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    Re: USS Fitzgerald collision with container ship
    From: Bob Goethe
    Date: 2017 Jun 20, 15:38 -0700

    Rule 7  of the Collision Regulations is entitled "Risk of collision".  It addresses the very question of changes of bearing, Bill.  

    Basically, the rules say, collectively, you are to keep a close lookout at all times and take all possible steps to exercise good judgement, good seamanship, and to avoid collisions.  If you have any concerns whatsoever that a vessel might possibly be on a collision course, even if you would normally be assumed to have the right of way, you are to take decisive action to reduce or eliminate that risk.

    Specifically, as pertains to the changes of bearing, the Rule 7 says:

    (a). Every vessel shall use all available means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions to determine if risk of collision exists. If there is any doubt such risk shall be deemed to exist.  

    (b). Proper use shall be made of radar equipment if fitted and operational, including long-range scanning to obtain early warning of risk of collision and radar plotting or equivalent systematic observation of detected objects.  

    (c). Assumptions shall not be made on the basis of scanty information, especially scanty radar information.  

    (d). In determining if risk of collision exists the following considerations shall be among those taken into account:  

    (i). such risk shall be deemed to exist if the compass bearing of an approaching vessel does not appreciably change;  

    (ii). such risk may sometimes exist even when an appreciable bearing change is evident, particularly when approaching a very large vessel or a tow or when approaching a vessel at close range.  

    Rule 15 of the regulations addresses the Crossing situation specifically.

    When two power-driven vessels are crossing so as to involve risk of collision, the vessel which has the other on her own starboard side shall keep out of the way and shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel. 

    This language a little difficult, but it is the same rule as when two cars meet at a 4-way stop.  The vehicle on the right should get the right of way.  If you get in an accident at a 4-way stop - and the damage is to your right side - the other guy's insurance company is going to make the case almost immediately that you failed to properly yield the right of way.  

    We will learn all about the details of this incident in due time, of course.  But damage amidships from what looks like a more or less 90 degree collision with a vessel that was coming in from the Fitzgerald's starboard side surely makes it *look* like a failure to properly yield to the container ship.

    You can read the full set of Collision Regulations at http://www.jag.navy.mil/distrib/instructions/COLREG-1972.pdf.

    - - - - - 

    John Trimmer wrote a delightful book years ago called "How to Avoid Huge Ships".  He wanted to make clear to small boat skippers how L O N G  it takes to stop or turn a freighter/tanker. 

    He said that while a vessel under sail, technically, will always have the right of way over a power vessel, if the power vessel in question is a 100,000 ton freighter, the sailboat ought not insist on its right of way.  Being in the right, he said, will be cold comfort to you if your boat ends up at the bottom of the sea.

    While the Fitzgerald is not a tiny vessel, of course, it has vastly more maneuverability and acceleration than a big container ship, which could require several miles to come to a complete stop even with the engines in full-reverse (assuming they were even capable of popping then engine in reverse while at their cruising speed).  So even if the Fitzgerald had, technically speaking, the right of way at the time, and the lion's share of blame would technically belong to the container ship captain, the outcome has demonstrated that the Fitzgerald demonstrated insufficient prudence.


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