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LEARNING

BOATING RULES

Important Definitions

TERMS AND DEFINITIONS:
VesselAny type of watercraft, including non-displacement craft and seaplane used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.
Power-DrivenPropelled by machinery
Sailing VesselUnder sail, provided that propelling machinery, even if present, is not being used
Vessel Engaged in FishingAny vessel fishing with nets, lines, trawls, or other fishing apparatus that restrict maneuverability (does not include a vessel fishing with trolling lines or other fishing apparatus that do not restrict maneuverability)
SeaplaneAny aircraft designed to maneuver on the water
Length and BreadthA vessel’s length overall and greatest breadth
In Sight of One AnotherVessels are deemed to be in sight of one another only when one can be observed visually from the other
Stand-on VesselWhen encountering another vessel, the stand-on vessel must: 1. Maintain course and speed. 2. Keep a proper lookout and return communication with the give-way vessel. 3. Do all it can to avoid collision
Give-way VesselThe vessel that must take EARLY and SUBSTANTIAL action to keep WELL clear of the stand-on vessel
UnderwayA vessel that is not at anchor or made fast to the shore
Restricted VisibilityAny condition in which visibility is restricted by fog, mist, falling snow, heavy rainstorms, sandstorms, or any other similar causes
Inland WatersThe navigable waters of South African rivers and dams, or other inland waters of the country

Sounding Off – When and How to Use Sound Signals

When two power-driven vessels encounter each other within one half mile, sound signals must be used. The initiating vessel indicates a maneuver, and the responding vessel agrees or disagrees.

SOUND SIGNALS:
1 short blast (1 second)I want to pass you on my port side (Hint: PORT = 1 syllable = 1 short blast)
2 short blastsI want to pass you on my starboard side (Hint: STARBOARD = 2 syllables = 2 short blasts)
3 short blastsEngine is in reverse
5 short blastsDanger, or do not understand approaching boat’s intentions
1 prolonged blast (4-6 seconds)Warning:
  • Entering or exiting a blind turn
  • Nearing an obstructed area
  • Leaving a dock or a berth
1 prolonged blast every 2 minutesPower-driven vessel operating in low or restricted visibility
1 prolonged blast + 2 short blasts every 2 minutesSailing vessel operating in low or restricted visibility

The Rule of Responsibility

The vessel operator is responsible for acting in a prudent and reasonable manner consistent with the ordinary practices of boating.

  • Stay active.
  • Stay alert.
  • Respect the weather, the water, your passengers, fellow boaters, divers, swimmers, and property owners.
 

Vessel operators need to pay attention and operate their vessels responsibly.

Proper Lookout

There are many distractions on the water. As the vessel operator, it is your responsibility to constantly monitor your surroundings, on all boats at all hours. You should assign another person on board to act as a lookout as well.

Make sure no passengers or equipment can impede your line of sight. Scan the bow, starboard, and port sides for boaters, swimmers, flags, and floating debris.

 

You are required to use every available means, including radar and radio (if equipped), to determine whether there is any risk of collision with another vessel.

Safe Speed

All vessels should be operated at a speed that allows time and distance to take necessary action to avoid a collision. Obviously, different conditions and levels of expertise will warrant different speeds. Certain areas of Alabama enforce local speed limits.

Check with your local boating authority before heading out on the water to determine speed limits (if any) in your area.

To determine a ‘safe speed’ for your boat, take into account the following factors:

  • The visibility conditions (fog, mist, rain, darkness)
  • The wind, water conditions and currents
  • Traffic density, type of vessels in the area and their proximity
  • Vessel responsiveness (larger, more powerful boats require a larger turning radius and have a higher top-end speed which requires more time and distance to stop)
  • The proximity of any navigational hazards

Lastly, your wake can cause damage to property and other vessels. Always take into account the effects your wake might create when adjusting your speed.

Rules for Avoiding Collisions

Avoiding collisions involves precautionary measures (proper lookout, use of radar if present, etc.), but more importantly, collision avoidance is made possible when boat operators know how to deal with situations appropriately.

illustration of a boats port, stern, starboard

Boats in constant motion will meet quickly, therefore it’s necessary to take early and substantial action to avoid collisions.


avoiding collisions: stern

Stern

A is the give-way vessel.

If any vessel approaches this sector, maintain, with caution, your course and speed.


avoiding collisions: starboard

Starboard

A is the stand-on vessel.

If any vessel approaches within this sector, keep out of its way.*

* This rule may not always apply if one or both vessels are sailboats.

avoiding collisions: port

Port

A is the give-way vessel.

If a power-driven vessel approaches within this sector, maintain, with caution, your course and speed.



