The Case Of The Cygnet’s Kiss


Beware, overconfidence and singlewatch-keeping

could mean a kiss becomes a swan song for your career

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In ancient times it was said that when a Swan died, it sang a farewell song. That's the origin of the term 'swan song', the last act. Of course, the song that we're most familiar with is The Ugly Duckling, the story of a fledgling that believes it's a young duck and is ashamed of its dowdy grey and brown feathers until one day it grows up and becomes a beautiful swan. The ugly duckling was really a cygnet, a baby swan.

I happen to think an oil tanker can be a thing of majestic beauty but to the man in the street they're pretty ugly, so I suppose it's appropriate that BP Shipping gave the name British Cygnet to a sixty three and a half thousand gross tonnes oil tanker, registered in the Isle Of Man.

British Cygnet

At the time of our story, British Cygnet is enroute in ballast from Rotterdam to Fredericia in Denmark with a draught of 9 metres. A critical part of her passage is southbound through a narrow buoyed channel north of Fynshoved.

The channel is also on the passage plan of a German-flagged containership of around 4,000 gross tonnes owned by Rederei Rambow. Her name is the Vera . She's on her way from Arhus to Bremerhaven with a draught of 4.8 metres and her intention is to pass through the channel northbound. That was the plan.


The channel runs south west to north east. About 600 metres south east of the southern edge of channel are the shallows of the Lille Grund bank, the northern edge of which is marked by a north cardinal buoy. The depth outside the southern edge of the channel is around 12 metres. The channel is just outside the area of VTS coverage.

The two vessels are to transit the channel in opposite directions at about the same time each keeping to starboard of the channel. That wasn't the only coincidence. At the time, both vessels had their second officers as officer of the watch and both come on watch at the same time, 11.00 hours.

British Cygnet and Vera approach each end of the channel

There the similarities end. On the bridge of the British Cygnet are two pilots, following the recommendation of the IMO regarding the use of pilots on ships with a draft of 11 metres or more when following established routes into the Baltic Sea, although there was no obligation to do so. There is also an AB as helmsman. The vessel is on manual steering. The master has left orders that he should be called when the vessel was to enter the channel and at 11.27 the second officer calls him to the bridge.

Vera doesn't carry a pilot, she doesn't have to. She has no helmsman because the officer of the watch, the second officer, is confident he can handle it all by himself and the vessel is on automatic steering.

Vera's second officer is certainly qualified, at least on paper: he holds an unlimited certificate of competency entitling him to be officer in charge of a navigational watch endorsed by the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency of Germany. He has experience, too: 26 years at sea, he's worked for Rambow for a decade.

He joined the ship on 5th November 2006. It's now less than a month later, on a cold, grey December day with visibility of five miles, a sea state of one metre with a current of one to one and a half knots setting to the north, with a south westerly wind of force 4 to 5, pretty benign conditions.

Both vessels are aware of each other. The second officer on the Vera spots the British Cygnet at more than 5 miles just after he'd taken the watch. The British Cygnet spotted the Vera on radar and ECDIS/AIS ten minutes later and sees her visually at a distance of 6 nautical miles.

At 11.15, British Cygnet alters course to south westerly and the second officer on the Vera assumes correctly that she'll be entering the north end of the channel.

At 11.30 the Vera Second Officer prepares the large course alteration from 174 degrees to 097 to enter the south end of the channel. He doesn't call for a helmsman or call the master because he's confident he can handle everything by himself.

He reduces speed to half ahead, giving her around 9 knots speed over ground, and engages manual steering.

Three and a half minutes later the British Cygnet enters the north east end of the channel, with the master now on the bridge, at a speed over ground of 15.1 knots.

Vera heads towards the southern boundary...

The Vera enters the south western end of the channel at 11.34.45, at 11 .5 knots with the intention of keeping to the starboard side of the channel. But the Vera's rate of turn isn't high enough to keep her in the channel and at 11.35.35, less than a minute after entering the channel she crosses the southern boundary at 12 .3 knots.

