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By Captain Ronald Wöhrn, Ahlers & Vogel, Hamburg

Once a collision has occurred people often ask whose fault it was. The major concern, however, should focus on the cause of the collision and what can be done to avoid a similar accident in future. Only then come the question of fault and the allocation of liability.

Multiple effects
Serious collisions have multiple effects. Often – too often – crew or passengers become injured, or even worse, lose their lives. This may cause individual grievance and sorrow: wives lose their husbands, children lose their fathers, their financial situation becomes uncertain.

If oil or other harmful substance is accidentally spilled, the environment may become seriously affected, harming not only the aquatic fauna and flora, but too often also the coastline, affecting those who earn their living from the sea or the coast. Expensive clean-up operations may follow as well as endless disputes with aggrieved parties.

The cargo carried on board may become damaged, often causing serious disruption to commercial relations between seller and buyer, which can be more damaging than the pure material loss.

Finally, the shipowner and the insurances behind him can be seriously affected by a collision. Huge financial losses may result not only from the cost of possible salvage and repairs, but also from the loss of time.

Causes of collisions
Every period in the history of shipping has had its own main cause of collisions. Before the age of steam, adverse winds and weather and lack of manoeuvrability were the main causes of collisions, combined with poor or no navigational lights. Old “salties”, having sailed on wind-jammers, told that the main cause at the turn of the last century was underestimation by the on-coming steamer of the speed of a sailing ship. During the age of steam, but before the introduction of radar for commercial shipping, insufficient lookouts as well as lack of uniform collision prevention rules could be considered the main cause. Once the radar was introduced, and as ships’ speed increased, improper radar plotting, wrong evaluation of the radar observations, combined with insufficient or complete lack of lookouts, caused collisions.

And today, in an age of highly sophisticated electronic navigational aids, where do we look when examining the multi-faceted possible causes of collisions?

More and more flag states take their responsibility to investigate maritime casualties seriously. Thus we know more about today’s causes of collisions – and we are given lessons to be learnt. Various publications exist on the subject of proper watch-keeping and collision avoidance. Nevertheless, the same errors and mistakes occur, again, and again. To be fair, one has to make distinctions when looking at the causes of collisions.

One fundamental problem is ships’ manning. Ship managers apply for the lowest possible number of crew and flag states are often too lenient and accept managers’ statements, neglecting the requirements for qualification and training of those assigned for watch-keeping duties. As a result, we have chronically under-manned ships, especially in the short-sea trade. This in turn causes a dilemma for the master, who is required to maintain safe navigational watches on board his ship.

How can the master of a ship comply with the necessity of posting a lookout during every watch, if the ship’s complement is reduced to the lowest legal limit? How can the master ensure that his and his officers’ maximum working hours under the STCW Convention1 are not strained to their limit, or even exceeded?

Long hours
Watch-keeping periods of nine hours and longer in coastal waters are not uncommon in the short-sea container trade. Surveys have shown that the attention of the officer of the watch declines rapidly towards the end of a normal watch of four hours.2 So, how can an officer of the watch be vigilant after eight or nine hours, adding that during the last two hours’ sailing upriver dense fog prevailed and the officer had to take care of the VHF traffic for shore radar guidance? Failure will be guaranteed under such circumstances.

Short-sea navigation in confined waters, in adverse weather conditions and dense traffic, with an officer of the watch suffering from fatigue, with no assistance of a lookout, creates the perfect condition for a collision.

Bridge team management
Another problem is improper bridge team management. If the different responsibilities are not clearly allocated, members of the bridge team may not take the required action to avoid a collision. The officer of the watch, especially if he has little experience, may assume that the master’s appearance on the bridge automatically passes the responsibility to the master, when in reality the latter only wants to supervise his new officer. If a dangerous situation arises then, perhaps none of the two will take the necessary steps to avoid a collision. The same may occur if the master and the officer of the watch rely on the pilot, without careful observation and evaluation of the pilot’s manoeuvres. The time a pilot boards a ship is not a time for rest – it is a time for increased awareness and vigilance, because pilots may not be fully aware of the manoeuvring characteristics of the ship just boarded.

