by Ken Taylor
(Excerpted from Small Boat Journal-July, 1990)
With traffic on inland waterways
increasing every year, the land-bound commuter's motto is becoming
ncreasingly applicable to small boat sailors: Watch out for the
So without getting into a lot of
nautical jargon, procedures, and equipment, the following is meant
to help you steer clear of trouble. In addition to being a basic
law of the sea, collision avoidance will help keep your insurance
premiums down, blood pressure steady, and make your day on the
water more fun.
Unlike land-bound navigating, there
are no apparent "roads" on the water to indicate the
course of traffic. But there is a way to tell, as clearly as a
stop sign at an intersection, whether you're likely to hit another
Any boat coming in your direction
and in front of where you're going has the theoretical potential
to run into you. To go from theory to reality, all you need to
do is look carefully at that other boat and the land behind it.
Pick out a tall fixed object (a tree, telephone pole, or water
tower) on the land behind the boat. From one spot on your boat,
watch the other boat's movement relative to that fixed object.
If after a minute or two of watching, the other boat does not
move relative to that fixed object, you can conclude you're on
a collision course with that boat.
Don't panic. All you have to do
now is adjust your course to avoid the other boat. There are all
sorts of rules that govern right of way in a given situation ("Seamanship,"JBJ
#60), and you should take the time to learn those rules, but in
the real world, most newcomers to boating haven't learned these
complex, extensive rules, so it's back to our maxim: Watch out
for the other guy.
If you've determined another boat
may soon slam into yours, you can't fool around with minor adjustments
to course and speed. By law, you have to make adjustments large
enough to be apparent to the other vessel.
Before making adjustments to your
course, though, take a look around. Specifically, scan 360 degrees
around your boat to make sure that when you change course or speed,
you won't end up with another boat crawling up your transom or
slamming you broadside. Again, boats approaching you from behind
are required by law to stay out of your way. But in heavy waterborne
traffic, if the skipper of that boat doesn't know the law, play
it safe and take a good look around.
Once you've determined it's safe
to change course and speed, you can do either or both, depending
on what you think the situation demands. However, it can be easiest
to just change course, especially if your means of propulsion
is hard to adjust.
Course adjustment should be at
least 45 degrees away from your current collision course (90 degrees,
if possible). Make your course change quickly and obviously. This
makes it clear to the other boater that you've changed course
and that he should not interfere with your new course.
It's safest to turn in a manner
that will let you pass off the offending boat's stern, although
you're not required by law to do this. Trying to pass ahead of
other boats somehow has the same effect as poking a snake with
a stick. So when possible, pass off the other vessel's stern.
Adjusting your course to avoid
a collision isn't the end of it, though. You have to make sure
you don't come too close to the other vessel. This is known as
giving a dangerous situation "wide berth" or "sea
Exactly how much room you should
give the other vessel depends on how you've chosen to avoid it.
If you're still insisting on passing ahead of the other boat's
bow, you're going to have to go back to watching a fixed object
behind that boat. You know you will pass well ahead of that boat
if the fixed object behind it appears to be moving rapidly ahead
of the boat. Conversely, if the fixed object appears to be moving
behind the boat, you will pass well to its stern. You already
know what happens if the fixed object doesn't move at all.
In very tight situations, the body
of water may be only a couple hundred yards wide. In such a case,
watching a fixed object won't do you much good.
There's usually not enough time
or room for taking a reliable relative bearing. So you will have
to use good judgement and the following basic "rule of three":
Try to stay at least three boat
lengths away from sailboats underway, for they often must change
course 90 degrees away from where they are headed. Wind conditions,
rocks, shoals, and currents may force them to make these changes,
sometimes without warning. So it's best to be well clear of all
Also maintain at least three boat
lengths between your craft and powerboats that are trolling. To
avoid running afoul of the fishing lines trailing out well astern
of the boat, you should plan to pass some distance behind those
Small boats should generally keep
well clear of big boats by at least three boat lengths. (Definition:
If it looks "big" from your boat, it is). Tugs with
tows, seagoing ships, coastal freighters, and commercial fishing
vessels at work can sweep a small boat (anything up to 35 feet)
into the currents created by its propeller or equipment. Turbulence
from these boats often stirs up prop-fouling debris from the bottom,
especially in confined, shallow inland waters.
Despite your best efforts, some
day another boat is going to get on a collision course with you
and stay there. When this happens, don't waste time trying to
figure out what the other guy is up to. In the best commuter's
tradition, use your horn.
The correct signal is five rapid,
I-second blasts on the biggest horn you can find. The compressed
air horns found in most marine store are very effective. Remember:
you're trying to alert the other boat to the danger of a very
The air horn also has many other
applications. By law, it must be used in restricted visibility
(fog, rain, etc.) or in certain maneuvering situations. Again,
you will have to check the waterbome traffic laws for specifics.
If you follow the foregoing rules,
you will already be in compliance with many of the formal rules.
As the old saying goes, you have to start to be in the race.
KEN TEXTOR is a freelance writer
and the owner ofSeguin Navigation, a charter service in Arrowside,