Boating 101: Tips for Collision Avoidance

By Pat Mundus.

In June 2019, the 85-foot pilot schooner Elbe No. 5, known to many of us as California’s ex-Wander Bird, collided with the 462-foot container ship Astrosprinter on the Elbe River near Hamburg, Germany. The schooner was 136 years old and had just completed a $1.7 million restoration. She had 43 people on board, all of them rescued by five response boats that were nearby for another accident. The historic schooner sank shortly after being towed to a shallow area.

Her demise is a sobering opportunity to review some fundamentals about avoiding ships in narrow channels and rivers. Because of draft and limited maneuverability, ships in those types of waterways often cannot deviate from their track. They cannot stop easily or even slow down like a smaller vessel can. Because a ship’s navigation bridge is so far away from the bow, the crew often have a significant blind spot ahead of the ship—sometimes more than 1,000 feet. You can see them all right, but they often cannot see you dead ahead.

Nothing in the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) exonerates any vessel from avoiding a collision. Rule 2(b) lays out the basics: “Due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.”