Vera overshoots, leaves the channel, and begins the turn back into the channel

Vera overshoots, leaves the channel, and begins the turn back into the channel

On the Vera, the second officer wants to get back into the channel, worried about grounding on the shallows of the Lille Grund Bank. On the bridge of the British Cygnet, the officers and pilot discuss the course of the Vera and assume that she'll stay outside the channel.

They are wrong.

At 11.37 the Vera alters course to port to re-enter the channel. The manouever gets the attention of the bridge team on the British Cygnet. They give five short blasts on the ship's whistle and the pilot makes a VHF call asking for the vessel's intentions. There is no response. The pilot thinks the Vera might have lost steering.

Half a minute later the Vera re-enters the channel and passes 20 metres north of the port hand buoy.and continues to cross the channel at nine and a half knots. She's now crossing the channel with the British Cygnet less than half a mile away fine on the starboard bow. The second officer now intends to come to starboard and pass the other vessel port-to-port. He puts the rudder over to hard starboard and reduces the propeller pitch to 40 per cent.

The Vera hardly turns at all.

Zero CPA

Again the pilot aboard the British Cygnet calls the Vera: “You have to come to port, come to port please”.

There's no response.

The pilot gives several quick starboard helm orders then finally, hard a port. The master countermands the order with hard -a-starboard. The pilot also calls hard a starboard, requests a signal and orders stop engines. The master sounds the general alarm.

On the Vera, the second officer pushes the propeller pitch to between 65 and 70 per cent astern but it won't be enough.

With calm professionalism, the bridge team on the British Cygnet prepare for the now-inevitable crunch.

Ten seconds later the Vera slams into the aft port side of the British Cygnet at an angle of 60 degrees and comes to a stop, that brings the master to the bridge. The British Cygnet continues to make way until, she, too, comes to a stop.

No-one is injured, there's no pollution but both vessels are seriously damaged.

No comment

A Career's Swansong?

In the official Isle of Man report on the incident, the investigator made the unusually open and forceful recommendations that the second officer of the Vera should be censured by Rambow for his failure to properly assess and apply the rules of the road and that Germany's Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency review its endorsement of his certificate of competency.

Kissing the British cygnet, might have been the swan song of his career.

Damage to the British Cygnet

Vera took it on the nose

In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the character Portia says: “"Let music sound while he doth make his choice;/Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end,/Fading in music".

So what choices did the Second Officer of the Vera make to bring him to that swan-like end that faded in the five blasts of the British Cygnet's whistle and the pilot's VHF calls?

Loosing Steerage

In a sense, the pilot was correct when he thought the Vera had lost steerage but it had nothing to do do with her gear.

Your car is more maneouverable at slow speeds than high speeds, that's why you don't make a three point turn at eighty kilometres an hour. A ship is different, generally speaking its maneouverability depends on the amount of water pushed over the rudder by the propeller. Simplistically, The lower the RPM, or the pitch of the propeller, the less manouverable the vessel, the lower its rate of turn will be.

By putting the engine at half ahead while making the course alteration into the channel, the second officer had induced a rate of turn insufficient to successfully enter the channel. Again, when he went hard a starboard shortly before the collision he reduced the propeller pitch further still, further reducing steerage. This lady didn't turn.

Despite his confidence, he wasn't familiar enough with the operating characteristics of his vessel. Ignorance and confidence are a deadly mix.

What he might have done is first to reduce speed, then put the rudder over, then increase speed to full ahead. This would have increase the Vera's rate of turn and he might have entered the channel safely. It's just possible that a similar technique could have averted the collision.

Turning To The Deep

It appears self-evident that the second officer was not familiar with the charted depths around the channel, that the passage plan had not been discussed in detail with regard to the turn into the channel and that he did not use parallel indexing, a technique that would have enabled him to safely navigate the turn into the channel.

The Master's Mind

It would have been prudent for him to call the master when the close quarters situation was developing, but it would also have been prudent for the master to leave instructions to be called to the bridge during such a large and critical maneouver.

Going It Alone

Now the second officer is struggling to re-enter the channel and bring the vessel to the starboard side. He's chosen to do it alone, that means he can't pay attention to safe navigation, the relative positions of the two vessels, or to communications.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

There were three forms of communication relevant to this incident: VHF radio, blasts on the British Cygnet's whistle, and shapes that might have been hoisted by the British Cygnet to indicate that she was a vessel constrained by draught.

