While AIS information is useful, it should never be the only thing watch crew look at. Here's some things to do and not do as a yacht crewmember on watch.
It was the darkest of nights, not a sliver of moon illuminated the black ocean as the 60-meter M/Y Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’ made her way from Fort Lauderdale to Newport. In the wheelhouse, the second officer as watch leader, assisted by one of the junior deckhands as lookout, had the 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift.
There was a fair amount of traffic in these shipping lanes and the radar would regularly light up with passing ships. They kept a close eye on the radar, thankful for the plethora of information AIS handily serves up. A little after midnight, the deckhand left the bridge to conduct safety rounds. By 12:30 a.m. he still hadn’t returned. “Probably getting a snack,” thought the officer as he settled back into the comfortable captain’s chair. He glanced at the radar and out of the forward windscreen where the overcast sky and the gloomy ocean melted into one pool of inkiness — all looked well.
In a second, everything changed. A light suddenly appeared directly in front of their bow. The second officer jumped up and realized he was looking at a boat that seemingly came out of nowhere. He quickly turned off autopilot and grabbed the wheel, turning it to port as hard as he could, but it wasn’t enough and the yacht lurched violently with the force of impact….
“Bridge instruments are just auxiliary equipment, which help a lot if you use them in the right way, but in navigation the main equipment are human eyes, especially during night navigation.”
When it comes to collisions at sea of any kind, including with floating debris, Capt. Antonio Gerini and his First Officer Goran Mikuličić of the 50-meter M/Y ELA, say that the problem is that the new generation of crew are too reliant on radar and bridge instruments in general. “Bridge instruments are just auxiliary equipment, which help a lot if you use them in the right way, but in navigation the main equipment are human eyes, especially during night navigation,” they say.
While AIS information is useful for helping watch crew make decisions to avoid other identified vessels, it was never intended to be a primary instrument for collision avoidance. The IMO makes this clear in Resolution A.1106(29) — Revised Guidelines for the Onboard Operational Use of Shipborne Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), when it states in point 40 that it recognizes AIS’s potential to assist in this regard but stops short of recommending it as a collision-avoidance device. After all, in a sea of vessels of all sizes, there’s no guaranteeing the other vessel in one’s vicinity will have AIS, or if it does, will have it switched on.
This was the case when a small passenger vessel collided with a large yacht at night a few years ago. Although the USCG-inspected small passenger vessel was required to be fitted with AIS, it was turned off. The U.S. Coast Guard findings stated that the vessels had three operational radars between them but their radars never identified the other vessel prior to the collision.
The investigation also revealed that there was only one watchstander operating each vessel. The yacht had posted a lookout but he was not on the bridge at the time of the collision and the small passenger vessel was running at night with just one crewmember on watch. Clearly, the outcome could have been much different if there had been a lookout actively scanning the sea in all directions on either vessel.
The lookout, with good binoculars, is still the best option, with auxiliary help for navigation, like radars.
Rule 5 of the COLREGs states: “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing, as well as by all available means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.”
“Looking out of the bridge windows and seeing what is ahead, astern, and either side of you seems to be stating the obvious, but experience and case studies show that many navigators appear to forget this advice,” says marine insurer Standard Club in its Standard Safety publication.
Following the accident, the USCG’s recommendations for overnight small passenger vessels is also sound advice for any yacht:
- Deckhands should perform lookout duties on a rotational watch schedule while the vessel is operating at night, in or around areas of limited visibility, and at any other time deemed appropriate by the master and consistent with Rule 5 of the COLREGs.
- Small passenger vessels that carry overnight passengers are required by regulation to have a suitable number of watchmen on duty to guard against fire and other dangerous situations. A watchman can assist with lookout duties when they are not conducting their safety rounds.
- The operator with direct control of the vessel shouldn’t be alone in the wheelhouse while the vessel is operating at night, in and around areas of limited visibility, and at any other time deemed appropriate by the master and consistent with Rule 5 of the COLREGs.
Capt. Gerini and First Officer Mikuličić agree. “During night navigation, we need to have at least two persons on the bridge — one officer and one full-time lookout — and sometimes even more dependent on weather conditions and the situation in general.” And these crew need to be actively looking, Gerini stresses.
“I’m struggling sometimes to see watch crew sit down all the time on the bridge where the view is affected from many factors and reduced by window screens. The lookout, with good binoculars, is still the best option, with auxiliary help for navigation, like radars.”
This article originally ran in the July 2021 issue of Dockwalk.