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Close Encounters of the Worst Kind

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2016 edition of AMSEA's newsletter, Marine Safety Updates. With the start of "cruise ship season" in just a couple of weeks, this seems like a good time to revisit this topic. The author, Tomi Marsh, is a member of the Southeast Alaska Pilots' Association, as well as an experienced commercial fisher and fishing tender operator.

It’s spring in South Coastal Alaska - Or rather it seems like its been spring all winter. The salmon berries have been flowering since March and the Rhododendrons have been in full bloom. No one can remember the last snow fall and the herring came early this year for spawning, turning the waters white and milky green in late March. With the fifty - some herring seiners came a score of fish tenders and attendant enforcement vessels and overhead spotter planes.

Although black cod and halibut opened just a few weeks before herring, the sac-roe harvest really marks the beginning of the heavy vessel traffic. Soon recreational, commercial fishing, charter, and passenger vessels will share the same constricted waters as tug boats and large cruise ships.

Many areas have Very Large Vessels, such as cruise ships, to navigate around. Due to the immense size of these vessels, it is difficult for smaller vessels to estimate their mass and speed and lack of maneuverability. It is also difficult for cruise ships to stop and turn quickly. To help prevent "close encounters of the worst kind," Tomi Marsh, fishing vessel owner and marine pilot, the Southeast Alaska Pilots Association (SEAPA), the United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters Association (USAG), and others have put together the following article and reminder on navigating around large vessels.

Each port or waterway area in the US is served by a pilot association or a regulated rotation system of pilots. These areas may also have websites of interest to mariners. The following marine pilot websites have additional marine safety information specific to geographic areas in Alaska:

Cruise Ships, Tugs and Fishing Vessels: Handy Tips for Your New Crew Members, So You Can Sleep Soundly


1. Monitor VHF channel 16 and answer the radio. Make sure your crew is comfortable using this important tool. Make sure VHF 16 is on and the volume is loud enough to hear over other noises. After hailing on VHF Channel 16 , change to channel 13, ship-to-ship, to communicate with other vessels. Tell the ship’s captain your vessel name and location so everyone can be sure they are communicating with the correct vessel. Speak clearly. The radio is a very important tool. Have your crew practice different scenarios.

2. Be clear in your movements and communications. Avoid ambiguity, know what traffic is around you and be clear in your intentions. Communicate your intentions by radio and maneuvers.

Be Aware 1. Where are you? Make sure your crew knows where they are and where safe water is so they will feel comfortable deviating off the track-line you asked them to follow. Scale in and out on the radar so you can identify potential traffic conflicts. Look behind you. A cruise ship covers 2 nautical miles in six minutes at 20 knots.

2. If you are too tired to drive, wake someone up!

3. Night travel: When traveling at night, optimize your lighting so you can look for traffic and allow other traffic to see your navigation lights.

4. Know established cruise ship track-lines. Track-lines and estimated schedules are published for various locales. For Southeast Alaska, see the USAG website,

5. Know the Rules of the Road and use common sense. Understand that even with the rules, tugs and barges, ferries and cruise ships are often constrained by under keel clearance and maneuvering limitations. You can often ease traffic situations by waiting five minutes, slowing down to let larger boats to get by, altering your course, taking their stern and communicating your intentions.

6. Constant bearing and decreasing distance means you are on a collision course!

Realize Maneuverability Restrictions

1. Understand the limitations of others. Ships and tugs are constrained by draft and so need more room to maneuver and take more time and space to turn and stop than fishing vessels.

2. Speed, Time, and Distance: A cruise ship traveling at 20 knots will cover 2 nautical miles in six minutes; less time than it takes you to make a cup of coffee.

3. Stopping: A ship or tug and barge cannot stop on a dime nor can they turn as handily as your fishing vessel. Even at slow speeds (2-3 knots) and full astern, a cruise ship will still travel up to at least a ship length (1,000’-2,000’) before stopping. At 10 knots or more, a cruise ship can take as much as a half-mile to stop.

4. Height of Eye: A cruise ship will look farther away than it really is. Avoid crossing its bow and take their stern instead. If you see them, you can’t beat them. For example, if you are 10’ above the water and can see a cruise ship’s waterline it means they are 3.7 nautical miles away; at 20 knots they will cover 2 nautical miles in six minutes, so they will be at your position in roughly 10 minutes.

Other Information 1. Learn More:

2. Seafood Industry Supporters: 75% of cruise ship passengers are from the US. Think of all the potential Alaska Seafood consumers on these ships! Hopefully, their visit will influence them to eat more Alaska seafood back home and increase domestic demand. Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) has ongoing promotions on many ships.

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