A lookout is required not only during periods of darkness or reduced visibility, but also during daylight.3 During night watch, as long as normal visibility prevails, the navigational lights can be made out easily, provided the officer of the watch and the lookout keep a proper watch. Additionally, a proper watch on the radar will assist and alert the officer of the watch in time. During daytime officers of the watch are too often distracted by paperwork, a result of the increasing bureaucracy imposed upon seafarers by various international and national legal requirements. A serious collision a few years ago in the English Channel between a modern containership, equipped with a sophisticated bridge navigation system, and a passenger ship, whose officer of the watch was distracted by paperwork, is the classic example. Fortunately no fatal injuries occurred. Lookout duties are not only performed for compliance with international regulations – they are also carried out for the safety of all on board. They must never be neglected.

Proper lookout
Statistics show that the most common causes of collisions are lack of awareness combined with poor watch-keeping practices, i.e., the lack of a proper lookout.4 Lack of awareness arises often out of insufficient evaluation of information provided by electronic navigational aids as a result of insufficient qualification and training of those who are assigned as watch-keepers. Complacency adds to it and professional mistakes are the result.

Sterile conditions
Another relevant factor is the environment on board and the layout of modern bridge arrangements. An officer keeping the watch in rough weather in a warm, enclosed wheelhouse, sitting in a comfortable armchair in front of his navigation panel, with no or hardly any possibility of opening windows or walking out into the fresh air in the bridge wings will soon fall asleep, especially if his watch-keeping and working hours are excessive. There will be nobody to talk to during his watch if no lookout is posted. Even if a lookout is there, communication may often be difficult despite the requirement of the ISM Code for a common working language – are they proficient enough in the common working language to communicate with each other also on subjects not related to work?

Fatigue and social isolation on board ships with reduced crews combined with lack of motivation due to low or delayed wage payments, delayed relief for vacations and pressure from the ship managers to keep the ship’s schedule are the best ingredients for an inadequate watch.

In such “sterile conditions prevailing on many ships, with crews of mixed nationalities often existing in a system of voluntary apartheid”5 it is no wonder that there are other thoughts in the mind of the officer of the watch than the on-coming vessel steering on a course which cries for disaster. If his attention is re-focused, it is often too late for proper evaluation of the electronic navigation instruments. The consequence is a false perception of the other ship’s speed and course and of his own ship’s position.

The environment on board and the layout of modern bridge arrangements are relevant.

This officer may perhaps have joined the vessel only recently, not yet being fully familiarised with its manoeuvring characteristics, in which case he will most probably be unable to take evasive action. The result can be easily predicted.

Over-reliance on electronic aids
The over-reliance on electronic navigational aids and the data provided by the various displays – often not arranged under ergonomic requirements – is another cause of today’s collisions. An indicated Closest Point of Approach of one nautical mile may cause the officer of the watch to become complacent, with the false perception that the passage may be without problems. The other vessel may not be closely monitored and consequently any last-minute changes of course may remain unnoticed until it is too late – as another recent collision in the Baltic Sea has proved, this time resulting in the tragic death of three seafarers.

The proper working function and reliability of electronic navigational aids should be checked regularly, but they rarely are. There is hardly any officer of the watch who compares the course indicated by the gyro compass with that of the magnetic compass, although the logbook shows the corresponding entries. All of a sudden the wrong course maintained by the automatic helm is discovered – often too late for proper evasive action. If the officer of the watch had taken the time to look out of the window, he would have noticed the other vessel nearby. Over-reliance on instrument displays without a sense of the reality outside the windows of the wheelhouse is an alarming trend of our time.

