Assumptions and poor communication lead to vessel collision

In its latest Mars Reports, The Nautical Institute discusses a bulk carrier and tug boat collision in broad daylight. The organisation says it is another example of a vessel operator making an assumption about the intentions of another vessel operator leading to a bad outcome and stresses unambiguous communication is essential to ensure safety.

The Nautical Institute gathers reports of maritime accidents and near-misses. It then publishes these so-called Mars Reports (anonymously) to prevent other accidents from happening. A summary of this incident:

In daylight and good weather a bulk carrier was in ballast and up-bound in a river. A down-bound tow vessel’s operator called the pilot of the bulk carrier to arrange a starboard-to-starboard meeting. This was as per local regulations that require the down-bound vessel, with the current astern and with the right of way, to contact the up-bound vessel and propose the manner of passage. The vessels agreed a starboard-to starboard meeting and met without incident, but another down-bound tug was approaching and had not yet made meeting arrangements.

On the bulk carrier, the pilot assumed the second down-bound tug would require the same meeting as did the first, that is starboard-to starboard.

Also read: Assumptions lead to ships colliding

However, this was not the intention of the tug operator and he did not call the bulk carrier to make his intentions clear. For the next 85 seconds, the situation continued to develop in an ambiguous manner until the bulk carrier pilot called the tug to confirm what he thought would be a starboard-to-starboard meeting.

The tug operator was taken by surprise by this suggestion, as he had assumed a port-to-port meeting. In his opinion, the vessels were now too close to execute a starboard-to-starboard meeting safely. He initiated an emergency avoidance manoeuvre to starboard without informing the bulk carrier’s pilot. About thirty seconds later, the two vessels collided.

Also read: Unclear pilotage root cause for ship collision in Scheldt area

Advice from The Nautical Institute

  • To reduce risk in this sort of situation, clear and unambiguous communication is essential.
  • Follow the rules! In this case the operator of the second tug should have called the up-bound bulk carrier and confirmed the manner of passage. Had he done so in a timely manner, the collision would have been avoided.

Also read: ‘Don’t assume other vessels will stay clear of you’

Mars Reports

This accident was covered in the Mars Reports, originally published as Mars 202103, that are part of Report Number 339. A selection of this Report has also been published in SWZ|Maritime’s February 2021 issue. The Nautical Institute compiles these reports to help prevent maritime accidents. That is why they are also published on SWZ|Maritime’s website.

More reports are needed to keep the scheme interesting and informative. All reports are read only by the Mars coordinator and are treated in the strictest confidence. To submit a report, please use the Mars report form.

Author: Mariska Buitendijk

Mariska Buitendijk is one of SWZ|Maritime's journalists as well as the magazine's copy editor.