The Law of Maritime Collisions
By Tim Akpinar
Reprinted with permission of Work Boat - To visit WorkBoat.com, go to Commercial Vessel Links
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The Law of Maritime Collision
On December 14, 2002, three ships found themselves in uncomfortably close quarters in the English Channel. Two of the
vessels, the containership Kariba and car carrier Tricolor, were both on nearly parallel westbound headings. The lead vessel
Kariba was making 16 knots, while the Tricolor, about half a mile aft and to starboard, was making 17.9 knots. Unfortunately,
a third ship, the Clary, was steaming north on a collision course with the Kariba.
The ships roughly formed a “T”, with the Clary’s northward heading forming the vertical base of the letter. In an attempt to
avoid colliding with the Clary, the Kariba swung to starboard and collided with and sank the Tricolor. The lower court piled
all the blame upon the Kariba.
However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit analyzed the collision and found that the actions of all three ships
attributed to the collision (Otal Investments, Ltd. v. M.V. Clary) While it agreed with the lower court about the fault of Kariba,
it disagreed that the Kariba alone was responsible for the collision.
The higher court re-examined COLREG 13, which states that an overtaking vessel shall keep out the way of the vessel being
overtaken. The Tricolor was in the process of overtaking the Kariba at a rate of almost two knots per hour. The court noted
that at time the Tricolor realized it was in the process of overtaking Kariba, it didn’t slow down but instead continued to
overtake her at 17.9 knots in the fog, and in a crowded traffic separation scheme. The Tricolor also knew that the ship she was
overtaking was itself on a collision course with the Clary.
The higher court also considered COLREG 6 about safe speed and COLREGs concerning maintaining a proper lookout. The
higher court found that the Clary had understaffed its bridge.
This decision demonstrates that in a complex collision at sea, it can be difficult to make an all-or-nothing call about liability.
It also shows that while a fundamental role of a court will be to determine if collision regs were violated, a diligent court will
also look at the states of mind of the navigation personnel, the information with which they were armed, and the manner in
which they used that information.
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