Collision Avoidance: Understanding Right-of-Way to Avoid Certain Disaster - PassageMaker
Lessons Learned from a Crossing Situations Mishap

This article was originally published as an online article on December 16th of 2016. It was reformatted into the below article for the March 2017 issue of PassageMaker magazine.

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By now most of you have probably seen the video that is floating around the nautical blogosphere and the social media accounts of mariners that show Washington State Ferry Chetzemoka colliding with a classic Northwest trawler, Nap Tyme, on December 4th, 2016. In the aftermath of this collision, there has been much “armchair adjudication” of what caused it, what COLREGS were broken, and who’s to blame. This article serves to break down the incident, rule by relevant rule, to see what we can learn. Nap Tyme was the stand-on vessel and the 273-foot Chetzemoka was the give-way vessel, but both parties appear to have made multiple mistakes outside of the rules that govern this crossing situation. In maritime law, both parties share blame, so, examining the collision allows us to evaluate the captains’ actions, put ourselves in their shoes, and remind ourselves of the actual rules that govern the waterways.

Both parties will be at risk of monetary penalties, loss of maritime licenses, and jobs, depending on the investigations and decisions of the Washington State Ferries, National Transportation Safety Board, and the USCG. Puget Sound is governed by the International Rules stated in the USCG Navigational Rules and Regulations handbook.

Let us start with the most basic rules that govern a crossing situation—Rules 15, 16, and 17. At the given point that these two vessels collided, both were operating under the rules as vessels under power.

Rule 15: Crossing Situation

Rule 15: Visual representation of the responsibilities in a crossing situation.

Rule 15: Visual representation of the responsibilities in a crossing situation.

When two power-driven vessels are crossing so as to involve risk of collision, the vessel which has the other on her own starboard side shall keep out of the way and shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel.

Rule 16: Action by Give-way Vessel

Every vessel which is directed to keep out of the way of another vessel shall, so far as possible, take early and substantial action to keep well clear.

Rule 17: Action by the Stand-on Vessel

(a) (i) Where one of two vessels is to keep out of the way the other shall keep her course and speed. (ii) The latter vessel may however take action to avoid collision by her maneuver alone, as soon as it becomes apparent to her that the vessel required to keep out of the way is not taking appropriate action in compliance with these Rules.
(b) When, from any cause, the vessel required to keep her course and speed finds herself so close that collision cannot be avoided by the action of the give-way vessel alone, she shall take such action as will best aid to avoid collision.
(c) A power-driven vessel which takes action in a crossing situation in accordance with subparagraph (a)(ii) of this Rule to avoid collision with another power-driven vessel shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, not alter course to port for a vessel on her own port side.
(d) This Rule does not relieve the give-way vessel of her obligation to keep out of the way.

Nap Tyme: As Chetzemoka is to port of Nap Tyme, Nap Tyme is the stand-on vessel. The one thing that Nap Tyme did by the book (although for the wrong reasons) was remain the stand-on vessel. She was under autopilot, and the captain has since admitted that he was below using the head when the vessels collided. As we see in Rule 17, at some point Nap Tyme has a duty to take action to avoid the collision, even as the stand-on vessel.

Chetzemoka: As Nap Tyme is to starboard of the Chetzemoka, her responsibility was to give way by taking early and decisive action. A video of the incident shows that she did not attempt evasive action until the very end when she backed down hard. That happens 20 seconds after she blows her horn to signal a risk of collision. The Tacoma/Vashon ferry run is short, there could have been surrounding boat traffic that influenced the actions of the ferry, however, that does not absolve the Chetzemoka from her responsibilities under these rules. The Chetzemoka ignored her responsibilities as assigned by Rules 15 and 16. She fails to keep out of the way of Nap Tyme, and thus attempts to cross ahead of her. She also does not apply clear and decisive action to let Nap Tyme know she is giving way. As the give-way vessel, this is the responsibility of the Chetzemoka and at the very least she should have started backing down as soon as she blew her horn.

If we were to flip the roles so that the Chetzemoka becomes the stand-on vessel, her captain would still have a responsibility to eliminate the possibility of collision. Maybe the captain thought there was a special circumstance that made Chetzemoka the stand-on vessel (we will discuss this in a moment), but even if that were the case, she was still required to take action to avoid collision. A slight course correction to pass behind Nap Tyme would have avoided a collision.

While the Chetzemoka clearly violated the rules of a crossing situation, the captain of Nap Tyme also makes an equally costly mistake in not maintaining a proper lookout, as described in Rule 5.

Rule 5: Lookout

Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout 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.

Nap Tyme: By not maintaining a proper watch, the skipper has no ability to make proper decisions with regards to how the ferry carries out her course. The lack of a lookout is entirely inexcusable, especially on a vessel that is underway. There is no wiggle room for this and as this case is litigated, I would expect most of the blame to fall on the captain of Nap Tyme.

