Prudent Mariner

By Tom Neale, 2/5/2013


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

You're cruising along in a rather narrow channel. You know that the sides come up steeply and that there's no "wiggle room" if you get out of the channel.  You've got some very expensive running gear down there which certainly won't take kindly to hitting the bottom. But it's no problem because you clearly see the aid to navigation marking the edge of the channel to your starboard. You also clearly see the next one ahead which shows that the channel wall shifts to port and that you're going to have to alter course to port to head to that next marker and avoid running up on the shoal. The wind, on your port beam, is blowing you toward the shoal. Before swinging the wheel, you look around to make sure no one is overtaking you and that your necessary course change won't cause a problem with another boat. Problem!

Tom checking for other traffic
Tom checking for other traffic.

Another boat is indeed behind you, just off to your port.  It's gradually overtaking you.  You can see the skipper easily because he's up on a fly bridge.  He has a drink in his hand (probably not milk) and two very close "friends" cuddling very close on each side. He's looking more or less straight ahead. But "straight ahead" isn't good, because his boat is heading toward the shoal.  It's clear that he doesn't see the aid ahead to port which is mandating a course shift to port. And it's also clear that he isn't planning any such course shift. He's going straight ahead, toward the shoal.  You could be thinking, "Great, let him go. One more Turkey off the water, at least for a little while."

But you can't think that, because he's in the process of cutting you off from the change that you must make to stay in deep water. You call him on the VHF but of course he doesn't answer. You have a crew member at the stern hail him and vigorously wave to attract his attention, but his attention is apparently already attracted elsewhere.  You hail him on a loud hailer and he doesn't respond.  (You can already hear his stereo blaring.)  Your depth finder alarm is going off and you start to gradually move to port into deeper water, hoping he'll see you and get it.  He doesn't. He's coming closer and closer.  You're afraid to speed up because that'll dig your stern into the water and maybe take out your props and rudder. You can come to dead stop but then you'd have no steering control and the wind would take over, blowing you into the shoal.  You can slow down but at this point you're not sure this would give you enough time. You can and should start sounding 5 short blasts on your horn, but will he hear it, and if he does, will he have a clue as to what it means?  What do you do?

I can't tell you. I've been in similar and worse situations many times over the years.  I've always managed to scrape through (no pun intended) with no damage to any vessel or any person. I'm not bragging, I think luck may have had something to do with it.  I can't tell you because I'm not running your boat and because there are usually, in each situation, innumerable variables particular to the event, the boats, and all the other circumstances. This scenario, and many others, frequently imposes a threat to you and me involving having a collision on the water, hurting someone, doing severe damage to boats and getting mired in horrible legal hassle. And the person at the wheel has to utilize his training, skills, on scene observations, on scene judgments, knowledge of his boat and many other things to make the right decision. However, there is help.

Tom's Tips
Tom's Tips For Dealing
With Poor Seamanship

1. Keep in mind this is ultimately about avoiding property damage and, even more so, personal injury.

2. Often those people who truly don't know better (even though they should), do want to learn, and will, if you can communicate with them in a friendly manner, be most appreciative of constructive help or advice.

3. Remember that subsequent legal issues, should there be a collision or grounding or other problem, can also be a nightmare.

4. Making a record of what happened and reporting it to the appropriate authority in a timely and professional manner (usually right away) may be very helpful.

5. Making a record can include thorough notes and photos or videos, but this should not be done by the person in control of the boat or in a manner that would interfere with proper control and operation of the boat.

Click Here for More Tips

The "Rules of the Road" can be found online at . They apply to inland and international situations, but the distinction is clear from their layout. Obviously we're talking here about inland rules, such as would pertain to traveling, for example, the AICW (Atlantic Intra Coastal Waterway).  These rules go to great length to help, to provide guidance and to direct. We're all supposed to be familiar with them and to have a copy aboard depending on the vessel.  The "familiar with them" part is important, because even if you had a copy aboard in this example, you wouldn't have time to search through them hoping to find a solution.

