HOW NOT TO SINK. The 10 anti-collision rules at sea

collision sinkingThe Mediterranean is a constant bustle of ships, ferries, fishing boats and thousands of pleasure craft, whose traffic increases exponentially in the summer. The risk of collision is always lurking. Here are the rules to follow to navigate safely

Offshore collisions involving sailboats, motorboats, ships, ferries, and fishing boats are a more frequent occurrence than one might think, and it is surprising that these accidents in most cases take place on nice days with little wind and calm seas.

There was no bad weather for example on the night of May 15 when owner Filippo Gazzerro’s Salona 37 Le Pelican during the Three Gulfs Regatta had a collision with the cargo ship Valais about 81 meters long and in service between Ponza and Naples. In the crash, Le Pelican sank within minutes, forcing the entire crew to take refuge on the life raft.

Such weather conditions in the norm in which collisions occur make us realize that the cause of these accidents is almost always attributable to the distraction and inexperience of the boat driver. According to a recent analysis conducted by STB Italy experts on claims in our seas related to 2020, among the main causes of these accidents are precisely collisions at sea with as many as 131 events. For this reason, we boaters should not underestimate this eventuality, the consequences of which can be serious. Also because we sail in the Mediterranean, which is one of the busiest seas in the world. It is estimated that each year there are 325,000 transits made by some 200,000 commercial ships that route to one of the 300 ports located along its shores.

A figure that gives an idea of the multitude of units that move every day in the “Mare Nostrum”: fleets of freighters, fishing boats, cruise ships, ferries and bettines such as the Valais in addition to the thousands of pleasure boats whose traffic increases considerably during the summer months. With this constant intertwining of routes, the risk of collisions at sea is always lurking. How to cope with the problem? Here are the top 10 rules for avoiding collisions at sea and navigating safely.

THE 10 ANTI-COLLISION RULES AT SEA

  1. Know the rules of navigation and precedence at sea

In order to avoid entering a collision course with other sailboats, motor units and ships, we sailors must always refer to the rules contained in the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, a set of rules valid for both civilian and military units that provide for rights of way and their exceptions, as well as the correct procedures for steering and maneuvering the boat to be applied in all visibility conditions. This long list of rules and situations is generally studied during the exam to obtain a boating license, but it is good to refresh it from time to time and perhaps keep it on board handy in case of need.

  1. Study in nautical charts the navigation area

The risk of collision is always there when sailing at sea, but it is much higher along the coast, in areas of high maritime traffic, near large ports, or even in those restricted areas where maneuvering space is limited, such as the Strait of Messina. It is always important then to study in advance nautical charts and portolans of the stretches of sea where you will be sailing that can give you an accurate idea of the potential traffic in the area, ferry routes, areas designated for fishing or affected by impromptu events such as military exercises, fleet races and whatnot. It is also useful to listen to marine bulletins that can give real-time information on any changes to normal navigation scenarios, report marine works, and announce possibilities of unexpected crossings.

  1. Use tools and technology

Instruments such as radar or Ais can be a great help in preventing collisions at sea, not least because they are now available in compact, inexpensive versions for those who go to sea for pleasure. The radar emits packets of pulses of electromagnetic waves at great distances and is able to receive them when these pulses encounter targets such as ships precisely, the return echoes of which are processed and displayed on a screen on which the skipper can easily measure their distance and bearing relative to his own position. Radar for commercial ships by the way still remains the main anti-collision tool today. Ais, on the other hand, an acronym for Automatic Identification System, is an automatic identification system that transmits in real time on Vhf frequencies a variety of information concerning the unit on which it is installed while receiving information about other units in the vicinity.

  1. Arrange for on-call shifts

Regardless of whether or not sophisticated anti-collision instruments are on board, the first rule of behavior to avoid collisions at sea is vigilance. On our sailboats, a guard must always be arranged in the cockpit or bridge. An active lookout that both at night and during the day knows how to behave in case of intersections. Those involved in on-call shifts should be informed of what actions to take: listening to the radio, observation with binoculars, maneuvers put in place when facing an intersection, or, if unable to maneuver, who to alert immediately. This awareness of each crew member is a fundamental fact for safe navigation.

