Crossing the Shipping Lanes

Container ship

Crossing sea areas, which a large volume of traffic is regularly using, is a totally different ball game to meeting a lone ship in open water. Volume of traffic, bad weather and poor visibility can combine to make negotiating these areas a stressful and maybe hazardous exercise. A small speck on the horizon can only too quickly turn into a huge tanker, bulk carrier or container ship which can seem to be oblivious to a small yacht. Many cargo container ships carry in the region of 8,000 container units (based on TEUs*), with the latest ones carrying nearly twice that number. However, the next generation, which will be seen in about two year’s time, will be even larger. Most will come from Asia to 3 or 4 ports in Northern Europe, but Felixstowe will be the only port in the UK capable of handling them initially. So if you are thinking of invading “their space” (or more accurately “their sea”) there are several considerations to think about.

* Twenty foot equivalent unit

Think about common sense

Even though you may be crossing regular shipping routes, (as distinct from TSSs - see later) normal collision regulations apply, But the well known phrase "power gives way to sail", should not be adhered to too rigidly. Remember that rules do not prevent collisions and that your ability to manoeuvre is undoubtedly greater than theirs.

Think about speed

When a large ship is first spotted on the horizon it hardly seems to be moving, but it is amazing how quickly it turns into a huge monster. Modern container ships can cruise at around 25 knots (about 29 mph), whereas many small yachts cruise along at 4 or 5 knots and larger ones may get up to an average of 7 to 8. Well laden tankers make about 14 knots, Channel ferries up to 27 knots and fast ferries as much as 40 knots (a staggering 46 mph). Very large ships can be difficult to manoeuvre. They may take several miles to stop or turn. They have to commit themselves to a course of action long before they can see a small boat in their way.

  • Slow down - If you are uncertain about your relative angle compared with the larger vessel, slowing down can buy you time to asses the situation. Be wary of speeding up, thinking you have enough power to cross in front of the larger boat. You will not know exactly how fast it is moving and may find yourself in an even more dangerous position. This is particularly true at night.
  • Alter course – If you are not sure that you will avoid the vessel with a large margin of safety, make a definite and obvious adjustment to your course towards the stern of the large vessel. A series of small alterations of course and/or speed should be avoided because it may not be easily recognised by the watch keeper (assuming there is one) on the bridge, that you are taking evasive action. If you are sailing and this means that you are unable to make that particular wind angle, you may need to go about, or temporarily roll in the headsail to slow down.

Remember that large ships rarely alter course or speed and if they are forced to do so it will take them more time and space than is usually safely practical.

Think about tools of the trade

Negotiating shipping is mostly a matter of observation, good judgement and common sense, but there are tools to help a skipper spot and monitor potential shipping hazards.

  • Maintain a proper look-out who can make a full appraisal of any situation and of the risk of collision.
  • With radar, relative bearings of crossing vessels can be monitored, as long as you are on a steady course yourself. But don’t assume that the small craft you are on has been spotted by the larger vessel’s radar. By the time your vessel is seen it may be far too late for the larger ship to take any action. Ships often de-sensitize their radar in order to eliminate radar reflections from smaller things such as waves, floating containers etc. and show reflections from only big objects such as ships.
  • A hand-bearing compass can be used to assess if a ship will pass safely ahead, or astern, or if avoiding action is needed. Remember that a vessel on a constant bearing from another approaching vessel will eventually lead to a collision unless avoiding action is taken.
  • At night, make sure your lights are working properly and have someone on watch who is experienced in recognising the lights of approaching vessels.
  • Use AIS (Automatic Identification System). This is a collision avoidance system under which ships in your area transmit information about themselves, including their speeds, and courses and how to contact them. AIS works best over a range of a few miles as the AIS signal is limited to line of sight to the horizon (approx. 10-20 miles). But beware! There are various possible sources of error. These may be as simple as incorrect details entered into the AIS transmitter, but they can also be caused by radio interference, corrupting the AIS signals. As a result, it is possible to receive incorrect details for a ship, or to get another ship’s details, or even for a phantom ship to suddenly appear.