Following are some sections (not necessarily the only ones) that may apply to this situation. Notice I said "may." This is because I'm not on your boat
and even if I were, I certainly can't give legal advice. It's tempting to interject, in context with the rules, my thoughts as to how the rules help. But you can do it probably just as well and, if you don't already appreciate the rules, you probably will grow to appreciate them as you read the selections below, keeping the above hypothetical in mind.  Rule 2 — Responsibility, which I cited out of order at the end, is, to me, an "Ah Ha—these guys really get it" rule. I'm so glad it's there.

Several things (among many others) come through to me.  The rules are the culmination of a huge amount of study, research and thought by some very knowledgeable people. Those who wrote the rules take due note that being on the water in boats is an exercise in variables and doing the right thing involves skills and judgment calls that you can only get from experience. It's often unrealistic if not impossible to remotely prescribe a specific set of actions to deal dispositively with any hypothetical or actual situation.  There are many "sea lawyers" who love to spend innumerable hours throwing rules about in heated arguments. If this is helpful, so be it. But the bottom line is that it comes down to the person at the helm at the time the stuff is hitting the fan.  And if we know the rules, we are much more likely to come out well.

Let's look at some of the rules that may apply here. And you'll find others if you study them all, which you can do at the URL given above. As I write this, it's winter for many of you. It may be enjoyable to sit back, learn the Rules and apply them as you envision hypotheticals or recall actual experiences.

Rule 13 — Overtaking

(a) Notwithstanding anything contained in the Rules [of Part B, Sections I and II | 4 through 18], any vessel overtaking any other shall keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken.

(b) A vessel shall be deemed to be overtaking when coming up with a (sic) another vessel from a direction more than 22.5 degrees abaft her beam, that is, in such a position with reference to the vessel she is overtaking, that at night she would be able to see only the sternlight of that vessel but neither of her sidelights.

(c) When a vessel is in any doubt as to whether she is overtaking another, she shall assume that this is the case and act accordingly.

(d) Any subsequent alteration of the bearing between the two vessels shall not make the overtaking vessel a crossing vessel within the meaning of these Rules or relieve her of the duty of keeping clear of the overtaken vessel until she is finally past and clear.

Rule 17 — Action by Stand-on Vessel

(a) (i) Where one of two vessels is to keep out of the way, the other shall keep her course and speed.
     (ii) The latter vessel may however take action to avoid collision by her maneuver alone, as soon as it becomes apparent to her that the vessel required to keep out of the way is not taking appropriate action in compliance with these Rules.

(b) When, from any cause, the vessel required to keep her course and speed finds herself so close that collision cannot be avoided by the action of the give-way vessel alone, she shall take such action as will best aid to avoid collision.

(c) A power-driven vessel which takes action in a crossing situation in accordance with subparagraph (a)(ii) of this Rule to avoid collision with another power-driven vessel shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, not alter course to port for a vessel on her own port side.

(d) This Rule does not relieve the give-way vessel of her obligation to keep out of the way.

Rule 9 — Narrow Channels

(i) In a narrow channel or fairway when overtaking, the power-driven vessel intending to overtake another power-driven vessel shall indicate her intention by sounding the appropriate signal prescribed in Rule 34(c) and take steps to permit safe passing. The power-driven vessel being overtaken, if in agreement, shall sound the same signal and may, if specifically agreed to take steps to permit safe passing. If in doubt, she shall sound the danger signal prescribed in Rule 34(d).

Rule 2 — Responsibility

(a) Nothing in these Rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner, master, or crew thereof, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these Rules or of the neglect of any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case.

(b) In construing and complying with these Rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.

So there you go. Spend some time with the rules and your imagination. Have discussions with friends. It's seldom that any one person has all the right answers. This could be fun and it could also save your boat and your butt.

Boating and water sports involve risk.  Any comments herein should be followed at your own risk.  You assume all responsibility for risk or injury to yourself or others.  Any person or entity that uses this information in any way, as a condition of that use, agrees to waive and does waive and also hold authors harmless from any and all claims which may arise from or be related to that use.