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SIRENA'S Lessons From A Near Miss
by David R. Appleton

Our Fall 1999 instructional delivery voyage from Annapolis to St. Thomas on SIRENA, a spanking new Island Packet 45  destined to join Skip and Andrea King’s ISLAND YACHTS charter fleet in Red Hook, proved decidedly unserene on several occasions.  We screamed downbay from Annapolis to Little Creek in under 14 hours (new record for me) on a strong norther, passed a “not under command” nuclear submarine dead in the water with propulsion problems off the Virginia coast, saw a sperm whale and a water spout close aboard, tracked some potential meteorological threats including KATRINA, and weathered several healthy squalls with wind gusts to the 40s in a pre-LENNY trough while approaching the Virgins.

But the most unnerving experience was a close encounter of the near-collision kind with a freighter in the wee hours of the morning the first night out of the Chesapeake Bay.

It was just after 0330 on October 28th and we were moving along smartly on a port tack making 6.5 knots with moderate northerly winds on a Bermuda bound course of 125°M at about N 35°20’ x W 73° 59’ -- just shy of the NE wall of the Gulf Stream.  Bob Michie, SIRENA’s coowner and Engineer for the voyage, and Bosun Greg Sacho were concluding their midwatch and had already awakened 1st Mate Eric Petterson and Bosun Lonny Coots to relieve them.  Bob and Greg had been tracking a contact off to starboard for some time.  Bob noted it was getting closer and the compass bearing was not changing, and it was showing us two masthead lights (probably more than 50 meters) and a red side light.  Eric told Bob to call me.

At about 0340 Bob woke me up to advise me of the situation.  Somewhat bleary-eyed, I headed topside hooking my harness on to my at-the-ready placed tether as I climbed the ladder through the companionway.  The startling vision to starboard where Greg pointed jarred what remained of sleep from my brain quickly and thoroughly.  This freighter was close, far too close, within a mile.  I was looking up at two masthead lights, the lower a shade to the left, and a red side light.  These lights were nearly dead abeam!

A quick glance forward revealed our own side lights functioning as Bob had reported.  But in my drowsiness I failed to order the bow or anchor light turned on to make us more visible.  Probably it was good I didn’t since this could have added to the confusion.

“Eric, get our position off the GPS and call this guy up and find out if he has us on his radar screen!  This is a close approach-- too close!  We’re off his port bow.”  It looked like we were about to get T-boned!

Eric, ahead of me, had already noted our position.  He promptly called the freighter on VHF channel 16, “Northbound motor vessel vicinity N36/20 by W73/59, this is the east bound sailing vessel SIRENA off your port bow, anticipating close approach!  Over!”

A deafening and seemingly interminable silence ensued as those on deck watched the freighter closing and those below looked at the dumb VHF radio.  I thought, “Which way will he turn, ....if he turns!  Which way should I turn to avoid him.... turning to starboard is the safe bet... the text book in extremis collision avoidance maneuver required by the Rules.  But what if he decides to take our stern and comes to port...... The ‘After you, Alphonse!’ syndrome..... Crunch!!!!.”

Then from the radio came, “East bound sailing vessel I am altering course to starboard,” veiled in a thick accent of undetermined national origin.  That was it!

“Thank God!” I sighed and watched the shadowy behemoth intently as moments later its turn to starboard, the proper in extremis maneuver, became apparent.  But his turn was not enough!  Clearly he would not run over us now, but we were still in danger of running into him!  Not a desirable outcome.  We answered his turn with our own in kind.

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“Come right 20 degrees.“  I called to Greg on the helm.

“Coming right 20 degrees to one-four-five” he answered..“ .....steering one-four-five.”

“Eric, tell him we’re altering course to starboard as well.”

“Northbound motor vessel, this is east bound sailing vessel SIRENA off your port beam altering course to starboard.”..... No response from the freighter on VHF.

Still not enough.... “Come right another 30 degrees.”

“Coming right to one-seven-five.”

“Ease the main sheet!  Mind the jibe.”  We were now going downwind in 22+ knot gusts; an accidental jibe had become the immediate danger since we hadn’t time to set the preventer.  Our bow was now pointed safely at the freighter’s stern.  “OK..... Now you can come up slowly, back to our one-two-five course...” I said, imbuing my voice with all the calm I could muster.  “Just keep him off your port bow!”