  1. Knowing how to take compass bearings

In case you see an approaching vessel or ship ahead, you have to raise the watch level and check for a collision course. It is a matter of course angles. Accurately detecting them is simple: just sight the unit that crosses with the on-board or survey compass and mark the respective readings. If the angle between us and the boat that seems to intersect our course does not change, it means we are on a collision course. If it decreases, it means that the other boat is faster than us and will arrive on the junction of the two routes before us, while if on the contrary it increases, we are the ones who are faster. This procedure should always be performed to be absolutely certain of imminent danger.

  1. Reduce boat speed

The speed of boats and ships is a key element in collisions at sea. So much so that in the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea itself, provisions are given on the sailing speed that must be maintained and the level of safety such as to ensure an effective anti-collision maneuver. The speed of our boat we know; the speed of a ship varies with the type of ship and its trim. Generally speaking, a merchant ship can sail between 15 and 22 knots, while a cruise ship between 18 and 25, unless it is a fast ferry or hydrofoil that can travel as fast as 28 to 30 knots. One needs to know one’s vessel’s stopping and maneuvering times with reference to gaits and weather conditions, but also consider that for a large vessel these multiply exponentially and are often heavily influenced by commercial and economic logic.

  1. Know the signals of ship maneuverability

Often when sailing, it happens that one finds oneself in the path of units that because of their specific use or a contingent situation may have the right of way. This is the case, for example, with ships at anchor or with shallow drafts or even vessels engaged in trawling. Units that are in limited maneuverability conditions are easily recognized by specific signs: in daytime black (cylinders, balloon, cone, and bicone), and at night or in low visibility conditions with illuminated signs. Anyone observing these signals must therefore maneuver in time by passing at a safe distance. Particular care must be taken at night: if the ship is on the high seas, distinguishing the navigation lights is fairly easy, but when approaching the coast, you can often confuse the ship’s lights with those of the land. In addition, in conditions of poor visibility due to fog or mist, for example, one must also pay attention to acoustic signals and warn of one’s presence by radio or with an audible signal.

  1. Communicate in case of potential risk

Another important tool for avoiding a collision is the Vhf. As it is intended it must always be tuned to channel 16. A direct radio call to the ship we are crossing can be decisive in clarifying a confusing situation and maneuvering accordingly. Moreover, should we not receive a response, this would be an important wake-up call that should prompt us to maneuver immediately to get out of the risk of collision or, in case we cannot maneuver, make ourselves heard by an acoustic means and be seen firing a red fire. If you have a DSC digital call-enabled Vhf radio, you can also call by MMSI number to the other vessel. The receiving radio will be alerted by an audible alarm and is unlikely to ignore your call.

  1. Maneuver properly

Any maneuver undertaken to avoid a collision must comply with the standards of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea and must be executed in a proper and timely manner. Any change in course or speed, or both to avoid a collision must be significant enough to be immediately perceived by any unit observing it by sight or radar. A series of minor course corrections should also be avoided. If our boat has sufficient space, the most effective maneuver to avoid being very close can be just changing course, provided it is done in good time, is clear and does not cause another risky situation.

  1. Always use common sense

According to the International Regulations, a sailing cabin cruiser sailing on the open sea always has the right of way over a motor unit, even if the latter is large. This is on paper. However, if you spot an oil tanker, ferry or cruise ship, it is always best not to trust these giants of the sea and be guided by common sense and avoid crossing their path. Even if one is warned in time, one must in fact consider that because of the significant tonnage of these units it is almost impossible to expect a quick and decisive change of course such that all danger is averted. The same caution should be taken when a ship, either intentionally or unintentionally, does not grant the right of way: even in this case, which is probably the one that occurs most frequently, one should pull over and give way because the first rule at sea is still to avoid dangerous situations or the risk of boarding. In short, rather than relying on the possible maneuvering of a ship that has to give precedence, it is more prudent to stay away from it and steer a course at 90° to its own.

David Ingiosi


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