It should be noted, though often not practiced by recreational mariners, any time your vessel is not tied to a dock, a watch must be maintained. If you’re tied to a mooring ball or anchored, you are required by the navigational rules to maintain a watch and avoid collisions.

Chetzemoka: The Chetzemoka would have been maintaining a watch of two or three people, as is the practice of Washington State Ferries. We do not know yet how long the Chetzemoka saw the trawler before the beginning of the video. At the start of the video clip, though, we can hear the end of a horn blast, and during the clip, we hear the ferry sound five short blasts of the to signal that they believed a collision was imminent.

Let’s take a moment to discuss the minefield of radio communication in this sort of situation. Nowhere in the International Rules are radio communications mentioned with regard to communicating passing situations. But we all use radios to communicate our intentions and often we rely on them. If you were on watch on Nap Tyme, and wanted to figure out why Chetzemoka was not yielding as the give-way vessel, what radio channel would you use to communicate with them? 9? 13? 14? 16? 68? Something else all together?

As recreational mariners our first reaction is often to hail another vessel on channel 16, however, commercial traffic is not required to monitor 16 and often does not. The Bridge-to-Bridge Radiotelephone Act requires commercial vessels to monitor channel 13, thus putting all commercial traffic on the same frequency. Commercial Traffic in Puget Sound (and all other VTS controlled waterways) is also required to monitor the appropriate VTS channel as assigned by the VTS manual. Would those be your go-to channels if you were trying to contact a commercial ship? If you made a call on channel 16, VTS might realize you are trying to reach a commercial vessel and pass on your message, however, that involves a game of telephone that may take longer than you have to resolve. Your best bet for communication is to hail the commercial traffic you are encountering on channel 13 or on the appropriate VTS channel as you can be sure they are monitoring these channels and will get you the quickest response from the vessel in question.

Even if the Chetzamoka had known that most recreational traffic monitors VHF 16 (which they probably didn’t know as nowhere in any regulation does it require this) the captain of Nap Tyme would not have heard his radio calls as he was indisposed. But as Rule 5 calls for us to keep a lookout by all available means, which, while not specifically mentioned, should include your radio. This means knowing where and how to contact other traffic and monitoring your radio for such communications. Although radiotelephone communication is not referred to anywhere in the international rules, the newest addition of the rules of the road from the USCG includes both the Bridge-to-Bridge Act as well as the VTS manual, which do refer to radiotelephone communications, so one could argue that proper use and VHF monitoring is expected and required of all mariners.

Rule 7: Risk of Collision

Close up of the Chetzemoka ferry crossing reveals that the vessel is not constrained by draft, nor is it in a VTS traffic lane.

Close up of the Chetzemoka ferry crossing reveals that the vessel is not constrained by draft, nor is it in a VTS traffic lane.

(a) Every vessel shall use all available means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions to determine if risk of collision exists. If there is any doubt such risk shall be deemed to exist. (b) 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. (c) Assumptions shall not be made on the basis of scanty information, especially scanty radar information. (d) In determining if risk of collision exists the following considerations shall be among those taken into account: (i) such risk shall be deemed to exist if the compass bearing of an approaching vessel does not appreciably change; (ii) such risk may sometimes exist even when an appreciable bearing change is evident, particularly when approaching a very large vessel or a tow or when approaching a vessel at close range.

Rule 7: If your vessel is equipped with radar, you have a responsibility to use it to assess risk of collision, both near and far.

Rule 7: If your vessel is equipped with radar, you have a responsibility to use it to assess risk of collision, both near and far.

Nap Tyme: On the day in question, visibility was unlimited, so had the captain been in the wheelhouse, the Chetzemoka would have been easy to see. Nap Tyme was equipped with radar, and had the captain, been in the wheelhouse, he would have easily detected the ferry on radar to see that he had a zero bearing rate with the Chetzemoka. The presence of radar is important due to its specific reference of use in Rule 7. Even on a day of unlimited visibility, skippers should always be using radar to range other vessels and obstacles.

Chetzemoka: The ferry also would have been running radar and ARPA (Automated Radar Plotting Aid), both of which could have been used to interpolate the zero bearing rate of a crossing vessel. However, as the ARPA system can take several minutes to calculate a collision course, it is possible that there was not enough time for this system to have given the crew of the Chetzemoka enough warning. Analyzing the clip more closely, the time between the sounding of the full five horn blasts and the collision is about 20 seconds. In the video, you see that Nap Tyme stays between the same two posts of the hand rail from the start of the recording until the moment of impact, indicating that these two vessels had a zero bearing rate on one another the entire time.

