Monday, May 18, 2009

Rule number nine

I'm not sure what it is about ships but small boats love to get close to us when were in a channel and have no room to avoid them. This was the case for each port we called at on the U.S. East Coast.

In Baltimore after undocking and heading out into the 150 mile long Chesapeake Bay a ketch decided that we had ample room to maneuver under the Francis Scott Key bridge. Instead of moving out of the channel the skipper kept his position in the "Narrow Channel" (More on that later) which we were restricted to navigating within. Only at the last minute did the sailing vessel move to the red side of the channel giving us enough water to line up with the center line of the bridge.

What the skipper failed to realize was that the perspective from the bridge of a 600 foot ship lining up to pass between the steel supports of a frail road bridge are quite narrow compared to the view from his open cockpit. A misunderstanding that almost drove us out of the channel to avoid spoiling his afternoon sail; a subset of mariner's I must secretively claim allegiance to when working on the big ships due to the frequency of near misses like this.

On the way into Charleston South Carolina a parade of sport fishers were getting a jump on the day heading out of the breakwater in the dark and in force. As we gingerly made our turn from the Fort Sumter range onto Mount Pleasant range one daring idiot felt he had to cross the channel so close ahead of us at the very last moment that he disappeared under the bow. Seeing how the bridge on my vessel is set only 40 meters abaft the bow its evident how close to our bulbous he came. If only one of our anchors would have let go...

The moment when you, the pilot and the captain loose sight of a speeding small craft can be a tense one. The horn was already sounding five short blasts signaling that we were in doubt as to his intentions, specifically why the heck he wanted to play chicken with 20,000 tons of high tensile steel. Chances are they never even heard the danger signal
from our very convincing horn above the roar of their XM radio and the twin 250 mercury's purring on the transom; one near miss for the power boaters.

The next example of poor seamanship and situational unawareness occurred as we backed off our berth in down town Charleston after a quick six hours of cargo operations. As a tug pulled the stern laterally off the dock and the bow thruster pushed with all its 2000 horses we encountered another WAFI much like the one in Baltimore. WAFI by the way stand for Wind Assisted Foolish Incompetent or any other derogatory words you can abbreviate with the letters F & I.

He was demonstrating his poor judgment in crew choice by leaving the helm to his inexperienced buddy who was zigzagging down wind while the slightly more experienced skipper chased the errant jib sheet finally
taking the slack out and putting on even more speed into our path.

When the captain and pilot lost sight of the forty foot sailboat dead astern they began calling him on the VHF and asking the mate on the stern for position updates fearing that we might chum him up in our slow astern bell. Needing all the room we could get to safely back down to the channel and then maneuver into it having a sail boat jibing back and forth close astern was unsettling. When the skipper finally responded on the VHF the pilot gave him a good tongue lashing that must have smarted with all the other weekend warriors listening in and told him to stay close to the docks leaving the ship ample room. A second near miss for the sail boaters.

The next day, down in the swamps of Georgia, we met a dozen antiquated commercial shrimp boats coming out of Saint Simons sound. We utilized the searchlight to express our doubt and dismay when one boat crossed
the channel close ahead and when another wouldn't give us enough room to make our initial turn past the hundred foot tall lighthouse just inside the jetties.

After the first near ninety degree turn onto Jekyll Island reach we passed an outbound bulk ship and thought we had cleared the majority of the stubborn fish farmers. Unfortunately a few minutes later the pilot spotted the outline of one more boat dead in the water and just inside the channel at the next bend we had to turn at. The lack of crew or lights on the boat was disconcerting, perhaps his engine had failed?

The captain had the halogen search light trained on the wheelhouse as the pilot began futilely hailing him on the radio. Once we had slowed the engine the pilot had me start sounding the danger signal and began contemplating how much damage would be done to the hull if we had to exit the channel and pile the ship up in water far too shallow for our 28 foot draft.

Instead of risking grounding, flooding and a potential oil spill blackening the bird reserve right next to us the pilot told the Captain he thought he could make the turn splitting the increasingly narrow space in between the shrimper and the blinking red buoy marking the starboard hand side of the 400 foot wide channel. This was a calculated risk for sure but with the unresponsive boat not moving it left us with little choice between smashing him to bits or shutting the port down until the grounded PCTC could be floated, inspected and repaired.

Just as I was switching from the autopilot, which up until this point had been engaged as is normal practice for pilots experienced in its use, to hand steering for the precarious turn the fishing boat came alive sputtering in a circle to head out of the channel. He had chosen wisely to get away from us and into the open water to the left but just as we thought he was clear of our turn to starboard he put on hard rudder and swung back into the channel right across our path! Whether he was completely disoriented, under the influence of narcotics or still asleep remains undetermined but this last moment maneuver reeked of a death wish and I'm sure everyone on the bridge was confident that we were about to buy a splintered shrimp boat.

After his outriggers had disappeared under the bow somehow he miraculously emerged on our starboard side hightailing it for the opposite side of the buoy and towards water shallow enough to ground out even a fishing boat. We had enough time while making the course change to train the search light on his transom to read his name. An incident report would be needed if we still grounded now that we were so close to the inside of the channel and ledge where another deep draft ship had grounded a year before. Luckily with a still ebbing tide we missed the bank and assumed the fish farmer had safely come out of his suicidal turn to net shrimp for another day.

The International Collision Regulations that govern vessels to prevent collision provide the same guidance for all three of these situations. In open water, unencumbered by our deep draft, we would have been obliged to give way to the sail boat and the fishing boat if he had been engaged in fishing. But there are several exceptions to this rule and had they been known by the operators of these three vessels than they may have paid more heed to our presence.

Rule number nine, which applies both in the United States and overseas grants a ship which can only safely navigate within a narrow channel the privilege of being unimpeded by vessels less than 20 meters in length and sailing vessels. In the case of the fishing vessel had we collided and the case was brought to court any defense that he had been fishing and there fore exempt of wrongdoing would have been futile. Rule number nine also applies to vessels engaged in fishing which must not impede any vessel operating in a narrow channel regardless of their size. In other words fishermen cannot fish in the middle of the road.

Having a working knowledge of the collision rules seems like a no-brainer but so many recreational and even commercial fishermen assume that they either have the right of way or are so small they can't possibly pose any issues to that ship coming down the channel. While I realize that the perspective from the console of a Boston Whaler is very different from the bridge of a ship but it still doesn't mean it's a good idea to play chicken with our bulbous bows. We might just get nervous and try and cover our asses by doing something like changing course if we feel collision is unavoidable at the last moment. In other words doubtful maneuvers with unpredictable and indistinct outcomes should always be avoided.

On our way out of Brunswick we saw the fishing boat which so narrowly missed us in the morning. I could tell we all felt a tinge of schadenfreude seeing how this errant fishing boat had ended up in the exact situation we all thought our ship and careers were going to end up in. Hard aground.

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