“Coming to one-two-five....” said Greg as he slowly guided SIRENA back to our proper course.  Bearing off had diminished our speed and the gray shape of the freighter, now showing only a stern navigation light, steadily moved away to the North.

It was now close to 0400.  Lonny and Eric were on deck ready to assume the watch duties.  Bob and Greg were still topside.  So I seized the pedagogical opportunity... “Take a good look at that, guys,” I said, pointing to the shadowy specter of the freighter, a scant 200  to 300 yards away in cloud filtered moonlight.

“That is as close as I ever want to come to one of those things in the middle of the night! or any time in a seaway for that matter!!!”  We could now breathe easy..... at least I could.  We tried to contact the freighter by radio again, but got no response.

I reviewed the rules of the road with the crew noting that basically, under the “International Regulations for Prevention of Collisions at Sea,” we were the “stand on vessel,” in this situation required by law to maintain our course and speed, and he was the “give way vessel,” required to stay clear by virtue of our “sailing vessel” and his “power vessel” status under rule 18.... which states “a power-driven vessel underway shall keep out of the way of ..... (iv) a sailing vessel.”  So we had behaved appropriately and legally.

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However, did he know we were a sailing vessel?  All he had was a blip on his radar screen... If that!!...depending on the effectiveness of the radar reflector we had mounted on our port spreader.  And that blip was on his port side and crossing, making him the starboard “stand on vessel” under rule 15, “...the vessel with the other on her own starboard shall keep out of the way...”  This cloudy night, he could not get a visual on us and thus could not determine what manner of vessel we were and might assume we were a power vessel, thus making him the “stand on vessel” required to maintain course.  Had he missed the significance of the absence of a bow light on our mast?  Could he see us at all?

So both vessels seem to have assumed “stand on” status and were plunging toward collision by dutifully following the rules for the situation as we understood it.

SIRENA can be faulted for not radioing the freighter sooner and declaring her intentions and sailing vessel status.  We should have made contact the moment we determined a “close approach” situation was imminent.

The general rule of lights on large vessels (50 meters or more) is that if you can see the white masthead lights, the vessel is within 6 nautical miles.  And if you can see the side lights, he is within 3; it’s time to put out a call to him on the VHF to make sure he can see you, and, under my standard operating procedures, call the captain to the cockpit.

The freighter could be faulted for not maintaining radar vigilance.  While we cannot be sure we were clearly displayed on his screen, there should have been some blip there, however faint, worthy of consideration.  And he should have attempted radio contact as well.

The next day we took the opportunity to recollect this experience in the tranquility of daylight and examine it for the lessons might yield.  After all this was an instructional voyage!

LESSON #1.  Communicate!  As soon as you determine there is a risk of collision, contact the other vessel and make sure each vessel understands the other’s type (power, sail, fishing, restricted ability to maneuver, etc.) and intentions.  In this case, as soon as we saw the port running light visible to our starboard with the compass bearing to this contact remaining constant and we thereby determined a close approach situation was likely, we should have recognized the size of the contact (probably 50+ meters by virtue of the 2 masthead lights) and ambiguity of the situation and made radio contact identifying ourselves as a sailing vessel.  We waited far too long.

Also, while the U.S. Code requires a radio operator conversant in English to guard VHF Channels 16 (hail and distress) or 13 (bridge to bridge) at all times on vessels 20 meters or longer operating within the 3 mile limit, you can’t always count on this being the case in international waters.  Most vessels in sea lanes will respond when contacted on VHF 16 as this northbound freighter had this night; but some may not reply.  Our friend’s reticence after the collision avoidance maneuver might be attributed to the watch officer’s less than facile command of English.  This is probably not that uncommon........ all the more reason to make your call early.

And, Captain, be sure you communicate with your crew.  Have contingency plans, “What ifs,” outlined for the crew prior to embarking so they know what to do when confronted with potentially threatening situations.  We publish a printed SOP for each crew member and go over it prior to embarking on ocean voyages.  This document includes standing orders and “Call the Captain if.......” situations, chief among these the “close approach imminent.”  We had reviewed these prior to departing from Norfolk, but I should have reiterated the importance of calling the captain when confronted with ambiguous crossing situations before I hit the sack on this our first night out.

