When a large container vessel and a VLCC collided, the bump was felt in more ways than one: this was the first ever collision appeal to come before the UK’s Supreme Court, with significant implications for COLREGs.

Plot overlay of Alexandra 1 and Ever Smart at Jebel Ali, 2015. Image: Ince

Plot overlay of Alexandra 1 and Ever Smart at Jebel Ali, 2015. Image: Ince

The incident itself took place in 2015, as the Ever Smart containership was about to emerge from a narrow channel at Jebel Ali and the VLCC Alexandra I, still in the pilot boarding area, was moving slowly towards the channel with the intention of entering.

The issue, explained Ince’s Global Head of Admiralty Christian Dwyer, centred on whether Rule 9 (the Narrow Channel Rule) or Rule 15 (the Crossing Rule) applied: generally mariners believed the Crossing Rules - which say the starboard-side vessel maintains course and speed while the other acts to avoid it – have primacy.

Therefore some consternation followed the initial ruling that the Narrow Channel Rule governed the encounter. To keep close to the channel’s starboard limit under this Rule was “inconsistent” with the steady course and speed demand for the priority vessel in a crossing situation, according to the Admiralty judge. This generated serious ambiguity, pointed out Dwyer.

Additionally, the judge held Rule 15 couldn’t apply because Alexandra I wasn’t on a sufficiently defined course. In short, the VLCC wasn’t obliged to keep out of the way of the boxship.

The effect was to “introduce a degree of uncertainty” into COLREGs, underlined Dwyer, highlighting the safety implications.

Two points had to be settled at the Supreme Court: firstly, is it necessary for the putative give-way vessel to be on a steady course before the Crossing Rules are engaged? The answer was a clear ‘no’. This finding is important, said Dwyer: to introduce by implication an additional steady course requirement means a vessel in a ‘give-way’ position could be relieved of its greater obligation to keep clear.

Secondly, are the Crossing Rules inapplicable if the outbound vessel is navigating within a narrow channel while the other is approaching entry? Again, the answer was ‘no’ – the crossing rules are only overridden if and when the approaching vessel is shaping to enter, adjusting course on its final approach.

This case “is far more than a point of law, it’s a judgment with a very practical application”, Dwyer concluded: “It will end up in the textbooks.”

Note: Appellants were represented by Ince Gordon Dadds LLP in consultation with Stann Law. Counsel for the Appellants was Simon Rainey QC and Nigel Jacobs QC.