Rule 8: Action to Avoid Collision

(a) Any action taken to avoid collision shall be taken in accordance with the Rules of this Part and shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, be positive, made in ample time and with due regard to the observance of good seamanship. (b) Any alteration of course and/or speed to avoid collision shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, be large enough to be readily apparent to another vessel observing visually or by radar; a succession of small alterations of course and/or speed should be avoided. (c) If there is sufficient sea room, alteration of course alone may be the most effective action to avoid a close-quarters situation provided that it is made in good time, is substantial and does not result in another close-quarters situation. (d) Action taken to avoid collision with another vessel shall be such as to result in passing at a safe distance. The effectiveness of the action shall be carefully checked until the other vessel is finally past and clear. (e) If necessary to avoid collision or allow more time to assess the situation, a vessel shall slacken her speed or take all way off by stopping or reversing her means of propulsion. (f) (i) A vessel which, by any of these rules, is required not to impede the passage or safe passage of another vessel shall, when required by the circumstances of the case, take early action to allow sufficient sea room for the safe passage of the other vessel. (ii) A vessel required not to impede the passage or safe passage of another vessel is not relieved of this obligation if approaching the other vessel so as to involve risk of collision and shall, when taking action, have full regard to the action which may be required by the rules of this part. (iii) A vessel, the passage of which is not to be impeded remains fully obliged to comply with the rules of this part when the two vessels are approaching one another so as to involve risk of collision.

Though the ferry ended up taking evasive action by switching into reverse gear, the decision seems to have been made after a collision was inevitable. Nap Tyme obviously does not take evasive action as she lacks anyone holding watch to realize that there is a risk of collision. Both vessels ultimately get failing grades following Rule 8. There really isn’t much more you can say.

Rule 9 and Rule 10: Narrow Channels And Traffic Separation Schemes

As you can see on the chart these waters are not VTS controlled and there are no channel restrictions.

As you can see on the chart these waters are not VTS controlled and there are no channel restrictions.

Plenty of armchair adjudicators and message board commentators have dedicated discussions to Rules 9 and Rule 10, mostly concerned with navigation in narrow channels or commercial zones, but neither one should apply in this situation. While the Chetzemoka is in Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) controlled waters, this does not provide her with a special circumstance to absolve her from the rules. Additionally, as you can read on the chart, the Chetzemoka isn’t constrained by draft anywhere between Point Defiance and Tahlequah.

Rule 13:

collisioncoursecorrection

(a) Notwithstanding anything contained in the Rules of Part B, Sections I and II, any vessel overtaking any other shall keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken. (b) A vessel shall be deemed to be overtaking when coming up with another vessel from a direction more than 22.5° abaft her beam, that is, in such a position with reference to the vessel she is overtaking, that at night she would be able to see only the sternlight of that vessel but neither of her sidelights. (c) When a vessel is in any doubt as to whether she is overtaking another, she shall assume that this is the case and act accordingly. (d) Any subsequent alteration of the bearing between the two vessels shall not make the overtaking vessel a crossing vessel within the meaning of these Rules or relieve her of the duty of keeping clear of the overtaken vessel until she is finally past and clear.

This was also not an overtaking situation. Both vessels had radar and could have measured the course and speed of the other and known that they were on a zero bearing course. Chetzemoka hit Nap Tyme squarely amidships, thus it would be impossible to argue that they thought Nap Tyme was overtaking them.

CFR 33 165.1317: Security & Safety Zone; Large Passenger Vessel Protection, Puget Sound & adjacent waters, Wa.

This Code of Federal Regulation is long. This CFR deals with the safety and security of passenger vessels, and one could see how a ferry captain might interpret this to be a special rule that makes the ferry the stand-on vessel in this situation. Let’s look closer at Section E of this CFR:

(e) The Navigation Rules shall apply at all times within a large passenger vessel security and safety zone.

As The Navigation Rules are defined in section (b) as the Navigational Rules, International–Inland, then the established security zone cannot make the Chetzemoka the stand-on vessel. If we are to believe that the Chetzemoka captain felt she was the stand-on vessel due to this special situation, the captain takes it to the extent of the law instead of the spirit of the law. This CFR is expressly designed to keep someone from attacking a passenger vessel. If the ferry felt that Nap Tyme was violating the 500-foot security zone, the ferry captain still should have done everything in his power to avoid a collision.

Conclusions

Blame for this incident should fall on both parties. The Chetzemoka was in the wrong by failing to give way as the rules require, and because she was under the command of professional mariners, there is a larger sense of duty to diligently follow the navigational rules. Blame also exists as an obvious burden on the captain of Nap Tyme who left the helm with his boat in gear, running at a decent rate of speed, without anyone on watch. He was navigating through a narrow passage with predictable crossing traffic, and abandoned the helm with little care to others on the water. Who knows how any court or agency will draw their conclusions following this incident, and it will likely be quite a while before we have those answers. However, that does not mean we cannot learn from the mistakes that were made here by both the operators of the Chetzemoka and Nap Tyme.

As boaters, we have a responsibility to the vessels we operate, our passengers, and everyone else on the water. We have a responsibility to know and understand all of the navigational rules. We have a responsibility to maintain a lookout, even when we need to pee (a wheelhouse bucket can help any solo captain with this need). We must all be aware of our surroundings and be prepared for others to act irrationally. As responsible boaters we must act to do the one thing the Navigation Rules require of us: don’t hit anyone. 

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