Radar and the Rules of the Road
With Most Electronics, the Hard Part is Learning Which Buttons to Press.
With Radar, That’s Just the Beginning.
In 1956, at the twilight of the golden era of transatlantic liners, the
Stockholm and Andrea Doria collided one night in a thick fog off Nantucket
Island. Radar, which was then relatively new on commercial ships, gave officers
enough confidence to continue steaming through the fog with only a token
reduction in speed.
The watch officer on the Andrea Doria had only been tracking the radar blips
mentally and was estimating the speed and course of the approaching ships.
Unlike his counterpart on the Stockholm, he had not been using a plotting device
and when the blip appeared on the screen, he thought the two ships would pass
safely apart on parallel courses. At the last moment, when the lights of the
Stockholm finally appeared through the fog, the startled captain on the
Andrea Doria altered course sharply to port, directly into the path of the oncoming
Soon after the Stockholm/Andrea Doria collision, participants at the
International Conference for Safety at Sea in 1960 first addressed the proper
use of radar. The result of this and another conference in 1972 was to formally
recognize radar as a valid aid to navigation.
Risk of Collision
a) Every vessel shall use all available means appropiate to the
prevailing circumstances and conditions to determine if risk or
cillision exists. If there is any doubt such risk shall be deemed to
b) Proper use shall be made of radar equipment if fitted and
operational, including long-range scanning to obtain early warning of
risk of collision and radar plotting or equivalent systematic
observation of detected objects.
c) Assumptions shall not be made on the basis of scanty information,
especially scanty radar information.
d) In determining if risk of collision exists the following
considerations shall be among those taken into account:
i) such risk shall be deemed to exist if the compass bearing of an
approaching vessel does not appreciably change;
ii) such risk may sometimes exist even when an appreciable bearing
change is evident, particularly when approaching a very large vessel or
a tow or when approaching a vessel at close range.
The diminishing size and amperage drain of radar systems has made their
operation possible on boats as small as 25 feet. Unlike professionals on larger
ships, however, radar operators on recreational boats are not required to obtain
a certificate of proficiency. The danger of using sophisticated equipment
without prior training or experience is that a skipper might install a radar
system on a boat, turn it on, and go speeding off in a pea-soup fog thinking the
screen is going to be his “eyes.” It won’t. Some type of plotting is essential.
Radar can also be difficult to interpret, with distortion, clutter, and multiple
echoes to confuse the operator. And while radar may be quick to indicate an
approaching mass of metal, such as a freighter, it’s not nearly as effective at
picking up smaller, fiberglass boats.
Radar is not a substitute for the human lookout. Experience is essential for the
proper use and interpretation of information on a radar screen. So is common
sense. In the hands of an experienced operator, radar can be used to avoid a
collision or negotiate a foggy passage that might otherwise have been
impossible. When the operator is inexperienced or careless, however, radar
offers little more than a false sense of security. A 42’ sportfisherman, to cite
one recent example, was being driven through a pea soup fog at about 18 knots -
much too fast for the conditions - on Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts when it struck
a 28’ sailboat that was under power (Claim #0348382). Visibility was about 50
feet. The sportsfisherman’s skipper had been watching his radar screen and
hadn’t seen anything that would indicate another boat was approaching.
Conduct of Vessels in Restricted Visibility
a) This Rule applies to vessels not in sight of one another when
navigating in or near an area of restricted visibility.
b) Every vessel shall proceed at a safe speed adapted to the prevailing
circumstances and conditions of restricted visibility. A power-driven
vessel shall have her engines ready for immediate maneuver.
c) Every vessel shall have due regard to the prevailing circumstances
and conditions of restricted visibility when complying with the Rules of
Section I of this Part.
d) A vessel which detects by radar alone the presence of another vessel
shall determine if a close-quarters situation is developing and/or risk
of collision exists. If so, she shall take avoiding action in ample
time, provided that when such action consists of an alteration of
course, so far as possible the following shall be avoided:
i) an alteration of course to port for a vessel forward of the beam,
other than for a vessel being overtakin;
ii) an alteration of course towards a vessel abeam or abaft the beam.
e) Except where it has been determined that a risk of collision does not
exist, every vessel which hears apparently forward of her beam the fog
signal of another vessel, or which cannot avoid a close-quarters
situation with another vessel forward of her beam, shall reduce her
speed to the minimum at which she can be kept on her course. She shall
if necessary take all her way off and in any event navigate with extreme
caution until danger of collision is over.
In another recent claim, a boat owner on Puget Sound came on watch late one
night and wasn’t told that the radar screen had been reset from its usual
16-mile range to a two-mile range. The owner hadn’t bothered to check the
setting. The result was that the boat ran hard aground on a ledge and eventually
was driven ashore and badly damaged (Claim #98271127).
It should be noted, that the Navigation Rules apply equally to large ships or
recreational boats, including Rule 7, which requires that radar, “if fitted and
operational,” shall be used properly to determine if risk of collision exits.
Proper use includes “radar plotting or equivalent systematic observation of
detected objects.” This leaves open the possibility that in a courtroom battle
over liability, radar could be the basis for finding fault against you if it was
available and not used properly.
Plotting Radar Positions
As with visual sightings, bearings that remain constant while the range is
decreasing indicate targets on a radar screen that are on a collision course.
Plotting these targets, which is required by the Navigtion Rules, also indicates
dangerous course changes being made by approaching boats that would instantly be
apparent in clear weather, but are otherwise slow to become apparent on a radar
On early models, plotting involved transferring information from the screen onto
a plotting sheet (and marking the time of each observation) to better estimate
closing speed. Plotting at least two positions was necessary to estimate the
target’s course and speed. Three or more observations were necessary to note a
change in relative position.
The next generation of radar, which had television-type screens that didn’t
require hoods during the day, meant that a grease pen could be used to mark the
positions of other boats directly onto the glass screen. This reduced the time
that was required for a navigator to observe changes in the relative position of
other boats. Again, at least three observations had to be made for the operator
to ascertain any changes.
The newest sets leave a target trail on the screen to indicate an approaching
boat’s course. Some new sets also allow you to click on a target - an
approaching boat - to get its speed and closest point of approach. These sets
are far more user friendly than those of only a decade ago.
Even with the best state-of-the-art set, however, experience is essential to
make adjustments for sea conditions and range as well as to interpret
information on the screen.
Reprinted with permission from Seaworthy, the BoatU.S. Marine Insurance and
Damage Avoidance Report.