The incident

On an early autumn afternoon, in good weather, a Ro-Ro passenger ferry started a routine short passage in a usually busy waterway.

The ferry’s master and OOW, both familiar with the ferry and the waters, were navigating by eye.

During a slow turn to starboard of about 75° to follow the channel, the master and the OOW discussed several small, slow-moving recreational craft that were off the starboard bow.

These were outside the buoyed channel and none were thought to be a concern. As the ferry was steadied on a heading of about 216° the bright sun was about 25° off its starboard bow.

Significant glare was being reflected off the water, but the master intended that the ferry remain on this heading for only a very short period before turning to the south, and did not close the solar blinds fitted on the sun-drenched windows.

He and the chief officer remained seated, with their attention focused on a yacht off the port bow, which was impeding the next intended alteration.

They decided to delay the turn to the south until the yacht was clear down the ferry’s port side.

The master and chief officer did not see a motor cruiser with four persons onboard that had just entered the channel.

The motor cruiser was within 365m off the ferry’s starboard bow, heading south at just over 7kts. It was obscured by the sun and might also have been ‘wooded’ by the bridge window frames.

The motor cruiser’s owner/driver had a very limited knowledge of the collision regulations and local guidance.

He usually went much faster and generally overtook other vessels, and he did not see the ferry because he was looking directly ahead.

Soon after, the ferry started to alter course to the south as planned and collided with the motor cruiser, which remained pinned against the ferry’s bow for almost 20 seconds before it fell away. The motor cruiser was swamped and its engines stopped.

There were no injuries and, although badly damaged, the motor cruiser was able to make its way alongside on one engine.

Meanwhile, the ferry’s bridge team remained unaware of the collision until prompted by passenger reports, which were verified by a review of CCTV recordings about 30 minutes later when the ferry was secured on its linkspan.


Lessons learned

  1. Even on a fine day with good visibility, other vessels can be easily missed if nobody is looking out for them. In busy waterways, vessels of all shapes and sizes are likely to approach from all directions. Distractions are also plentiful, which makes staying on the ball critical no matter how light traffic might seem. A vessel that is on a steady bearing behind an obstruction such as a crane or a window frame, or is obscured by the sun, is likely to remain unseen unless proactive countermeasures are taken, such as moving around the bridge from time to time, using window blinds, and occasionally having a quick look at the radar. Such measures are tried, tested, and achieved with minimal effort.
  2. The sea is there for the use of leisure and commercial vessels alike, but in busy and congested waters safe navigation relies on vessels following the COLREGs as well as local byelaws and guidance. Tuition in the application of the ‘Rules of the Road’ is available in many forms, and local guidance and regulation is usually available at local marinas and yacht clubs. Ignorance is no defence!
  3. The use of manoeuvring signals highlights a vessel’s proximity, and it also gives warning of the actions the vessel is taking. Being heard is sometimes just as good as being seen.
  4. AIS is a great tool for recreational boaters. It improves situational awareness and enables other vessels to be monitored with minimal effort. However, possibly more importantly, it helps to ensure that small craft, which might not be readily detected by radar, are seen by larger vessels.

In today’s modern world bridge watchkeepers’ use of technology is ever-increasing, and as many larger vessels have limited visibility ahead and are slow to manoeuvre, being seen on a screen is one way that contributes towards staying safe.