Why didn't the Vera's second officer respond to the VHF call by the pilot on the British Cygnet? Yes, he was too busy at the helm to effectively monitor radio transmissions but there was another factor: The pilot did not directly address the call to the Vera or identify his own vessel, had he done so he might have got the second officer's attention.

And what about those five short blasts on the British Cygnet's whistle? The second officer heard the signal, didn't know how many blasts there were and didn't know its significance.

True, the British Cygnet could have had the shapes hoisted indicating a vessel constrained by draught to warn the Vera of her limited ability to manouevre, but, let's face it, it's fair to assume that a 241 metre oil tanker of nearly sixty three and a half thousand gross tonnes is likely to be pretty obvious.

The Rules Of The Road

Now let's take a look at collision regulations, colregs, the rules of the road.

Rule 8 says: “Any action taken to avoid collision shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, be positive, made in ample time, and with due regard to the observance of good seamanship.” By the time Vera's second officer took avoiding action it was too late.

Rule 9 refers to narrow channels: The Vera should have kept to the starboard outer limit but crossed instead. Because British Cygnet had limited room for maneouvre because of her draught, Vera should not have crossed the narrow channel.

When the Vera re-entered the channel and began to cross it, British Cygnet was to starboard. According to Rule 15, Vera should have stayed out of the way because British Cygnet was the stand on vessel, in other words, she had the right of way.

Rule 16 says that early and substantial action should be carried out to keep clear of the stand-on vessel. That didn't happen.

This incident raises a lot of issues, not least the training and certification of seafarers. At a time when it's getting harder and harder to recruit officers there's an inevitable temptation to overlook issues of competency simply to put warm bodies on the bridge.

Just because someone has a certificate of competency, it doesn't mean they can do the job. Until the industry accepts competency assessment onboard, in the workplace, so that training needs can be addressed, this sort of incident will remain depressingly common.

As this case shows, confidence without competence is a recipe for disaster.

BP Shipping's Flag Safety Special comments: "There was inadequate Master/Pilot exchange of navigational information when the British Cygnet’s Master returned to the bridge just prior to the collision. The Pilot made assumptions as to the intentions of the other vessel involved, and the Master and Officer of the Watch accepted these assumptions without challenge or any evidence he was correct. There were no positive VHF communications between the vessels in a navigationally unusual situation. Contradictory instructions were passed over the VHF by the Pilot when he became aware that there was imminent danger of collision. There was possible interaction between the vessels as a result of attractive pressure fields around the vessels created by their fast movement through the water, close proximity and a limited channel width."

Let's get back to the Cygnet's Kiss and start with single watch-keeping. It's generally a very bad idea so don't take a watch by yourself unless there is absolutely no other possible alternative. A bridge team, even if its just you and the helmsman, is a resource for safe navigation, so like any other bridge resource, if you've got it, use it.

When approaching a critical part of the passage, consider whether it would be prudent to have an additional person on the bridge, to call the master or have another officer to assist. Have you got enough people to watch the navigational instruments, handle the helm, keep an eye on the chart and an ear on the radio?

Look at the passage plan and plan critical turns so you know what you're going to do and when. Go through the manoeuvre in your head.

An unexpected circumstance might cause a deviation from the passage plan and require an unplanned manoeuvre to get back to it. Look at your options. If the second officer of the Vera had gone parallel to and outside the channel rather than unthinkingly trying to revert to the passage plan, his career might be in better shape.

Be aware of other vessels, the hazards they may present to you, and the hazards you may present to them and, of course, follow the rules of the road and you won't go far wrong.

When manoeuvering near another vessel, be alert for communications, whether by radio or sound signal, and make sure you understand the signal, there'll be a good reason why someone wants to talk to you.

If communicating by radio, make sure you address yourself to the vessel you're calling and identify your own vessel – there's a better chance of getting their attention.

Confidence is something every officer needs in order to function on board but overconfidence is a danger to you and your crewmates. It's better to be prudent and safe than cocky and collided, especially if you want to avoid hearing singing the swan-song of your career.

This is Bob Couttie wishing you safe sailing.

Official investigation report