The view from the bridge of a freighter moving slowly through Vancouver Harbour tells a disturbing but familiar story.

It’s an overcast, rainy morning. Window wipers methodically sweep clear the big front pane of the bridge. A pair of tugs approach to help the pilot bring the ship safely to dock. It’s a common manoeuvre, carried out dozens of times each day in Port Metro Vancouver.

There’s one problem.

The operator of a pleasure boat, a cabin cruiser, is not interested in waiting for the ship to pass or going around its stern. Instead the operator decides to shave a few seconds from a trip through the port by cutting across the path of the approaching ship.

To a casual observer, it’s like watching a motorist snake around guardrails at a railway crossing. As a video of the event shows, the pleasure boat disappears on the starboard side of the freighter’s bow and does not emerge on the port side for 14 seconds — an eternity to the pilot and ship’s bridge team.

What many recreational boat operators — as well as operators of other pleasure craft and commercial fishing vessels — don’t appreciate is that if a small boat gets very close, it’s no longer visible to the pilot or any of the ship’s navigating team from the ship’s bridge. This is because from the bridge, a pilot’s view of the water is obscured by the bow of the ship for hundreds of metres out ahead.

For a coal ship like the one in this video, or a general cargo ship or oil tanker, the obscured distance can be about 350 metres. In case of a large container ship carrying a high load of containers on deck, the blind spot can extend to one kilometre or more ahead of the ship. As container ships get bigger, the distance becomes more critical.

This means a small boat’s manoeuvre is a dangerous game. If for some reason it stalls in front of an approaching ship, it can be life altering for anyone travelling on the small boat.

Pacific Pilotage Authority (PPA) President and CEO Capt. Kevin Obermeyer, who shot the video, likens the risk to those warning signs you often see on the back box or bumper of a delivery truck or transport vehicle: ‘If you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you.’

“It’s the same for us on the deep sea vessels. If you can’t see the bridge, we can’t see you,” Obermeyer explained.

“I’d only joined the pilot when we were at anchor in English Bay and we brought that ship through First Narrows and alongside to load coal. The one I shot was the third or fourth boat to do that. Earlier, as we approached First Narrows we’d had the same thing happen and the captain pushed the foghorn five times, warned the guy and everything.”

It’s a lot more intense in summer when a more casual group of boaters, “people with no idea about collision regulations,” take to the water, Obermeyer added. “I don’t think the general boating public — even those that are more experienced — realize the danger in cutting across the bow, that we can’t see them and can’t take manoeuvring action. It’s a huge issue.”

Marine safety should be a concern for every mariner. A small boat is more vulnerable in front of a large ship. At the same time, a large ship, if forced to deviate from its route due to a boat in its way, could become vulnerable as well. As Obermeyer observed, “In a recent incident a ship’s pilot and master decided to run the vessel aground to avoid colliding with a fishing boat. Luckily no one was hurt and there was no pollution due to that incident.”

He went on to say, “Everyone who has responsibility over a vessel’s navigation is required to follow the ‘rules of the road.’ These rules are international, they apply in all waters and they help keep everyone safe.”

Kinder Morgan Canada is actively supporting PPA’s work to raise awareness about small boat safety in the marine community. Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMEP) team members are already connecting with the marine community to deliver the pilot authority’s message of caution. Trans Mountain is joining the pilotage authority in circulating a new brochure that explains the dangers and offers safety tips boaters can employ to avoid risks.

Draft condition 126 for the Trans Mountain Expansion Project requires the Project to conduct a marine public outreach campaign to inform boat operators — everyone from kayakers and wind surfers to sport fishing guides and commercial fishermen — about their responsibilities for safe navigation in and around shipping routes and the need for safety when large ships are moving through.

Although a visual check is the best way to confirm the location of a large vessel, this might not always be possible, especially during periods of low visibility and fog. At such times, ensuring the boat displays appropriate navigation lights and keeps a good lookout will go a long way towards keeping everyone on the water safe.

Boaters can also add equipment to increase their safety. If possible, fit a radar reflector to the boat and carry an AIS (Automatic Identification System). The radio transponder of the AIS shows the boat’s position to the ship’s navigators. At the same time, the large ship is displayed on the AIS of the boat.

Trans Mountain is committed to marine safety as a high priority. TMEP’s contribution to large ship traffic will remain small — Project tankers will form about 6.6 per cent of large ship traffic on the southern shipping route post-expansion.

Safety tips for small boat operators

  • Maintain a proper lookout at all times.
  • Ensure the correct navigational lights are displayed between sunset and sunrise.
  • Avoid travelling or fishing in a shipping lane or designated traffic separation scheme or keep as near to the outer edge as possible.
  • Avoid crossing ahead of a large ship.  If a small boat breaks down the large ship has very little chance of avoiding it.
  • Keep a listening watch on the appropriate VHF channel.
  • During a fishing opening keep the centre of the channel as open as possible to allow large ships to pass safely.
  • Consider fitting your small craft with AIS (Automatic Identification System) or a radar reflector to be more visible to large vessels.