Keeping a lookout means actively looking

Lookout! Issue 26, September 2012

A fast ferry with 56 passengers on board was involved in a collision with a recreational launch, cutting the launch in two.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
An active search for dangers involves getting up out of your chair, especially if areas are obscured by the design of the helm.

The 33 metre fast ferry catamaran was on a scheduled night voyage, in light rain, moderate winds and half-metre seas. The skipper had been on duty for close to five hours, and had kept the radar on a three-quarters nautical mile range setting throughout his watch.

The skipper was joined on the bridge by another crew member. Both sat in helm chairs, and were not in the habit of regularly getting up from their positions to improve lookout over those areas that were obscured by the design of the vessel’s bridge.

Meanwhile, the 7.5 metre plywood launch was on the return journey from an afternoon’s fishing. Both crew on board had been drinking beer, and both claimed there was reasonable visibility, despite the conditions. The launch was not displaying the correct navigational lights, and the lenses were old and had turned opaque.

Damaged launch
The front section of the 7.5 metre launch remained afloat but the rear section sank when a fast ferry catamaran cut it in two.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

It is estimated from the tracks of both vessels that in good visibility they would have been able to see each other for about five minutes before the collision.

As it was, the skipper of the ferry received only a few seconds warning after a crew member spotted a dim green light close to the port bow. The skipper immediately placed the engines in neutral and turned hard to starboard, but the vessel had no time to respond and both vessels collided. The impact from the port bow of the ferry cut the launch in two just aft of the main cabin.

The rear section of the launch sank immediately and its crew managed to clamber onto the front section, which remained afloat. The ferry turned around and rescued the launch’s two crew using the man-overboard cage. The skipper immediately returned the vessel to port, where it was established that both crew of the launch had breath-alcohol readings over the legal limit for driving a car.

The ferry suffered only minor paint damage.


  • As a crossing situation existed, the launch, with the ferry on its starboard side, was the give-way vessel and was required to keep out of the way of the ferry. The launch had an obligation to take early and substantial action to keep well clear.
  • Despite regularly monitoring the vessel’s radar screen, the skipper of the ferry did not detect the launch. A wooden vessel can be a poor target to acquire, and clutter from the choppy sea may also have prevented the launch from being sighted. It is standard practice to regularly adjust radar settings especially in changing conditions to ensure that no weak vessel target is being hidden.
  • Skippers and lookouts should actively search for dangers. Even in these conditions, both skippers should have had ample time to avoid the collision.
  • Where vessels are fitted with helm seats, skippers and watchkeepers should frequently get up out of their seats, so as to alter the watchkeeping viewpoint to have a clear view of areas that might otherwise be obscured.
  • Having correct and properly functioning navigational lights is essential for all vessels navigating at night or in restricted visibility.
    • The launch’s lights were arranged in a single tricolour lantern on top of the house, which is in breach of the maritime rules.
    • In addition, both side lenses were found to be opaque, probably due to many years of exposure to ultra-violet light. This would have significantly reduced their brightness, making it difficult for the bridge crew on the ferry to see the launch.
  • Ensure you are displaying the correct lights by seeking advice from MNZ, your local Coastguard or boating club. As bulbs can blow and light lenses can be affected by the UV rays in sunlight, you should check your lights are operating correctly as part of your pre-voyage check and every time you use them.
  • Both crew of the launch had breath-alcohol readings over the limit for driving a car. Alcohol and boating do not mix. Even moderate drinking can impair your situational awareness and ability to operate a boat safely.
  • Timber boats can be difficult to detect by radar. Owners of timber vessels should consider fitting radar reflector units.

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