It probably depends on the size of your vessel and whether you are in busy coastal waters or are out in the solitude of the blue, but keeping watch at sea might be described as 98% utter tedium interrupted by moments of sheer terror!
In this article we take a look at the ‘scourge of seafarer fatigue’ (as the Marine Accident Investigation Branch calls it), and see how it is handled from the cockpit of the small sail or motor yachts likely to be frequenting Marinas such as The Marina at Sutton Harbour and King Point Marina – and also how an appreciation of what is likely to be going on aboard the larger ships that we encounter can be useful in staying safe at sea.
Let’s take a look firstly at the problems faced by the big-ship watchkeepers that we are likely to encounter. We all know that the English Channel is the busiest shipping lane on the planet, and if you are slipping from Plymouth Sound you will immediately have this in mind, especially if heading Eastward up-Channel as it narrows, or going South, cross-Channel toward France.
Aboard the large container ships, car transporters, bulk carriers and other cargo vessels there will be a small crew working to a tight timetable, propelling a heavy and fairly un-manoeuvrable vessel – at a considerable speed. Container ships may well make 20 knots, although 15 is more likely; but it means that from the low-to-the-horizon cockpit of your yacht your initial detection to uncomfortable proximity time is likely to be less than 15 minutes. And that of course assumes that you spot him immediately.
Large ship crews are also likely to be small and busy, as well as tired as they race from port to port against tight deadlines. On the bridge there may well be a lot of automation and just one human watchkeeper (despite the efforts of the MCA and MAIB to require at least two) – whose eyes will not be looking out through the glass at the horizon for a substantial part of the time. The chances of them seeing you and altering to avoid you are slim at best.
Another variety of large ship is the cross Channel ferry, such as the Brittany Ferries vessels plying out of Millbay. These are large – but also manoeuvre well, and are well-provided with watchkeepers on the bridge; also thses people are likely to be Europeans, with good local knowledge and a familiarity with local small-craft activity. But they are fast ships – Pont Aven can make 27 knots – so they are on you very quickly.
Coasters – bulk carriers and fuel tankers – are frequent visitors to the Cattewater and will be well-piloted; they will also have virtually no options for course changes in the narrow river waters, so watch out!
There are also the Naval vessels of the Grey Funnel Line to be aware of – and don’t forget the submarines. Luckily they have excellent watchkeepers and will try hard to avoid you, but you also need to be aware that if you get too close to them they may have to consider you as a security threat, as well as a hazard to navigation.
Then there are of course the ubiquitous fishermen – in all sizes of boat, around all the places you like to sail! They are very skilled – and very busy; watch out well for them, as when the day comes that YOU get into trouble it’s likely that a fisherman will be the closest help to you!
The bottom line is that they are all much bigger than you, and relatively unlikely to spot you or unable to avoid you; steam will not always be able to give way freely to sail!
So do all you can to make sure that your own visibility is up to scratch; check your lights, be radar-reflective, monitor and use the radio (the MAIB records a collision involving a fishing vessel due in part to the volume being turned down low on it’s wheelhouse radio…) and keep a good pro-active watch.
Now let’s think about yourself and your crew. A tired watchkeeper is ineffective and dangerous; in coastal waters it doesn’t take much to drift off course and fetch up on the rocks, or to find yourself perilously close to a collision. So before you even cast off, you might consider your planned passage and timings and make sure that you arrive aboard in an alert and refreshed condition! Many skippers and crew will have had a hard week at work before heading to the sea for a weekend afloat; the cold breeze and wet salt spray might be more effective at keeping you awake that the comfy seat and heater in your car, but it is surprisingly easy to nod off when you are sufficiently tired.
Avoid alcohol; tempting as it may be, it will do you no favours in staying alert.
Be properly fed and watered; don’t stuff yourself with carbs that will see your body wanting to go into yawny-sleepy mode , but think about something lighter, involving protein, and remember that citrus works well. Tea and coffee will help – and thermos flasks will save you having to go below.
Stay watchful and stay busy; wrapping yourself warmly into one corner of the cockpit then not moving will also encourage sleepiness.
If you – or your crew / passengers – are going below, think carefully about another potential killer – carbon monoxide. Every year it claims the lives of boat usersas they use gas stoves or heaters; make sure your ventilation and alarms are up to scratch. It can also leave you feeling dopey in smaller concentrations.
The small boat user gets to see things that other don’t; whether it’s the beauty of the sunsets, sunrises and the big skies, or the way in which we all live our lives in a way that is for most people un-knowing of the hard work of seafarers as they carry cargoes in and out of our ports. Just make sure that your view doesn’t include the insides of your eyelids – until you are safely at your destination!