There’s a simple way to enhance your watchkeeping abilities, as Colregs Rule 5 obliges every skipper to do. Andy Du Port explains

Why you should keep a lookout with your ears


Former RYA Cruising Instructor and Reeds Almanac editor Andy Du Port sails with his wife Kate on their HR34

Most of us are coastal sailors who share busy waterways with commercial traffic. If you are based in the Solent, you will be well aware of the frequent large ship movements to and from Southampton and Portsmouth. It is much the same in the Thames Estuary, the Bristol Channel, the approaches to Harwich, the Forth and the Mersey.

These areas, and others, are all covered by their respective Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) which are designed, in the words of the MCA’s Merchant Shipping Notice 1796, ‘…to improve the safety and efficiency of vessel traffic and…respond to traffic situations developing in the VTS area.’


Listening to VTS transmissions lets you monitor commercial traffic in the area

A Colregs requirement

Rule 5 of the Colregs tells us to keep a good lookout ‘…by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions…‘. That rule does not actually say that we must listen to our VHF radios but many harbour authorities advise that we do, and for very good reason. A case in point was the tragic collision between the yacht Orca and the dredger Shoreway in the approaches to Harwich in 2014.

Orca was sailing west to the south of the deep water channel and her skipper assumed that Shoreway, bound east, would continue down that channel and pass well clear. When he went below for a few minutes, the dredger altered course and collided with the yacht resulting in the death of the skipper’s wife.

The main cause of the accident was judged to be the poor visual lookout by both vessels. Although there was no absolute obligation on the yacht to monitor Harwich VTS, Shoreway was keeping VTS informed of her intended movements. Had Orca’s skipper been listening, it is possible the collision could have been avoided.


Listening to VTS

Vessels over 300 tons or longer than 45m are always required to monitor the relevant VTS and report their movements. However, small craft can also benefit from doing so. Using Southampton VTS (Ch12) as an example, you will hear inbound ships reporting at Nab Tower, No Man’s Land Fort, south of Ryde Middle Bank and at Hook Buoy. Outbound reporting points are at Hythe Pier, Hook Buoy, No Man’s Land Fort and Nab Tower. In addition, vessels leaving Portsmouth call Southampton VTS when passing the War Memorial on Southsea Common. You can thus build a comprehensive picture of commercial movements in the eastern Solent.

If you don’t monitor Ch12 and you see a ship entering the Solent from the east, you will not know if she is going to turn north into Portsmouth or continue west to Southampton. Similarly, a ship passing Calshot outbound may be leaving to the west via the Needles or to the east through the forts. If she is coming your way, you may need to start getting clear of the deep water channel promptly in order to prevent an embarrassing situation.

Southampton VTS’s Yachtsman’s Guide (free online) advises yachts to monitor Ch12 at all times within the VTS area. Other VTS and harbour authorities make similar recommendations. In Portsmouth, for example, all vessels over 20m in length are required to report their movements to QHM on Ch11, so you will be able to predict when the very narrow harbour entrance is going to be even busier than usual.

Don’t just keep your radio tuned to Ch16; use the dual (or tri) watch facility to keep abreast of what is going on – and keep out of trouble.