The excellent MAIB (Marine Accident Investigation Branch) report into the sinking of the yacht Ouzo raises many issues for the average yachtsman that are both challenging and disturbing.
A crew is lost, an experienced ships' officer is in the dock and facts are learnt and reports are written.
So what lessons can we, the leisure sailors, usefully draw from this tragedy? Is the current legislation working for us? Do we need to modify our behaviour or buy more gadgets? Is it time to take a new look at what it takes to get us seen? Here are a few suggestions.

"Blue Sky Thinking"

Expecting to be seen seems on the face of it, perfectly reasonable. After all the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collision at Sea put the onus on all mariners to keep a proper lookout don't they?

Stand on the bridge of any large, well run, vessel and you soon realise what a tall order that is. Bridges can be vast. Manning is often minimal. Light pollution sources are everywhere and distractions are plentiful. The result is that a small bridge management team, often consisting of one officer and one or two ratings, are trying to keep a lookout by eye and by electronics, monitoring vhf radio and carrying out other maintenance & safety controls as laid down in their operations manuals.

Unless your yacht is well lit or presents a strong radar return, in both S and X bands, you are straying into an area of danger by getting close to shipping in poor visibility, or at night.

Be seen! Be Safe!

There's no escape from the fact that yachts are hard to see in daylight let alone at night. Yachts are in the main coloured in the white, grey, blue end of the spectrum with soft edged shapes. Much of the seascape is painted from the same pallet.

So what could we do differently?

Many yachtsmen take care to buy hi-viz clothing to wear at sea and then sail off in boats that are just about as stealthy as you can get. I remember looking into a grey and blustery Solent, crowded with yachts, looking for a friends RIB. Of the hundreds of vessels in my line of site my eyes were constantly drawn to just two of them and they were in the far distance.

Two Global Challenge boats were doing storm sail drill. The storm sails were florescent orange. I decided there and then that my next sail would have a Day-Glo orange top panel. It's common enough to fit retro reflective tape to oilskins, life jackets or liferafts. Our boats on the other hand, are largely matt finish and offer little light return unless we're firmly in the spotlights glare. Would it be such a dreadful thing to add some small retro reflective panels to dodgers, sprayhood or guardrail?

Human eyes and photochromic (aka. Reactolite) lenses....

The information contained in the report about photochromic lenses reducing sight at night by up to 20%, is of use to anyone who is out after dark and perhaps should be reported to a larger audience than just mariners. People's eyes can perform very differently from day to day. Some people will see quite well in a low light situation and some won't. Age, health and tiredness can have a detrimental effect on how our eyes cope with seeing in low light.

Now I know very little about the eye test for MCA commercial mariners but my RYA Yachtmaster medical eye test was something less than rigorous. The doctor referred to it as "6 at 6". That is if you can read line 6 on the chart at 1.80m (6ft) you've passed. All of this is carried out in a well lit room. In my opinion if you can't pass "6 at 6" then you were lucky to find the surgery for the test.

Is it time to look at the standards of testing to see whether it's really rigorous enough to be fit for purpose?

Navigation lighting.

I've been sailing for about 40 years and when I step onto a yacht few things are the same as when I started out. Sails are made of film and are tamed by furlers, lazy jacks and stack packs. Hot water and cold beer is the norm, switch panels look like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, engines are powerful and reliable and banks of well managed batteries hide in lockers, ready and willing to power the nav computer and the entertainment centre or the aircon.

Nav lights are little changed. Visible ranges are still uncomfortably short in good conditions. If the boat heels or weather or waves come into the equation the average yacht is still little better lit than in the days of paraffin lamps. Can it really still be beyond the wit of designers, the same designers that give us the technical and fashionable advances that drain our wallets and "enhance" our sailing, to increase the output of lights and design a lense that is reasonably efficient even when the vessel heels?

Some ocean crossing sailors have fitted all around white strobe lights as "steamer scarers". These don't comply with any international regulation, but if the choice is "be seen or be squashed", maybe there's a case for a traditional naval blind eye to the regulations being applied.

Radar Reflectors & Radar Target Enhancers (RTE)

As a result of this report MAIB have instigated a radar reflector testing programme with the boffins at QinetiQ. They've looked at many of the more common types of reflector, at least one highly uncommon one and the Sea-me (RTE). Not to over simplify the findings but. Most of the common or garden models work to a greater or lesser extent provided you keep them in a fixed position. Now that can be a bit tricky on a dirty night in the channel with a SW F6 and 2m swells running.

