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Staying out of trouble when heading offshore
Team McLube


The Publisher

Jun 10, 2012, 5:14 PM

Post #1 of 4 (14031 views)
Staying out of trouble when heading offshore Log-In to Post/Reply

Randy Smith is old enough. Old enough to know how to play the sailing game at a high level, and old enough to know that it is only a game. Here Randy reflects on how he stays out of trouble when heading offshore...
I have grown up sailing, cruising, racing and delivering boats up and down the California and Mexican coastlines, along with racing to Hawaii numerous times. Even on my early trips as a kid with my parents on the family Cal 29, we encountered ships on the way to Catalina Island. I was always taught by my dad to know where the shipping lanes were on the chart and what VHF Channel 16 was for.

Fast forward 40 years, experience has made me a huge proponent of safety procedures: talking about them, practicing for them, writing down notes and most importantly, asking the questions that nobody wants to hear. Having everyone on board know how to use the GPS in an MOB situation, how to start the engine, where the ditch bag is, where the flares are, how to light one off, etc. People who I have sailed with know that I have become a bit of a fanatic in this regard, sort of a safety nerd. But the good news is, it is starting to become cool to be a nerd. Just like the movie Revenge of the Nerds.

With regard to protocol on commercial traffic, it is simple. The watch captain on deck has the ultimate responsibility to keep track of the surroundings. Ships are quite easy to see in day or night, and if you don't have people on board with the knowledge of what a ship looks like in all conditions, you probably shouldn't be out there.

I have sailed on boats with and without AIS (Automatic Identification System). For offshore and coastal racing, my experience with AIS is the same as radar. AIS is a very nice convenience, but we usually use it to confirm what we are already seeing with our eyes.

I have had some interesting close calls, including a large aircraft carrier off San Clemente Island, oil tankers in the shipping lane between Anacapa Island and Santa Barbara, and even large unlit commercial fishing vessels in Mexico with very confusing lights. Even in last year's Transpac Race, we encountered a very large container ship coming up from astern at a steady collision course bearing. We heated up our course by 15 degrees well in advance, and it was as if he was trying to get close to us just to see us. When they were within 1/2 mile or so, they hit us with a giant spotlight and then turned right by about 45 degrees. Our next step would have been to call on VHF 16 and ask "WTF?"

When in doubt, we immediately get on the radio and/or make a course alteration to make our intentions obvious to the ship. In the event of fog, we would immediately deploy our radar reflector if not already rigged. I really cannot imagine a scenario where you could not see a large ship coming in day or night.

As always, most races are won and most tragedies are avoided before the boat ever leaves the dock. Attention to detail and confirmation that EVERY crewmember on board has an understanding of the following items seems to be the most sure fire way to interact with commercial shipping traffic and problems:

- Keep a diligent watch at all times.
- Upon sighting a ship, confirm changes in range and bearing or if bearing is not changing and too close. Determine what action is necessary.
- If AIS equipped, confirm with navigator the data on the ship.
- Without AIS, call on VHF 16 sooner rather than later.
- If a gybe or sail change will be required to avoid, get the off-watch up early to be prepared.
- Empower EVERY crewmember on the boat to know how to use the tools you have and establish a clear line of communication.
- Most importantly, remember this is just a sailboat race. Getting too close to a ship or land to make a small gain is just not worth it.
- If you sail with new people or on a new boat, confirm the level of experience and knowledge. Ask questions... your life could depend on it.
- When joining a new team, BE A NERD. Bring a higher level of knowledge, safety and seamanship to the team. They will appreciate you.


Jun 10, 2012, 6:33 PM

Post #2 of 4 (13940 views)
Re: [The Publisher] Staying out of trouble when heading offshore [In reply to] Log-In to Post/Reply

We had a similar Transpac scenario in 1993 … still several hundred miles from Hawaii, a large container ship came over the horizon, then appeared to alter course toward us! It got closer and closer, so finally we hailed them on VHF.

“Hey ANTARA, it’s Scott Abrams and Tom Corkett, how are you girls doing?!” Scott, grandson of Transpac founder Clarence MacFarland and captain for the MATSON LINE, would listen in on the morning roll call, jot down positions, and pick off the fleet on his way to Honolulu. He and Tom - both Transpac vets - said hello and offered us a tow; when we declined they promised to save us some seats at the bar Waikiki Yacht Club.

Nowadays the trackers make it even easier to find racers on the Transpac course … I just guess your boat wasn’t as interesting as a Cal 40 full of women, Randy. (We'd had a visit from the US Navy on the earlier part of the race too!) ~ Betsy Crowfoot

Fred Roswold

Jun 11, 2012, 4:40 AM

Post #3 of 4 (13592 views)
Re: [The Publisher] Staying out of trouble when heading offshore [In reply to] Log-In to Post/Reply

Well I can imagine situations where you don’t see a ship. Randy mentioned one: fog. However at sea, at night, in stormy conditions, when waves, wind, spray and rain are keeping the watchstander’s head down, all of a sudden the ship is there. The safety precautions Randy listed are critical.
But I think AIS is more valuable than Randy implied. With this equipment you are aware of the ships around you, their names, positions, courses and speeds, before you even see them. With an alarm set you are alerted if one is going to come close and you will be looking right down the bearing where they will appear before they come over the horizon. And when you decide to call then on the VHF, using their name, they answer. Avoiding close encounters with ships, even in the highest concentrated shipping channels, becomes low stress.
And when you’ve been at sea for 10 days without seeing a thing, and everyone has become complacent, when that alarm goes off you will be startled out of your shorts. You’ll stick you head out of the hatch and say, “I’ll be danged, there IS a ship out there!” The watchstander, who didn’t notice it at all, will be amazed.
Certainly there is no exception to keeping a good lookout. Some fishing boats and other small craft do not carry AIS, but the vast majority of vessels do and they simply cease to be a problem.


Jul 3, 2012, 5:12 PM

Post #4 of 4 (12306 views)
Re: [Fred Roswold] Staying out of trouble when heading offshore [In reply to] Log-In to Post/Reply

In Reply To
And when you decide to call then on the VHF, using their name, they answer.

The problem is, of course, that if you don't have AIS you won't know their name. In this case they can still be hailed successfully, however, thusly: "Merchant ship at position lat.........long.......... [you can use your own position here, as you're only going to be a mile or so off] on approximate course.........degrees [again you can make a reasonable estimate: If they're going right to left and you're headed north, their course is 270], I am the sailboat on your starboard bow. Can you see me? Over." I've never had a problem with this method, and did a lot of ocean sailing before AIS. If you just say, "Big ship, do you see me?" they can't know who you're talking to and since your radio has a radius of 20 miles they can't make a deduction.
Another issue that recreational sailors may overlook is that when a big ship is approaching someplace like the Panama Canal or a large port, they have a lot of things on their mind. They may be communicating with an agent, a tug, another ship, or VTS. They may not consider answering your hail a high priority unless there is an immediate danger. If you stay out of the shipping lanes, this will simplify things.

Tony Johnson

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