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Early in the morning of November 8, 2018, the Norwegian frigate KNM Helge Ingstad collided with the 820-foot crude-oil tanker Sola TS, as the latter was departing the oil terminal at Stura, Norway, 30 miles northwest of Bergen. The hull of Sola TS was hardened for operating in ice-covered waters and further reinforced to prevent oil spills in the event of grounding or collision. Hence, the tanker’s bulbous bow functioned like a battering ram when it impacted the smaller warship.

Helge Ingstad’s engine room rapidly flooded, and the frigate saved itself from sinking in deep water by running aground. The crews of both vessels avoided serious injuries. Though the tanker was essentially undamaged, Helge Ingstad heeled over and eventually sank in shallow water.

A major contributing factor to this collision seems to have been the bright lights of the oil terminal. Combined with bright deck lights on the tanker, the terminal lights made it nearly impossible for officers on the frigate to visually observe that the tanker was underway. As the investigation into this collision is still in progress, we do not know much more than this. However, there are some lessons we can reasonably extrapolate and apply to our own situational awareness.

Norwegian warship Helge Ingstad ran aground and sank in shallow water after a collision with oil tanker Sola TS.

Norwegian warship Helge Ingstad ran aground and sank in shallow water after a collision with oil tanker Sola TS.

Generally speaking, in open ocean or in sparsely populated coastal areas, navigational visibility on a clear night is excellent. Lighted buoys and small boats can be seen from much greater distances than is possible during daylight. However, in brightly lit urban areas, it is very possible to “lose” the running lights of even a very large vessel. Ferries and passenger ships can look like buildings, tugboat lights are easily mistaken for railyards and docks, small fishing boats close to shore can appear to be reflections on the water from lights on land. Very bright lights on shore or from aircraft can ruin our visual night adaptation in an instant. There are, however, precautions we can take to help minimize our risk of collision in even the most metropolitan seaports.

The bridge officer’s maxim of “when in doubt, look out the window” is always true—overdependence on our electronics will never serve us well. However, we must also be cautious about under-dependence on our electronics. We have them for a reason. It is easy in a very familiar port during very routine operations to become complacent and rely entirely on our visuals. I have myself made the mistake of leaving my radar in standby mode because I’m “just going to the fuel dock.”

The Rules of the Road are unambiguous about our responsibilities here, however.

Rule 5: 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 (...)

Rule 7b: Proper use shall be made of radar equipment if fitted and operational, including long-range scanning to obtain early warning of risk of collision and radar plotting or equivalent systematic observation of detected objects.

“Shall at all times” means whether clear sunny day, dark and stormy night, under power or sail, at anchor, or even “just going to the fuel dock.”

“All available means” includes radar and AIS, but is not limited to these.

“Shall be made.” This is not optional; there’s no wiggle room. Shall.

“Radar plotting or equivalent systematic observation” means our use of radar must be methodical. It isn’t enough to occasionally glance at the radar. We have to observe and analyze every contact and determine whether or not risk of collision exists.

Part of this systematic observation includes correlating the radar contact with both visuals and AIS. It is true that AIS can be inaccurate or even deliberately spoofed. However, if AIS and radar are in agreement about a contact, chances are very good that both are working properly. New AIS-B transceivers are available for less than $300 and provide integrated AIS, GPS and VHF radio functionality—for the same power usage as a standard VHF radio alone. It is awfully hard to imagine a justification for cruising recreationally without one.

However, in the case of the collision between Helge Ingstad and Sola TS, the frigate, returning from a military exercise, was not broadcasting its AIS signature. This led to confusion among the Sola TS bridge team, as they were apparently unsure which of the vessels they were seeing was the warship communicating with them on VHF radio.

This is an unfortunate reality of the nature of the mission of warships. Whatever amount of stealth they may be able to achieve operationally, is pointless if they are transmitting their exact position and course and speed to the entire world. Historically, therefore, warships have never broadcast their AIS data, although they certainly monitor AIS passively. However, I recently observed a U.S. Navy submarine transmitting AIS data that perfectly correlated with both its radar signature and visuals. Whether this is a direct result of the Helge Ingstad collision, the U.S. Navy’s own recent mishaps or something else, I do not know. For what it’s worth, the AIS identifier for the submarine was simply “Warship,” which was more than adequate for identification and collision avoidance.

Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers are designed to minimize their radar profile. 

Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers are designed to minimize their radar profile. 

It should be noted that most of the newest warships are deliberately designed to minimize their radar profile, in some cases, such as the Zumwalt-class destroyers, they are true stealth vessels. Also, it is not uncommon for military vessels to operate in the dark without running lights. Life isn’t fair. Maintain an alert lookout.

What can we do to make ourselves more visible to other vessels in the dark, especially in an urban environment?

Placement of our running lights matters. In open ocean, a higher masthead light is better. But in urban harbors, it pays to have our lights low on deck where they can be seen against the black water from the bridge of a ship and not get lost in the mass of city lights. This is especially true if the shoreline is very hilly, such as in San Francisco or Seattle.

Running lights should be bright enough to be easily seen, but not blinding to your own lookouts or others. LED running lights, while bright, clear and energy efficient, have been shown to degrade VHF radio signals, including AIS and DSC, and are no longer recommended by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Surprisingly, even large vessels can be radar-invisible from certain angles. Increasing our radar profile with a simple radar reflector is inexpensive and effective.

In the end, this all comes down to basic seamanship. Maintain an alert lookout at all times, visually and by radar and AIS. Maintain a listening watch on VHF channels 16 and 13, plus local VTS channels wherever applicable. Adjust your speed to the prevailing circumstances of night, twilight and weather. Follow the Rules of the Road, and try not to be where the big ships are likely to be.

Or as a very wise pilot boat captain once told me, “Drive it like it’s your dad’s Bayliner and he doesn’t know you’ve borrowed it.”