Oh, but for a metal sphere...


On a dark, but otherwise calm and clear winter’s evening, a 13 metre long fibreglass catamaran was sailing north along the NSW coast, about 6 nautical miles off Cronulla in Sydney’s south. There was a prevailing one metre swell at the time. At the same time, a 200 metre long general cargo ship was sailing south, en-route from Singapore to Port Kembla. In the relative emptiness of the ocean at this place and time, these two vessels were about to meet.

The ship was conducting its normal watch-keeping routine, with the officer of the watch and the helmsman on the ship’s bridge. All three crew of the catamaran were on deck and keeping a lookout.

The crew of the catamaran observed the approaching ship, but decided that it was further away than it really was and would not pose a threat. The watch crew of the ship did not detect the yacht until the last moment, as the fibreglass yacht did not show up on the ship’s radar, and the dipping of the yacht with the prevailing swell masked its navigation lights.

The ship’s watch officer observed the catamaran at the last moment, and altered the course of the ship, but too late to avoid collision. However, the ship did change course enough to strike the yacht a glancing blow rather than a full impact collision. Fortunately no person on the yacht was injured, but the vessel was dismasted and sustained some structural damage. It was able to make the haven of Botany Bay under its own power.

Lessons learned

  1. Fibreglass vessels are notoriously difficult to detect by radar. All vessels, especially low-profile yachts, should always hoist a radar reflector (usually a metal sphere with lots of flat, reflective surfaces, but there are many varieties on the market) when voyaging offshore.
  2. Vessel skippers should never assume that their estimate of distance over water at night is accurate. Always assume the worst and take early action to avoid any close quarters situation that may result in a collision.
  3. Vessel skippers should also never assume that the crew of large ships have seen them, regardless of the quality of navigation lighting or size of their own vessel. Again, assume the worst and take action to avoid the potential of a collision.
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