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Boating Among Giants

As commercial traffic increases, extra vigilance and a deep understanding of navigation rules is key in busy waterways.

My early years spent boating in Michigan and, later, in the Chesapeake Bay taught me respect for the size and speed of lakers and container ships. You learned quickly to stay out of a laker’s way, and to give plenty of room to a container ship coming up the bay. This level of attention has become even more important lately, as ports around the world are seeing a record volume of ships and goods being offloaded. Ships are often waiting at anchor days or even weeks for a berth at the quay.

The rules of the road apply to all vessels large and small, but handling your boat around large commercial vessels requires more attentiveness than just following the rules. The sheer size of commercial vessels, and their inability to maneuver or stop quickly, places the burden on our smaller boats to stay out of their way.

Perspective is a curious thing. It’s easy to keep your eye on a jet flying high in the sky above you, but if you brought that down to a few hundred feet above you, its 500-mph speed would astound you. It is similar viewing large commercial ships at a distance: They look as if they are hardly moving. This distorted view of reality is what causes a boater to believe he has enough time to cross the bay or river before the ship gets to him. The speed at which the vessel is closing on him is deceptive, and gives him a false sense of his ability to stay clear.

It is also important to understand that commercial vessels navigating in bays, sounds and rivers will be restricted to navigable channels by their draft. Irrespective of anything else, this gives them right of way, and burdens us to navigate around them. There is almost always enough water outside of a shipping channel’s lateral markers for our shallower-draft boats to navigate safely and not impede a larger ship’s passage.

A small boat causing a commercial ship to deviate from its course creates a dangerous condition for everyone involved.
According to Bill Band, a retired Chesapeake Bay pilot with years of experience guiding ships, “A fully loaded ship doing 14 knots could take as much as 2 miles to bring the ship to a complete stop. Making the situation worse, once the ship’s propeller is in reverse, the ship will no longer respond to the rudder. It is at the mercy of momentum, current and wind.”

Band also notes the limited sightlines from the helm. Think of tractor-trailer bumper stickers that say, “If you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you.” In the same manner, if you can’t see the bridge windows of a ship, assume that its crew can’t see you. Its crew has no idea whether your boat has safely passed or not.

The professional crews of commercial vessels have a reasonable expectation that those at the helm of an intersecting ship have the knowledge and awareness to communicate and respond correctly. This is far from the case when a professional mariner encounters a recreational boater. They unfortunately have to assume that the boater doesn’t know the difference between red and green, much less knowing a right-of-way hierarchy. 

You can relieve much of their stress by monitoring VHF channel 13, as well as channel 16, when your boat is near commercial traffic. You will not be bothering them if you call them on channel 13 and ask them how they would like you to maneuver safely around them.

Many of the commercial vessels in busy ports will be tugboats assisting ships and moving barges. While tugs are highly maneuverable, those maneuvers won’t happen quickly, especially if they are towing or pushing a barge. A tug cabled into the stern of a barge is also vulnerable to large wakes that could twist the tug and the barge in opposite directions, potentially causing one of the tug’s cables to break and lose control of the barge. Go slowly around tugs. Just because they look big doesn’t mean your wake can’t affect them.

When handling your boat in harbors near tugs, be mindful not to pass too closely astern. If the tug is assisting a ship, moving a barge or just using its engine to hold itself against a dolphin, then its prop wash can be significant. I learned this the hard way in a narrow section of the Intracoastal Waterway just south of Norfolk, Va., when the prop wash from a tug off to the side pushed us into the path of an oncoming boat.

AIS has considerably increased the safety of handling our boats around commercial vessels. We now have the ability to see these vessels’ names, speeds and directions. Most AIS systems also include the closest point of approach, which is the time, given our own course and speed, at which we will intersect with the other vessel, including the distance we will be from each other at that point.

Use this information to alter course early. Having their name also makes it easier to call another vessel and communicate any necessary information with them.

The big ships we share the water with are fascinating to view and be around. For everyone’s safety, please do it from a safe distance. 

This article was originally published in the October 2022 issue.