A collision at sea reaffirms that the captain is ultimately responsible for the boat.

On June 8, the historic schooner No. 5 Elbe collided with the Cypriot container ship Astrosprinter in the Elbe River just outside of Hamburg, Germany, and became an instant YouTube sensation.

Ich spreche überhaupt kein Deutsch, so I am not certain what is being said in the video, and the best local reporting I’ve found on the incident, I’ve read only as mangled through Google Translate.

Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned from the information we already have.

Based on early reports, the container ship was following the dredged river channel, as close to the starboard side of the channel as was safe given her draft. Some minutes before the incident, another vessel had attempted to contact No. 5 Elbe because the schooner was in the wrong part of the channel, but the schooner did not respond. Elbe vessel traffic system was informed via radio that the schooner was impeding safe navigation, and Astrosprinter attempted to hail the schooner. All efforts were unsuccessful.

From the video, it is apparent that Astrosprinter was on No. 5 Elbe’s starboard bow, and the schooner was on a starboard tack, heeled over to port from the wind. It appears that the schooner may have been attempting to cross ahead of the container ship. One of the vessels, presumably the Astrosprinter, sounded five short blasts, twice. At that point, something was shouted on the deck of the sailboat, which some non-German speakers including myself think may have been “hard to port.” At that time, several people, possibly passengers, pushed the large tiller to port. Then, physics.

Cypriot container ship Astrosprinter collides with historic schooner No. 5 Elbe on the Elbe River just outside of Hamburg, Germany.  

Cypriot container ship Astrosprinter collides with historic schooner No. 5 Elbe on the Elbe River just outside of Hamburg, Germany.  

Of the 43 persons on board the No. 5 Elbe, nine were reported injured. 

Without sufficient local knowledge of the tidal currents in this part of the Elbe river, it is impossible for us to judge whether the Astrosprinter’s speed was necessary and prudent for the conditions. It seems likely that had the Astrosprinter taken more aggressive action to reduce her speed, the collision may have been avoided; even without the No. 5 Elbe’s final and fatal maneuver, it appears that the closest point of approach was going to be very, very close.

Beyond this, fair and meaningful assessment of the actions that the Astrosprinter’s bridge crew took is not possible. Thus, we must turn our attention back to the actions that the No. 5 Elbe took, such as can be determined from the video.

Narrow Channels

So, starting with the easy part: Rule 9(b) of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972 (72 COLREGS) is simple and explicit. It states, “A vessel of less than 20 meters in length or a sailing vessel shall not impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway.”

There is no ambiguity here. In this case, it was the clear responsibility of the schooner not to impede the passage of the container ship that was following the navigable channel.

Within sight of land, it is highly unlikely that you would encounter anything the size of a container ship that is not following a narrow channel, fairway or traffic separation scheme. If your vessel is under sail, fishing or less than 20 meters (66 feet) in overall length, then unless you are far offshore, you are probably the give-way vessel to large commercial or military ships, under one rule or another.

Duties and Responsibilities

In so many case studies, the lack of a proper lookout—by sight, hearing and all other available means—is found to be the fundamental cause of the collision or grounding. Ultimately, this may prove to be the case for the No. 5 Elbe as well.

A proper lookout must be more than a set of eyes enjoying the scenery. A proper lookout must be trained to understand what he is seeing, and communicate this to the master, mate and helmsman so that corrective action may be taken.

The schooner had an experienced crew of 14 with 29 passengers on board. It is not apparent from the video which of the persons on deck were passengers and which were crew. From my own experience aboard similar historic vessels, it seems likely that many or all of the passengers had been “deputized” to assist the crew with sailhandling and other labor-intensive tasks. Especially on longer trips, it is easy to be lulled into allowing apparently competent passengers to take greater and greater responsibility for routine vessel operations. Which is great, but the master and crew must always maintain positive control of the vessel.

From the video, of the twenty-some people on deck, all seemed aware that risk of collision with the Astrosprinter was developing. One even took the time to videotape it, but none took early and effective action to avoid the collision.

For all of us who go boating with inexperienced sailors, it is imperative that we train them sufficiently for whatever task we assign them. It is not enough to point to a distant object on shore and tell a guest to steer toward it unsupervised while we lay below to make a sandwich. If we entrust a person to be helm or lookout, then we must first ensure that she is competent for that task in our absence.

In every event, the master of the vessel, whether commercial, recreational or military, is always legally responsible for the safe navigation of the vessel, and for safety in general. Whether it’s the master of a container ship, a historic schooner, a trawler or a kayak, at the end of the day, this is what it means to be called captain.