Avoid nightmares by staying awake and alert

Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports

A collision will ruin your whole day. Collisions are preventable, whether they are the result of equipment failures, weather conditions, human factors or, as is often the case, some combination of these. Navigation rules were adopted to provide for the safe operation of vessels. Any vessel operator must understand the requirements for safe navigation. Adverse weather conditions and operator fatigue require even greater vigilance and precautionary measures to ensure safety.

A 33-foot ferro-cement fishing vessel out of San Francisco was anchored approximately 250 yards from the shore in a protected area near a creek mouth at Fort Bragg, Calif. The skipper had positioned his vessel there early on that fall evening. After making sure everything was secure, he went to sleep. The skipper was the only person onboard, and he expected to rise early for a day trip fishing offshore. There was little wind, but fog set in later in the evening.

A 42-foot fiberglass fishing vessel out of San Francisco was transiting toward the same area at 8 to 10 knots to anchor for the night. The captain was at the helm and a crew member was asleep below. Visibility had been reduced to between an eighth and a quarter of a mile. The captain had been working and on watch for about 18 hours.

At around 11:15 p.m., the second vessel crashed into the starboard beam of the anchored vessel. Both vessels were damaged. The first vessel was holed to the waterline, flooded quickly and sank within three minutes. The skipper on the first vessel suffered abrasions to the left side of his head and face. He was quickly recovered from his sinking vessel by the captain of second vessel. The injured man was taken ashore for medical treatment. No one on the second vessel was injured.

Cause of the collision

The captain of the 42-foot vessel fell asleep at the wheel, which he acknowledged. He was jolted awake by the collision and had the wherewithal to check for people on the anchored vessel before it sank.

The captain of the second vessel must have been tired after working and being on watch for 18 hours. His best options were to have his crew member on the bridge help him keep watch, take the helm, or help keep him awake until they anchored.

Navigation Rule 5 states, "Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision." In keeping with this rule, an operator should have assistance when tired, operating late at night, and operating in reduced visibility.

Was the master operating at a safe speed, at 8 to 10 knots, when visibility was less than a quarter of a mile? Navigation Rule 6 states, "Every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed so that she can take proper and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within an appropriate distance to the prevailing circumstances and conditions." Similarly, Rule 19 addresses vessels in restricted visibility.

In determining a safe speed for a vessel, consider the following: state of visibility, traffic density, maneuverability of the vessel, presence of background lights (at night), sea state and weather conditions, and draft and water depth. Vessels operating with a radar and determining safe speed must also consider: characteristics, efficiency and limitations of the radar equipment; constraints of radar range scale in use; effect on radar detection from sea, weather and other types of interference; small vessels that may not be detected at an adequate range; the number of vessels detected; and movement and range of vessels or objects.

However, if the skipper is asleep at the wheel, vessel speed and the quality of the radar are meaningless. Safe navigation depends on being alert, aware and attentive.

Lessons learned

The individual operating a vessel must give his full attention to that job. Watch-standing requires being aware of the surrounding environment and conditions. If the operator has not had proper and adequate rest before taking control of the vessel, he may not be fully alert and able to respond appropriately. He may also be easily distracted and not able to focus on driving the vessel.

If you are operating a vessel with other crew onboard and you feel overly tired and drowsy, call for someone to help you stay alert or relieve you of the watch if they are qualified. During conditions of reduced visibility, slow down and get someone to help provide lookout.

Collisions at sea can be prevented. Stand your watch professionally. Your shipmates' and vessel's safety, and the safety of others operating around you, depend on it.

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