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Closer Than They Appear

It goes without saying; small boats should steer clear of large merchant ships. On the waterfront, it is called the law of gross tonnage, and the bigger ship will undoubtedly always win. Viewed from a smaller ship, larger ships seem to drift along at a snail’s pace leaving the small boat owners plenty of time to zip out of the way in plenty of time. But the Coast Guard has started to take notice that it is getting more and more difficult for large ships to maneuver into a crowded harbor. Busy harbors are crowded with fishing boats and other smaller vessels. Many ship captains are observing incredibly idiotic mishaps on the water. It has become necessary to set up classes at local marinas to educate boaters on how to stay safely out of the way.

The problem is visibility. Once a smaller boat is closer than 500 meters (1,640 feet), the larger vessel can no longer see the smaller boat. To someone in a small boat it appears there is plenty of time. A ship moving at 15 knots can be on a smaller boat in minutes.  Once the captain loses sight of the smaller boat, there is nothing that can be done. It is difficult to go left or right and if the smaller boat’s engine fails, collision occurs and the outcome catastrophic.

As ships have become larger and larger, it leaves the pilots with even less room for error. Ships often come in with high water, which means the current is running behind them, propelling them forward, and speed is of the essence to maintain steerage, but also stay on schedule. Maintaining safe distances is imperative allowing maximum maneuverability by both large and small vessels. Safety standards say that two miles is a good distance.  It gives the ship time to react, and it gives the boater time to get out of the way. Two miles gives pilots about 10 minutes.

Anchoring in a channel is illegal and endangers lives. Pilots of large ships maintain that this rule is broken fairly often.  Even dead in the water, a boat stands a better chance just bobbing around. The best way to communicate with an oncoming ship that your boat is disabled is the VHF radio. On inland waterways, merchant ships monitor Channel 13. If you don’t have a radio, get on deck and start waving something bright. The odds are good that the pilot is already watching you through binoculars, trying to figure out if your anchor is down, or if you even notice them. If they think you’re in trouble, no one can tell the Coast Guard where you are better than a trained pilot. If they can’t tell what you’re doing, the next thing you hear may be five short blasts of the horn. That’s bad.  If a ship is blowing its whistle at you, it means you’re in danger.

Tugboats and barges present a particular danger to recreational boaters. The lights can be hard to recognize at night. People have been killed trying to cross between a tug and its tow. Boaters should watch not only for the masthead towing lights on the tug, but the navigation lights on the barge itself, which may be some distance behind.

Many pilots are advocating that safety courses include a section on avoiding large merchant ships.  This has not happened yet. Courses, however, are being taught at yacht clubs and fishing groups. Boats of all sizes and varieties need to make it a point to educate themselves about the dangers of the water when it comes to big versus small.  A large ship navigating away from a smaller vessel on the water is much like an 18-wheeler driving at a high rate of speed trying to avoid a small vehicle on the highway.  Chances are the smaller vehicle is going to come out on the short end of the stick.  Pay attention to large vessels – even though they may appear very far away.

Source: “Magazine.” BoatUS: Seaworthy : Avoiding Collisions With Big Ships. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.

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