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    Avoiding collision
    From: Peter Fogg
    Date: 2003 Oct 10, 15:26 +1000

    Sailing through the Heads into Sydney Harbour on a sunny summer Sunday
    afternoon you can wonder whether there could possibly be room for yet
    another boat. The place looks packed, white sails seeming to fill every
    corner, but that is just the beginning. There are so many other boats of all
    sizes - big commercial ships, cruise ships, their tugs and pilot vessels,
    plus other working boats; delivering fuel, cleaning, fetching, carrying;
    barges, floating cranes, floating workshops, plus there are fishing boats
    coming and going and also trawling for prawns in the harbour. Then there are
    so many different boats earning a living taking tourists around the
    waterway. These range from a replica of the Bounty to high speed jet boats
    looking for thrills to big (about 100 foot) sailing catamarans but most of
    them look like ferries. Then there are the harbour ferries, that come in
    different sizes, including high speed Jet Cats that have replaced the
    Hydrofoils for the Manly run. Plus Navy ships and submarines, ours and those
    of guests - we are understandably a popular port to visit. Plus kayaks, at
    least one steam launch, but no more jet-skis as they have been banned -
    there always seems to be some odd craft you have never seen before.
    Apart from being a spectacular sight the harbour can be a navigational
    nightmare, all these different vessels with different needs and capabilities
    sharing a fairly limited space - the bays are often filled with moorings.
    The big ships are kept to two channels and guided by pilots. They look
    serene enough but listening (on the VHF radio) to the pilots talking
    together between two ships, agreeing who will take which channel, etc, you
    hear how tense they are and sense how closely catastrophe is always lurking.
    After a collision with a sailing yacht, for quite some time big ships were
    preceded by a water police launch to shoo away the foolish.
    As for the sailors, apart from so many different sizes and types of cruising
    craft, who may or may not know much about sailing let alone the Colregs
    (there are always learners and people who seem to have borrowed a boat),
    there can be any number of yacht races taking place at the same time in the
    same waters, fleets of boats coming together on different courses. As a
    regular participant I know how avoiding other boats is something everybody
    onboard needs to be focused on the whole time - any passengers have
    carefully explained how they have a vital roll to play as lookout and how to
    'call', using the clock face (the bow points to 12) and distance. ' 9
    o'clock 100 metres' means on the port beam and may or not be significant,
    11 or 1 o'clock usually is, especially if the distance is short. When racing
    the big genoa is usually favoured which means the helmsman has limited
    visibility to leeward. Everyone is well aware of the right-of-way rules but
    little quarter is given or expected. There is an understanding, not a rule,
    that racing boats have priority over cruising ones ' We're racing!' 'So are
    we!'. The most dare-devil are the skiffs (14', 16'), that can accelerate
    from nothing like a racing car, the crew hanging out on trapeze lines from
    the edge of the trampolines on either side. Once, on our way back from
    outside, not racing, I found myself in the middle of a skiff race, throwing
    the boat from one side to another to avoid them. One hissed past at great
    speed and very close, and the skipper, barely in control, acknowledged my
    efforts with a laconically raised hand, dressed like a visitor from
    outer-space in gaudily coloured wet-suit and helmet. In the racing fleets
    some skippers are known for refusing to give way. They tend to come to
    grief, sooner or later, and earn nick-names like ' T-bone'. Once, we were on
    starboard and sailed across a fleet demanding right-of-way (a bellowed
    STARBOARD!!). One boat was sure it could squeeze through in front and did -
    just, the skipper grimly focused ahead, the crew white-faced, slack-jawed,
    and wild-eyed - 'Are you all having a loverley time?' I enquired sweetly
    from our bow.
    The harbour ferries have right-of-way but they are quite skilful at picking
    a course through this sea of boats while avoiding everything. Other boats
    that look the same (may even be the same boats) but are carrying tourists
    sight-seeing (rather than following a set route) often follow the sail races
    but have no right-of-way, yet act as if they do, even coming through a start
    line, which leads to dangerous situations and bad words. Speaking of start
    lines, the committee boat is usually an exciting place to be while the whole
    fleet converges on it for the gun, an impossible crush of sailing boats in
    not enough water, much shouting, adrenalin and testosterone pumping - the
    surprising thing is how few collisions there are, normally they all get
    around it and onward intact.

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