Jun 292010

imageMuch coverage of the Australian Transport Safety Board report on the collision between round-the-world yachtswoman Jessica Watson’s Ella’s Pink Lady, a 10 metre sloop and the 225 metre Panamax bulker Silver Yang has focussed on the hit-and-run aspects of the case but there remain cautionary aspects that apply to both professional mariners and the yachties with whom they too often share seaspace.

The ‘Leaping Light’ phenomenon appears again, as it has in several cases of night-time collision.

Typically a watchkeeper notes a light which is assumed to be a vessel running ahead on a parallel course, or a fixed light such as a buoy. Suddenly, the light appears to ‘swerve’ towards the watchkeeper’s vessel, having in fact been a vessel on zero CPA and it’s usually too late to avoid a collision. Here’s how it looked from the Silver Yang:

At 0148, Silver Yang’s second mate observed a single green light about 45° on the
port bow. He estimated that it was at a range of about 3 to 5 miles. At first, he
thought that the light may have been a small fishing vessel, but it didn’t appear to
be moving. At 0148½, he altered the ship’s heading by a few degrees to starboard,
to give more passing room to what he and the lookout now thought might be a

Silver Yang’s second mate and lookout continued to observe the light, which
remained at a constant bearing. The two men concluded that the light was
stationary, but when the ship got closer to it, they thought that it started moving
quickly towards their ship.

At 0149½, the lookout took the helm and the second mate ordered starboard 20° in
an attempt to avoid a collision. About 10 seconds later, he ordered hard-to-starboard.

However, at 0150½, Ella’s Pink Lady’s bow collided with Silver Yang’s port side mid-section… By 0155, Silver Yang‟s second mate had returned the ship to its original northerly heading. He and the lookout continued to discuss what had just happened, but they could not understand why the yacht had moved towards them.

Any light on a constant bearing should be treated with the utmost suspicion until you can prove a hazard does not exist.

The OOW and the lookout on the Silver Yang had spent much of their time chatting in one location on the bridge. “It is likely that the two men were engrossed in their conversation and that they were not as attentive to their lookout duties as they should have been” says the ATSB. Even had they been attentive, they may still have missing the yacht’s image on the radar either because it was lost in clutter, it was intermittent or the radar, which should have detected the yacht at six miles was not correctly tuned.

When the yacht’s light was seen, it was assumed to be some 6 miles distant. In fact it was 0.6 miles away, 2.5 minutes before the collision.

Silver Yang’s AIS, however, detected the yacht at least 38 minutes earlier but only provided its Maritime Mobile Service Identity, MMSI, number and specific
navigational data.

Says ATSB: “Had the second mate appropriately used the ship’s AIS unit, he would have been alerted to the presence of a vessel (Ella’s Pink Lady) well in advance of the
collision. He could have then monitored the developing situation visually, on the
radar and using the AIS unit, making it possible to take the necessary avoiding
action to prevent the collision”.

There is possibly a habit of looking at the radar to see if anything’s out there and using the AIS to confirm what it is but that’s not necessary the right strategy. Just because the radar can’t see anything it doesn’t mean nothing is there. After all, you’d hardly expect to find the world’s youngest round-the-world sailor out in the middle of nowhere, but that’s where one is most likely to be.

There was also communications difficulties because of the OOW’s standard of English.

Worryingly, the OOW seems to have been unaware of the general requirement to render assistance to a vessel in distress. Reading between the lines of the ATSB report, based on VDR recording, the master, once he was aware of what happened, provided a somewhat vigorous lesson.

For Jessica Watson aboard Ella’s Pink Lady, there were a number of issues. Her radar transponder, which would have made her more obvious to the radar on Silver Yang was switched off, possibly to conserve battery life. She did not have a passive radar reflector which would also have made her more visible to other ships.

Her electronic visibility was therefore low. It is surprising how many yacht folk don’t mount a passive reflector. “This collision demonstrates why it is important for small vessel operators to fit passive radar reflectors to their vessels, even if the vessel is fitted with an active reflector. A passive reflector does not require a power supply to operate and it cannot be turned off. As a result, it enhances the small vessel’s radar detectability at all times” says the report.

Ella’s Pink Lady was equipped with a Class B AIS. At the time of the collision it was not transmitting the correct ‘vessel type’ information. Hence, it is likely that the vessel type information had not been correctly entered into the AIS unit prior to the yacht‟s departure. As a result, Ella’s Pink Lady was visible to AIS shore base stations and AIS units fitted on board other ships, including Silver Yang‟s. However, it was indicating the vessel type as ‘un-assigned’. Had the ship type information been entered correctly, that information would have been transmitted and other ships would have been informed that Ella’s Pink Lady was a yacht. This information could have then been used by seafarers when trying to visually detect the yacht and when considering any possible collision avoidance strategies.

Some rough experiments by the ATSB suggest that as much as 17 per cent of Class A AIS sets cannot be relied upon to detect Class B sets.

ATSB concludes:

Contributing safety factors
• Silver Yang‟s watch keepers were involved in a non-work related conversation
during the period of time leading up to the collision. As a result, they were distracted from their duties and did not maintain a proper lookout.

• Silver Yang‟s watch keepers did not detect Ella’s Pink Lady until 2 ½ minutes
before the collision and they did not identify that it was a yacht. As a result, the
second mate did not alter course sufficiently to avoid the collision.

• About 5 minutes before the collision, Ella’s Pink Lady‟s skipper checked for
ships in the area, both visually and on the radar, but she did not detect Silver
Yang. She then went to bed for a short sleep and remained there until she was
awakened by the collision.

• Neither Ella’s Pink Lady’s skipper nor Silver Yang‟s watch keepers were using
all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions
(in particular radar and AIS) to make a full appraisal of the traffic situation in
the area and the risk of collision.

• Ella’s Pink Lady was not fitted with a passive radar reflector and, at the time of
the collision, the yacht‟s active radar reflector was turned off. [Significant
safety issue]

• It is likely that prior to the collision, the level of performance of Ella’s Pink
Lady‟s skipper had deteriorated due to fatigue and a minor bout of seasickness.
As a result, she may not have effectively processed the visual information at
hand; it is possible that she ‘looked but did not see’ Silver Yang.

• While it appears that the second mate was able to understand messages received
in English over the VHF radio, he demonstrated that he could not effectively use
the IMO‟s Standard Marine Communication Phrases (SMCP) to make his own
messages clearly understandable. [Minor safety issue]

• Silver Yang‟s second mate did not report the collision to the ship‟s master and he
made no attempt, immediately following the collision, to determine whether
Ella’s Pink Lady was damaged, or if its crew required any form of assistance.

• While most flag States have laws in place that implement the UNCLOS
requirement for a ship‟s master to render assistance to the crew of another vessel
following a collision, these laws are not being effectively implemented on board
all ships. [Significant safety issue]

• The evidence suggests that Class B AIS transmissions may not be reliably
detected by watch keepers on board all ships. Therefore, operators of small
vessels fitted with Class B AIS units should be aware that they cannot rely on
the AIS unit alone to warn ships of their presence. [Minor safety issue]

Download the ATSB report


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