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Container Ship's Evasive Action Increased Collision Risk

Container Ship's Evasive Action Increased Collision Risk

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has released the final investigation report into the collision between the container ship Beijing Bridge and fishing vessel Saxon Onward noting that the container ship's evasive action actually increased the risk of collision.

The incident occurred in the Tasman Sea, about three nautical miles south-east of Gabo Island, Victoria, on January 23, 2018. The collision occurred at about 0015 when Beijing Bridge was en route to Melbourne. There were no injuries or pollution reported by either vessel. The fishing vessel suffered substantial damage to its hull but was able to make its way unassisted to the nearby port of Eden, New South Wales. The container ship resumed its passage and berthed in Melbourne later the same day.

Both vessels had been aware of each other’s presence for at least half an hour before the collision took place. Both vessels also took action in an attempt to avoid collision but these actions were either insufficient or too late. Beijing Bridge’s course alteration was not substantial, not made in good time, and actually increased the risk of a collision. Saxon Onward made a substantial course alteration but it was made too late and resulted in the collision.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau continues to see collisions between small vessels and trading ships on the Australian coast, with at least 65 such collisions reported and 39 investigated since 1990. Safety investigations into several of these collisions have shown that taking early and effective avoiding action, and the keeping of a proper lookout, could have prevented most of these collisions.

The Minutes Before the Collision

At about 0005, with Beijing Bridge about four nautical miles away, Saxon Onward’s watchkeeper left the wheelhouse and walked the short distance to the trawler’s bow to better assess the situation. He sighted Beijing Bridge fine on the starboard bow with the ship’s two masthead lights (nearly in a line), green sidelight and deck lights visible. He then returned to the wheelhouse and continued to monitor the approaching ship visually and by radar while maintaining Saxon Onward’s course and speed.

By about 0008, Beijing Bridge was steady on a new course with a heading of 241º and was about 0.75 nautical miles to starboard of the ship’s planned track with Saxon Onward fine on the ship’s port bow. About a minute later, the officer of the watch (OOW) altered the ship’s heading to port with the intention of passing between two trawlers, the Saxon Onward and the Rubicon, and increasing the distance at which Saxon Onward’s closest point of approach would occur. The ship eventually settled on a heading of 228º at about 0012 with Saxon Onward, now on the ship’s starboard bow.

Shortly after, Saxon Onward’s watchkeeper commenced a rapid turn to starboard at a distance of about one nautical mile from Beijing Bridge.

In response, Beijing Bridge’s OOW altered the ship’s heading to port from 228º to 225º and flashed the ship’s Aldis lamp at Saxon Onward followed by a long blast on the ship’s whistle. Woken by the whistle, the ship’s master called the OOW on the bridge telephone to find out what was happening and was told that he was needed on the bridge. The OOW then continued to sound long blasts on the ship’s whistle. At about 0014, the OOW changed the steering over from autopilot to hand steering and placed the wheel hard to port.

A few seconds later, the master arrived on the ship’s bridge and saw the lights of the trawler, on the starboard side, rapidly closing on the ship. He also immediately ordered “hand steering” and “hard to port” and confirmed that the ship was beginning to turn to port. The master ordered the OOW to continue blowing the whistle and then went out on to the starboard bridge wing.

Meanwhile, on Saxon Onward, the watchkeeper realized that the trawler was in danger and shouted to alert the skipper and crew. At about 0015, as the skipper arrived in the wheelhouse, Saxon Onward collided with Beijing Bridge. The trawler’s port bow impacted the ship’s starboard side in the region of cargo hold number 3, about 94 meters aft of the ship’s bow. As the trawler then scraped down the ship’s side, the skipper stopped the engine and the crew mustered in the wheelhouse. The trawler heeled over sharply to starboard and took on some water before it righted itself, passed the ship’s stern and drifted away to the north-east.

Australian Transport Safety Bureau Analysis

While Beijing Bridge was on its planned track, the traffic situation was relatively benign with neither Saxon Onward nor Rubicon posing a risk of collision. Beijing Bridge’s OOW then commenced a course alteration to starboard more than three nautical miles in advance of the planned waypoint in the vicinity of Gabo Island, Victoria. The OOW, believing it was safe to do so, commenced the course alteration early to effect a short-cut and indicated that it was common practice for him to do so. While it is not unusual for ships to make minor departures from the passage plan, in this instance, the decision to alter course in advance of the planned waypoint resulted in a close quarters situation with risk of collision developing with Saxon Onward.

Beijing Bridge's company procedures and master's standing orders required early and effective action be taken to avoid collision in accordance with the COLREGs. They also specified that course alterations were to leave no doubt as to the ship's intentions. Shortly before the collision, at a range of about three nautical miles from Saxon Onward, Beijing Bridge’s OOW carried out a 13° course alteration to port in an attempt to increase the distance at which Saxon Onward’s closest point of approach would occur. This action was based on the OOW’s assumption that Saxon Onward would cross the ship’s bow from port to starboard and pass clear down the ship’s starboard side.

However, this action failed to resolve the close quarters situation. The action also increased the risk of a collision in the event Saxon Onward decided to take action in accordance with the COLREGs, as subsequently occurred. Further action, taken in response to Saxon Onward’s course alteration to starboard, including the final turn to port, was not effective in avoiding the collision either.

Furthermore, the master was not called during the developing situation and was only alerted to the impending collision by the ship’s whistle. Consequently, he arrived on the bridge too late to affect the outcome of the situation.

Saxon Onward’s 2400-0200 watchkeeper had acquired Beijing Bridge on radar and then continued to monitor the situation, including Beijing Bridge’s succession of course alterations, both visually and by radar. The watchkeeper then assessed the trawler and the ship to be in a head on situation with risk of collision. In response, and in accordance with the COLREGs, the watchkeeper then initiated a bold alteration of course to starboard. However, this action, taken at the relatively close range of about one nautical mile, was too late to have a positive effect on the situation and resulted in the collision.

On board Beijing Bridge, the re-assignment of the bridge lookout to day work duties left the OOW as the sole lookout on the bridge during the hours of darkness of the 2000-2400 watch on the night of the collision and for several weeks preceding. This was in contravention of the company’s procedures and international regulations. While in this case, the absence of the bridge lookout did not affect the OOW’s ability to detect Saxon Onward, it increased the risk of vessels going undetected over a period of several weeks prior to the collision.