October 02, 2009

The death of safe speed.

Does anybody reduce speed automatically in zero visibility anymore? Not on the evidence, surely. Does anybody reduce speed automatically in dense traffic anymore? Unlikely, unless one is approaching a port, in my experience.

Like some other rules, Rule 6 (Safe Speed) of the COLREGS seems destined to be cited only after an accident occurs. Many P&I clubs regularly bring up the fact that the determination of safe speed is an ongoing process that should be evaluated by the bridge team, and that, as Steamship Mutual said in January this year, “The application of rule 6, with regard to determining a safe speed, will vary on a case by case basis and power driven vessels must remember that they are obliged to have their engines ready for immediate manoeuvre. In too many instances excess speed has been deemed to be a causative factor in the lead up to the collision occurring.” Hardly unsurprising, given that Master’s seem to proceed at maximum available speed until they pick up a pilot, I may add. In fact, even when approaching a pilot boat, speed is reduced later rather than sooner. I am sometimes struck by the fact that many Shipmaster’s behave like the terrible drivers we see on Indian roads, zipping along at unsustainably unsafe speeds without any regard to anything else, not even their own lives.

While too many of us continue to navigate and even approach ports with a singular deficit of common sense and with disregard to safe speeds ‘under the prevailing circumstances and conditions’, we also fail to take into account other factors. For a start, the limitations of our own ship are often ignored. Granted, the condition of the radar, ARPA and other navigational equipment is no longer a big factor on modern ships, although some navigators seem unable to even tune the radars properly, giving rise to some interesting situations in, for example, dense fog. Usually, though, the limitations of the Main Engine need to be taken into account. Are they ready for immediate manoeuver in, say, the North Sea and zero visibility? The answer is normally a resounding ‘no’, especially on many ships running on UMS and heavy oil. Additionally, many ships that are still sailing are not built for immediate (and prolonged) slow speed steaming on heavy oil; so many that I sailed on fall into this category. Asking some Chief Engineers to reduce speed on these can become an exercise that requires a Master to exhibit strong will along with an absolute commitment to safety, given that changing over to Diesel may well be required.

If one is in thick fog almost all the time at sea, as we were on one car carrier placed in the North Sea/English channel in winter, this can become a major source of friction with Superintendents too, especially with diesel or gasoil being more expensive or carried in limited quantity aboard. Even on ships that manoeuver on heavy oil, prolonged slow speed steaming and the resultant increased carbonisation can be greatly problematic for maintenance and operations, although pushing the engines whenever visibility improves can blow off some of it.

We seem to forget, also, that Rule 6 asks us to take into account the following when determining safe speed: stopping distance and the ability to take ‘proper and effective action’ to avoid collision. I defy the Master of the huge container ship that zipped a cable and a half past me at 28 knots off Texel (the busiest buoy in the world) in dense fog to claim with a straight face that his speed was safe.

Another situation. Six ships, about half a mile apart, were proceeding at full speed to pick up pilot at the breakwater at Kaoshuing a few years ago in heavy weather with a typhoon approaching. Four miles off the breakwater, sudden torrential rain reduced visibility to less than half a mile within minutes. Five minutes later, the port broadcast on VHF Ch. 16 that pilotage services were temporarily discontinued because of poor visibility. The resultant confusion and heightened risk of collision when all these ships started turning around to get back to open water would have been funny if it were not dangerous. I was in command on one of those ships.

Of course, commercial pressures continue to be the biggest reasons Masters take risks. I will be accused of preaching to the choir if I elaborate much more here, so I won’t, except to say that when all the ships, without any exception, are proceeding at full sea speed in dense fog and heavy traffic, the Master of a ship that reduces to what would be truly a ‘safe speed in the prevailing circumstances’ would be treated with ridicule, scorn, or exasperation by many including, obviously, his employers.

On a dark and stormy night, on that same car carrier I spoke of earlier, we came out of the Thames in thick fog, dropped the pilot and proceeded South East to join the main traffic lane. A couple of hours later, in torrential rain and fog so thick that visibility was zero, we entered the lane, one amongst a bunch of a dozen vessels within a three mile radius. Not one of us was doing less than 17 knots. I doubt anybody had reduced speed by even a notch. This is an area which is monitored aggressively by the UK’s Coast Guard, by the way, who will tell you when you are in contravention of most rules (especially Rule 10 on Traffic Separation Schemes, ask the Master of the ‘Storman Asia’!), but are always silent on the question of safe speed.

If you ask me, there is an urgent need to review Rule 6 and amend it if necessary. Once done, it should be followed and enforced by coastal states, using VTIS systems as necessary. While we are at it, pilot stations should be banned from advising multiple Shipmasters to proceed at full speed to pick up their pilots; this happens far too often, usually through poor planning.

Some rules are not meant to be broken.