Over the years of crossing oceans, I have had to dodge ships while at sea. We have friends who actually did collide with a ship. They were not dismasted nor did they take on water but the damage was extensive, not only to their boat but to their psyche. They put their boat up for sale.
This is the original unedited version of Freighter Fright which appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of Ocean Navigator. But here I can add links to the proper sites to report errant ships and so anyone can easily find the identity of the owner of a ship. Also, here I can thank Timothy Farley of the U.S.C.G. , Office of Investigations and Casualty Analysis, in Washington, D.C. and Max van de Kemenade at Netwave Systems (they sell VDRs), for all their patience and answers to my endless emails to help with keeping the enclosed information accurate. Also, other Valiant sail boat owners at the Valiant Owners web site were a big help. Additionally, it took days of reading through endless IMO documents to finally figure out how to report the negligent operation of a freighter.
Hollywood would like to make believe that steel containers, fallen from ships, bob around the worlds oceans as numerous as Arctic icebergs ready to sink the dreams of unsuspecting world cruisers. But if this were so, shipping containers would be washing up on every shore far more frequently than beached whales. It is not semi-submerged containers an ocean crossing cruiser needs to be overly concerned about, it is the cargo ships from which they fall that is the far greater menace.
Anyone who has sailed across oceans for a while certainly has dodged a large ship. On the bridge of most ships, the OOW (Officer On Watch) and the crew are vigilant and do what they can to avoid a closing situation with a relatively tiny plastic sailboat. But there is the percentage of ships crew who are either not doing their job of keeping a proper watch or prefer to push their size difference and expect everything smaller to scurry out of the way. That requires the crew of the smaller sailboat to be constantly vigilant, which is required anyway by international law.
There have been numerous incidents where neither the offending ship nor the sailing yacht yielded resulting in serious damage to the sailboat. In at least one instance the sailboat was macerated, the bits and pieces washing up on a nearby island. Certainly other sailboats have disappeared without a trace. But these collisions can happen without the OOW on the ship even realizing a sinking had occurred. During an obscuring rain squall, a behemoth Japanese car carrier cut a commercial fishing boat in half and continued on its way, the OOW never noticing anything unusual.
When the weather is clear, it is especially annoying and dangerous for large steel freighters to fail to follow the COLREGS (International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea) which are internationally agreed navigational rules as published by the IMO (International Maritime Organization). But the failure is frequent. So when I saw the cargo ship Pulau Layang (which means “island floating” in Indonesian) registered in Jakarta, thundering across the ocean at our 40’ sailboat from our port quarter in a converging, rather than an overtaking situation, in the late afternoon with good visibility, I wanted irrefutable proof of what was happening.
Pulau Layang is required to display a Class A, AIS signal (Automatic Identification System). Most recreational and fishing boats are not required to transmit AIS but they often do use the less expensive and less powerful Class B, AIS signal. On our AIS transceiver, the only signal showing was from a tugboat far to our south. We were in offshore waters in Indonesia traveling south west from the city of Tual to Dili, Timor Leste; a passage of 500 miles. As the big freighter was closing rapidly, I had time to make only one call on Ch16 to “The ship heading S.W., this is Brick House, the sailboat dead ahead of you.” With no response I grabbed my camera and quickly climbed back to the cockpit. As the autopilot steered, I worked fast to take evidential pictures of the approaching ship in the background and what parts of our cockpit would fit in the foreground. This would be one time I would try to turn the tables on a dangerous freighter violating several international regulations. I wanted the close proximity pictures to prove the closing situation, the clear visibility conditions and the wave height. Eventually, with Pulau Layang’s hull becoming frighteningly close to my port side, I turned hard to starboard and jybed to complete a 360 degree turn and snapped a few more pictures with the ship now passing on my stern. All the while it was best to leave a sleeping beauty lie so I did not rouse my wife, Rebecca, from the aft cabin till the ship passed, the tense situation was over and Brick House was back on its course.
As Pulau Layang passed, stacked high over head with green containers, I could see no one on deck or in the windows of the bridge or the bridges wing deck. The ship’s continued silence to my repeated calls on the VHF stoked my irritation causing forth a bit of sailors verbiage directed at an imagined crew relaxing in the bridge. Possibly that crew understood little English but certainly the voice tone would convey the message of my displeasure. However, it is an IMO requirement that any person standing watch on a ship must have a solid grasp of English and to be able to speak it clearly. They must also answer a call if they are called by ship name. In the past, attempting to converse with passing ships some times called up a jumble of friendly sounding words of a language we couldn’t even guess its origins. But they did respond to the call. From Pulau Layang, there was no response for the full hour I continued calling. But some of those early emotionally charged calls would later worry me.
