Get out of the way! Tips for steering clear of big ships

Don't get caught in a compromising position. Large ships can take 1.5 miles to come to a halt and can have a quarter-mile blind spot in front of them.

A couple of years ago we were crossing Haro Strait from Canada, coming back to the U.S.

I saw a cruise ship about three to four miles to port, heading west. I could see she was making good speed because of the rather large bow wake. To my starboard about a mile distant there was a 40-foot powerboat heading south, also making good speed. The estimated distance gap was about five nautical miles but narrowing. I could clearly see that the powerboat wanted to cross the cruise ship’s bow to avoid the wake. He also probably thought he had the right-of-way. 

All of a sudden the VHF radio crackled, “Poopsie, Poopsie, Poopsie. This is the Princess Of The Seas on channel 16.” 

The Poopsie (which I assume was the powerboat) responded with some surprised apprehension, “Yes, this is the Poopsie.” 

“Good morning Skipper.  What are your intentions?”  the Princess responded.

“We’re going to cross your bow to avoid your wake,” Poopsie’s skipper replied.

 “Roger that, skipper,” Princess responded. “Might I suggest a course correction?  We’re over 80,000 tons and traveling 23 knots. And I don’t think you’re going to make it safely crossing my bow.” 

There was a long silence and finally the Poopsie replied, “Thank you, skipper, we’ll plan to cross behind you.”

“Thank you and have a nice day skipper,” the Princess responded.

The powerboat soon changed course.

It’s a natural fact that large objects at a distance seem to move slower. This is due to how we see things. One way we see things is “reflexive” — we do it without conscious thought — and is triggered by seeing contours while we are moving.  We also use “pursuit” eye movements when we are stationary. Pursuit vision works by measuring how much effort it takes to see it and how much object there is to see.

And here’s where we really get confused. Your boat is moving but you are stationary — probably sitting in your helm seat.  As a result, the larger the object the less our voluntary systems have to work, and the slower the object seems to move.

That freighter in the distance moving at over 20 knots seems to not move but you are. So you think, “We can beat that freighter, or ferry, or cruise ship.”  Wrong!

Next, ready for a quick physics lesson? Mass (the weight of the ship) x Velocity (speed) = Inertia.  Inertia is the resistance of an object to change its state of motion — in other words, the ship wants to keep going straight. Changing the state of motion might be turning or stopping. A 650-foot ship traveling at 11 knots takes 1.5 miles to come to an emergency stop. So if you hear the ship’s horn or whistle sound five blasts, it simply means, “Danger! Get Out Of My Way!

Keeping your distance from “big ships” is important. I’ll define big ships as naval warships, freighters, container ships, tankers, cruise ships, passenger ships, ferries, tugs and any commercial ship larger than 60 feet. Most big ships have a significant blind spot in front of them. The stacks of containers, or the distance from the bow to bridge, will make a forward blind spot of at least ¼ mile!

Secondly, getting too close to a ferry or ship will likely earn you an unfriendly visit from the U.S. Coast Guard or RCMP. Navigation rules between vessels less than 60 feet simply don’t apply when it comes to interacting with big ships. You must give way and skippers of those big ships expect that. Here’s an excerpt directly from the Coast Guard:

If your sailboat is 20 meters or greater, and your motor is running, then you are considered a power-driven vessel underway, and the vessel to starboard has the right of way -as stated in Rule 15 of the Navigation Rules. If you are under sail only, you shall not impede any power-driven vessel using the TSS. Additionally, if your sailboat is less than 20 meters, powered or not, you shall not impede any power-driven vessel using the TSS (Traffic Separation Scheme).

Here are some helpful tips that the MV Independence uses when cruising in areas where there are big ships:

  1. Be prepared.  Know if your cruising route involves a “Traffic Separation Scheme” (TSS).  TSS is the marine highway for big ships.  If you are going to travel in a TSS you must follow the rules and these are:
    • Proceed in the same direction of traffic. You can do this by always keeping the TSS buoy to your port side.
    • Avoid the separation zone as much as possible.
    • If you need to cross a TSS, do so at right angles to minimize crossing time. 
    • When not traveling within the TSS, keep a clear distance from the area by staying close to shore or well away from the TSS.
    • Take extra caution when cruising these areas that have a TSS during limited visibility — fog, heavy weather or at night — make sure your navigation lights are on and properly working.
    • Above all else, DO NOT impede traffic within a TSS.  
  2. Keep a lookout. Look for big ships and develop a situational awareness of all the ships in your vicinity. Remember, that big ship you see in the distance is traveling faster than you think.
  3. Be seen.  Recognize that many big ships have a blind spot in front of them of ¼ mile.  Make sure you are seen not only visually, but with a good radar reflector too. My rule is to stay at least ¼ mile or more away from any big ship.
  4. Stay away from big ships and keep your distance. Take early and substantial action to indicate your intention to change course and speed. Show a side. Most of these big ships have radars which will track and plot your expected course. Best bet is to always pass a big ship astern. Finally, never get closer than 300 feet to any big ship, and always stay more than 1,500 feet from any naval warship. Violating these distance requirements will earn you an unfriendly boarding from the USCG or RCMP.
  5. Keep your VHF radio on. You can monitor big ship movement by listening to Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) on VHF Channel 5A or 14 in Puget Sound and Channel 11 north of the San Juan’s.