As a general rule, rowboats, sailing vessels, and canoes are less maneuverable and therefore have the right-of-way over power-driven boats. However, if one vessel is unable to maneuver as it normally would, the most maneuverable vessel gives way.

Overtaking a Power-Driven Vessel

Vessel A is overtaking and is the give-way vessel. Vessel B is the stand-on vessel. As the give-way vessel, A must take EARLY and SUBSTANTIAL action to keep clear of the stand-on vessel B.

two power overtaking vessels

If both vessels are power-driven, sound signals are required. Vessel A must blow one short blast and alter course to starboard, or blow two short blasts and alter course to port, and Vessel B must return the same sound signal(s) to indicate understanding.

Approaching a Power-Driven Vessel Head On

Port-to-Port

Neither power-driven vessel A nor power-driven vessel B gives way or stands on in a head-on encounter. Therefore, some communication is needed between vessels A and B.

approaching a power-driven vessel head on

The most common response in a head-on meeting between power-driven vessels is to signal an intention to pass port-to-port. This action is initiated by one of the vessels sounding one short blast.

In short, vessel A must blow one short blast, indicating its intention to pass port-to-port, and then alters its course to starboard. Vessel B must return one short blast—to indicate agreement and understanding—and alter its course to starboard, thereby, leaving room on each vessel’s port side for passing.

Starboard-to-Starboard

If it is not possible to pass port-to-port due to an obstruction or shoreline, a starboard-to-starboard pass should be signaled with two short blasts.

In short, vessel A must blow two short blasts, indicating its intention to pass starboard-to-starboard, and alter its course to port. Vessel B must return two short blasts to indicate agreement and understanding and alter its course to port, thereby, leaving room on each vessel’s starboard side for passing.

Approaching a Power-Driven Vessel From the Side

Crossing (Port Approach)

Power-driven vessel A approaches the port side of power-driven vessel B. Vessel A is considered the give-way vessel. As the give-way vessel, A must take EARLY and SUBSTANTIAL action to keep clear and avoid crossing the stand-on vessel B. Vessel A must blow one short blast and alter course to starboard.. Vessel B must blow one short blast to indicate understanding, and maintain course.

approaching a power-driven vessel from the side

Approaching a Sailing Vessel

When a power-driven vessel B encounters a sailing vessel A, the sailing vessel is ALWAYS the stand-on vessel (unless a sailing vessel is overtaking). In the case above, power-driven vessel B must take EARLY and SUBSTANTIAL action to keep clear of sailing vessel A.

approaching a sailing vessel

Sailing vessels stand on when being overtaken and give way when overtaking.

Approaching Another Sailing Vessel

The windward side is defined as the side opposite to that on which the mainsail is carried or, in the case of a square-rigged vessel, the side opposite to that on which the largest fore-and-aft sail is carried.


approaching another sailing vessel wind

When each sailboat has the wind on a different side, the vessel that has the wind on its port (left) side is considered the give-way vessel. In this illustration, Sailboat A must take EARLY and SUBSTANTIAL action to keep clear of Sailboat B.


approaching another sailing vessel

When both sailboats have the wind on the same side, the boat closer to the wind (upwind) is the give-way vessel and the boat further from the wind (downwind) is the stand-on vessel. In the illustration at left, Sailboat B must take EARLY and SUBSTANTIAL action to keep clear of Sailboat A.



If a sailboat has the wind on its port side and the sailor cannot determine with certainty whether the other boat has the wind on its port or starboard side, the first sailboat is considered the give-way vessel and must take EARLY and SUBSTANTIAL action to keep clear of the second sailboat.

Operating in Heavy Traffic

When boat traffic is heavy with many boats moving in different directions and at different speeds, the boat operator MUST slow down or stop in order to navigate safely.

Operating in Narrow Channels

Operating within narrow channels

When approaching a narrow channel, stay to the starboard side and, using a prolonged blast, announce your approach to vessels that may be around the bend. When operating within a narrow channel, vessels must keep as near as is safe and practical to the outer limit of a narrow channel on their starboard side.

Sailing vessels and vessels less than 65 feet in length cannot block the passage of a vessel that must restrict its navigation to a narrow channel (that is, recreational boaters traveling in a main channel should give way to larger vessel such as tugboats). In order to comply with Homeland Security Measures, avoid anchoring in narrow channels and beneath bridges.

a boat operating within narrow channels

Operating near large vessels

When operating near a shipping lane or in areas of high boat traffic, smaller craft are not easily visible to larger vessels. Always keep a lookout for larger vessels and be prepared to yield the right of way.