Think about TSSs

These shipping lanes form a traffic management route system in very busy sea areas and are ruled by the International Maritime Organisation or IMO. The systems are referred to as “Traffic Separation Schemes” or “TSSs”.

How do TSSs work?

They indicate the general direction of travel by ships using a particular route and are used to regulate sea traffic in busy areas, in confined waterways and around capes. Within each TSS there is at least one lane in each direction and ships using that lane must travel in the specified direction. The area of water in between the two opposite lanes is a “no-go” area, so shipping is not allowed to travel along these areas. It works in a similar way to the central reservation of a dual carriageway  road, separating traffic going in opposite directions and acting as a safety feature. Often there is an “inshore traffic zone” between the main traffic lanes for shipping and the coast. These are unregulated and should be used by local traffic, fishing vessels and small craft. It is safest for small craft to avoid the TSSs even if it means a detour.

There are very strict rules for small craft crossing the lanes of a TSS. See the COLREGS below.

Skippers should be vigilant and be aware of any changes to the TSSs in the area they are heading for. For example, from July 1st 2009 a new TSS came into force in the area of the Isles of Scilly and other destinations west of Land's End.

The Dover Straight is one of the busiest international seaways in the world, regularly used by over 400 commercial vessels daily. It was the first IMO approved TSS in the world in the early 1970s and the 1st to come under full radar surveillance. Passage through the Dover Straight is complicated by strong winds, sandbanks, shoals and high speed ferries as well as cargo ships. Many cargos are dangerous to the environment and if a collision were to occur, there could be disastrous effects on the environment, marine life and the surrounding coastlines. Weather conditions in the Straight are liable to rapid change. Visibility is often poor and changes quickly to fog, even in strong or gale force winds, making navigation difficult.

Think about the consequences

Penalties for misuse of Traffic Separation Schemes are steep and there have been numerous prosecutions against leisure skippers entering Traffic Schemes incorrectly. But if it is unavoidable and a traffic lane has to be crossed, it is as well to be familiar with the COLREGS.

Think about the COLREGS?

COLREGS are the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea and were published by the IMO in 1972. They should be well studied by any skipper taking his boat out to sea, whether he is intending to cross busy shipping route or not.  Some important rules which skippers crossing the lanes of a Traffic Separation Scheme should be aware of and fully understand are included in the COLREGS Rule 10.

  • Rule 10 (c) - “ A vessel shall so far as practicable avoid crossing the traffic lanes but if obliged to do so shall cross on a heading as nearly as practicable at right angles to the general direction of the traffic flow”. This reduces confusion and enables the vessel to cross as quickly as possible.
  • Rule 10 (e) - “A vessel other than a crossing vessel or a vessel joining or leaving a lane shall not normally enter a separation zone or cross a separation line except : 1. in case of emergency to avoid immediate danger : 2. to engage in fishing within the separation zone".
  • Rule 10 (f) - “A vessel navigating in areas near the terminations of traffic separation schemes shall do so with particular caution”.
  • Rule 10 (g) - “A vessel shall as far as practicable avoid anchoring in a traffic separation scheme or in areas near its terminations”.
  • Rule 10 (h) - "A vessel not using a traffic separation scheme shall avoid it by as wide a margin as is practicable".
  • Rule 10 (j) - " A vessel of less than 20m in length or a sailing vessel, shall not impede the safe passage or a power-driven vessel following a traffic lane".

It is well worth while familiarising yourself with, or revising your knowledge of all the COLREGS, especially Rule 7 - "Risk of Collision" , Rule 8 - "Action to avoid collision" and Rule 17 - "Action by stand on vessel", before setting out across the Shipping Lanes.

Think twice

To sum up. Cross the Shipping Lanes if you have to, making sure that you have done your preparation, you know the rules that apply, your boat is well equipped and in good condition and you don’t leave inexperienced crew in charge while you take a kip. When large vessels appear, think before you act, remember how huge and fast they can be close to and don’t be afraid of slowing down, stopping or even turning round to take avoiding action…….Happy Boating

Remember - just because a bridge has windows on it it doesn't mean any one is looking out of them!

Author - Dee White

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