Mobile phones
Even if all instruments are working properly and the course is free from landfalls or crossing vessels, the need to talk to somebody other than the shipmates may bring about another cause of “modern times” collisions: the use of mobile telephones may distract the officer of the watch and even the lookout – if one is posted – from looking ahead or evaluating the nautical instruments. A master on the bridge, having taken over the watch from the officer, being in the process of an evasion manoeuvre, is suddenly called on the mobile by the manager’s office, relaying a totally unimportant message. He becomes distracted and fails to notice the sudden impact of tidal currents and wind, whereby the ships collide. Again, modern times, but avoidable.

When the officer of the watch has not evaluated his own vessel’s position properly, the position of other ships in the immediate vicinity can not be properly assessed either, perhaps with the additional aggravating factor of faulty settings of AIS and other instruments. If an emergency arises, as a last resort the officer of the watch often considers communicating by VHF to find out the other ship’s intentions. Confusion may arise if no clear language is used and the other ship replies in an ambiguous way. Valuable time can be lost in the process. The time when the last fundamental evasion manoeuvre can be carried out may pass and the collision may become inevitable.

Collision Regulations
It is hard to understand why the Collision Regulations6 are still not properly followed. Combined with failure to reduce speed (so not to compromise commercial schedules) and gain time to assess a situation properly, lack of compliance with the Collision Regulations is one of the most common causes of collisions.

Disregard of natural elements
When navigating a ship, the natural elements are often neglected, either as a result of “indoor navigation” in enclosed wheelhouses or lack of application of professional seamanship. The impact of the wind on ships in ballast and ships with a high container load is often underestimated. The sudden occurrence of wind gusts in specific areas is not taken into account. Tidal currents, so different in all parts of the world, are not sufficiently considered when carrying out a manoeuvre to avoid a collision. In addition, the ship’s manoeuvrability is overestimated and the assumption that “it may go clear” fails miserably.

Finally, self-complacency is a common problem. The belief that because one has successfully taken a certain action before it must work this time as well is a deception. No two collision situations are exactly the same. The trim and draught of the ships may be different, the wind and weather, the speed of both ships approaching each other, the sea area, the visibility and other factors. Consequently, every approaching situation must be taken seriously and properly evaluated with all information available from the electronic navigation instruments combined with the physical assessment of both ships’ position by looking out of the window.

Conclusion – Are collisions unavoidable?
Despite the problems mentioned above, and irrespective of ship size, watch-keeping remains the most important duty on board. All other crew members rely upon the officer of the watch and his lookout. They rely upon his attention, vigilance, seamanship, professionalism and courage as he is responsible for the safety of life and property on board his ship – and also on board other ships. Proper and clear communication by and between everybody in charge of the navigation of the vessel and compliance with the Collision Regulations are also very important factors.

It may not be possible to avoid all navigational incidents, but the frequency of collisions and their often dramatic consequences can be reduced if officers of the watch are given the necessary support to perform their duties and obligations with utmost vigilance, care and foresight, applying proper professional skills and seamanship.

Finally – and this is an appeal to ship managers and operators – globalisation, international competition and the expectation of shareholders are no excuse to compromise the safety of seafarers, passenger and the environment.

1 International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watch-keeping for Seafarers, 1978
2 John Cappelow, Why aircrafts don’t collide, North East Branch of the Nautical Institute seminar “Collisions – Controlling the Chaos”, Newcastle, 11th November 2006.
3 Captain Michael Lloyd FNI, Why ships really collide, SEAWAYS October 2006, p. 10.
4 Svein A. Andersen, “Navigation-related incidents – what the claim figures tell us” Gard seminar “Bridge over troubled waters”, Oslo, March 2006.
5 Captain Michael Lloyd, Why ships really collide, SEAWAYS, October 2006, p. 11.
6 Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972 (COLREGs).

Gard News 185, February/April 2007

Any comments to this article can be e-mailed to the Gard News Editor.

Gard News is published quarterly by Gard AS, Arendal, Norway.