Collision Inside the Channel! and an Overnight at the Anchor in Crystal Bay

The sailboat “Sassy Gaffer” is in her eleventh season. All eleven ones were spent moored in the same slip at the same dock in the same marina, from where she is estimated to have undocked well over one hundred times and sailed some 1,500 nautical miles. Her skipper (once a certified CYA and ASA Cruising Instructor at the Advanced level) is now in his 26th season on the water, having sailed small sailboats in the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Great Lakes (Ontario and Huron) and the Ottawa River. What neither Sassy Gaffer nor her skipper had ever experienced in their pasts was a collision on the water. Well, not anymore, as this is exactly what happened to both of them on Wednesday, August 12, 2020 at 16:05.

The afternoon was sunny, with light winds from the North. The forecast was for clear skies with SW light winds backing to SE light winds overnight. The conditions seemed perfect for tacking upwind to spend the night swinging at the anchor up-river, inside the cove in Pinhey Point. Sassy undocked at 16:03. She proceeded in a course of 300ºT (as per Sassy’s Garmin GPS) at the lowest speed allowed by her Tohatsu 4HP outboard engine (averaging abt. 1.5 Kts.). A few seconds later, she rounded the SW corner that joins docks X and E in the marina of the Nepean Sailing Club and changed course to 020ºT along the sterns of the boats moored inside the slips of the E dock. The safe distance she was keeping from the sterns of those boats was of less than half a boat-length (Sassy LOA is 17 feet). As she proceeded forward, a line of three boats was seen rounding the NE end of dock E and proceeding at low speed in the opposite direction, towards the ramp at the SW corner of the bay. The two boats ahead proceeded to pass Sassy port-to-port, with plenty of room, and smiles and salutes were exchanged as these boats came abeam of Sassy one after the other. Sassy proceeded on its course expecting to meet the third boat (a white and blue motorboat, likely a Regal) before the end of dock E and also pass it port-to-port, in the same manner she had just met the other two. However, the motor boat kept heading straight towards Sassy’s bow. Sassy’s skipper, while trying to edge Sassy further to starboard, stood up in the cockpit with the left arm extended out pointing out Sassy’s port, in an effort to indicate to him that he expected both boats would pass each other port-to-port. However, far from proceeding as signaled, the skipper in the motorboat yelled “I am not going in there” and suddenly changed course to port, thus crossing Sassy’s bow from Sassy’s port to Sassy’s starboard, clearly in an attempt to edge the bow of his motorboat within the narrow space that Sassy was leaving between her starboard side and the sterns of the boats docked in the E dock. There was not enough time for Sassy’s skipper to reach Sassy’s stern and put the outboard in reverse, and all he could do was to yell about the imminence of the collision and see the starboard side of the bow of the motorboat hit Sassy’s bow, and then it’s starboard bow rub along Sassy’s port side forward of the mast, and push Sassy’s bow to starboard against the end of one of the finger docks of dock E. The motorboat then quickly turned around, finally passing Sassy port-to-port. Sassy then headed towards the main service dock of the Club where she docked to let her shaken skipper step ashore to report on the collision.

Sassy showed dark rubbing marks on the port side of her bow and port side forward of her beam (the other boat was eventually identified with its bow showing scratches on the gelcoat on the starboard side). The OPP officer that showed up at the Club accepted the report but indicated that since the collision had not resulted in any injury and/or in damages for more than $5K, no report was needed. Nevertheless, Sassy’s skipper insisted on having the report on file.

The Collision Regulations are part of the Canadian laws. ColRegs Rule 9a on “Narrow Channels” states that: “A vessel proceeding along the course of a narrow channel or fairway shall keep as near to the outer limit of the channel or fairway which lies on her starboard side as is safe and practicable“, and rule 14a referring to a “Head-on Situation” indicates that “When two power-driven vessels are meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses so as to involve risk of collision, each shall alter her course to starboard so that each shall pass on the port side of the other“. In motoring along dock E, Sassy was clearly in compliance of rule 9a, (a path that Sassy had been using to exit that same port for over ten seasons). However, the motorboat skipper clearly did not comply with rule 14a when he suddenly changed course to port in an impossible attempt to edge itself between Sassy’s starboard side and the dock to try to pass starboard-to-starboard.  He also failed to acknowledge Sassy’s skipper visual signal indicating his intention to pass each other port-to-port.

Sassy’s skipper fails to understand the behaviour of the other boater in deciding at the last second to change his course to port. If at the time the motorboat skipper would have been in full control of his decisions, Sassy’s skipper can only surmise that he must have felt that there was not enough room between Sassy’s port side and the opposite outer limit of the channel. However, two other boats, which would have been still in full sight ahead of him, had just passed alongside Sassy without problem or hesitation. Furthermore, even the smallest of Regal motorboats has a much more powerful engine than Sassy’s (likely, 50 times or more than Sassy’s 4HP outboard) and its controls are the fingertips of the skipper (while Sassy’s are aft the stern on the outboard itself); hence, the motorboater could have tried to reverse the engine and stop the progress of his boat before it hit Sassy. Also, even in the very unlike possibility that its flat bottom would have rubbed the mud at the edge of the channel, this would have been potentially much less harmful that hitting Sassy’s bow, where the Belgian Bruce anchor sitting on the bow roller could have caused much further damage than the one that, luckily, actually occurred.

It is the responsibility of every skipper to avoid a collision. Even the skipper of the stand-on-vessel has the responsibility to avoid a collision when the give-way vessel does not comply with the regulations. In this case, no blame was assigned to either skipper. Nevertheless, Sassy’s skipper cannot avoid feeling the burden for no having been able to avoid the collision. However, he also fails to see what he could have done better in order to avoid it.

On the other hand, it would appear that the motoboat skipper involved in this collision may benefit from revisiting the ColRegs, familiarizing himself further with the depths and widths of the sailing channels inside the marina, as well as better understanding the manoeuverability of the different boats, including his own.

It was then too late, and the wind too light, to head for the cove at Pinhey Point and the day was saved by deciding instead for an overnight anchor in nearby Crystal Bay. Shortly after sunrise, the following morning (see the picture above), during an early coffee and bagel breakfast, an osprey flew by skimming and clawing the waters with its sharp talons, while a great white egret crossed the river flying solemnly high above.