Sunday, March 31, 2013

Rules of the road at sea

Position: 23°21'N, 84°41'W

As there are rules of the road on land, there are also rules of the road at sea.

Put simply:
1. You drive on the right.
2. When overtaking another vessel, you must give way to the vessel being overtaken.
3. When crossing the path of another vessel, you must pass behind the other vessel.

They don't apply so much at open ocean as there's usually enough space and time to keep a safe distance from other vessels. However near land or in a busy shipping area, it's important that everyone adheres to the
code to minimise the risk of collision.

The Yucatan Channel is one such busy shipping area, located between Mexico and Cuba. It is used daily by freight carriers, cargo ships and tankers travelling between North and South America, and further afield.
They have tight time schedules and are all seeking the fastest and most efficient route to get to their destination. Their high speeds (20 knots compared to Ashling's paltry 4 knots) mean that it can take a mile or
more for these huge vessels to slow down or change course. So a misunderstanding or even the indecision of one boat can disrupt or endanger many others.

As Ashling entered the Yucatan Channel yesterday, our VHF radio crackled with a conversation between two large cargo ships nearby. One ship was attempting to cross the path of the other ship, but instead of going behind it as per the rules, they were attempting to cross in front.

Ship A: "There is less than three nautical miles between us. Please alter course to starboard to pass astern of me."

Ship B: "Well you are overtaking me, yes no? So can you alter your course?"

Ship A: "We are not overtaking. You are crossing our course, and must pass astern of us as per the rules."

Ship B: "Ehhhh right now is not good for me to turn to alter course."

Cargo Ship A did not respond for a few minutes. Then a new voice announced in no uncertain terms: "This is the Captain speaking. Change your course immediately to starboard or I will report you to the nearest
maritime authority!"

If the situation wasn't so serious, it sounded like two little boys fighting in the playground and Billy threatening to tell the teacher if Bobby didn't play by the rules. After a long pause, Ship B meekly agreed to alter their course and crisis was averted.

Sailing on wee little Ashling, we are often intimidated by the size and speed of these huge, black, steel beasts so it was a comfort to hear that even the big guys get it wrong sometimes.

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