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    Interaction with big vessels. was: A few questions for the pros
    From: George Huxtable
    Date: 2005 Jun 17, 20:17 +0100

    At 15:05 17/06/2005, Carl Herzog wrote, responding to "a few questions for
    the pros"-
    >... commercial captains have a good idea what other
    >commercial ships are going to do, but they have NO idea what the little
    >guy in the sailboat is doing.
    >When commercial vessels meet each other they know the rules and the
    >accepted practices, and each can make some assumption that other guy
    >knows them as well. They stay in close contact with one another on the
    >radio, calling to announce their intentions, find out what the other guy
    >is doing, and agree on how they will pass each other. (Listen in on VHF
    >13 and you'll hear all this conversation, giving you a much better idea
    >what the commercial traffic is doing.)
    >But when they encounter a small boat, they have NO idea what kind of
    >training, if any, the boat's operator has. Most boat owners don't know
    >the rules of road, though many think they do. Most small boats don't
    >monitor the VHF radio and can't be contacted. Recreational boats don't
    >stick to any kind of normal course, often darting back and forth. And
    >most boaters don't have the slightest understanding of the
    >maneuverability restrictions of large commercial craft. From the
    >commercial captain's standpoint, it's a recipe for disaster.
    >Unlike  a couple sailboats rounding a mark in a race, there is no such
    >thing as a harmless bump between two large commercial vessels or between
    >a ship and a small boat. The mass involved makes serious damage
    >inevitable. When you sail across the bow of a ship, thinking you've got
    >plenty of room, the guy on the bridge is TERRIFIED that you're going to
    >get run over and killed. A commercial ship captain is a normal, caring
    >person, who would really rather not watch you die. Nor does he want to
    >have to defend himself, his license and career in court afterward.
    >Carl Herzog
    Some things are a bit different in European waters, it seems to me, from
    what Carl describes.
    To start with, the discussions and mutual agreements, over VHF, that Carl
    describes as occurring in US waters (and perhaps especially US inland
    waters, which have special rules of their own) are deprecated in many other
    parts of the world.
    You can see the logic of this, in areas where a great mix of nationalities
    and languages is common on the various bridges. Discussion and  agreement,
    in broken English, is a likely recipe for disaster. Especially agreements
    between two vessels, between them, to depart from the letter of the rules,
    which has been condemned as illegitimate in court cases. At least, in
    American/Canadian waters most of the participants will be speaking a form
    of English, even if it isn't the Queen's.
    The strong message that has come from English courts is that navigators
    should rely on what their eyes and their radars tell them, and what the
    rules say, and not try to supplement that with information obtained via VHF
    Of course, until recently, the difficulty has been that of identification:
    being certain that the vessel you are talking to on VHF is indeed the same
    vessel that you have identified as a target on the horizon, or on the radar
    screen. That uncertainty will have been recently resolved, for many
    vessels, by the advent of AIS (Automatic Identification of Ships). I doubt
    if there have been any recent court decisions that deal with the new situation.
    But the big difference from the idyllic state-of-affairs that Carl
    describes is this one-
    In European waters at least, there is one unwritten and unstated rule that
    supervenes over all others, which is this: SMALL VESSELS GIVE WAY TO BIGGER
    VESSELS. This applies at all times and in all situations, no matter which
    vessel has right of way.  So there's the common situation of the collision
    rules instructing a small vessel that she should stand on and hold her
    course and speed, until the moment when it becomes dangerous to do so any
    longer, while the give-way big-ship ploughs on regardless, in the certain
    knowledge that simple self-preservation will get the smaller stand-on
    vessel out of the way.
    I do not claim that every merchant ship behaves in that way, but I would
    put the figure at 95%. Things are different aboard Naval vessels (both
    Royal Navy and others), who can be relied on to follow the rules
    impeccably. Passenger ferries likewise, perhaps because they carry so many
    potential witnesses aboard.
    Another situation, which seems to have been accepted by the authorities, is
    for ships to be ploughing on, at 20 knots or more (40 for fast ferries),
    without slackening speed, even in quite thick weather, even at night,
    relying on the uncertain assumption that any small vessel will show up on
    their radar. They have a schedule to keep to, they tell us, as if that was
    a valid reason.
    I've described the situation a small craft has to accept when she tries to
    cross the English Channel, even in areas that are not marked off into
    traffic separation zones. Do similar problems occur in American waters, I
    And I would point out that in the case of small-craft crossing the English
    channel, their skippers, mostly, DO know what they're doing and DO have a
    good grasp of the Colregs (with a few notable exceptions), ARE steering a
    predictable course from port to port, and are NOT "darting about", except
    to the extent that they are forced to do so to avoid the traffic.
    Just another view, to set against Carl's.
    Contact George at george@huxtable.u-net.com ,or by phone +44 1865 820222,
    or from within UK 01865 820222.
    Or by post- George Huxtable, 1 Sandy Lane, Southmoor, Abingdon, Oxon OX13
    5HX, UK.

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