Narrow-minded about a narrow channel


On a Friday evening a performance of the opera Carmen was to be performed on a stage in Farm Cove and viewed from stands on Mrs Macquarie’s Point. A succession of water taxis were busily employed taking patrons from Sydney Cove to Woolloomooloo Bay, from where it was a short stroll to the opera.

Having dropped a load of passengers, the master of water taxi Schnapper left the wharf and headed north at speed. During his passage to the head of the bay, he spoke to his colleague on the water taxi Bream who stated that he was headed towards Woolloomooloo Bay.

Despite the absence of port and starboard hand markers, the waters of Woolloomooloo Bay are a channel. We will never know precisely what his decision making process was, however it seems that the master of Schnapper never considered that Woolloomooloo Bay is also a narrow channel and that there was a requirement for him to remain on the starboard side of the channel at all times.

Instead, the master proceeded up the port side of the bay towards the blind corner formed by the headland of Mrs Macquarie’s Point. As he neared the corner, he sighted his colleague in Bream, and another water taxi from a rival company. Both Bream and the rival taxi turned to their starboard and entered the bay only to find Schnapper on the wrong side of the channel.

The master of Schnapper realised that there was a risk of collision and turned to port towards his intended destination. This had the effect of turning towards the other vessels.

As Schnapper turned across the bows of the rival taxi, a collision ensued, with several people on the rival taxi being seriously injured.

After an investigation by Roads and Maritime Services, the master of Schnapper was charged and subsequently found guilty of two breaches of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (the ColRegs). Specifically the master breached Rule 9a by failing to keep to the starboard side of the channel and Rule 9f by failing to navigate with particular alertness and caution when approaching a bend or intervening obstruction.

Lessons learned

  1. Treat all bays, estuaries and similar as narrow channels and keep to the starboard side. Just because there are no lateral markers does not mean that the waterway isn’t a channel.
  2. The NSW Supreme Court has found that a narrow channel is “…any waterway used as a passage for vessels…and so narrow that its safe navigation by vessels would be obviously better secured by the certainty of the two approaching vessels taking opposite sides of it whatever the conformation of the sides of the channel might be…” This is a great rule of thumb for all mariners to keep in mind.
  3. When approaching a blind corner, ensure that there is adequate room for vessels which may be coming from the opposite direction.
  4. Never turn in front of a vessel which you are trying to avoid.
  5. Even if it is more direct route to your destination, it may not be the safest option. It is far better to travel further and arrive alive.
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