SKIPPER'S SEAT: September 2009

September 22, 2009 - You might expect it from the tabloids, but not the sailing media, who turned on its own and took the view that Jessica Watson, the 16-year-old who set out from Mooloolaba earlier this month to start her around-the-world crusade from Sydney, was to blame for the bingle between her S&S34 yacht and the 60,000 tonne coal-carrying ship, Silver Yang, off North Stradbroke Island.

After all, as Master Mariner Richard Morris told, there were some clear breaches of the ColRegs by the Hong Kong registered ship’s crew here.

“The responsibility of the person on watch was not to hit the yacht. The International Regulations for Prevention of Collision at Sea states at Rule 18(a)(iv) —
Responsibilities Between Vessels: 'a power-driven vessel underway shall keep out of the way of a sailing vessel.' Very, very clearly it’s a breach of Rule 18,” Morris wrote.

Having spent half his 15 years at sea on merchant ships, Morris put it like this: “It’s 2.30am in the morning so the Second Officer is on watch. He does midnight till 4am. There’s also supposed to be another crewman on the bridge wing and he’s the lookout. The sole responsibility of the lookout is to look out with his eyeballs. Jessica’s yacht would’ve had lights on and those white lights would’ve been visible for 10 miles in clear visibility. Obviously the lookout wasn’t watching.

“The Second Officer was probably in the bathroom or getting a cup of tea —
he wasn’t looking out on the radar. The crewman who was supposed to be looking out — for whatever reason —
was not. And that happens,” Morris said.

We have it on good authority that Jessica’s yacht was fitted with an advanced AIS (Automatic Identification System) that was said to be operational at the time. This device would have shown her yacht as an inflated target on the ship’s radar, with a track so the navigator can see which way she is sailing. The wind was reportedly light at the time. Typical modern-day merchant ships travel fast, anywhere from 12 to 20kts.

But this is not the first time a hapless sailor or pleasure boater has been blamed for a boat crash. When the Island Gypsy 34 Merinda was cut in half by a ferry under the Harbour Bridge, and four lives were lost, the Office of Transport Safety Investigation kept barking about lack of navigation lights.

Fact is that wayward ferry was speeding and disobeyed the north-south rule when leaving Circular Quay, in effect cutting the corner while travelling at 20-odd knots, before ploughing into the single-engine Island Gypsy doing all of 8kts top speed.

No-one has ever erected a statue to a critic. Forget them, Jessica. You have Trade-a-Boat’s full support and, with a new mast, you’ll be ready to leave Sydney this month to start your quest to be the youngest-around-the-world and, just maybe, unassisted, too.

Meantime, many of us are rushing to make our own boats shipshape for the season. Read our special Spring Clean feature in tomorrow’s Trade-a-Boat to help with the task.

Of course, it’s incumbent upon every skipper to carry the right safety gear and, at this time of year, authorities are ramping up their on-water inspections. Fines for failing to carry the right kit are steep. Foremost, you need a lifejacket for everyone aboard. Wear one during times of heightened risk and where your state waterways rules demand it. Flares must be in date, too.

If you are venturing more than two nautical miles to sea you must carry an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon or EPIRB. The new safety regulations insist that it’s one of the latest 406MHz digital models, with greater accuracy in a search and rescue compared with the old 121.5MHz EPIRBs phased out last November.

You must register your EPIRB with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, who will send out a proof-of-registration sticker that’s valid for two years. You can be fined for not having the sticker attached to your EPIRB. Offshore safety checks are becoming more common.

Since March this year, new NSW Marine Safety Regulations have come into effect. There’s an interpretation of the new rules at Among the changes are that a vessel more than 12 metres in length in open waters is no longer required to carry a liferaft or lifeboat. Oh, yeah, a liferaft is another item that requires periodic pre-season inspection.

With the engine(s) serviced, the hull slipped and antifouled, new anodes fitted, a buff and polish of the topsides, a spring clean, and all the right safety gear and watersports kit, you are finally ready to cast off. Most of us won’t be doing it solo, nor will we be boating at night, but we’ll be embarking on our own bona fide boating adventures and just as keen as Jessica Watson.

Play it safe and see you on the not-so-high seas.

— David Lockwood,
Editor at Large,