No Balls !

Is it just me being a cantankerous pedant, or are nautical standards slipping? Maybe they are just evolving and changing to reflect the times ?

There was a time when yacht Ensigns were ‘dipped’ to Royal Naval Vessels, and the Navy were expected to ‘dip’ in return as a matter of courtesy and etiquette, poor buggers, up and down like a fiddlers elbow.  A  busy time for crews in Devonport or Portsmouth Harbour! Yacht Ensigns were invariably withdrawn at dusk and replaced at dawn and any miscreants were frowned upon. I must confess that I gave up doing this a few years ago and I would like to think that we have advanced beyond these rigid strictures.

I accept that modern communication systems are myriad and extremely effective. The advent of  VHF, DSC, GPS, SSB, PLB,  EPIRB, Iridium, Inmarsat and even mobile phones have transformed marine communication and distress protocols.

Many moons ago, when I did my Yacht master qualifications, I had to know morse code and even then, an accepted way of signalling distress was lighting a barrel of tar or firing a gun repeatedly. Another method of signalling distress was hoisting the ‘N’ flag above the ‘C’ flag (‘No’ over ‘Yes’…?), I imagine this would go completely unnoticed these days. I am lacking the gun and the barrel of tar although I have the ‘N’ and ‘C’ flags for what it’s worth.

N over C flags denoting ‘distress’.

Clearly light signals are still indispensable – for example, it’s useful to know which side to pass a dredger at night and you could get into a fix if you didn’t know that a vessel was under tow… Even so, lights can be confusing, I encountered a profusion of yellow flashing lights off the North Spanish coast and they turned out to be a fleet of fishing vessels, not an armada of hovercraft which the regulations would have suggested. With vessel identification via AIS, it is always possible to seek clarification through a VHF call so any ambiguity can be clarified.

Day shapes are also useful, but they are not now given the importance they deserve. How many times have you seen fishing vessels moored up in a harbour displaying the point-to-point ‘I am fishing’ cones as a permanent feature? I must confess that I do not rigidly conform to displaying the inverted cone every time I am motor sailing for a short time, it would be such a pain and no one else does it. I do, however, comply if I am motor sailing for a protracted period of time and likely to encounter shipping – honest !

Inverted motor-sailing cone on Hejira at sunrise while single handing in Lyme Bay.

This brings me to the thrust of this post – anchoring! I have always shown the required ball shape above the foredeck when anchored – yes,  religiously ! One of the motivations for this is, having carried out a subconscious risk assessment, I can imagine a certain potential scenario. Just imagine being anchored in a bay in the Med or Caribbean (where, thankfully, jet skis are largely banned) near an Oligarchs super yacht with the pampered offspring racing around on jet skis and one of them crashes into your anchored yacht. Just think of being in court against an expensive ‘hot shot’ lawyer. “But how was my client supposed to know you were anchored when you were not displaying the correct signal for being at anchor as required under the ‘International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea’?”. You could become unwittingly liable as opposed to being the undoubted innocent victim. Anorak or sensible?

When I was anchored in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia in 2015 & 16, I always displayed the ‘anchor ball’. So, having taken the family there (by aeroplane this time) in December 2021, I was surprised and somewhat disappointed. With over 40 yachts anchored in the bay, not one of them was displaying the anchor ball and some of them were remnants from the ARC fleet who should have known better. At night however, most of them did at least comply with the ‘Col Regs’ by showing an all-round white anchor light at the top of the mast.

Rodney Bay Anchorage. Not an anchor ball to be seen.

This actually brings me to another point. The all-round white mast head light is generally observed and incorporated into the navigation light options on most modern yachts. This is perfectly okay and compliant in a sparsely populated anchorage but pretty useless when an anchorage is more densely occupied. I would advocate and generally display an all-round white light lower down between the forestay and the mast. I use a rechargeable LED lantern which gives an infinitely better indication of location and actually singles out your yacht amongst all the others which is often very useful when it is pitch black with no moon and you are trying to discern your yacht when they all look the same black silhouettes after a few rum punches or ouzos.

Then there is the subject of tenders.  (Am I sounding like a ranting ‘old fart’?) It is necessary for a tender below 7 metres in length and travelling at less than 7 knots to carry an all-round white light at least, it”s dead easy, do it!  Just hold an LED lantern behind the helmsman above his head, simple, it won’t affect his vision, then you won’t get mown down by one of the Oligarchs kids or, if you are, you will win your case in court !

10 thoughts on “No Balls !

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  1. Merry Christmas Nick.
    In my deep sea days we always had a pair of Balls rigged and ready to hoist.
    This due to the frequent main engine breakdowns incase any one thought of something other than NUC
    Which begs the question are you carrying an extra pair, the third one incase of needing to put three up for the odd night taking the ground.
    Looking forward a beer in the new year.

  2. Very good. I am a stickler for lights in all the circumstances mentioned but tend not to bother with an anchor ball when in a common anchorage. In doing so I rely in part on rule 30 (e) of the regulations, which your post prompted me to reread as I await the rest of the household stirring from their cots.

    “A vessel of less than X metres in length, when at anchor, not in or near a narrow channel, fairway or anchorage, or where other vessels normally navigate, shall not be required to exhibit the lights or shape prescribed in paragraphs (a) and (b) of this Rule.”

    I believed X to be 20, or perhaps 12, but is of course 7. Opps!

    The Belgian authorities obviously enforce the use of motor-sailing triangles, at least in Niewpoort, as even the racing yacht fleet there all have one rigged for quick deployment, mostly from a block on the backstay.

  3. Nick,
    Your observations on flag etiquette are quite pertinent. In my youth I well remember occasions when ‘someone’ fired a pistol at sunset in Yarmouth Harbour and burgees dropped (almost) simultaneously from mast heads followed by ensigns from jackstaffs.
    That this never happens today is hardly surprising. I was always proud of these maritime traditions and I think we are all the poorer for their passing.
    I think that you and I remain just two of the exceptional few who still wear our burgees at the masthead. I am loathe to adopt the modern day habit of wearing them almost invisibly at the crosstrees just to make room for some other wind contraption aloft to give us the same information as a masthead burgee!

    1. Thanks for your post John.
      I have never even tried to induce a response from some poor freezing rating tasked with manning the ensign but I imagine you have…
      (do they even deploy crew to do that these days?)

      1. Dipping the ensign…

        No idea about “these days” buy I recall, back in my early twenties, that HMS Dolphin on the entrance to Portsmouth mostly honoured the tradition. The problem for the poor rating there was that the flagstaff was 50m or more from their station, which they would cover at the double. It was good craic but we never did it in foul weather.

        No very many years ago, a French frigate outside Plymouth flew their AP in response, rather than dipping the tricolour.

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