A worthwhile reflector needs to be able to create as large a radar cross section (RCS) as possible. None of the tested passive reflectors meet ISO 8729. The Sea-me (RTE) does meet the standard, but only operates on X-Band radar. Talk to ships officers and it quickly becomes obvious that they are split pretty evenly on which radar they prefer. Quite a few go to S-Band for short range, detailed work. All commercial ships over 300 tonnes carry X-Band radar. Ships over 3000 tonnes also carry S-Band sets. Even without taking into account the anomalies such as clutter and interference that can prevent even well equipped small boats showing up strongly on ships radar, it appears from this test report, that most passive radar reflectors are a long way from being the dead cert., stand out, neon light in the desert, gadget we'd all hoped for. It's more now you see me now you don't.

Then again how many yachtsmen have given any real thought to radar reflector choice or tried to establish whether they show up on radar or not? Weight, windage, power usage and cost are always going to be influences when selecting the ideal reflector, but that could lead to a poor choice overall. A.I.S. is a long way from being the answer. Radar sets are relatively cheap these days. So perhaps being proactive and keeping an electronic lookout for the big metal, reflective, ship from the little plastic, non reflective, boat rather than vice versa, is the answer.

International Regulations for the Prevention of Collision at Sea

I'm not a great fan of the COLREGs in yacht vs. ships situations. Too often they put both skippers into a position of uncertainty. The COLREGs can be bad enough in situations where other yachts are involved, but when it comes to getting up close and personal with shipping, often, they work against the yachtsman's best interests.

The RYA website offers this helpful explanation. "Before you can apply the COLREGs you need to establish whether or not a potential collision situation exists. Then you need to establish what action is expected of the vessels involved, when the action should be taken and whether the action of the give-way vessel alone will be sufficient to prevent the collision. A key element in this process is deciding whether the other vessel has seen you. The COLREGs do not give one vessel "right of way" over another and are clear that the stand on vessel must also take action if the action of the give way vessel alone is not sufficient to prevent a collision (or if the give way vessel takes no action). All the rules, relevant to a situation must be considered before decisions are made, as must the situation and the handling characteristics of the boats involved."

Regulations surely should be clear and unambiguous. If a set of regulations requires too much interpretation, assumes a level of knowledge outside the experience of many of its users and can lead to the very situation it sets out to prevent, maybe it needs a reality check.

A simpler set of rules might be to state that yachts and ships don't mix. If they do mix then yachts always give way. Not only would this rule clarify a tricky set of circumstances, but it would be in line with many by-laws currently in force in ports around the world. It would also enshrine the custom and practice of many experience yachtsmen.

As I'm writing this I read in Yachting Monthly that there is in fact an Italian suggestion before the IMO Maritime Safety Committee , supported by the European Commission. It's reported that the RYA, through cruising manager Stuart Carruthers, is fighting the proposal on the grounds that "many countries thought the proposal was Barking Mad". Apparently he feels that it would be impossible to implement "because it is difficult to tell which vessels were commercial and which were not". He also describes the EC's interest in what was a flag-state matter as "sinister".

Now I rarely have trouble recognizing commercial vessels and knowing IMO we'll get chapter and verse on what is commercial, in areas where similar rules are implemented by harbour authorities. Having spotted them I know better than to push the "stand on vessel" concept very far too. In fact I don't think I've ever had an incident with a ship that caused me any concern, if I was on the give way vessel. I've usually not got much time for the EC as an organization, this time though they're certainly in tune with my idea of Blue Sky Thinking.

There are many good reasons for the discerning yachtsman to avoid ships at all costs.

Ships dance to different drummer. They're generally not very agile, though there are exceptions. Emergency stops often take 15 minutes and, embarrassingly, cause the head of the ship to turn uncontrollably through maybe 180 degrees. Ships tend to move fast compared to yachts. They can become quite unmanageable at low speeds and, as a consequence they plan manoeuvres well ahead. If they're surrounded by land, as in the Solent, or other ships as in the shipping lanes they are understandably reluctant to make large adjustments to speed or course.

When a ship moves in a mysterious way that defies our version of logic, its master may be positioning his vessel very precisely, as a reaction to some event that the yachtsman can't be aware of. Integration into a Traffic Separation Scheme, conforming to a VTS instruction or reacting to a potential right of way situation that for us is over a yacht deck horizon and far far away.

Shipping is enjoying an unprecedented boom at present. There is a shortage of ships and crews and that fact is putting all sorts of commercial pressures on, masters, crews and ship owners. Leisure boating in the UK and much of the world is also growing at a rate that is testing training, mooring and maintenance resources, while crowding the waters off many of the busiest ports.

For me the real lesson of the Ouzo report is that a reasonably well equipped boat with experienced crew, apparently doing all of the right things can still be drawn into a situation that proves disastrous. It could happen to anyone who sails offshore. For me the only question is what are we prepared to do to improve our survival odds? The report into the loss of the Ouzo, and the report on radar reflectors, is available as a series of PDF files HERE.