Are Long-Range Singlehanded Skippers Automatically at Fault in Collisions?

I have been following the Velux 5 Oceans Race online. In that event, sailing yachts are raced around the world by their skippers singlehandedly in five high-speed legs, called “ocean sprints.” The race, the boats and the skippers are all pretty amazing. I was wondering, however, about how the Rules of the Road affect these boats. Each ocean sprint covers thousands of miles and calls for the boats to be at sea for weeks at a time. Since a singlehanded sailor is physically incapable of keeping watch 24 hours a day, would they automatically be at fault in the event of a collision with another vessel?
Our reader is concerned that singlehanded racers would automatically be liable in the event of a collision, since they are unable to post a proper lookout at all times. His concern is well founded. However, as with so many other legal questions, the answer will depend on all of the facts of the particular case. Let’s take a closer look at this.

We should first give a tip of the hat to the race that our reader is referring to. The Velux 5 Oceans Race is a round-the-world singlehanded yacht race, sailed in stages, that has been sailed every four years since 1982. It is a grueling event, requiring expert seamanship and thoughtful racing strategy, aboard boats that often sail at speeds approaching 25 knots.

Originally known as the BOC Challenge, the event is the longest race for individuals in any sport. As of this writing, the sailors in the current edition of the race have completed two of five legs, both of which have been won by U.S. sailor Brad Van Liew.

As pointed out by our reader, these boats will at times be sailed on autopilot, with no lookout on duty. This is clearly a violation of the International and Inland Navigation Rules (also known as the “Rules of the Road”). According to Rule 5, “every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing, as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions, so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.”

The Navigation Rules are, unfortunately, not black-and-white, and each of the rules is intended to work in concert with the other rules. For example, when read together, Rules 2, 5, 7 and 8 require all vessels to maintain a sharp lookout and to take steps to avoid a collision, regardless of who has the right of way.

The rules therefore work together to establish a system of allocating fault between the parties. A boat that is sailing without a lookout will certainly be at fault for a collision, but where was the lookout on the other boat? Did the other boat take evasive action?

When litigation is initiated in the wake of a collision, liability for damages will be shared between the parties according to the relative degree of fault that is eventually determined by the court. It is extremely rare for all of the fault to be allocated to one vessel, but this may happen if the court finds the actions of one of the parties to be particularly egregious.

Ironically, one such case involved a singlehanded racer crossing the Atlantic in preparation for the 1994 edition of the BOC Challenge race.

In August 1994, U.S. sailor David Scully was sailing his 60-foot racing yacht Coyote alone from the Azores to Newport, R.I. on a qualifying voyage for that year’s BOC Challenge race. As he was approaching the coast of Nova Scotia at around 8 p.m., he saw the lights of fishing vessels on the horizon.

Eight hours later, in a in a state “somewhere in between” being alert and being fast asleep, Coyote’s bowsprit punched a hole in the port side of the 65-foot wooden fishing vessel Lady Olive Marie.

At the time of the collision, Coyote was experiencing electrical problems and, to conserve battery power, Scully was sailing without navigation lights or radar. On the other hand, Lady Olive Marie was adrift, with its engines running in neutral, with navigation and deck lights illuminated, waiting for dawn and for the weather to come down to begin fishing.

A man was on watch aboard Lady Olive Marie, monitoring radar and keeping a lookout from the wheelhouse. The fishing vessel’s two radars were found to be operating properly, but sea clutter at the time obscured nearby targets.

Following the collision, Scully sailed on without identifying himself or ascertaining the damage to Lady Olive Marie. The crew of the fishing vessel lost sight of Coyote almost immediately. They were unable to hail Scully on VHF radio or detect any sign of the yacht on radar, so they began a search for what they believed to be a crippled sailboat. Powering ahead in heavy seas, Lady Olive Marie began to take on water through the hole caused by the collision, and ultimately required Coast Guard assistance to avoid a catastrophe.

The court found Scully to be 100 percent at fault for the collision. He failed to offer any evidence to rebut the presumption that a moving vessel is at fault in a collision with a stationary visible object. He failed to maintain a proper lookout as required by Rule 5, and did not meet his burden of proving that this did not contribute to the collision.

Furthermore, Scully’s failure to display navigation lights while Coyote was under way prevented the lookout on Lady Olive Marie from observing Coyote in time to avoid the collision. Finally, Scully’s act of leaving the scene without ascertaining the extent of damage to the other vessel or communicating his own status further contributed to the damage experienced by Lady Olive Marie.

The Coyote case is an interesting sea story, but it is also a good example of what it takes to find one vessel to be completely at fault for a collision. Most collisions involve a certain degree of fault by both sides, but a complete disregard for safety may lead to an allocation of all of the fault to one boat.

In contrast to the Coyote case, the racers in this year’s Velux 5 Oceans Race speak often about the need to remain alert and vigilant, particularly as they approach shipping lanes or the busy ports at the end of each leg of the race.

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