Particular cruising areas that you need to exercise caution because of possible big ship interactions are:

  • Central Puget Sound
  • Admiralty Inlet
  • East Juan de Fuca, particularly around Port Townsend
  • Haro Strait and Boundary Pass
  • Rosario Strait
  • Swanson Channel – Gulf Islands particularly by Enterprise Reef
  • Discovery Passage – Seymour Narrows, Campbell River, Chatham Point
  • Weynton Passage – far NW end of Johnstone Strait and the beginning of Queen Charlotte Strait

If you want to learn more about VTS and the rules and regulations regarding Traffic Separation Schemes, visit the USCG Vessel Traffic Services website. The site has a very informative and good video about Vessel Traffic Services, and you can learnmore about safely traveling with big ships.

Don Chase is a longtime boater who lives in Olympia. You can read more of his writing on his blog.

11 Responses to Get out of the way! Tips for steering clear of big ships

  1. Steve Hulsizer April 16, 2011 at 3:50 am #

    With respect to cautionary areas, treat them as traffic circles. Leave the buoy to the left, way left, just as you would a rotary on a highway. No better way to get in trouble than to shortcut a cautionary area.

  2. John Lund March 14, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

    and give the large vessel a large area to manuever in. don’t pass a ferry landing near the ferry landing, move way out.

  3. Jay N March 12, 2011 at 8:05 pm #

    The article presents good advice about the common sense of complying with Rule Number One: If it is bigger, stay out of the way (otherwise known as the Rule of tonnage). You don’t want to confront big ships out on their freeway with your bicycle.

    One area of confusion, is that large ships transiting Boundary/Haro with BC Coast Pilots onboard typically monitor VHF channels 11 (Victoria Traffic) and the pilot house channel 17 and only sometimes monitor channel 16. Large ships in US waters piloted by Puget Sound Pilots will monitor the VTS channel in addition to channel 13 and sometimes channel 16. Vessels participating in VTS areas are released by regulation from monitoring channel 16.

    So, if you are unable to stay clear of large ships, and you need to contact them, your should probably call VTS to get the name of the vessel, contact them on the VTS channel, and switch to a working channel to discuss passing arrangements.

    Be safe out there.

  4. Scott Wilson March 12, 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    It’s also worth noting that just because you don’t appear to be crossing a big ship at a given moment, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to stay that way. They may turn unexpectedly for reasons that aren’t immediately clear, either following a VTS lane or correcting their course to avoid other large traffic you can’t even see yet. This is another great reason to monitor VTS channels in your area and know what the lanes look like, as well as unmarked but other frequently used lanes like ferry channels or favorite tug routes.

    My own rude awakening also came from a cruise ship in Puget Sound, which I had previously altered to avoid and promptly forgot about… until he changed course and let me know I had better do the same with five very loud blasts!

  5. Gary Shinn, Wander March 11, 2011 at 9:17 pm #

    I agree with Curt completely. If it was on the highway, would you want to argue with the grill of a Kenworth?

  6. Nicole & Aaron March 11, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    Great post! Very interesting and informative. Safety aside, this account should also serve as a reminder to choose your vessel’s name with care. 🙂
    -Nicole

  7. Curt Epperson March 10, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    Great article Don. Very informative. On our boat (37′ cutter, about 20,000#, motors at 7 knots) we follow the KISS principal, based upon the notion that we are engaged in “pleasure boating” and “recreation boating” . When we are going to cross paths with a tanker, ferry, container ship, military vessel, etc., we slow down, alter course, and take the stern. Sure makes life more enjoyable. No muss, no fuss, and we never seem to miss the small amount of lost time!

    • Don Chase March 11, 2011 at 7:31 pm #

      It’s good to know that there’s another boater that knows how to do it right. Thank you for your comments.

  8. Scott Boye March 10, 2011 at 10:03 am #

    These days I tend to just look at the chartplotter and see where the course extensions for my boat cross the course extension for the AIS display. But a cheaper, more reliable method is to watch the crossing traffic and see if it is moving forward on the horizon, backward on the horizon or staying steady.
    This works with any other moving object – Tug and tow, another sailboat in a race, freighter or Bayliner. Watch the bow of the other boat. If it is moving forward on the horizon, it will pass in front of you. On the sailboat I race on we say, “He’s making trees on us.” How fast the trees on the far shore disappear behind the bow of the other boat will indicate how far in front he will be. If the shoreline is revealed from behind his bow, you will pass in front of him. It’s the opposite visual of him ‘making trees’. If his bow appears stationary on the far shore, you are on a collision course. Practice it the next time you are out on your boat.
    With large vessels you can probably determine their course just from common sense. Ferries departing Eagle Harbor will turn to the left and head for Seattle. Freighters heading north by Turn Point on Stuart Island in the San Juans will turn east to head up
    to Vancouver. There’s really no other place for them to logically go. Put yourself on their bridge for a minute and it will probably be clear.
    My tactic for crossing a large vessel is to determine how to pass them (usually behind them) then make a fairly radical course adjustment in that direction. By turning 60 or 90 degrees their radarman can see your intentions mapped out on his radar screen. Once I’ve made the radical adjustment, I’ll wait until the large vessel is ‘making trees’ by me and gradually return to my original course. Like a lot of life, your actions speak louder than words.

    • Don Chase March 11, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

      Excellent information. Thank you. I completely agree that actions speak louder than words. I do the same thing.

  9. Tim Jones March 10, 2011 at 7:04 am #

    Good advice. Years ago I was aboard a BC ferry departing Horseshoe Bay. We were picking up speed and a small planing hull boat crossed our bow. The skipper of the small boat apparently underestimated our speed, because he cleared the ferry’s bow by only 20 feet or so. We were making about 20 knots.

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