A rash of accidents in the Singapore Straits has once again focused attention on this amazingly busy stretch of water, complicated by being adjacent to one of the world’s busiest port complexes. It is well served by aids to navigation and a highly efficient vessel traffic service, but is congested by vessels anchored off Singapore and awaiting orders, some of which are, for all intents and purposes, in “warm” layup.

Visibility is also sometimes an issue, with smoke from burning in Indonesia masking this important waterway. With vessels shaping course to enter the port or leaving to enter the straits along with vessels in transit through them, it is a testing time for navigators of all ships.

In view of these recent collisions, a pamphlet entitled “Safe Passage: The Straits of Malacca and Singapore”, developed last year within the Cooperative Mechanism by a correspondence group co-chaired by BIMCO and Singapore, with the active support and participation of Indonesia and Malaysia, is timely indeed. The goal of the pamphlet is to raise awareness amongst seafarers transiting the Straits of local navigational considerations that should be borne in mind. Amongst several topics covered is the importance of adherence to the COLREGS. Approved in October, the pamphlet will be available for distribution in the coming months.

Most large vessels operating in these waters are well equipped and one is forced to suggest that human error of various kinds will invariably be to blame for these lapses. Speed is often an issue, with vessels running through the straits at an imprudent speed that is quite inappropriate for the conditions.

Nothing new in this, of course, with Masters urged to “prosecute their voyages with expedition” since the arrival of mechanical propulsion made ships less dependent on nature. And 21st century shipping does demand a degree of precision in schedules that would have been thought quite impossible to achieve in an earlier age.

But with this computer-driven navigation there has sometimes been a tendency to forget the old prescriptions for keeping ships safe. Officers have been known to be reluctant to divert from their computer guided courses, regardless of the rules and have made wrong assumptions about the “other ship” giving way. Much stems from ignorance of the COLREGS, which do not seem to be taught with the same degree of rigour that it might have been in the past, at least in some colleges.

Those with oversight over busy straits often report of appalling risk-taking and sheer bad manners in passing ships too close or operating far too fast for the prevailing conditions. There is often an inappropriate exchange of VHF conversations, which have not infrequently made matters worse in a close quarters situation. What the various accident investigators label as “complacency” can also be identified.

It really should not be necessary if “the ordinary practice of seamanship” was being properly carried out, for coastal states to think it necessary to intervene. But perhaps, with the current bad behaviour at sea, we should not be surprised that they are.

Author: The Watchkeeper                        Source: BIMCO