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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.