How to deal with traffic in busy waters
Denis Korablev
  • 06.07.2020
  • 145

How to deal with traffic in busy waters

For many skippers, the challenge of coping with shipping seems to be more difficult than overcoming the vicissitudes of the weather or approaching the shore in foggy conditions. The density of traffic increases every day and when passing through the English Channel, the horizon is completely dotted with small bumps, which when approaching turn into huge dry cargo vessels, container ships and other cargo ships. It is disturbing to watch them even from a distance, and they are clearly not interested in small yachts. The threat builds up in bad weather, fog, and the intersection of the courses of large vessels then becomes even more unpredictable. The tips discussed in the article will help the yachtsman to safely navigate areas with heavy traffic with the participation of large ships.

Most yachts move on water slower than ships, in appropriate weather large yachts develop speeds up to 5 knots, and in strong winds it can reach 8 knots. When you spot a cargo ship on the horizon for the first time, you may not notice its approach at all, but the speed with which a distant hillock acquires the features of a massive ship will be simply astonishing to you if you are not aware of the maximum speed of container ships, which reaches 25 knots! Small container ships travel at around 15 knots, while modern ferries have speeds up to 27 knots. Fast ferries reach speeds of up to 40 knots. And only small merchant and fishing vessels move at a speed similar to yachts.

In many situations where the sailor feels it is inevitable that a divergence is too close, nothing really needs to be done. The vessel that made you alarmed has the ability to pass well ahead, as it moves at a speed of 3-5 times faster than you. The movement of such ships is visual, and therefore meeting with them is less dangerous. Parting with smaller vessels traveling at a lower speed can be more difficult in practice, as it can be difficult to predict whether they will pass bow or stern.

Experienced yachtsmen 2yachts note that ships rarely slow down or accelerate for the sake of other participants in the sea traffic. Massive engines that run non-stop for a long time do not like stops and unexpected speed changes, as do the mechanics who service them. All adjustments are small course adjustments - the flow of water transport in busy areas resembles a continuous dance, during which the trajectory of the vessels changes smoothly.

With experience, you will be able to distinguish between vessels by their type and possible speed. Sometimes, in order to clear up the situation, you just need to reduce the speed - after walking a certain distance at a speed of 2-3 knots, you can resolve the issue of discrepancy with the ship. In some cases, it is necessary to increase the speed in order to safely disperse with the oncoming vessel, while extreme caution must be exercised, especially in the dark. Keep in mind that improper maneuvering with a ship approaching at a speed of over 20 knots could put you in a potentially more dangerous situation than if you maintain the same course and speed of the yacht.

The situation is much more complicated when you have to deal with several vessels at once, passing at different speeds and at different distances from the yacht. It can be difficult to predict the creation of a dangerous approach situation when, for example, a smaller vessel is hidden behind a massive container ship, moving at a higher or lower speed. Great difficulties with multilayer traffic occur at night, when the speed of vessels illuminated with different intensities determined by eye may turn out to be erroneous. If you have no confidence in the success of the maneuver, it is better to wait than to take any confused actions ahead of time.

If you have to cross waterways where there is heavy ferry traffic, great difficulties lie ahead. Ferries have tight schedules and only slightly change course, often passing very close to sailing yachts. Within traffic separation schemes, ferries often do not follow their usual course, but rather specified special courses, which can cause even more bewilderment and confusion among the yachtsman. It is necessary to strive to avoid waters with active ferry traffic, and when meeting them, maintain a stable speed and course, transferring the responsibility for maneuvering to a more experienced ferry captain.

Maneuvering at night

At night, movement along the straits and crossing the traffic lane for an experienced captain is not difficult, but subject to good visibility. Over time, the skill of quickly establishing the size and course of an oncoming vessel is acquired, based on the intensity and location of navigation lights, but the determination of speed and distance is much worse. The captain must be on deck all the time at night. Keep in mind that any vessel seen from the side lights can move at speeds up to 25 knots, even if you think the searchlights are barely moving.

Maneuvering in fog

Crossing an area with heavy traffic, and in general, moving on water on any ship in fog conditions is dangerous to life and therefore should be avoided under any pretext. If you have to find yourself in the fog while maneuvering, you need to try to get back as soon as possible. If fog appears while you are in the middle of the traffic separation scheme or crossing it, then you must continue driving in the specified direction, but subject to taking precautions. At the same time, the radar becomes a critical element of the ship's equipment; in its absence, it is best to go under sails - this way you can hear the sound of the misty horn of an approaching ship in time.


Intensive shipping lanes, like any other maritime navigation area, are subject to international rules to prevent ship collisions.

The Rules define the unconditional obligation of motor and sailing vessels to let large ships pass and to step aside when approaching vessels with limited maneuvering. They also negotiate the need to avoid crossing lanes if possible, but in the event of a coincidence of circumstances forcing them to do so, cross the lane perpendicular to the direction of the traffic flow.

Inexperienced skippers can make mistakes and show confusion and hesitation when crossing shipping lanes, causing embarrassment to other participants in the sea traffic. Therefore, before entering the traffic lane, it is necessary to think over the course to follow at the correct angles. Remember to always look ahead and anticipate problems and change course in a timely manner to keep things from getting out of hand.

If you are able to determine the type of vessel, you can fairly accurately judge its speed. Don't maneuver too often. The main thing is to smoothly go through the fairway, avoiding excessive drama. Cross the fairway at right angles, avoid sharp course and tack, use the engine to help.

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