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Safe at Sea: Local waters

By Staff | Jul 2, 2019

(Editor’s note: This column is part of a series regarding Navigational Rules. Content for it was taken from the text for the America’s Boating Course, which is offered by the America’s Boating Club.)

A few weeks ago in this column, definitions to key terms were provided that lead to this week’s topic: a truly abbreviated version of the “Rules of the Road” regarding two vessels in narrow waters.

In brief, stand-on vessel is a vessel that is required to maintain the same direction and at the same speed during a crossing or over-taking (passing) situation, unless a collision appears imminent. Remember the General Rule of Responsibility, which states the captain must comply with the rules and must take every precaution required including departing from the rules to avoid immediate danger.

Give-way vessel is a vessel that must stay out of another vessel’s way and take early and substantial action to do so by altering course and/or speed.

In the “Rules of the Road,” there is an actual pecking order that provides priority to some vessels over others. Briefly, a vessel with more maneuverability will be required to give way to one that has less maneuverability. Maneuverability can be defined by boat power (sail versus power) and/or by specific circumstance. A simple example of this is a large boat in a narrow channel – think of the Miserable Mile, which may have limited space due to size; whereas, a small “runabout” has considerable flexibility and, thus, becomes the give-way vessel.

The pecking order covers a range of boats, giving highest priority to boats “not under command” through sea planes (lowest in order). Learning the pecking order is just one of many critical lessons that are learned in the America’s Boating Course, which is offered to the public by the Sanibel-Captiva chapter of the America’s Boating Club.

Regardless of the vessel or location, the primary rule – of course – is to always proceed at a safe speed at all times. Safe speed is defined as a speed that allows the captain to stop the boat in time to avoid collision. That said, there are several factors that determine “safe speed”: visibility, wind conditions, depth of water, level of traffic, et cetera.

This column centers on a very common boating situation in our Southwest Gulf waters, particularly in the intercoastal areas: narrow channels. For boaters in such locations, a particular frustration – not to mention a safety hazard – are boats that impede vessels that must use the narrow channel. For example, a boat whose passengers are fishing in the channel is a significant impediment to others’ safe boating.

Therefore, the “rules” for narrow channels are simple and few, but important for all:

– Stay to the starboard side of the channel, when possible.

– If necessary to cross the channel (think Marker 101), do so at a right angle, the most direct route.

– Do not impede a boat using the channel.

– If overtaking, first obtain agreement by using Channel 13 VHF (or appropriate sound signals).

Fortunately, the majority of narrow channels in our local waters are relatively straight; however, on occasion boaters need to round a bend where the captain cannot see vessels approaching from the other direction. When rounding a bend, remain alert, stay in the center of the channel and sound one prolonged blast of the horn (4-6 seconds). If the captain hears such a sound while in a narrow bend, he/she should reply with the same sound.

While many may consider themselves experienced boaters (particularly when arriving from the north), local waters are unique and learning how to navigate these bays, estuaries and the Gulf is important to safe boating. Sadly, the number of boating accidents in the first half of 2019 give testament to the fact that boating education is an essential component safe boating locally.

Pat Schmidt is a member of America’s Boating Club of Sanibel-Captiva. For more information on courses offered by the chapter, visit www.sancapboating.club or contact education@sanibelcaptivasps.org or 239-985-9472.