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LESSON #2.  Follow the rules, but not doggedly.  As a sailing vessel SIRENA was correct to “stand on” by following the dictate of the ‘power vessel gives way to sailing vessel’ of rule 18.  Behaving as any other vessel familiar with the rules would expect avoids “after you, Alphonse...” confusion about what maneuvers might follow.

However, there is the unwritten rule that most prudent sailors follow; the one I call the “Bs” (Big B, small s) rule dictating “BIG BOAT GO FIRST” --- “small sailboat stay clear.”  Be careful of this one.  If you elect to “stay clear” when the rules require you “stand on,” make certain your intentions are crystal clear to the other vessel by making radio contact or speaking eloquently with your hull, making your maneuver very early and extremely large as prescribed by COLREGS Rule 8 “Action to avoid a Collision,” and rule 17 requiring the stand-on vessel when she “ (b) .......finds herself so close that collision cannot be avoided by the action of the give-way vessel alone, she shall take such action as will best aid to avoid collision.”  And further under Rule 17 (c) vessels are prohibited from turning to port toward a vessel on their port side.  So our freighter’s maneuver to starboard was absolutely correct and legal under the COLREGS, and thus predictable.

LESSON #3.  Make your vessel as visible as possible using a good radar reflector mounted properly, as high as possible, unobscured by rigging, and in the most effective “catch rain” orientation.  Our Davis Echomaster (with excellent radio-reflective properties), mounted on the port spreader halyard in the recommended “catch rain” configuration, was apparently not as visible as we assumed.  About a week later while on route to St. Thomas from Bermuda, the s/v GEMINI, a Peterson 44 bound for Virgin Gorda, called us on VHF 16 to ask what kind of radar reflector we had.  He reported getting a poor return from us on his set despite fact that his visual contact with us indicated the two vessels were within 3 miles.  We noted that his position, off our starboard quarter, may have caused our mast to obscure our radar reflector.  Thus we concluded our reflector may have been similarly obscured to the freighter’s radar as he approached us from starboard a week earlier.  Perhaps he hadn’t seen us after all.

So mount your reflector high, at the top of the mast if possible.  I usually like to put it near the top of the mast between the backstays on the Island Packet double backstay rig.  And, in the same way you would conduct a radio check, check your radar visibility by calling visual contacts by VHF and asking them how clearly their radar paints you.  Most freighters provide such feedback quite willingly.

Also, sailing vessels should consolidate running lights at the top of the mast with a tri-color allowed on vessels up to 20 meters under Rule 25 (b), and thus enhance visibility while reducing power consumption.  Larger sailing vessels should consider the red over green 360° option allowed under the Rule 25 (c).  For backup, prudence dictates carrying a white, meteor style flare launch ready in or near the cockpit with which to signal your position in case a close approach vessel fails to respond to a VHF hail.

LESSON #4.  In in extremis situations, the best and required maneuver is a right turn.  Again Rule 17 (c) prescribes avoiding turns to port toward vessels on your port side.  In this incident both vessels turned right, safely avoiding each other.  Had the freighter turned to port to take SIRENA’s stern, as might have been appropriate had we been maneuvering at greater distance, SIRENA might have made an “in extremis right” causing a collision.  The freighter’s single terse but effective radio message confirmed our instincts about her adherence to the rules and the required right turn, and all came out well!

We also noted the issue of the hour, LESSON #5..  Night sailing is fraught with danger in the form of reduced visibility and crew fatigue.  Along with the obvious difficulty we have seeing objects at night, our depth perception is diminished to nil and our ability to judge distances is severely impaired.  Hence we allowed our contact to get too close before taking action.  Night passages demand the highest level of vigilance.

This was compounded by the hour, 0330, the end of the midwatch on the first night out, always a dangerous time.  The off going watch was more tired than they normally would be at this hour because, excited with the novelty of the first day at sea and not yet adjusted to the ship’s routine, they had not gotten their necessary rest.  The relief watch, having just risen, had yet to fully awaken.  Given this, we’re fortunate we kept things together as well as we did.

We concluded our discussion by observing that this event had etched vivid impressions in our sailing souls.  So we might say for LESSON #6,  Experience is, after all, the best teacher.  But Bob, Lonny, Greg, Eric and myself standing in SIRENA’s cockpit as first light gathered that morning would just as soon forego such “valuable” experiences in the future.  Considering what might have happened, Experience can keep a “very dear school,” indeed.

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