Pulau Layang receded over the horizon as Rebecca and I tracked the ship on RADAR. From the cockpit I could clearly see the ships superstructure at what the RADAR showed to be 6 nautical miles. This was just part of the evidence which had to immediately be recorded. The actual latitude and longitude of the incident was noted. There was a tug boat named Draco Best showing on the AIS and all the particulars for that boat were noted. This would prove our AIS was functioning properly. The true direction of travel of Pulau Layang was noted as well as the direction of travel of Brick House and it’s speed over ground. Wind direction and wind speed as well as cloud cover was noted and the time of day in local time. Anything that might be useful in an investigation of the incident and to support my contentions was recorded. When the final report was written, it would include all documentation particulars of our own boat.
But now the problem was, who to report this situation to. Who would care? IMO does not have an enforcement arm so the responsibility rests with the Flag State, the country in which the offending vessel is registered. The Flag State is the only one that can discipline the crew and affect their licenses. Since Pulau Layang is flagged with a home port of Jakarta, Indonesia, Indonesia is where I would have to hunt down the proper enforcement entity.
I discovered when one Googles, “Global Integrated Shipping Information System”it will bring up an IMO site. Click on the “Log In” at the far top right corner ( https://gisis.imo.org/Public/Default.aspx ). After logging in as a public user, clicking on the icon for “Ship Particulars” I could find the ships “Flag State”, the registered owner, and IMO number. (Another site for finding the owner of a ship is at www.equasis.org ) Clicking on the icon for “Contact Points” then the radio button for “Flag State contact points for PSC matters” (PSC stands for Port State Control) then where it says “–Please Select—“ I could then scroll down to the Flag State of the ship of interest so that the name of the person in charge of enforcement and his contact information is given for filing a report about the ship.
It might be a requirement to have ships’ watch keepers to be fluent in speaking English but what about the people working in the foreign government offices of which I would be contacting? It would seem reasonable to send a report in their own language along with my English version and copies of the most pertinent photographs. After we docked in the city of Dili, at the first upscale waterfront hotel I walked into, the two front desk workers were very conversant in English. They were more than happy to put my English report into their electronic translator and spit out a version in Indonesian. I checked the print out for obvious errors like where the electronic translator changed the name “Drako Best” to “Drako terbaik”, I changed back to “Drako Best”. My new friends changed other electronic irregularities into what I hoped was a good mirror of the original report. If the hotel option had not worked, then the next stop would be the local college where certainly a bilingual student would be willing to work a quick side job. But not only is it desirable to communicate in the language of the flag country but to make sure all measurements are stated in metric. Feet, inches, statute miles are not understood by nearly all of the world.
My report in Indonesian and English, was emailed to the two most promising titled offices on the IMO, Indonesian, contact site. Since there was no email address for the owner of the ship, printed out copies were mailed to the owner of Pulau Layang as certainly, they would want to know how their ships are operated and being put in a libelous situation far out to sea.
If the Pulau Layang incident happened in waters of the United States, the nearest Coast Guard station would receive my report and pass it up the chain of command. The U.S. Coast Guard takes their enforcement capabilities very seriously. If a violation occurs on any foreign vessel within the U.S. Navigable waters of the U.S., or on board a U.S. vessel anywhere in the world, the Coast Guard can seek and impose enforcement actions including civil and administrative penalties. Depending on the outcome of an incident, the Coast Guard can also refer a case criminally, such as where one’s negligence leads to death.
If an incident takes place in International waters and does not involve a US vessel, whatever investigative effort done by the U.S. Coast Guard would be forwarded to the Flag State.
But the U.S.C.G and foreign Flag State authorities investigates to complete a finding of facts and corrective measures and does not get involved with civil disputes. So if there is an actual collision, the owner of the damaged boat must quickly call an experienced maritime lawyer.
Investigators will take statements from the relevant crew members, review various ship’s documents and in some situations, the information from the ship’s Voyage Data Recorder. The VDR is a brightly colored box that can withstand high temperatures, explosions, and sinking. The VDR records GPS position and heading, speed, RADAR, depth, and other operational data . There are 4 microphones installed on the ceiling of the bridge and one on each wing deck to capture conversations and ship sounds. Those microphones, along with the recording of VHF transmissions, would have certainly captured my repetitious calls and that irritated call made at the ship. Like mom says, “Always speak politely as you never know who is listening.” VDR information is ultimately stored on a backup drive for at least 30 days before being overwritten. Some more expensive VDRs record for 60 or 90 days before overwriting. The VDR is required equipment on internationally operated ships. Pulau Layang, being a domestic carrier, might not have a VDR.
So after my reports were sent, I never heard back from the authorities in Jakarta who’s business it is to investigate such incident reports. According to the IMO, this is not unusual as some Flag States put enforcement low on their list of priorities. But I did hear from the General Manager of the company which owns and operates Pulau Layang. The GM was extremely appreciative to receive the report. He would investigate the matter to determine further training or discipline of the crew.
As more ocean crossing yachts report the errant behavior of commercial ships, this will motivate the ships crew to give a greater consideration of those little plastic sailboats on the horizon. For those little boats, there are avenues for payback and to make our ocean passages safer.