As surely as the sun sets in the west, whenever there is a high-profile incident such as the collisions involving the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56), armchair sailors will take to the internet to provide their own in-depth analysis of precisely what went wrong.
This practice reflects the normal human behavior of wanting to share an opinion. A worse practice—and one occasionally demonstrated by experienced mariners who should know better—is the creation of new rules, such as “the law of gross tonnage” and “if it’s gray, stay away.”
A recent example was the December 2016 collision of the MV Chetzemoka and MV Nap Tyme. The Chetzemoka is a Washington state ferry and the Nap Tyme is a private boat. A passenger on the ferry captured the incident with her mobile phone and uploaded it to YouTube. The video quickly went viral with nearly half a million views, and countless comments were made on Facebook, Twitter, and online discussion boards such as gCaptain.
Commenters were quick to assign blame based on what they saw in the video. A common theme revolved around the so-called “law of gross tonnage,” which supposedly requires smaller vessels to keep out of the way of larger vessels. While this may sound like common sense, no such rule exists.
The applicable International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972 (72 COLREGS) Rule 15, states:
When two power-driven vessels are crossing so as to involve risk of collision, the vessel which has the other on her own starboard side shall keep out of the way and shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel.
Often when a collision occurs more than one rule was violated. While the Chetzemoka was guilty of violating at least Rule 15, the Nap Tyme was guilty of several violations as well including Rule 5 (lookout) and Rule 17 (action by stand-on vessel).
Rule 17 is interesting. It reads, in part:
(i) Where one of two vessels is to keep out of the way the other shall keep her course and speed.
(ii) The latter vessel may, however, take action to avoid collision by her maneuver alone, as soon as it becomes apparent to her that the vessel required to keep out of the way is not taking appropriate action in compliance with these Rules.
In other words, the stand-on vessel is required to maintain course and speed until it is obvious that the give-way vessel is not taking action. In the case of the Nap Tyme, the rules required her to either (a) take action prior to a crossing situation forming, or (b) hold course and speed until it became obvious that Chetzemoka was not taking appropriate action.
Rule 17 is difficult for advocates of the “gross tonnage” rule to understand. The rule makes no distinction between large and small vessels; it applies to both vessels equally. The Nap Tyme had obligations under the rules. It appeared that the Master of the Chetzemoka was relying on the Nap Tyme to give way even though she was not required to. The investigation found that while he was aware of the collision danger he waited too long to act, allowing his vessel to become in extremis. In the end, both vessels violated rules and shared fault.
Navy surface warfare officers and civilian mariners are not armchair sailors. Effective collision avoidance requires a solid understanding of the rules of the road and a consistent application of them. The rules of the road work because they inform a set of normalized behaviors that all mariners should understand. Many electronic tools are available to assist watch-standers, but they only help inform decisions. Watch-standers must know which rules apply and when, and always act to avoid collisions.
Carl Obermeier is a former Navy surface warfare officer and merchant marine officer and is a graduate of the California Maritime Academy and Western Washington University. He is currently a marine assurance superintendent for a major oil company.