Many winters ago, when I was still all curious about the many flavors of life, I decided to try life as a travelling mechanic, and set out for the heart of Europe in my little floating workshop. Thus we found ourselves going downstream on the Rhein - Herne Kanal, in search of the glory and riches of the Ruhrgebiet (ahem), when we happened upon an unladen, Dutch flagged 110x9.50 sawing wood in the basin at Bergeborbeck. I waited for him to get some stern way on, and snuck under his bow. The guy on the bow shot us a real dirty look, but the inland guys don’t like strangers in general, so I thought nothing of it and continued on my merry way.
A little while later we had just found our intended overnight berth unavailable, and were proceeding slowly along the bank, looking for an opportunity to tie off and go to sleep. My deck hand was on the bow with a handheld searchlight, and I had the big one on the roof going, inspecting the dockland for something abandoned looking where we’d get away with squatting until first light. We came to a slack right hand bend with a sign advising all traffic to keep a minimum distance to the bank of at least 60 feet due to underwater obstructions, when I became aware of passing arrangements being made on channel 10.
Communications on the Rhine and in the surrounding area aren’t all that easy to follow. The language is a bastard mix of Dutch and German that I like to call Rhine Drawl, which is so heavily accented and saturated in jargon that I can barely make out half of what’s being said with perfect audio quality, despite being somewhat fluent in both those languages. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that everyone uses ATIS interfaced with the AIS / ECDIS, so that the talker lights up on screen. Nobody ever identifies themselves, and they love using nicknames when hailing, to the point that it is utterly impossible to understand who is talking to whom. Add to this their disdain for outsiders, which prompts them to pile on the jargon when a foreign accent gets on the net, and it’s much too easy to tune out the incessant drone of the VHF.
Thus I was only vaguely aware that someone somewhere were lining up a tight squeeze, my attention mostly elsewhere, when I saw an oncoming double wide pusher convoy. Not to worry, there was space for both of us, so I set a radar ring to 0.1 cable and took aim along the bank. Shortly thereafter, I experienced a progressive, uncommanded yaw to port. Thinking I might have lost rudder authority, I glanced at the indicator, but the rudder was exactly where it should have been. That’s when my deck hand started screaming and gesticulating wildly astern. I glanced back and saw an enormous, all ending wall of steel bearing down on our port quarter. Now what?
Think about it for a second: A much bigger vessel just snuck up on you, interaction has started carrying your stern over, and you’re headed right under his bow with ten seconds to go before it’s all said and done. What do? I put the pitch full astern and slammed the throttle straight to WEP once the engine started loading down past neutral. Two tons of bollard pull grabbed hold of merely 25 tons of boat, she dug her blessed little nose in and and yanked right out of there at a rate of almost 0.1 G. He passed so close by my bow that I was sure we touched until later when I inspected the paintwork, and before he was fully clear he remarked dryly on the VHF: “That asshole is a danger to navigation.”
To say that I was livid would have been a gross understatement. The motherfucker damn near rolled me under his bow, then shrugged it off! Happily, I never acted on any of the destructive ideas I had that night, but gave the episode some time to stew, and finally started looking at what I could learn from it. In the end, the errors he made are kinda uninteresting in all their banality: Initiating a pass while meeting a convoy at a choke point was stupidly dangerous, and doing so without making me aware of the situation was a monumental dick move bordering on attempted murder. In the end, here are the lessons I took away from this, some of them already known but somehow forgotten in the heat of the moment:
- Never place yourself ahead of fast moving traffic if given the choice to wait for him to get underway. Doing so was a gross breach of good form and a dick move of my own, which probably pissed him off to the point of doing stupidly dangerous shit.
- Always watch your 6 o’clock. Observing a radar with a 20 degree shadow astern does not constitute keeping watch.
- Speaking of which: In an environment where everyone assumes you’ve got AIS, get AIS.
- Attention channeling is always waiting in the wings. The moment you think you’ve got it covered is the moment it turns around and bites you.
- Never give up on communication, even though the other party can’t be expected to cooperate. This applies to more than just traffic avoidance.
- Finally and most saliently: Don’t fuck with Dutch barge drivers. They will fuck you up with all the subtlety and grace of a Russain navy captain, and move on like nothing ever happened.