Safety Letter from the Gloucester Harbour Trustees

Improving safety: the importance of keeping a good look-out and an appreciation of international and local regulations

From time to time we receive reports of incidents (fortunately few) which suggest that some leisure sailors occasionally forget certain aspects of basic seamanship and fail to consider the relevant International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea and the purpose of local bye-laws and other directions.

The port at Sharpness is thriving and membership of local sailing club is buoyant, which means that commercial vessels and leisure craft may encounter each other day or night in the channel on any day of the week.

We therefore wish to remind club members that the channel from King Road to Sharpness is a designated “narrow channel” and, as such, observance of Rules 9 and 18 are particularly important. Equally important is the need to keep a good lookout as required by Rule 5. Whether racing or not, these rules apply. In short, any idea that “steam gives way to sail” in this area is quite simply irrelevant.

A recent example of a potentially serious incident is summarised below.

Gloucester Harbour Trustees received a report from a senior Pilot on 5 August 2011 whilst on passage to Sharpness Docks. The report revealed the occurrence of a dangerous close-quarters situation between a 3400 ton commercial ship with a draft of 5.3m proceeding at 9.4 knots and a dinghy in the area between the Counts Beacon and Narlwood Lights. The pilot observed that the small dinghy with two persons on board on his starboard bow was on a collision course.

One prolonged blast was made to attract attention to ‘remind the vessel of its obligation under Rule 5 of the International Collision Regulations’. The dinghy was observed to take no action and therefore continued to impede the ship’s passage in contravention of Rule (9b) and 9(d). Five short blasts (meaning I am in doubt about your action taken to avoid collision) were then made indicating the pilot’s serious concern for his vessel.

A potential risk of collision was imminent and the ship was obliged to reduce speed (which adversely affects steerage) and alter course to starboard, which meant taking the vessel close to the Narlwood Rocks, sounding one blast (I am altering course to starboard). The dinghy disappeared under the flare of the ship’s bow with only the tip of the mast showing. She then appeared to tack onto starboard so as to re-cross the ship’s bow, which necessitated a further 5 short blasts on the ship’s whistle. The dinghy was then observed to tack onto port and the captain was then instructed to bring his ship back to port and a correct course.

This situation was serious and indicated that a proper lookout was not being maintained on the dinghy. Had a collision occurred it could have easily resulted in loss of life and would have been reported to the Marine Accident and Investigation Board for a full inquiry.

Whilst we recognise that dinghies and other craft frequently race and cruise across, and in the designated deep water narrow channel, it is basic seamanship that requires crews of such craft to be aware of any commercial shipping that may be leaving or entering Sharpness Docks, and are therefore on passage in the deep water channel. This is easily done by contacting Sharpness radio on VHF 13 or by telephone to 01453 511968.

We would anticipate it to be a matter of good practice within any sailing club to fully brief all crews before dinghies and cruisers at the commencement of organised events. This does not preclude the fact, that if you are sailing as an individual, and not as part of an organised event, that you should still ascertain what shipping movements may be taking place. It is fundamental seamanship that when in ‘narrow channels’ all members of the crew aboard a sailing vessel (or other small craft) should keep a constant lookout for commercial shipping and KEEP WELL CLEAR.

We seriously recommend that all leisure sailors, whether in dinghies or small cruisers, make it their business to make themselves aware of the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (and local regulations) and have a full knowledge of the various sound signals that ships do make. Local yacht clubs have a good safety record over many years, and nobody would want an incident ‘due to a lack of basic seamanship knowledge’ to mar that record.

In the light of the above incident we wish to make two recommendations to the Club. The first is that the Club Programme should clearly specify that for races in, and across the deep water channel, the Officer of the Day must contact Sharpness Radio (VHF 13) before such an event, and include their response in a comprehensive briefing to all participants. The second relates to the club “Sailing Instructions” which should include a requirement to obey the International Rules for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea, the designation of the Channel as a ‘narrow channel’ and the particular need to take heed of Rule 9. We recommend that the above steps are taken to include appropriate references for the avoidance of any doubt in future.

We wish you all happy and safe sailing for many years to come.

Mike Johnson. GHT Harbourmaster

Note from John Christie – Safety Officer LYC

I understand that the dinghy involved was from Thornbury Sailing Club. They were inexperienced and had been told to always pass another vessel port to port. It is not clear what they were trying to do (or not do) from the description above but the clear message is – keep well clear of any motor vessel, especially those constrained by the shipping channel. If you have to motor, row or paddle – keep well clear!!!

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