At about 2030 on the evening of 22 January 2018, the 294 m container ship Beijing Bridge was about 29 NM off the southern coast of New South Wales bound for Melbourne with arrival expected late the next evening. The ship’s master had retired to his cabin for the night and the third officer was the officer of the watch (OOW) and sole lookout on the navigational bridge (bridge). The ship was on autopilot maintaining a heading of about 206º with a speed of about 17 knots. The night was clear with good visibility and the seas calm, with a south-westerly wind at about 5-10 knots and little swell.
Meanwhile, Saxon Onward, a 32 m long trawler, was northbound for the port of Eden to discharge its catch having completed a few days fishing off the coast of Tasmania. The trawler was on autopilot maintaining a heading of about 038º with a speed of about 8.5 knots. 3 At about 2200, the skipper handed over the watch to the 2200-2400 watchkeeper. The fishing vessel Rubicon, also bound for Eden, was on a parallel course about 3 NM away on the starboard bow, slowly being overtaken by Saxon Onward.
Sometime between 2320 and 2330, Saxon Onward’s watchkeeper sighted the masthead lights and green sidelight of an approaching ship (Beijing Bridge) on the starboard bow. The ship was also detected on radar but was not acquired for tracking at that time.
Shortly after, at about 2335, with the ship on a heading of 209º, Beijing Bridge’s OOW sighted two approaching vessels (Saxon Onward and Rubicon) on the starboard bow. The two vessels were also detected and subsequently acquired on the ship’s radar by the OOW. By about 2352, the two fishing vessels were about 10 NM from Beijing Bridge. The OOW continued to monitor the two vessels, both visually and by radar, while making small adjustments to the heading to maintain the ship on the planned track.
At about 2356, with Beijing Bridge now on a heading of 216º, the OOW commenced a course alteration to starboard about 3.2 NM in advance of a planned course alteration position (waypoint). Over the next 10 minutes, the OOW made a succession of small heading alterations that took the ship further to starboard, away from the planned track.
Meanwhile, at about midnight, Saxon Onward’s 2400-0200 watchkeeper made his way to the vessel’s wheelhouse to take over the watch. The previous watchkeeper stayed on for a few minutes to handover before retiring to his cabin. After taking over the watch, the 2400-0200 watchkeeper immediately acquired Beijing Bridge on the radar and noted that the approaching ship on the starboard bow was about 6.5 NM away on a south-westerly course with a speed of about 17.5 knots. He also noted that Rubicon was now about 1.5 to 2 NM away on the starboard beam.
At about 0005 on 23 January, with Beijing Bridge about 4 NM 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 the new course with a heading of 241º and was about 0.75 NM to starboard of the ship’s planned track with Saxon Onward fine on the ship’s port bow. About a minute later, the OOW4 altered the ship’s heading to port with the intention of passing between the two trawlers and increasing the distance at which Saxon Onward’s closest point of approach (CPA)5 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 1 NM 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 realised 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 m 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.
These findings should not be read as apportioning blame or liability to any particular organisation or individual.
- Beijing Bridge’s planned alteration of course, to starboard, executed in advance of the passage plan waypoint, placed the ship in a developing close quarters situation involving risk of collision with Saxon Onward.
- Beijing Bridge’s subsequent alteration of course was neither substantial nor made in good time and was inconsistent with the master’s standing orders, company procedures and the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972, as amended, (COLREGs). The action failed to remove the ship from the existing close quarters situation and increased the risk of a collision.
- Saxon Onward’s alteration of course to starboard was made in response to the head-on situation that the watchkeeper assessed the vessel to be in. The alteration, while substantial, was not made in sufficient time to have a positive effect on the situation and resulted in the collision.
- Beijing Bridge’s officer of the watch was the sole lookout on the bridge during the 2000-2400 watch on the night of the collision and for several weeks preceding the collision. The absence of the bridge lookout during hours of darkness increased risk and was in contravention of company procedures and international regulations.
The ATSB 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 in accordance with the COLREGs could have prevented most of these collisions.
Planned course alterations at waypoints should be risk assessed taking into account the traffic situation and movement of vessels in the vicinity. Course alterations at waypoints should be conducted so as to minimise the risk of the alteration generating close quarters situations or risk of collision. While an alteration of course, for whatever purpose, may be logical to an officer on their own ship, the action may be confusing and open to interpretation by observing vessels.
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