Close shave for vessels daily

SINGAPORE: Like a slip road going into a major expressway, the waters where a major naval disaster took place on Friday night were always crowded with ships. 

According to those in the shipping industry, hundreds of ships traverse the eastern Singapore Straits near Pulau Batu Putih every day on their way to and from the South China Sea. 

It is common for the ships – from 5,000-tonne boats to ultra-large container carriers which can carry 350,000 tonnes – to get as close as 100m of one another, which is sniffing distance on the seas. 

Gopalakrishnan M.R.K, 50, a former merchant-ship captain with 22 years of experience, said: “At Pulau Batu Putih, the waterways are restricted and close in the sense that there are not many places where vessels can go either left or right safely. There could be shallow waters or rocks. So ships tend to pass close to one another.” 

That is where the law of the sea comes in. 

Shipping lawyers say there are international regulations to prevent collisions set by the London-based International Maritime Organisation and adopted by seafaring nations. 

In fact, any ship found to be responsible for a collision can be fined up to S$10,000 (RM22,000) here under the Merchant Shipping Act. 

Some of the laws state, for instance, that radar equipment should be used for early warning signs of a collision. 

In busy shipping lanes, ships are also supposed to travel at speeds that would allow them to avoid collisions. 

Ships also have to stick to their lanes, but if for some reason they wish to cross lanes, they have to do so at a right angle to the flow of traffic. 

It is also traditional practice for a ship that sees the left side of another ship coming onto its path to give way. 

In the case of the collision between the anti-submarine patrol ship RSS Courageous and container vessel ANL Indonesia, it is not clear which direction the former was travelling in. 

Beyond such legal safeguards, ship captains avoid collisions by being careful, said experienced seamen. 

Gopalakrishnan said that all merchant ships must have identifying lights. 

“But if there's rain, visibility will be poor and it's hard to see the lights,” he said. 

A Singapore Defence Ministry spokesman said that besides using radar to spot vessels, they deploy six-man teams which scan the waters for four hours at a stretch. 

These precautions, however, do not guarantee accidents will not occur.  

Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific bureau chief for leading security journal Jane's Defence Weekly, said the weather, sea conditions, the crew's experience and even the efficiency of the radar systems could be contributing variables. 

Captain James Fong, president of the Singapore Nautical Institute, added that the sea might have been choppy because of the north-east monsoon. – The Straits Times/ Asia News Network  

  • Another perspective from The Straits Times, a partner of Asia News Network. 

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