Follow the rules. but be realistic

In his recent article Don Dykstra (“A View from the Bridge” Issue No. 110, Nov./Dec. 2000) advises yachtsmen to keep a proper lookout; take action as necessary to avoid collision when it cannot be averted by the give-way vessel alone; use a radar reflector; and don’t assume that the watch officer on a large vessel sees you, hears you, or is even looking out for you, or that the ship can be stopped before it hits you. In other words, follow the rules but be realistic. Good advice.

Some of his other messages are disturbing, though, or maybe it’s the tone of the piece that disturbs. Is it indeed ludicrous for a merchant ship watch officer to look for yachts, because they are difficult to see, and he or she couldn’t stop the ship in time anyway? Shall we forget about carrying proper lights, because the visibility of lights on yachts is so short that it doesn’t matter very much? (I think he’s incorrect, by the way, in citing 20 meters as the length below which one-mile sidelights are permissible; it’s 12 meters, at least in my 1999 edition of COLREGS.) Worst of all is the statement that most ship owners dread it when they are put in the position of having to assist a vessel in distress, because it’s expensive.

Sure, there are people who have no business being in the open sea in a sailboat because they haven’t the training or the experience, and some of them get into trouble and need rescuing, which costs money. However, the majority of us aren’t out there thinking a $100 GPS receiver is all we need to get by. And, every once in a while, the crew of a large commercial ship requires rescuing sometimes from situations that raise questions about the skill and judgment of her officers – and those rescues are probably even more expensive than saving a yacht crew.

I’m all for realism and common sense, good training and adequate experience, but even those are not proof against accidents at sea. I hope never to see erosion of the time-honored tradition of seafarers to come willingly to the aid of one of their number in distress.

By Ocean Navigator