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Rules Of The Road

In Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson's lively tale of secret maps and stolen doubloons, a conscience-plagued pirate throws himself on his knees and seeks forgiveness through solemn, if belated, prayer. Stevenson explains how Dick found himself in his predicament: "He had been well brought up, had Dick, before he came to sea and fell among bad companions."

Bad companionsFor the typical sailor, the bad companions on the water are not shipmates, but other skippers who get in the way. Many of these intruders seem to be at the helm of the noisy, often too speedy vessels that sailors smugly call "stinkpots." Some of the most annoying and frightening of these are whiny, little personal watercraft (like the Jet Ski) and roaring pseudo raceboats (like the Cigarette). Their operators often appear to be oblivious to everything in the neighborhood, including each other. Marine police report that when a PWC collides with another boat, the odds are that the victim is another PWC.

We all have our stories about rude powerboats. The best comment I've heard was shouted at a speedboat blasting through a race fleet on Long Island Sound. "It's our Sound, too, you know!" my friend yelled. She was correct, but we sailors have no right to be sanctimonious. We can be pretty rude companions, too. We misread situations, ignore the rules of the road, blunder into the path of other vessels, and, in general, forget that it's also their Sound, too.

From the point of view of the leeward boat here, if bearings taken on the other boat move aft, you will cross ahead of her. If they move forward, she will cross ahead of you. But if the bearing doesn't change, the two boats will collide.

Sometimes the sailor tunes out the situation. When underway it's important, for instance, to know if your boat's relationship to another boat's position is changing . A good habit is to take regular bearings on a nearby boat to see if you're pulling ahead or behind. If the bearing doesn't change, you'll probably collide.

Sailors may not know the Navigation Rules. (Widely known as "the rules of the road" and available in a Coast Guard booklet and in good boating manuals, they specify how all vesselsóboats and shipsómust maneuver and what signals they must make in order to avoid collisions.) Skippers of auxiliary sailboats, for example, may think they always have right of way over powerboats, even when their engines are on. Not so: sailboats under sail are required by law to give way to (avoid) some powerboats, and when their engines are on and in gear, under the rules, sailboats become powerboats.

Sailors may also be ignorant of how powerboats handle. For every powerboater unaware that a sailboat makes leeway and turns slowly, there's a sailor who doesn't know how easily a powerboat at low speed can be pushed around by the wind. "We always expect other boats to be as maneuverable as ours," says Sheila McCurdy Brown "and sometimes they're not." That's why the Navigation Rules lay out specific priorities when different types of vessels are near each other. The logic is simple and can be summarized this way:

Sailboats normally have the right of way over powerboats, but must give way to large vessels in constricted channels.

More maneuverable boats give way to less maneuverable ones.In wide open, deep water a powerboat gives way to a sailboat, and any moving boat gives way to a stopped boat (for instance, one that has fishing lines out). But in a narrow channel or traffic separation zone, smaller boats (under sail or power) give way to ships, ferry boats, and other large vessels that have little room to maneuver.

The challenge is to recognize the scenario.

Here's another rule with its own sound logic:

Any boat overtaking another boat must give way to the leader.If you can easily see the other boat's stern, it means that you're overtaking and also that her crew can't easily see you. You may pass, but you must keep your distance. This rule applies even to sailboats overtaking a powerboat.

When similar boats are near each other, the rules assign priorities according to arbitrary rules, including:

When sailboats under sail are near each other, a boat on port tack must give way to one on starboard, and a windward boat must give way to a leeward one.

Those rules sound simple, but in the heat of the action even the best of us can momentarily misread a situation. I've known good racing boats that have the following reminder written in large, red letters on the port side of the boom: "You're now on port tack! STAY CLEAR!!"

When boats under power cross, the one on the right IS right. The other boat must cross her wake, not her bow. Sound one horn blast under the "intent-agreement" rule of the Inland Rules.

Another example of an established rule governing similar boats is the crossing rule for powerboats (which, again, include sailboats under power). We are frequently tempted to cut across another boat's bow in channels and harbors, for example, to reach the slip. The rule that helps makes that action seamanlike can be summarized this way:

The boat on the right IS right.When boats under power are crossing, the stand-on vessel (the one that does not alter course) is the one on the other vessel's starboard side and the give-way vessel is the one on the other boat's port side. The give-way vessel must cross astern of the other, not ahead.

Communications must be clear. You cannot assume that the skipper of the other boat can read your mind. One way to communicate is with clear action. The give-way vessel must make an early and substantial course alterationósay, 20 degrees. An old rule of thumb is "show her your side." A small course change may be easily interpreted as a steering error. "Intent-agreement" horn or whistle signals specified by the Inland Rules (which govern US coastal and inland waters) also communicate intentions: one short blast indicates that the boat intends to turn to starboard; two blasts, a turn to port. (Other signals apply to other situations.) The second vessel indicates agreement by sounding the same signal, at which point the turn is made, or the second vessel warns of a risk of collision by sounding the five-blast danger signal. A third way to communicate between boats is over a VHF radio, which in crowded waters should be kept on, tuned to channel 16, and carefully monitored.

Finally, there are two informal, but helpful rules of thumb (not rules of the road) that have saved many skippers from embarrassment or worse:

The clear visibility rule: If you don't think the crew of the other vessel is able to see you, give way regardless of who is technically correct.

The gross tonnage rule: Give way to vessels much larger than yours, for the same reason.

Both these guidelines reflect a cautious, realistic, and determined effort to be the good companion that you'd like that guy in the stinkpot to be.

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