Avoiding "Blind Spot" Collisions

Published: January 2011

Given that there are no lanes, stoplights, speed bumps or signs to direct the helmsman, the need to keep a proper lookout is especially critical on the water. The sooner you see another boat, the sooner you can take the appropriate action to avoid a collision. Rule 5 of the Coast Guard's Navigation Rules makes it clear that "every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions [emphasis added] as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision."

Everyone knows (or should know) to slow down at night or in a pea-soup fog. But the following three claims are examples of other ways that visibility can become restricted on a boat.

Photo of a damaged boat

CLAIM #040278. COLLISION/INJURY: As on most sunny weekends in Florida, the Intracoastal Waterway was crowded. Most of the boats had throttled back, but Rated X according to witnesses, was up on plane heading south. The exact speed was not known, but it was probably well over 20 knots.

As the Rated X was passing a large 50-foot yacht, a small outboard with three fishermen aboard heading west, cut across the channel toward the same large yacht. Just as Rated X cleared the yacht's bow, there was some yelling followed immediately by the sound of splintering fiberglass.

The skipper of Rated X had no idea what had happened until he looked astern and saw the bow of a small boat and two men in his prop wash. One of the men had severe injuries to both of his legs.

CLAIM #067134. COLLISION/INJURY: Shortly before the hydroplane races ended, the skipper started the engines and began heading away from the spectator fleet. There were 11 people on board, so when he pushed the throttle forward, the 32-foot boat struggled to come up on plane. Some adjustments on the trim tabs, however, brought the bow down and soon it was zipping along toward home.

Suddenly there was a loud bang and, according to the skipper's account in the claim file, the boat lurched to port. A smaller boat that had been dead in the water was hit. Two people were seriously injured and both boats were badly damaged. The skipper said he never saw the other boat until after the accident.

CLAIM #952234. COLLISION/FATALITY: The two buddies had been out cruising in the ocean in their 20-foot ski boat when a strong offshore wind began kicking up heavy seas. The ride would be smoother, they reasoned, if they were closer to the shore. But even when they were near the beach, seas were still running about four feet. Because his trim tabs were inoperative, the skipper reported later he had been having trouble seeing over the raised bow.

The boat was doing over 20 knots when the skipper spotted a man who had been snorkeling. The man surfaced and was waving his arms frantically and yelling. The skipper reached for the throttle, but he was too late; his boat hit a second diver who died instantly. The skipper had not seen the raft displaying a "diver down" flag.

PREVENTION: Three seemingly different claims. But in all three cases — Rated X, the boat leaving the hydroplane races, and the boat near the beach — visibility was restricted but the vessels failed to slow down. Rated X's skipper failed to take into account that the larger boat was creating a blind spot that hid the smaller outboard, which was about to cross its bow. A blind spot was also created by the guests on the boat leaving the hydroplane races that obscured the stalled boat. Finally, waves made it difficult to see the diver down flag and divers.

By failing to recognize that their visibility was restricted, each skipper had the false impression that his boat was alone and each was completely startled when the collisions occurred. None of the skippers took the obvious step to prevent a collision — slowing down.

LESSONS: Especially in a narrow, crowded waterway, slow down and give yourself enough room to stop or alter course should a boat suddenly emerge from behind another boat. If a blind spot is being created by guests, they should be asked to move. The alternative — appointing someone to act as lookout — is not as effective, since he or she could easily become distracted by the other guests. Finally, whenever you approach an area where people are likely to be in the water, slow down to idle. Waves, even relatively small waves, inhibit visibility. Aside from slowing down, extra care must be taken to maintain a sharp lookout.End of story marker