Silent Danger

An article by Captain Andrew Hayward

Boats on water at Boat Parade Bow of Grand Princess during air and sea show

Have you heard about the new changes at Ft. Lauderdale International Airport? It's the latest effort to allow motorists more freedoms. On weekdays, you'll be able to drive your car across the active runways in any direction and at any speed you need to shorten your commute! Advocates of driver's rights are applauding the move and expect that those big old jets will just have to get out of the way. They are also hoping to convince our lawmakers to remove those needless warning signals and crossing gates at all railroad crossings. Ridiculous you say? Of course, but believe it or not, we have a similar situation just a few miles away from the airport.

I'm referring to Port Everglades. Here is a place where we, along with visitors from all over the world, share the waterway with some of the largest commercial vessels in the world. Many in the boating community are just not familiar with the maneuvering constraints that are inherent to these large ships, tugs and barges. Here are just a few facts that you might think about before going out on the water this weekend.

Many people in the boating community point their finger at the inexperienced boaters on the water. Those of us who spend a great deal of time out there know that they are a serious problem. However, there is a general misunderstanding among even some of the most seasoned sailors. To sum it up, ships do not handle anything like a boat. Navigating a 65-foot boat and handling a large commercial ship is like comparing apples to oranges. There are many reasons for this but the most obvious one is the difference between the horsepower to displacement ratios. This ratio is miniscule on a commercial ship. Add that to the fact that they are not designed for maneuverability in confined waters where they are often exposed to the effects of current, wind and limited clearance beneath their keel.

So what does this mean to the [harbor] pilot whose job it is to bring these vessels safely in and out of the port? He must always be thinking and planning the transit and maneuver well ahead of the ship's position. Upon approaching the channel, for example, the ship reaches a point where it can no longer turn away to abort its approach. This point is determined by many technical factors involved in handling large seagoing vessels. Many who are unfamiliar with these constraints would be amazed to learn that the point of no return is a great distance from the channel entrance and the ship is "committed" to proceed at specific courses and speed to transit safely. Any deviation, including a reduction of speed at the wrong moment, may result in serious consequences. As a matter of fact, the ship's position, course and speed at any given moment determine a "committed zone" or area from which it will not be able to deviate in any significant way. It would surprise most people to know how far beyond the ship's present position that area extends. The situation is similar to the large jet aircraft when landing or taking off at the airport, except that those jets have much greater horsepower to displacement ratios (meaning they are much more maneuverable, relatively speaking).

When boats are approaching a ship's "committed zone" the pilot is distracted from the precise requirements of handling his ship and now becomes concerned with the safety of those in the smaller boats. The factors that will determine the outcome of a close quarters situation between a large ship and a boat are numerous. Pilots have often uttered silent prayers hoping for divine intervention, knowing the limitations of their vessels and hoping that the boat operator will realize what is happening before it is too late. The pilot knows how it feels to be a train engineer approaching a crossing with a car stalled in its path. He is familiar with the engineer's feeling of helplessness. The driving public knows the inevitable outcome of these encounters. It is not common knowledge that ships, tugs and barges can be just as dangerous for boaters.

Unlike the train barreling down the tracks or the 747 screaming down the runway, the ships come silently. It's quite easy to get much too close and not be aware of its presence let alone determine its movement. Too often, a boater's first indication of their proximity is the ship's whistle sounding a danger signal of five short blasts. Amazingly, since there are often many other boats in the area, the object of the pilot's discontent assumes that the signal was sounded for someone else's benefit and does nothing to clear safely away! You can bet that on busy, fair weather weekends, the pilots are becoming quite religious.

The Port Everglades Pilots, who handle almost all of the commercial vessel traffic, are licensed by the State of Florida for the primary reason of providing for the safety of the public, the environment and property. They represent all the citizens of our State who insist that safety be a concern second to none. The pilots bring extensive experience to the bridge of every vessel that they board, keeping foremost in their minds that they represent the safety concerns of the people of Florida. They also co-operate with various government agencies like the United States Coast Guard, whose job it is to enforce safety standards on the vessels that share our precious waterways. In keeping with their commitment for safety on the water, the Pilots make the following recommendations to boat operators:

We have seen several tragic boating accidents recently. While none have occurred in Port Everglades, we must be aware of the dangers. It is hoped that boaters, ships, tugs and barges will continue to share the congested waterway in safety. Please go out there and have fun but be aware that those commercial vessels need more room than you may be accustomed to giving them. We have seen enough needless tragedy on our waters.

Note: Those wishing to learn more about this subject are encouraged read the book "How To Avoid Huge Ships" by Captain John W. Trimmer.