I can share my recent experience with this problem. I crossed the English Channel
six times this year, twice at night.
Channel is the busiest shipping
lane in the world, and crossing it in a sailboat can make you feel like a squirrel running across a busy highway. Avoiding ships is the main problem.
Some things I learned this year, for whatever they may be worth to anyone:
1. Make sure you always carry your hand-bearing compass
whenever you are going to be near any shipping lanes. Without a hand-bearing compass
(or well functioning radar
with EBL) you cannot tell whether or not you are on a dangerous converging course until you are quite close, which tremendously narrows your options.
2. Some ships are very aware of who is around them and pay attention to being the give-way vessel, despite the "rule of tonnage". Other ships don't appear to have anyone in the wheelhouse at all and just barrel along. In the middle are ships who watch you to see if you are going to alter course before they start making their own course alterations. We had a nasty situation at night once where we had to maneuver to avoid one ship and then found ourselves right on a collision
course with another one, practically unlit and close by. We waited a minute to see if it would alter course (we were under sail and not in the Traffic Separation Scheme area so we were the stand-on vessel according to COLREGS), understood they would happily run us down, and with very little time to spare crash-tacked onto a reciprocal course to let them pass by. This was at night. Scary!
3. As implied by the above -- you can be in a close quarters situation with more than one ship at a time, so don't lose track of other ships around by being distracted by the closest and most dangerous one. You could end up out of the frying pan and into the fire!
doesn't work for s*it when you are close hauled and heeling over.
5. Radar with MARPA is extremely useful, theoretically, if it is working right. But ours never seems to be 100% effective. The calculations which MARPA does are thrown off by any errors in heading data, and recreational boat nav systems don't usually have heading data worth a c*ap.
6. "Stay out of the way" is of course the first line of defense and the best way to avoid a ship. In order to do so, however, you need to identify a dangerous converging course early enough to be able to initiate your own course correction before the ship starts to change his own course (assuming he is one of those aware ships). So you've really got to be keeping a sharp watch with a hand bearing compass in order to identify a situation from at least a couple miles off and to be able to calculate in time the right course alteration. If you are the stand-on vessel but you want to stay out of the way yourself -- entirely appropriate when you are a small recreational vessel encountering a big commercial vessel -- you need to make your course alteration early enough to not confuse the guy on the big commercial vessel. Like the guy above said -- predictability is important.
7. Staying out of the way becomes quite a bit harder when you are close-hauled and slogging it out upwind. On that point of sail we tended to wait longer in the hope that ships would alter course, and stopped being quite so shy about it. Many, but by no means all ships, did alter course to let us pass by when we really, really didn't want to alter course and lose ground to windward.
8. It seems to be actually easier at night than in the day time. Ships' nav lights make it easy to see the aspect even from far off. It was not particularly scary crossing shipping lanes at night, contrary to what we expected.
9. We were never able to communicate with anyone over VHF and never heard any communications
over VHF in the shipping lanes about passing or course alterations. By the time we could see a name in order to be able to hail, the hard part was always over already. This is of course one of the great things about AIS
, which we do not yet have.