Specifically, always steer well clear of vessels in tow, docked ferries, or ferries in transit. Be mindful of cable ferries pulling other vessels—the cable might be submerged and difficult to see. Do not get in between a ferry and its tow. Keep an ear out for one prolonged blast from a horn, as this may be indicating a departing dock. Operators of smaller craft should attempt to travel in a group if at all possible, in order to be more visible.

a boat operating near large vessels

 

Operating in Darkness – Part 1

During hours of darkness, navigation lights MUST be displayed. Navigation lights help you determine whether an approaching vessel is operating under power or sail, and its direction.

Remember these quick rules for reference when encountering other vessels in darkness.

Operating in Darkness – Part 2

operating a boat in darkness 1

Powerboat A: When only a white light is visible, you may be overtaking another vessel. Give way to either side.

Powerboat B: You are being overtaken. Stand on.


operating a boat in darkness 2

Powerboat A: When only white and red lights are visible, you are approaching the port side of a powerboat. Give way to your starboard side.

Powerboat B: When only white and green lights are visible, you are approaching the starboard side of a powerboat. Stand on.


operating a boat in darkness 3

Powerboat A: When white, red and green lights are visible, you are approaching a powerboat head-on. Give way to your starboard side.

Powerboat B: When white, red and green lights are visible, you are approaching a powerboat head-on. Give way to your starboard side.


operating a boat in darkness 4

Powerboat A: When only red and green lights are visible, you are approaching a sailboat head-on. Give way to your starboard side.

Powerboat B: When white, red and green lights are visible, you are approaching a powerboat head-on. Stand on.


operating a boat in darkness 5

Powerboat A: When only a red light is visible, you are approaching the port side of a sailboat. Give way to your starboard side.

Powerboat B: When white and green lights are visible, you are approaching the starboard side of a powerboat. Stand on.


Powerboat A: When only a green light is visible, you are approaching the starboard side of a sailboat. Give way to your port side.

Powerboat B: When white and red lights are visible, you are approaching the port side of a powerboat. Stand on.

Operating in Restricted Visibility

During periods of restricted visibility (such as rain, mist, heavy fog, or hours of darkness), you should slow to minimum speed to give your vessel an opportunity to maneuver should the risk of a collision arise.

WHEN VISIBILITY IS RESTRICTED BY FOG OR SMOKE, ADDITIONAL SOUND SIGNALS ARE REQUIRED:
VESSEL TYPESITUATIONSOUND REQUIREMENT
Power VesselUnderwayProlonged blast every 2 minutes
Sailing VesselUnderwayProlonged blast + two short blasts every 2 minutes
Power VesselUnderway but not movingTwo prolonged blasts every 2 minutes
Any VesselAnchored5 seconds of rapid bell ringing every minute
Any VesselRun aground3 bell strokes + 5 seconds of rapid bell ringing + 3 bell strokes every minute

Unless the risk of a collision is present, you should reduce your speed to the minimum you need in order to keep on course when you hear any of the sound signals above.

Visual Distress Signals

A visual distress signal (VDS) is any device designed to show that your boat is in distress and help others locate you. A wide variety of signaling devices, both pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic, can be carried to meet the requirements of the regulation. Visual distress signals may only be used in emergency situations.

Regulations require all recreational boats operating on U.S. coastal waters, including the Great Lakes, the territorial seas and those waters directly connected to the Great Lakes and the territorial seas, up to a point where the waters are less than two miles wide, and boats owned in the United States when operating on the high seas to be equipped with visual distress signals.

man on sinking boat with a pyrotechnic visual distress signal

The regulation states “No person in a boat shall display a visual distress signal on water to which this subpart applies under any circumstances except a situation where assistance is needed because of immediate or potential danger to the persons aboard.”

Docking and Mooring

Docking or mooring your vessel can be the most challenging of boating operations. Maneuvering your vessel into a dock or a mooring marker in calm conditions is hard enough—add high traffic, choppy water, and windy conditions to the mix and you quickly realize that proper docking and mooring is a real skill. Keep the following factors in mind for effective docking and mooring:

a docked boat

Preparation

When you approach the dock, slow your speed, secure fenders on the docking side, and ready the docking lines.

Traffic

If you are headed to a marina with limited docking stations, you may have to wait until stations open up. Be patient and courteous; approach only when you see an open station and have communicated your intention to other vessels that are departing and waiting.

Wind and Current

The direction of the wind and the flow of the water current have a huge impact on docking.

In Your Face

If the wind is in your face, you should approach the dock at a steep angle (30°-45°) and swing the boat quickly. Secure the bow first, then reverse until the stern swings in.

boat with wind and current in your face

At Your Back

If the wind is at your back, you should approach the dock at a shallow angle (10°-20°), and then stop the boat in order to allow the wind to drift the boat into the dock.

boat with wind and current at your back

If possible, approach the dock with the wind into your face: you have much more control when docking into the wind.

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