Yachting Monthly



We all have a continuous duty to prevent collisions at sea. Sometimes we will be the ‘stand-on’ vessel, at other times we will be obliged to ‘give way’, but you never have a ‘right of way’. How long should you ‘stand-on’ and when should you ‘give way’ even if you are not required to?

Rule 17 gives some clues to these knotty questions, but puts the onus firmly on you to decide. At first the rule says that the stand-on vessel ‘should’ keep her course and speed, but then says that the same vessel ‘may’ take action (ie, alter her course and/or speed) if it becomes apparent that the give-way vessel is not taking appropriat­e action herself.

As the stand-on vessel it is very difficult to decide when an action is not being taken, and when you are thus justified in bringing Rule 17 into play. However, with good seamanship and judgement you should never allow things to deteriorat­e to the extent that both vessels need to take emergency action to avoid a collision.

Rule 17 actually says ‘… as soon as it becomes apparent…’. So one question to ask yourself is: ‘Would I be taking action now if I were in the give-way vessel?’ If the answer is no, you should hold your course and speed. As soon as the answer is ‘probably’, it is time to take action.

It can be a very difficult decision, and was brought home to me on a dark, calm night about five miles south of St Alban’s Head. I was in command of HMS Alderney, an offshore patrol vessel heading east, and a coaster of similar size was seen approachin­g on our port bow. She was on a steady bearing, so had our attention. She continued to close, and eventually we sounded five short blasts backed up with a flashing light. There was still no reaction and things were getting critical. We had no idea if she had seen us, so a turn to port to pass down her starboard side could have been disastrous if she woke up at the last minute and turned to

starboard in accordance with Rule 15. Instead, I decided that the time had come to implement Rule 17 (b), and we turned hard to starboard through 360° to pass under her stern. As we drew clear, we called her on VHF but received no reply.

Another option is to take action so early that a ‘risk of collision’ never exists. I don’t think this is in the spirit of the Colregs, and it could cause confusion in give-way vessels where your actions might be seen to be erratic rather than prudent. A noteworthy example is that of crossing busy shipping lanes which are not designated as Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS).

Between the western end of the Dover TSS and the eastern end of the Off Casquets TSS there are no special rules, but big ships don’t necessaril­y see it that way. Or you might simply wish to show considerat­ion by not obliging the Officer of the Watch to steer 100,000 tonnes round your 5 tonnes. So long as you act early and obviously, my advice is to invoke Rule 17 earlier rather than later. Yachts are so manoeuvrab­le that a 90° turn to parallel the other vessel’s course can be done in a matter of seconds and will be very apparent – particular­ly at night. The bottom line is that whatever you do must, in accordance with Rule 8, be ‘positive’, ‘in ample time’ and ‘with due regard to the observance of good seamanship’.

As for fishing vessels, I don’t think I have ever seen one which is not showing her ‘engaged in fishing’ shapes and lights, whether she is actually fishing, on passage or even alongside in harbour. Be very wary and give all of them a suitably wide berth!

Finally, firmly resist the temptation to call the other vessel on VHF. Negotiatin­g a course of action which is not in accordance with the Colregs can, and often does, lead to misunderst­anding and confusion. Even calling to check you have been detected is not without risk of misidentif­ication, especially if there are several other yachts around. I have occasional­ly called a merchantma­n to thank her for altering course in order to pass astern of me, but only when she is well past and clear.

 ?? ?? ABOVE: Shipping tends to follow standard routes in the English Channel even when not in a TSS
ABOVE: Shipping tends to follow standard routes in the English Channel even when not in a TSS
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