Do You Know The Way?: Five Common Navigation Errors At Sea

One of the most common sources of accidents at sea, from the smallest jet ski injuries to collisions between the largest supertankers, is navigational errors.

Despite all the recent advances in navigational technology making the job easier than ever, at-sea navigation remains a precise – and risky – science for all involved, and can lead to major accidents, damage, injury, and death if not performed with the proper care. Most of the world’s worst accidents at sea, from the iceberg that sank the Titanic to the collision that claimed the lives of many aboard the Andrea Doria, even the tale of the doomed Edmund Fitzgerald, navigation errors claim many lives and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage.

The reasons behind, and causes of, navigation errors can be many, but by better understanding the more common causes and trying to educate ship crews on what they can do to prevent them, hopefully the number of accidents at sea can begin to decline. Here’s a few of the most common navigation errors, what causes them to happen, and how they can be prevented:

Over reliance on radar
Particularly in America’s waterways, many collisions between boats are caused between ships of drastically different sizes, such as between a cargo ship and a smaller fishing vessel or pleasure boat. In most of these collisions, the cause was due to an over-reliance on radar by the larger of the vessels. In collisions between vessels of two different sizes, the larger vessel was typically found to be navigating solely by radar and not by sight, leading to the smaller vessel not being picked up by radar due to its size, and if nobody is keeping proper lookout it can lead to accidents.

Make sure that all navigators aboard your boat employ the “eyeball method of navigation” and keep proper lookout through the bridge window itself. This can help spot things that the radar might miss, and give your crew a much better overall idea of the obstacles in front of you on your journey. (Not to mention how much faster the brain can process information than a radar screen.)

Not visually verifying radar targets
In a similar vein, too many times the radar is trusted with all aspects of navigation, and navigators are too comfortable with taking it at face value. Especially in areas of dense traffic or lowered visibility, targets sighted on radar can often be misinterpreted as ‘false echos’ (or assumed to be smaller vehicles that will move out of the way), leading to collisions with more stationary objects such as rocky embankments or a boat that has had to stop and drift for some reason.

Radar targets must always be verified visually. No matter how faint of a signal it gives off or what it’s interpreted to be, anything picked up on radar needs to be confirmed by the officer of the watch to determine how to best approach the situation.

Misunderstanding right of way
Both in America and in international waters, the regulations around right-of-way can change depending on the situation, but largely speaking, regulations require that action must be taken to prevent collisions no matter who has the right of way.

Stationary fishing vessels and smaller crafts (anything less than 20m in length and/or all sailing vessels) are required to not impede your passage in major traffic lanes, but whether or not the vessel is close to your size, corrective action must be taken to prevent collisions in major traffic areas. Even if you believe you have the right of way, don’t be too stubborn to get out of the way if it means preventing an accident.

Incorrect position reporting
Similar to air traffic control, many national/international ship traffic regulations require frequent check-ins to report current location, angle of travel, and so on. Incorrectly reporting these positions, or not reporting at all, can lead to massive traffic issues down the line and is a frequent contributor to major collisions between vessels that were unaware of each other’s presence.

Make sure all reporting guidelines are strictly adhered to, and review them as often as needed to make sure all VHF hails are handled appropriately to prevent as many accidents as possible.

Errors in rudder angle
Simple as it may sound, some vessel collisions can be attributed simply to incorrect rudder angle adjustments. Miscommunication between the captain, helmsman, and engine room can lead to the wrong rudder angle being reported, or the rudder angle not being reported at all, and this can lead to improper angling of the ship and collisions with other vessels or obstacles nearby.

Keep a close eye on the rudder angle indicator and strictly follow all chain-of-command/on-ship protocols to prevent these errors in reporting and angling from occuring, or at the very least ensuring they’re adjusted before it’s too late.

If you have been injured due to a collision between two vessels, contact the maritime lawyers of O’Bryan Law today and fight for the justice you deserve.