Language differences led to collision

In the latest of the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB)’s ‘Safety Digest’, (volume 2, 2018) the board described a collision between two vessels that occurred from misunderstanding due to language differences.

A large bulk carrier was approaching a laden oil tanker in a traffic lane of a traffic separation scheme. With a speed of 16kts, the bulk carrier was the overtaking vessel, and as both vessels were heading for a turn in the lane, the bulk carrier’s master ordered the OOW to hail the other vessel to ascertain its intentions. Accordingly, the OOW, who was Chinese, hailed the oil tanker. Although irritated by the call, the Indian master of the oil tanker responded. During the conversation, the Indian master agreed to allow the bulk carrier to overtake on his starboard side.

Unfortunately the Chinese OOW misunderstood, and informed his own captain that the oil tanker would not allow a starboard pass. The master, who had not been listening to the conversation, accepted the second officer’s explanation.

Reluctantly, the bulk carrier’s master altered course to overtake the oil tanker on her port side. Shortly afterwards, when the vessels were just 655m apart, the oil tanker’s master ordered an alteration to port to increase the sea room between his and another vessel that he was overtaking.

No check for sea room astern was made and the master was unaware that the overtaking bulk carrier was now on his own port quarter. The bulk carrier’s master was alarmed to see the oil tanker alter to port across his bow at such close range. Unsure of what to do, and thinking that he had been instructed to pass to port, the bulk carrier’s master made a series of helm movements in a vain attempt to avoid a collision. However, due to the proximity of the vessels, there was nothing that could be done to avoid the accident. Both vessels were severely damaged, but there were no injuries and no pollution.

The MAIB said that communications should improve understanding rather than “muddy the waters”. In this case, the conversation was carried out in neither party’s native language, and confusion arose when an assumed action was not verified. MAIB said that the use of standard marine communication protocol might have enabled the information to be passed in a clear manner.

Further, manoeuvring should only be carried out once the party is fully aware of what is around. Assumptions should not be made, and checking sea room ahead and astern is not only good practice but it should also be common sense. Good bridge team management was a vital tool in any navigational situation.