A close call in traffic sea story

Tug and barge, towing in the Far East. I was on watch, early morning hours, traffic was moderate, visibility 10 -12 miles.

No traffic of concern, when towing almost all the fast ships just go around when I see a light about dead ahead, also see it on radar (no ARPA), on the heading marker.

I take a look with the binoculars, showing a stbd running light, masthead and range are open, looking at the stbd side, looks like a ship steering maybe 30 -35 degrees to the left of a reciprocal course. Looks like ti’s going to pass well clear starboard to starboard,

A few minutes go by, I notice the ship is still very close the heading marker, wtf? I take another look. Same aspect, forward masthead light color a little too white, otherwise nothing odd, no other lights. But it’s getting close, going fast.

The ship keeps closing, seeing the stbd bow but still on the heading marker doesn’t make sense. But running out of time, have to make a move, don’t want to turn to starboard because it looks like I’d be turning right in front of the ship. Can’t go to port, bad move, can’t stay, going to get run down.

So I haul hard to port, ship runs by astern, right down my old track, would have hit for sure.

As it goes by I look at it’s lights, red side light not showing, forward masthead not showing, Only lights are green side light, aft masthead light and one working light on deck, maybe the light for the pilot ladder left on which I took to be fwd masthead.

In the Red Sea and Persian Gulf in the sixties the first indication that you were getting too close to a large sailing vessel was a burning rag tossed in the air. I think the only other light was the oil lamp in the binnacle. Topsail schooners carrying timber were also frequently encountered around Indonesia without navigation lights.

Not saying it was hard to detect, in my case this is more or less what I was seeing just rotated clockwise a bit.

This was dead ahead


The right move was to alter course to starboard and pass port to port because he was coming down right between my hawsepipes. They never moved an inch.

The white light on the lower right side was a deck working light of some kind. Fwd masthead and port running light were out.

Interesting that you believed the lights instead of the physics – or is it geometry.

Interesting and relatable story. Lights not making sense is personally a well known thing. Another classical example would be cars rounding a bend, setting up a Fl 3s which you just can’t find in the chart. I suppose in this case I would have expected the ship to be stopped in the fairway, which raises a whole bunch of questions of its own.

When you have multiple sources of information that don’t agree, it’s very easy to stick with the one that makes the most intuitive sense. The aspect of the running lights is something you spend a lot of time relating to, so when other things stop making sense it’s an easy fallback.

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I completely agree. But constant bearing with decreasing range is a bedrock truth, whereas lights are subject to all the difficulties of lights.

Not saying I’d have done better. I have my own small boat near miss story with a fisherman that I don’t tell only because I forget the details – ah, I remember. He had working lights all over the foredeck, and I thought they were on the afterdeck and he was safely going away from me. He wasn’t. But since I was sure, I wasn’t rigorous about checking him until he was suddenly a whole lot bigger and closer and faster than he should have been. He also wasn’t fishing and should have altered for me, but that’s a different story.

My recollection was that I was sure I was seeing his stbd side, nothing ambiguous about the lights. I also realized steady bearing decreasing range. I figured whatever was keeping his bearing from changing (current? own ship yawing? something else?) the bearing would start changing. When it didn’t I figured I had to make a move. Couldn’t bring myself to haul the tug and barge to a position that looked like right in front of the oncoming ship.

EDIT: I can’t say for sure but I think that had the ship been first detected by radar and SBDR been determined then the lights seen later, it would be the lights that wouldn’t have “made sense”. The slightly wrong color of the forward masthead would have been more salient. Seeing the lights first it’s the SBDR that doesn’t fit the picture, which throws it into doubt.

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The lights of fishing vessels is often confusing, sort of like the vase/face illusion but the purpose of deck lights is not to convey heading information.

In this case the running lights, the purpose is to convey information, were not confusing, they clearly conveyed the wrong information.

Never seen anything like it before or since, not to say I’ve not seen lights that are confusing.

The situation I recall as most similar is something I’ve seen a time or two is passing a tug and tow with two barges astern, the lights on the second barge with the lights out. In that case of course radar and visual will tell the story.

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Yeah, I made a clearly unwarranted assumption and dismissed him on the basis of those deck lights. We were running close-hauled, with enough motion on the boat that binoculars were a nuisance. Didn’t have radar at that time.

The thing is that is a significant difference between how we perceive events in real time, in real life vs what they look like after when laid out in text.

In real time people simplify, they disregard contrary information (they have to, otherwise things would never “make sense”), and they pick a strategy that seems most plausible at the time and so forth.

By contrast reading a text after is like reading a multiple choice exam, where we know the answer. The wrong answer, the one picked at the time is obviously incorrect.

This is why in discussing incidents here there is always so much bafflement that such a thing could happen.

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Which is exactly why the aircraft peeps have a checklist for everything.