Keeping Clear of Ships in Auckland Harbour                           

With more and more ship movements on Auckland harbour boaties need to be very aware of the actions they must take to keep clear of them. Whilst the chances of encountering a ship are still relatively low the catastrophic consequences of being run down by a ship do not bear thinking about. They have very limited ability to take evasive action so the onus is on the smaller vessel to keep clear.

All of us who use the harbour regularly have had to alter course for a ship, but do we know what is required to safely keep clear of them?

The first factor we need to be aware of is that our mind-set, particularly for racing yachties, is conditioned to focus on what is required to win a yacht race and not on the wider picture unfolding around us. Usually we have no prior knowledge that a ship is likely to cross our path and no plan in place to safely avoid it if we need to. And if we are not prepared it is impossible for us to accurately predict when and where a ship will be in the future relative to ourselves given it’s unknown destination, timing, speed and course.


View from the bridge gives an idea of the relative size of a large container ship and surrounding yachts

As boaties we have few opportunities to learn and practice making the judgements required to avoid impeding ships - we are poorly prepared. Compare avoiding ships with avoiding drowning – to avoid drowning we all learn to swim from an early age and from then on we are regularly reminded of the steps we need to take to avoid drowning and yet many still do. We have no similar training in the skills required to avoid ships.

We need to be aware that ships can take 10 to 20 minutes to manoeuvre clear or enter their berths. Like any vessel their manoeuvres will be affected by wind and tide, the ship’s handling characteristics at the time, whether they are backing or going forward when entering and leaving their berths, and many other factors.  Then to maintain steerage they can do up to 10 knots, (almost 20kmph), through the water inside North Head and up to 15 knots, (almost 30kmph), from North Head and beyond and will be turning as they go.

The Navigation Safety Bylaw requires that a vessel under 500 tons must not impede the navigation of a vessel over 500 tons in the pilotage area – from the Container terminal in. Beyond the container terminal a vessel under 500 tons must not go within a moving prohibited zone of a vessel over 500 tons extending 100 metres astern, 100 metres to each side and 500 metres ahead.

Here are the practices we suggest to avoid impeding ships:

Firstly, ideally our courses should not cross expected ships paths. Setting courses to achieve this is often not possible. If we have a course which could cross a ship’s path ideally the race organisation would provide sailors with the details of the ship movements which are planned so that the sailors can in turn plan their race to include a special watch for shipping and a planned course to avoid it. If the race organisation does not provide this information it is also available from the Ports of Auckland web site.

Once we know that we may encounter a ship, what are our best courses of action? If the ship is going from a berth on the south side of the harbour we are wise to plan a course on the North side and vice versa. Bear in mind the time, (10 to 20 minutes), it may take a ship to berth or depart and that to avoid impeding it boaties should be at least 100 metres away and should not cross it’s path in the direction it is heading or about to head. Be aware that ships may be going to and from the Navy wharves and Chelsea sugar works as well! There are more than 12 berths for ships in Auckland harbour.  Also note that a ship leaving it’s berth may not be visible to a boatie until it comes out from the wharf and then you will have little time to react if you have not already planned ahead. Listen for a long sound signal which will probably indicate that a ship is about to depart.

If we expect to encounter a ship in the shipping channel beyond the container terminal then we must plan well ahead. If we are to pass ahead we must expect to sail at least 250 metres to cross a ships path. Normally it will be much more because we will not be crossing the ships path at right angles and the shipping lane will be much wider than 250 metres. If a ship is doing 15 knots and we are doing 5 it will travel 750 metres in the time it takes us to do 250 metres to cross its path. To be 500 metres in front throughout the manoeuvre we would need to be at least 1.25 km in front of the ship when we begin to cross it’s path. How are you going to judge this given the difficulty of judging the ships acceleration, speed and future course? Generally the only safe course will be behind it if there is any doubt - and the decision should be made before entering the shipping channel.  You may need to motor to get out of it’s way.

Also be aware of the sound signals you may hear from ships: Long horn blast if a moving ship is hidden from view – leaving its berth.  One short horn, I’m altering course to Starboard, two short horns, I’m altering course to Port, three short horns, I’m operating astern propulsion and five short horns to warn a vessel that insufficient action is being taken by it to avoid impeding the ship.

Remember that the skipper is responsible for the safety of his or her crew. It is up to the skipper to make the right decision. With increased traffic and safety awareness the Auckland Harbour Master will be policing transgressions much more seriously in the future and will be obliged to prosecute infringements. Also, the Squadron has a clause in it’s sailing instructions requiring racing sailors to obey the harbour bylaws – failure to comply is likely to result in disqualification.

So, be aware that a ship may be present on your course, be aware of the course it is likely to take, have a plan in advance to avoid impeding it, and make decisions in plenty of time, ideally before entering the shipping channel. Enjoy safe and fun boating.

MRX Yachting