It is rare for cases involving the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972 as amended (“the Collision Regulations”) to come before the UK Supreme Court. The last case to be considered by the House of Lords (the predecessor of the UK Supreme Court) was in 1976. Now the Supreme Court has considered the collision Regulations in another case.
The Collision Regulations
The case concerned Rule 9 (Narrow Channels) and Rule 15 (Crossing Situation).
Rule 9(a) states:
A vessel proceeding along the course of a narrow channel or fairway shall keep as near to the outer limit of the channel or fairway which lies on her starboard side as is safe and practicable.
Rule 15 states:
When two power-driven vessels are crossing so as to involve risk of collision, the vessel which has the other on her own starboard side shall keep out of the way and shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel.
The facts of the case
The case concerned a collision between the container ship EVER SMART and the VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier) ALEXANDRA 1. The collision took place in the pilot boarding area just outside the outer end of the entrance channel into Jebel Ali. The EVER SMART was outward board proceeding down and out of the buoyed channel. The ALEXANDRA 1 was inward bound and was almost stationery in the pilot waiting area waiting to embark a pilot. Whilst doing so she made various adjustments to her heading and speed.
Whilst waiting the ALEXANDRA 1 was presenting her starboard side to the EVER SMART as she came down the buoyed channel and was thus prospectively a crossing vessel under Rule 15. The master of the ALEXANDRA 1 had overheard a radio conversation between Jebel Ali Port Control and a tug in which Port Control advised the tug to pass at least one mile astern of the tanker (i.e. ALEXANDRA 1). He mistakenly assumed that this was a direction to the EVER SMART and that once she had existed the buoyed channel she would come to port and pass astern of him. In the event the EVER SMART did not alter to port and her port bow of the EVER SMART collided with the starboard bow of the ALEXANDRA 1.
There were two issues before the court:
(i) In determining whether the crossing rules are applicable, is there a requirement for the putative give-way vessel (here the ALEXANDRA 1) to be on a steady course before the crossing rules can be engaged?
(ii) Are the crossing rules inapplicable or should they be disapplied where an outbound vessel is navigating within a narrow channel and has a vessel on her port (or starboard) bow on a crossing course approaching the narrow channel with the intention of and in preparation for entering it?
Findings of the court
The Importance of Understanding Collision Regulations in Maritime Law
The court made it clear that fundamental to the construction of the Rules is the need to apply them by reference to what is reasonably apparent to those navigating each vessel about the conduct of the other.
(i) Crossing situation. As background the court observed that the interpretation of the crossing rules should have due regard to the well-known judicial statement that “wherever possible” the crossing rules “ought to be applied and strictly enforced because they tend to secure safe navigation and that it had “been found advantageous” for a “wider scope to be given to the crossing rule” in cases of doubt on a strict application of the rules.
How Collision Regulations Can Help Ensure Safe Navigation
The court held that for the crossing rule to apply there is no additional requirement that either vessel must be on a steady course in addition to the express requirements for engagement (two power-driven vessels, crossing, so as to involve a risk of collision) under Rule 15.
As regards the give way vessel the court stated:
“… if two vessels, both moving over the ground, are crossing so as to involve risk of collision, the engagement of the crossing rules is not dependent upon the give-way vessel being on a steady course. If it is reasonably apparent to those navigating the two vessels that they are approaching each other on a steady bearing (over time) which is other than head-on, then they are indeed both crossing, and crossing so as to involve a risk of collision, even if the give-way vessel is on an erratic course. In such a case, unless the overtaking rule applies, the crossing rules will apply.“
As regards the stand on vessel the court held the requirement for the stand-on vessel to keep her course and speed is not a condition for the engagement of the crossing rules, but a qualified obligation imposed on her once the crossing rules are engaged. It stated:
“… we also consider that the stand-on vessel need not be on a steady course …, even though, once the crossing rules are engaged, she must then keep her course and speed. It does not follow that she should already have been on a steady course, or speed, before the crossing rules could become engaged.“
In short the test for the engagement of the crossing rule was whether the vessels were approaching each other on a steady bearing and there was no additional requirement that the vessels be maintaining steady courses.
(ii) Interplay between Rule 9 (Narrow Channel) and Rule 15 (Crossing situation)
A further question about the application of collision regulations was the interplay between the rules covering narrow channels and crossing situations where vessels meet at the end of a narrow channel. Where one vessel is proceeding along a narrow channel towards its exit and another vessel is approaching the entry of the channel with a view to proceeding along it which rule was to apply?
The court held that the crossing rule should apply until such time as the approaching vessel was actually shaping a course to enter the narrow channel. Intention to enter the narrow channel was not itself enough. The court stated:
“…where an outbound vessel in a narrow channel is crossing with an approaching vessel so as to involve a risk of collision, the crossing rules are not overridden by the narrow channel rules merely because the approaching vessel is intending and preparing to enter the narrow channel. The crossing rules are only overridden if and when the approaching vessel is shaping to enter, adjusting her course so as to reach the entrance on her starboard side of it, on her final approach.“
The court held that the crossing rules (rather than the rules for narrow channels) applied to the ALEXNDRA 1 and EVER SMART. Under the crossing rules the ALEXANDRA 1 was the give-way vessel and EVER SMART was the stand-on vessel. ALEXANDRA 1 should therefore have kept well clear of EVER SMART.
In addition to providing conclusions on the two issues referred to above the judgment also includes useful commentary on words used in connection with the Collision Regulations such as “heading”, “course”, “leeway”, “bearing”, “approaching” and “crossing”.
The court also considered the words “keep her course and speed” in Rule 17 (Action by Stand-on Vessel). It affirmed an earlier judicial statement that this, “…means the course you were going to take for the object you had in view – not the course and speed you had at any particular moment”. However for such purposes “object you had in view” must be reasonably apparent to the give-way vessel.
This judgment may provide useful assistance in future consideration of the Collision Regulations.
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 The Taunton (1928) 31 Ll L Rep 119