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USCG: Boaters Need to Respect Narrow Channels Rule

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The sailboat's mast as seen from the tanker's bridge during the close encounter (Image courtesy USCG)

By The Maritime Executive 05-08-2020 01:15:00

On Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard cited the operator of a 25-foot sailboat near Stockton for violating COLREGS' narrow channel rule. 

According to the USCG, the sailboat crossed in front of the bow of a 550-foot tanker on April 18 while the tanker was transiting a designated narrow channel near Stockton. A photo taken from the tanker's bridge indicates that the top of the sailboat's mast was the only part of the boat visible to the crew when the ship was required to take action to avoid collision.

According to Rule 9, sailboats (of any length) and all boats under 20 meters shall not impede the passage of a vessel that can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway. In the Coast Guard's interpretation, the term “shall not impede” means a small vessel or craft must keep well clear and not hinder or interfere with the transit of larger vessels.

Small craft maneuvers are a matter of frequent concern for merchant mariners. In particular, a small minority of the sailing community may navigate as though sailboats have general right-of-way over merchant ships under Rule 18. However, this privelege does not apply inside of traffic separation schemes, within fairways/narrow channels or in conditions of restricted visibility. (As a practical matter, cutting the bow of a large merchant ship may also contradict the spirit of Rule 2, which requires that "due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision.")

“Large commercial vessels have a blind spot that often extends hundreds of feet in front of their bow,” said Lt. Anna Funk, a Coast Guard Sector San Francisco Investigating Officer. “These ships are far less maneuverable than small recreational boats and can take up to a mile and a half to stop, which means they have to take evasive action well in advance if the intentions of nearby vessels are unclear.”

Boat owners and operators can face maximum civil penalties of nearly $15,000 per incident for violating navigation rules. The USCG encourages vessel masters and operators to report incidents that merit investigation. Reports will be investigated and may result in actions such as license suspension or civil penalties.