvers.

    The Rules frown on starboard-to-starboard passing, especially when one or both vessels seek to increase the CPA of the other by opening to port. Court interpretations have held that since Rule 14 takes effect when two power-driven vessels are approaching “so as to involve the risk of collision,” it follows that the risk must have been seen to exist if one or both vessels opened to port in an attempt to increase the CPA; otherwise she (they) wouldn’t have felt compelled to change course to lessen the perceived risk. Hoisted by their own petard, as the saying goes.

    Part of the quandary results from the wording of the Rule. Sidelights may legally show 3° across the opposite bow and between that and yaw, perception can and does blur the distinction between meeting and fine crossing. It’s not by chance that ColReg/Inland Rule 14 (head-on) is in a special subcategory, the “if you’re in doubt, assume it” club (the other doubts being overtaking (Rule 13) and collision (Rule 7). It’s worth a reminder that Rules 13, 14 and 15 apply ONLY if the vessels hold each other visually; initial detection by radar in restricted visibility doesn’t count — in that case the situation defaults to Rule 19, unless they have become visible at a reasonable range.

    Another contribution to possible uncertainty was the terminology of Rule 8(d) requiring that “action taken to avoid collision with another vessel shall be such as to result in passing at a safe distance.” From that, a mariner could reasonably infer that a turn to port would be acceptable as long as it did result in such a distance. Concentrating as it does on the actions taken to avoid collision: (a) do it early and (b) make it obvious and of such magnitude so as to pass at a safe-distance passage, it left a tempting gap to port through which vessels have steamed into the jaws of collision.

    (Vessels approaching and sighted at such a distance where no collision risk exists are not yet subject to the rules and a turn to port is not proscribed.)

    Recognizing that “Rule 8(d) was being applied in isolation of the other steering and sailing rules,” the IMO in its Safety of Navigation Circular 226 (9/02) amended ColReg Rule 8(a) by adding the italicized phrase: “Any action to avoid collision shall be taken in accordance with the rules of this part and if the circumstances….” With that amendment, the IMO was drawing attention to the fact that the “Rules of this part” included ColReg 14 with its mandate for BOTH vessels meeting to turn starboard and Rule 7 by which, if there’s any doubt that you’re “meeting,” believe it! Professor Craig Allen in Farwell’s Rules of the Nautical Road (Eighth Edition) emphasizes that the IMO’s action to amend paragraph 8(a) was meant to make it clear that paragraph 8(d) was not to be applied in isolation of the other Rules.

    Thus the danger inherent in a starboard bow meeting is the possibility of one vessel seeing it as a meeting, and (adhering to Rule 14) turns starboard. The other sees it as a close starboard-to-starboard and either holds her course or turns port to widen the CPA. In many collisions, it isn’t so much what one of the vessels does — it’s when she does it, i.e., failing to take “early and decisive action” so as to allow both to maneuver out of a misunderstanding (as one admiralty court expressed it).

    Returning to the two vessels approaching at over 1,000 yards a minute, except for its magnitude, A’s course change to starboard was appropriate, but the miniscule change was insufficient to be picked up by B visually or by radar and thus too small to make A’s intent obvious to B, and most critically, insufficient to achieve a safe passing distance. B, on the other hand, accepted the idea of a CPA to starboard of less than a mile and with the vessels closing at a relative rate of 32 knots, her conning officer chose that period to allow the lookout and standby to go below to waken their relief while he went to the chart house to obtain a navigational plot. Thus, during the critical period of an approach that is inherently dangerous, there was “no one home.”

    The inevitable happened. As the vessels closed, it became apparent to A that she wasn’t getting across B’s track, so she came right further, presenting her beam to B’s bow, which penetrated A’s hull, causing an immediate explosion and the death of 11 of her crew, incinerating all but one of her bridge watch.

    The conflicting actions taken by vessels in a meeting/tight-crossing encounter that result from its inherent ambiguity have been referred to by one writer as “the Dance of Death,” illustrated all too starkly by this tragedy. Seeing it as a safe starboard-to-starboard passing, one vessel stood on while the other judged it as meeting and the requirement to pass port-to-port. The small and indistinct course change and late execution of an emergency turn by one vessel, compounded by the nonexistent lookout on the other, resulted in conflagration and death.

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About the Author 
Following graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy, Jim Austin served aboard both a destroyer and cruiser with duties that included navigator, assistant CIC (combat information center) officer and air intercept controller. He subsequently worked on the submarine launched ballistic missile program for General Electric Co.’s Ordnance Division. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard master’s license and writes frequently on ship collisions as seen through the twin lenses of the navigation rules and maritime law. He’s a retired physician living in Burlington, Vt.
Questions for Jim Austin?  editors@professionalmariner.com


By Professional Mariner Staff