As a young third mate straight out of the Maritime Academy, I took a job on the 873-foot S/S Cape Mohican. Nervous about standing my first bridge watch, I asked the captain for a few tips, and he jokingly replied, "Red over red, the captain's dead (vessel not under command); if it's painted grey, stay away (Navy); and never alter course for a boat unless you see the fear of God in their eyes!" On large ships we sometimes joke about scaring small craft, but mostly in the galley; when a boat emerges dead ahead in the fog, the joking stops and the worrying begins.
While safety is the goal of every professional mariner, regardless of the tonnage of his vessel, the average boater enters a traffic situation at a disadvantage. Small fiberglass hulls are almost always poor reflectors for radar—a ship's primary early- warning system—and once your vessel has gotten dangerously close, a ship's inability to alter course on inland or crowded waters combines with its relatively low speed to make increasing the CPA (Closest Point of Approach) difficult.
The cure for this problem is for a boater to make himself visible early and communicate his intentions before the watch officer starts to worry. AIS is an excellent collision-avoidance technology, but you may be surprised to learn that while ships are fine AIS targets, due to their mandated Class A transponders, many are not well-equipped for tracking AIS targets.
My current vessel has AIS radar overlay—which will eventually be the norm—but my two previous ships had only the mandated Minimum Keyboard Displays (MKD) that came with their Furuno AIS-100 transponders.
An MKD's effectiveness diminishes considerably when more than a dozen ships are within AIS (VHF) range, but an officer can still sort ships by name or CPA. And we're starting to see the positive effects of AIS use by vessels other than ships. Last year on a dark night, the second mate of my ship found himself in heavy traffic and on a collision course with an unresponsive offshore-supply boat. But since the supply boat was AIS-equipped, he could hail the boat by name and, when three attempts failed, he was able to use its MMSI number to set off a loud VHF alarm on its bridge. Crisis avoided.
AIS can change your relationship with large ships instantly, regardless of whether you have the funds and power to support a Class A unit (like Dashew). Try one of the new Class B transponders just coming to market, or install a simple receiver. In the latter case, you'll likely be the vessel to initiate a VHF conversation.
Remember to speak slowly, clearly, and simply and that watch officers like me usually rely first on visual contacts, second on radar, and on AIS last. Have a good radar reflector, and keep a vigilant watch; we'll appreciate it.
John Konrad is a graduate of SUNY Maritime College and is a licensed Master Mariner of unlimited tonnage. He also edits the blog and Web resource gCaptain.
This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.