Collision At Sea

While cruising, we come across many ships and yachts on the water. Naturally, we are all keeping a good lookout and this lets us all avoid any problems. If I see a yacht on the horizon and that yacht sees me, we will both work our hardest to avoid running into each other.  

Sailors tend to keep their distance, as none of us want to get too close to each other. It's a big ocean after all, why get too close? Power boaters will cut it closer, as they feel their motor boat will zip along before we move. We have had some very close encounters where a powerboat insists on passing across our bow instead of going behind our stern. It is always nicer to a sailboat to pass on their stern, not only because it is less nerve wracking, but also because of the wake you create. A wake hitting a sailboat on the stern will give them a gentle push. A wake hitting a sailboat on the bow will stop them in their tracks! 

Private yachts are plentiful on the weekends, as most people with boats also have jobs. Therefore, they are working during the week. On weekdays, the kinds of boats we come across are other cruising sailors and commercial ships. 

Commercial ships can be categorized into three groups, fishing, massive cargo ships, and tug boats. The fishing boats are keeping a good lookout and tend to stay close to the coast where they work their traps. The massive cargo ships are limited to the channel as they are constrained by draft. 

When sailing along, you technically have right of way over any power boat because you are under sail, but a massive cargo ship can't maneuver around you. This means that when you are outside of a shipping channel, sail has right of way. When you are in the shipping channel, yield all right of way to the massive cargo ships.  

When offshore, there are no channels, and you once again have right of way over the container ships. I have found these captains to be very curtious when off shore. I simply hail them on the radio and tell them my position to verify that they can see me. Then they adjust course slightly to avoid any kind of close encounter. When you contact them miles apart, tensions are lower and a course correction of 1 degree will make all the difference in the world. If you wait until you can see the captains face in the bridge, tensions will be much higher and I don't think they would be as courteous about the entire situation. 

The last kind of commercial ship you will encounter would be tug boats. Honestly, these have been the worst kind of boat to deal with on the water in terms of curtesy and alertness. When pushing or pulling cargo, they will stay in the channel and the same rules apply as with massive cargo ships: yield all right of way to them. When they are not carrying cargo, they tend to cruise along next to the channel since they are not constrained to the channel by draft. This is where the problems begin.  

Tug boats are small and low, making them hard to spot off on the horizon. They also move along quickly, meaning that when you see them, they are going to be upon you very soon. The last problem is: the tug boat captains don't seem to keep any kind of lookout at all. We have narrowly avoided collisions with tugboats multiple times because they come right at us! 

Our last near miss occurred at night. We were outside of the channel and saw navigation lights approaching us. We were under sail and had our masthead tricolor light turned on, he was under power and had his navigation lights and steaming light turned on. I kept an eye on the tug figuring that it would turn to avoid a collision, but it kept its course. Naturally, the wind died and we slowed as the tug boat neared us. It got so close before turning that we could see all of its interior lights through the portholes. When we were a mere 100 feet away, he made a drastic turn to starboard as we quickly jibed to port to evade a collision. Maddie and I think that he wasn't looking and turned as soon as he saw us, which was almost too late!  

Sadly, this isn't an isolated incident. We often see tugs running next to the channel at full speed, narrowly missing other yachts as well. Our theory is that they are busy doing paper work and not looking at the water as they head from one job to the next. They are focused on work and not on the seas around them. The probably have their AIS alarm turned on, warning them of any approaching commercial ships, and ignore the rest of the boaters as the barge their way through. 

Tug boat captains also seem to have a bit of an attitude as well. We were about 10 miles off shore one time, well out of any channels and in the open waterways of the ocean. A tug boat was on a collision course with us (based on the AIS proximity alarm) so I radioed his bridge. The captain was very snarky and rude during the whole thing. We were about 20 minutes away from a collision and so I asked him to alter his course a few degrees to bring us away from a collision. The response from the captain of Arabian Sea was "This thing doesn't turn on a dime." I told him I understood that and that is why I was notifying him several miles ahead. After many other snarky comments from the captain, I saw that his heading changed by 2 degrees and our distance at closest approach increased from 0 to several miles. 

It seems that all other boats are courteous and kind on the water, paying attention to their surroundings as they share the waterways with all other boats. There are many times when I will get on the radio to let a larger craft know that I will yield around him even though I technically have right of way simply because it is easier for me to do and a common curtesy among boaters. Then you run into the tug boats, who seem to never keep a lookout and never are willing to cooperate with other boaters on the water.