It appeared to be a straightforward operation: Run to the yacht club to pick up the guests — yet again. M/Y Cutting Corners had been anchored in the bay for several days and the deckhand had made multiple trips back and forth to the dinghy dock. The captain relayed that they sounded impatient to go, so he quickly jumped in the RIB and took off at speed. He didn’t bother with the chart plotter; after all, he could see the dock. Closing in on it, he throttled back and just in time too, for the tender abruptly shuddered to a stop with a sickening scraping sound. He had run up on a submerged rock.
“What the hell,” he thought. “Where did that come from?” He could have sworn that he had taken this exact same path earlier in the day. But there he was, stranded in a grounded tender in full view of the waiting guests. He suddenly remembered the first piece of advice he received when he first drove a tender years ago: “Never look stupid,” the mate had told him. Well, too late for that!
“When tender operations are frequent, and especially if things never or rarely go wrong, it can be tempting to think that a plan isn’t even necessary….”
This fictionalized scenario is based on an actual report received by CHIRP Maritime, a confidential incident-reporting program based in London. In the real-life incident, the submerged rock that the tender hit was charted. The mothership’s ECDIS showed the hazard, but no passage plans had been done for the tender runs.
“The tempo of superyacht operations can mean that it feels like there is no time to draw up or brief a passage plan,” CHIRP commented. “When tender operations are frequent, and especially if things never or rarely go wrong, it can be tempting to think that a plan isn’t even necessary. This can lead to important safety information being missed, as in this case. Over-confidence can also lead to simple tasks being overlooked; in this incident the tender’s chart plotter was not switched on.”
The report goes on to stress how important it is that tender crew are briefed, preferably on the bridge using ECDIS. “With a simple passage plan in place, the first crew ashore (ideally more experienced crewmembers) will be able to lay a track on the tender’s chart plotter for other crew to follow over the following hours or days. At the very least, the tender crew should take a few moments to assess the proposed route on the chart plotter (or a navigation app) to ensure that it is safe and to identify any navigational hazards.”
In another tender accident reported to CHIRP Maritime, the crew did have a plotted track to follow, yet still managed to hit a rock while running at around 15 to 18 knots at night. Two crewmembers had picked up a third on shore who was returning from leave. They became involved in a lively conversation with the returning crewmember and did not notice they had deviated from the route, which weaved around two rocks that were naturally invisible in the darkness. Distraction was one of the main human factors leading to this accident, according to the CHIRP report.
Both of these incidents highlight the importance of training and a good safety culture on board, says Capt. Michael French. “There have been a number of similar accidents that I am aware of.”
What should happen, he says, is yachts should conduct a risk assessment and design standard operating procedures accordingly. “This should mean that tender operations are conducted within a framework designed around the typical operational needs of the yacht and considering the type of tender in use. (For example) on a couple of yachts that I have been on, the tenders were restricted to operating at displacement speeds only in the dark. In The Bahamas, where it is routine to operate amongst reefs and other hazards during daylight, other restrictions are often applied at night, like using waypoints or a plotter, or following a track previously undertaken in daylight.”
As for training, Capt. French points out that the RYA Powerboat Level 2 course, which the industry tends to rely on as a measure of competence, does not require any night operation, which makes on-the-job training paramount. James Potipher, superyacht cadetship manager at UKSA in Cowes, says this course should be considered just the beginning, and the next level, the Tender Operator Certificate, includes night hours. “[This course] focuses on the skills required to drive a tender from a superyacht, incorporating night hours, navigation, and a bigger focus on the collision regulations,” he says. “Further to this, crew can complete an advanced powerboat course, which builds on the skills from the Tender Operator Certificate.
“Captains should give their crew the opportunity to drive as skills develop with time behind the wheel, and training from more experienced crew can help develop their skills so they can become a very confident and competent tender driver. The focus shall also be safety and ensuring tender drivers use their kill cord at all times and wear a suitable lifejacket,” Potipher says.
Those last points were what kept the night-time tender accident from turning into a tragedy. When the vessel hit the rock at speed, the helmsperson and the deckhand were thrown into the water. With the kill cord disengaged the engine immediately shut off, and the crewmembers, in their lifejackets, were able to swim back and reboard the boat. In the end, the only injury was to the tender’s hull.
This article originally ran in the June 2022 issue of Dockwalk.