Container Ships and the Cruising Sailor – Part 1

Ship photo from Moira
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It’s just after a chilli lunch in the cockpit. The skipper is sitting next to the companionway looking aft. His friend and crewmate is sitting on the starboard cockpit seat – it’s his watch - looking into space. They are distracted by the fact that the visiting wife is seasick, and the two wives have just gone below. The skipper is looking out to starboard, past his friend, at the gently curving horizon. Then it happens.

Ric Chesher, skipper of Moira, long time sailor, well known environmentalist, and creator of that fantastic Rocket Guide to Vanuatu website for cruisers, takes up the story:

‘YOW!! The big white bow of a ship slices off my view. It is right next to us! I leap up to grab the wheel when I realize it is too late to do anything. And anyway the ship has already missed us, passing to starboard by maybe 30 metres.

'$£'&)(* $&!%£!**%!^$£%£**!!’ my friend gasps, staring bug-eyed as the huge ship thrums by, a wall of steel. I duck under the awning and look up and up and up towards the bridge of the ship. There is nobody up there looking down. I don't think they saw us.

If we didn't see THEM, it is not likely they saw us. Had either of us been a few metres off our headings Moira would no longer exist.

Freddy is on deck beside me, watching as the wake of the ship rolls towards us. We roll in the surge, all of us standing there, limp with shock, watching the stern of the freighter dwindle into the distance. We were very very close to death while we sat and idled away the time.

Freddy turns on my friend and growls, 'It was your watch! It was your duty to look around the horizon every twenty minutes! You damn near killed us all!'

His face is white. So is mine. I should have realized he was not watching. We are all tired. There had been nothing visible on the horizon when we started lunch. But it only takes twenty minutes for a ship to appear from behind the horizon and reach a point of collision.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Every year there are reports of yachts that set out on voyages and simply disappear from the face of the earth. Have they hit a whale, or a submerged container? Was it pirates, or was it a container ship? Family and friends, and indeed the whole yachting community are left in agonising ignorance.

However, one of the likely possibilities is that they have hit a container ship, and there are sufficient stories of near misses like the one above to send cold shivers up your spine when you hear the story.

Talking to container ships’ captains can be very enlightening, and here are some from a ship’s captain of many years’ experience:

Let’s take the example of a 60,000 tonnes vessel. This ship might be about 250 metres long and 36 metres in the beam will draw about 12 metres when loaded. This is a medium sized ship.

Here are some things for the cruising sailor to be conscious of:
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Such a ship from full speed ahead after being ordered to go full speed astern, will travel .7 of a nautical mile before coming to rest

If the rudder is pulled hard over at full speed, the vessel will travel .22 of a mile before the reciprocal course is reached.

The height of the watch man’s eye on such a ship will be between 93 feet and 69 feet, dependent on whether she is loaded or not. This gives a distance to the horizon of between 9 and 11 miles.

Due to the curvature of the earth’s surface, the distance that can be seen in clear weather, neglecting such things are refraction, is dependant on the height of the eye(HE) of the observer. The formula for this is: Distance in miles to the horizon = 1.15 X square root of HE in feet i.e. 10 feet HE horizon is 3.6 miles, 100 feet 11.5 miles. So, if the watchman on a bridge of a ship at a height of 100 feet is looking at a yacht with a mast height of 40 feet, he should be able to see it at a distance of 19 miles. However it probably could not be seen due to its small size at that distance.

As the vessels approach, the yacht itself, at 11.5 miles, would be exactly on the ship’s horizon. However, if there were mist or clouds on the horizon, the ship would still not see the yacht. With blue sky and clear weather, the yacht would then be visible as a silhouette on the horizon.

As the two craft continue to approach each other, the yacht would drop between the horizon and the ship so that the silhouette effect would disappear and the yacht would merge into a back ground of white horses and once again be very difficult to see – even more so if close hauled in an end aspect to the bridge. In overcast weather or with a sea haze, detection would be even more difficult.

It would be much more practical if sails were made of bright orange or red, or any other colour but white.

A container ship watchman would advise any yacht owner NEVER to paint their boats white, black, blue (specially mid blue) grey or green. Yellow, red or orange would be ideal.

Poor visibility from ships’ bridges is another consideration to take into account for the cruising sailor. Quite frequently there are derricks, Sampson posts, a forest of masts, cranes and wires, not to mention containers in some areas cluttering up the view forward, particularly on the opposite side of the ship from where the watchkeeper is standing. This means that it is usually the port side of the ship which is ‘blind’. Containers are a particular problem, and sometimes the watch keeper has to move from side to side to check that all is clear. If the watch keeper’s attention is taken by a large object on one side, he might very well miss a smaller object on the other side. This is not always the case of course. Some ships have very good visibility.

So you can see that there are many aspects making it difficult from the watch man’s point of view.

One further point I would like to make is that the International Regulations for Prevention of Collisions at Sea say that a vessel, including yachts, must have a lookout at all times. This actually means that single-handed sailors are constantly breaking this rule.

Next issue I will talk about other aspects, such as the effectiveness of lights at night, the situation of a yacht in close quarters with a ship, such as in the story above, and the question of the effectiveness of radar.

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