Silver Yang and the Pink Lady

January 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

Today I studied the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s official report into the collision at sea between Jessica Watson’s 34 foot yacht Ella’s Pink Lady and the 63,000 tonne Chinese bulk carrier Silver Yang.

It was gripping reading.

Australians will know that sixteen year old Jessica Watson was on a test voyage from Mooloolaba to Sydney prior to commencing her round-the-world solo circumnavigation when her yacht collided with a ship. The yacht was de-masted and the young skipper was forced to motor to Southport to undergo repairs, a safety investigation and a public and media frenzy whose question, if you got right down to it, was:

Is this girl incompetent? Can we expect to be plucking her out of the Southern Ocean sometime in the next few months?

Well, yes. And no.

There were an extraordinary number of unhappy coincidences that night. If only one of these hadn’t occurred, the collision would have been avoided.

It’s amazing enough that two vessels find themselves on a collision course at all, let alone achieve a direct hit. I mean, the ocean is pretty big. I’ve seen it.

What are the odds that two vessels, travelling on different courses and at different speeds through this ocean, will end up in the exact same bit of it? What are the odds that the yacht’s skipper will choose to take a five minute catnap at the exact time that a bulk carrier is bearing down on her? Why on earth didn’t she see it? Why on earth, for that matter, didn’t they see her?

Here’s what went wrong:

  1. It wasn’t the weather. It was a clear night, light winds, calm sailing, a half moon hung in the sky.
  2. The yacht’s skipper, as was her standard procedure, checked both her radar and the horizon for a minute before going into the cabin for a short sleep. Apparently her system was to set three alarm clocks to wake her after five minutes, every couple of hours. Imagine! I would probably have thrown them overboard the first night.
  3. The two crew members on duty on the bridge of the Silver Yang at that time were having a good old chat about this and that – all recorded on the ship’s Voyage Data Recorder (VDR). They either didn’t look at the radar or out the window, or if they did, they didn’t notice Ella’s Pink Lady, which should have been apparent on their radar and Automatic Identification System (AIS) for at least 30 minutes prior to the collision.
  4. Jessica Watson, the sole person on duty on Ella’s Pink Lady, also failed to notice the bulk carrier’s movements on her radar and AIS, though the ship must have been apparent, again, for at least 30 minutes prior to the collision.
  5. Possibly, the yacht’s own radar signal was too weak to be picked up by the ship. Ella’s Pink Lady was not equipped with a passive radar reflector (something that increases radar visibility of small craft). The yacht was equipped with a radar transponder (something else that increases radar visibility of small craft) but it wasn’t turned on, for unknown reasons. Possibly, the Silver Yang’s radar could have been better tuned to pick up small craft.
  6. The yacht’s radar alarms were not turned on while the skipper was on deck. By the time they were turned on – when she went downstairs – the larger ship was already within the last, two mile, guard ring. So no proximity alarm was activated. The yacht’s AIS alarms were not turned on at all, possibly because this functionality was not known.
  7. Inexplicably, Jessica Watson did not see the bulk carrier on her final, visual scan of the horizon, though by this point it was clearly visible only one mile to the south east. She heads downstairs at 1.46am and goes to sleep.
  8. Two minutes later (finally!) the second mate and lookout on the Silver Yang see a green light in front of them. It is Ella’s Pink Lady’s starboard flank. They are heading north at nine knots; she is heading south east at seven. They conclude the light is a buoy, but start taking evasive action, turning first a few degrees starboard, then twenty degrees a minute later, then “hard to starboard” at 1.50am.

It’s too late. Ella’s Pink Lady strikes metal, is shoved hard to port and given a good scraping.

It is without a doubt the best alarm clock Jessica Watson has ever had.

So. An accident, but enabled by human error on both sides of the ever-narrowing path of seawater that separated diminutive, dressy, Ella’s Pink Lady and the imposing, inscrutable, Silver Yang.

If both sides were at fault prior to the accident, it seems that Jessica Watson behaved much better than the Silver Yang crew after it. She grabbed the tiller and tried to steer away from the side-swiping, then took shelter below when it became obvious that the mast was going to come down. She popped back up on deck, checked her vessel was seaworthy, alerted those back on land, secured the broken rigging, turned on the engine and headed for port.

Meanwhile, the second mate and lookout on the Silver Yang presumably shook their heads, put on a cup of tea and reset their northerly course. They did not stop. They did not attempt to contact the stricken yacht. Alarmingly, it appears they did not answer Jessica Watson’s first three VHF radio calls to them. And they did not alert the master of the ship until twenty six minutes and 3.5 nautical miles later, whereupon he seems to have got, well, a bit ticked off with them actually.

I don’t know what became of the incompetent crew of the Silver Yang because the report doesn’t go into it, but the incompetent crew of the Pink Lady sailed solo around the world for seven months without further incident.

The full report of this maritime collision is here, and Jessica Watson’s blog account of the incident is here.

What did you make of it?



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