Handling a ship in congested or high traffic areas is not an easy task. Congested waters are high-density traffic areas where a vessel is likely to collide with another vessel if ship navigation is not carried out in the right manner.
Navigation out in open sea isn’t easy either but by virtue of lesser traffic and ample sea room, it doesn’t pose as much of a threat as that posed in congested waters. Approaches such as that in Singapore or China have dense traffic in the form of fishing boats, small crafts in addition to larger merchant vessels which, by default, means that a higher degree of precaution, situational awareness, and decision making is to be exercised under such circumstances.
Factors such as the state of sea, weather, proximity of vessels, status of the ship (underway or making way, laden or under ballast condition etc), interaction with other vessels causing difference in pressure at the bow or stern, proximity to the land, steering gear effectiveness, effectiveness of the aids to navigation, rudder movement, effect of shallows are among many things that are to be adhered to. All of that aforementioned are to be applied in conjunction with COLREGs to ensure that the vessel is safely navigated into and out of the congested area. Rule 18 of COLREGs explicitly state as to which vessel is to be kept out of the way of another, which basically means that a vessel cannot bypass pre existing rules with regard to vessel responsibility.
As there are several vessels present in the vicinity, chances of a collision or any other form of an accident are very high; adherence to COLREGs in such cases is imperative in order to negate any legal liabilities that might arise due to vessel mishandling. In such conditions, the officer on watch and the ship’s master must take all the necessary precautions to avoid any kind of accident. Even in the presence of a Pilot who is, most of the times, thorough with the existing local navigational landscape, the onus of the safety of the vessel lies with the Master; to make it clearer, the presence of a Pilot does not relieve the Master and his bridge team of the obligations to keep clear of other vessels. A comprehensive passage plan along with information pulled from the Admiralty publications (prepared by the 2/O under the authority of the Master) including the presence of Aborts & Contingencies for emergency situations ensures that the whole process of safe navigation runs efficiently.
For navigating through congested waters, the officer on watch must know his duties well and be aware of the positions of ships in the vicinity and other fixed structures. He must make full preparations to sail through such areas. Practical ship handling is a skill acquired with experience, and the OOW must never hesitate to call the Master in case of the slightest doubt. After all, the Master is termed as a ‘Master’ for obvious reasons! Having said that, the following points are laid out to assist the OOW with regard to his decisions in congested waters:
- Comply with COLREGs at all times
- Be thorough with the ship’s maneuvering characteristics such as the UKC, Squat, stopping distance etc. Such details are laid out concisely in the wheelhouse poster
- Change over to hand steering
- Post additional lookouts. As stated by Rule 5 of ROR “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and condition so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.” (Know what are the duties of ship lookout here)
- Always keep the Master informed about the current situation and action plans. Call him if in the slightest doubt with regard to the existing situation or action to be taken
- Give the Engine Room adequate notice with regard to any requirements (maneuverability) that shall be necessary during the course of the vessel movement
- Reduce the vessel’s speed to a safe speed for navigation. Refer to Rule 6 of ROR for more clarity on ‘Safe Speed’
- Run parallel power units for steering gears for additional safety. This is to ensure that the navigation of the vessel does not come to a standstill in case one steering gear system fails. Preparedness to ensure that equipment is not liable to failure are gauged with a prior control test. The same should be applicable to the ship’s whistle which is used more often when in congested waters to warn the vessels in the vicinity of one’s own approach or presence
- Adhere to the company’s ISM checklist for navigation in confined waters
- Use all available resources including all aids to navigation and cross verify with the chart (use largest scale chart for that area) to check depths, distances, bearings etc. Monitor the position of the vessel continuously with the help of parallel indexing, ARPA etc
- Coordinate with the VTS as well as with the other ships in the vicinity using the VHF
- Record the vessel movement in the Bell Book
In case the vessel is in congested areas in restricted visibility, the associated risks increase. Rule 19 of COLREGs lays out mandatory rules with regard to navigation in RV which must be adhered to at all times. In addition to the above guidelines, the appropriate light and fog signals for a vessel in RV must be applied as well. For further reading on RV, refer to this article.
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