Collision: Failure to Follow Procedures, Failure to Identify Risk
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released its report into the May 2018 incident where the fishing vessel Polaris transiting with a crew of seven and the tanker Tofteviken with a crew of 25 collided about 30 miles south of Montauk, Long Island, New York.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the collision was the failure to maintain a proper lookout by the mate on the fishing vessel and the failure to identify the risk of collision by the third mate on the tanker.
Prior to the collision, both the Polaris and the Tofteviken were in sight of one another while under way during good visibility and daylight conditions. There was no other traffic of concern in the area, no navigational hazards nearby, and the Polaris was not engaged in fishing.
The Tofteviken had been on a westerly heading toward Ambrose Anchorage, and the Polaris on a northeasterly heading toward New Bedford. According to the third mate on the Tofteviken, the aspect of the Polaris was such that she could see the fishing vessel’s starboard side and bow. Given the crossing situation developing, the Polaris, as the give-way vessel, was required to take “early and substantial action to keep well clear.” However, because the mate on the Polaris did not notice the Tofteviken on his starboard bow, he took no action to keep clear.
On the Tofteviken, the third mate did not identify that there was a risk of collision because, based on her observation that the fishing vessel seemed to have altered course to starboard, she expected that the Polaris would pass astern. Similarly, the AB stated that he too observed the Polaris change course to starboard when it was about two miles away. Although they both believed they saw this course alteration, the evidence shows that the Polaris was on a steady course up until the time of collision. Only when the chief engineer noticed the approaching fishing vessel and alerted the bridge team did the master give the orders to sound the whistle and turn the tanker to starboard.
Based on the navigation rules, “as soon as it becomes apparent…that the vessel required to keep out of the way is not taking appropriate action” the stand-on vessel may take action to avoid collision. However, despite the fishing vessel’s constant bearing and decreasing range, the third mate took no action. At a minimum, the third mate could have attempted to contact the fishing vessel, either by VHF radio to ask their intentions or by sounding a signal to warn the Polaris of their proximity.
The rules state that a sound signal shall be used by vessels in sight of and approaching one another when there is “doubt whether sufficient action is being taken by the other to avoid collision.” The mate on the Polaris told investigators that he was listening to the vessel’s VHF radios and that there was not any noise (such as music playing in the pilothouse) or other distractions that could have prevented him from hearing sound signals or radio calls. Had he heard either the sound signal or VHF radio call, he likely would have taken action to avoid the collision.
Investigators could not confirm if or when the whistle ordered by the master was sounded just before the collision. Nonetheless, the Polaris was still obligated to comply with the rules.
Maintaining a proper lookout, by sight and sound, is a fundamental rule of the COLREGS for vessels on the high seas, regardless of their size or activity. Yet, the Polaris mate on watch was occupied with a cleaning task in the pilothouse. He therefore did not keep a proper lookout or notice any danger or risk of collision until he heard the port paravane making contact with the hull of the Tofteviken.
The captain of the Polaris confirmed that it was routine to clean the pilothouse on the return trip to port to avoid having to clean the vessel once it was alongside and thereby delaying the crew from immediately disembarking the vessel. The mate stated that occasionally he would leave the pilothouse unattended, which was not uncommon during his watch. This practice, accepted by the captain as well as by the company, did not promote effective watchkeeping and distracted the mate from maintaining a proper lookout. Further, although the mate on the Polaris had radar available, he was checking it at infrequent intervals and without the use of long-range scanning, which, collectively, could have alerted him to the developing collision course with the tanker.
The third mate on the Tofteviken did not use all available means to determine the risk of collision. Although she identified the fishing vessel visually and by radar at a distance of about eight miles, she did not adhere to company policy that required her to utilize the ARPA and radar guard rings for acquiring contacts. Instead, she only placed an EBL on the Polaris’ radar target; however, investigators found no evidence that she monitored the progress of the vessel in relation to the EBL.
Furthermore, the third mate did not follow the master’s standing orders and company policy that required her to notify the master, who was on the bridge at the time, of the Tofteviken’s proximity to the Polaris. The master was only alerted to the fishing vessel’s proximity by the chief engineer, who upon arriving on the bridge instantly recognized the dangerous situation that had developed. Once the master realized that the collision was imminent, he took action to avoid the collision, but it was too late.
There were no reports of pollution or injuries, but both vessels sustained hull damage.
The report is available here.