Mayday Mayday Mayday: Collision at Sea

The more time you spend on the ocean the more incidences regarding safety you will encounter. The good thing about some of these events is that you gain a lot of experience and insight. Here’s a major life threatening event that happened to me this week.

Tuesday April 24th I’m fishing with a friend (yes fishing not sailing, sorry guys!). We’re on a 5.5 m Aluminum fishing boat in the Hauraki Gulf Auckland New Zealand, anchored between Waiheke Island and Rakino Island.

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I see a very nice large sailboat heading our direction and comment to my friend about the nice looking sailboat. A few minutes later we both comment that it is aiming pretty much at us albeit it is still about 500 meters away. We continue to try to catch dinner.

At about 100 meters away I’m thinking that this guy will see us soon and besides the likelihood of hitting us is pretty remote. At 50 meters away I’m standing up using my two fingered dog whistle as loud as I can, and we both begin shouting “ahoy” and a few other things. I’m still subconsciously thinking that they see us but that they are just using best advantage of the wind. At 30 meters away, I’m seriously doubting that they see us and I’m looking for any sign that they are aware of us. Their heading is definitely right amidships of our now very tiny boat. At 20 meters their heading adjusts just enough whereby they will pass behind us – “whew – they saw us” I’m thinking. But also I’m thinking “wow – I’ve never known a sailor to be that obnoxious to come this close. Sailors just don’t do that kind of thing.”

As the boat passes within 5 meters of our stern we are still yelling. The sole person on board then stands up rubs his eyes holds his hands out palms up, shrugs his shoulders all to say “sorry I didn’t see you”. He really didn’t see us! He was napping. OMG I think – “the last minute course change was solely due to a tiny puff of wind that came through, causing his boat to head up a few degrees”.

So now in hindsight, let’s break that event down. He was travelling at about 7 knots (14km/hr = 14000m/hr = 4 m/sec) so that last 100 meters took 25 seconds. Our lack of actions when he was imminently going to hit us from the 100 meter mark could have meant absolute disaster IE potential death in 25 seconds. Certainly a collision would have been cited as being the sailboat’s fault. Any vessel hitting another anchored vessel is clearly in the wrong. But, no matter whose fault it is, dead right or dead wrong is still dead me.

However, the Navigation Rules are clear – if you determine collision is imminent then you must take actions to avoid the collision. Since we took no actions other than to scream bloody murder, then who was in the wrong had the collision happened? Still the sailboat I’d say but the legal outcome would probably be decided by who has the most money to spend on the lawyers.

All that aside then, what actions should we have taken?

  1. We should have been wearing life preservers
  2. We should have had a horn accessible. There was not one on board.
  3. We should have hailed on VHF channel 16.

“Mayday Mayday Mayday
White Sailboat Vessel near Waiheke Island
You are on an imminent collision course
Look up and bear away immediately
Bear away
Bear away
Bear away
Mayday Mayday Mayday
White Sailboat Vessel near Waiheke Island
You are on an imminent collision course
Look up and bear away immediately
Bear away
Bear away
Bear away”

Some might argue that the situation is really a “Pan Pan Pan”. However, if it’s my life on the line and a Mayday will get more attention, I’m going for Mayday.

The hesitation in calling Mayday is a similar situation when we think we’re observing a crime but not sure – should we call the police or not? I’m pretty sure the Police’s answer is if you think you see a crime CALL THE POLICE. Same here, if life is under threat don’t hesitate to hail a Mayday.

4. We should have started the engine

Even though we were anchored and would not be able to get to the anchor rode in the 25 seconds, a punch on the throttle would easily have moved us 10 meters to safety should the last second need have arisen.

 The reflection on the event has made it clear in my mind what to do next time. Hopefully, by reading this you’ll also have gained a clear idea of decisive actions to take WHEN a similar situation arises.

Fortunately, the story ends with a nice snapper for dinner! Very fortunately – but just one last question: who threw in that last minute puff of wind anyway?

My vision for NauticEd is to provide the highest quality sailing and boating education available - and deliver competence wherever sailors live and go.
Grant Headifen
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Last updated on February 2nd, 2023