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How To Nav­i­gate Ship­ping Lanes Robert Reeder

One of the great­est chal­lenges when you’re op­er­at­ing small wa­ter­craft in a nav­i­ga­ble sea­way is in­ter­act­ing with large com­mer­cial and mil­i­tary ships, es­pe­cially when you’re try­ing to avoid col­li­sion. While there is no lit­eral “law of gross ton­nage” in ei­ther the In­ter­na­tional or In­land Rules of the Road, it serves as a pretty good rule of thumb. In nearly ev­ery in­stance in which you are likely to be in­ter­act­ing with large ves­sels, as a small-boat op­er­a­tor you are re­quired to give way. The one ex­cep­tion, of course, is when you are be­ing over­taken by the larger ves­sel.

For our pur­poses here, we’ll de­fine “small boat” as any ves­sel up to 66 feet in over­all length (LOA) and also in­clude in that cat­e­gory ves­sels of any size that are sail­ing or fish­ing. We can fur­ther de­fine a “large boat” as any ves­sel be­tween 66 and 328 feet LOA. Any­thing larger than 328 feet is un­am­bigu­ously a “ship,” even if, like a sub­ma­rine, the ves­sel is called a “boat” by con­ven­tion. Ad­di­tion­ally, we’ll as­sume that most Pas­sage­Maker read­ers own boats 66 feet or less and fo­cus on the col­li­sion avoid­ance re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of ves­sels in this size range.

Specif­i­cally, we’re look­ing at Rule 9 (“Nar­row Channels and Fair­ways”) and Rule 10 (“Traf­fic Sep­a­ra­tion Schemes”). Un­less you are many miles off­shore, any large com­mer­cial ves­sels you en­counter will likely be nav­i­gat­ing within one of th­ese des­ig­nated ar­eas.


“Nar­row channels” are easy to de­fine: They are nat­u­ral or dredged pas­sages ad­ja­cent to shal­low wa­ter, of­ten marked with lat­eral (red and green) buoys and range markers. All ves­sels uti­liz­ing a chan­nel must re­main as close to its star­board edge as

they can safely man­age. If for any rea­son a ves­sel needs to cross the chan­nel, it must do so at a right an­gle to the chan­nel so as to min­i­mize cross­ing time. The ves­sels we’ve de­fined as small boats (less than 66 feet or any ves­sels sail­ing or fish­ing) must not im­pede the pas­sage of ves­sels that can only nav­i­gate safely within the con­fines of the chan­nel. Since we don’t ac­tu­ally know the draft of other ves­sels, it is safest to as­sume that all boats we en­counter must nav­i­gate within the chan­nel. And if you’re fish­ing, it lit­er­ally will be ev­ery ves­sel. “Not im­ped­ing” means not only with your boat it­self, but also with any gear you might have over the side—nets, lines, dinghies, crab pots, etc. If a ves­sel nav­i­gat­ing within the chan­nel is forced to ma­neu­ver in or­der to pre­vent risk of col­li­sion from de­vel­op­ing, you have “im­peded” them.

A dan­ger ex­ists, es­pe­cially in nat­u­rally formed channels with­out clearly de­fined buoy lines, that a small ves­sel may not rec­og­nize that the “open” body of wa­ter it is op­er­at­ing in is con­sid­ered a nar­row chan­nel by the su­per­tanker with which it is in­ter­act­ing. Never as­sume that be­cause you have am­ple sea room, the other ves­sel does as well.


Bowditch’s The Amer­i­can Prac­ti­cal Nav­i­ga­tor de­fines “fair­way” as “the main thor­ough­fare of ship­ping in a har­bor or chan­nel.” In this def­i­ni­tion, though, “chan­nel” means a wide, deep in­land sea­way like a sound or fjord, which is en­tirely dif­fer­ent from what is meant by a chan­nel in Rule 9. Func­tion­ally, a fair­way is the part of a har­bor that the ships fre­quent, which is nei­ther a nar­row chan­nel nor an an­chor­age. A par­tic­u­lar area is likely con­sid­ered a fair­way if it is in sight of land, has deep wa­ter all around, and has ships mov­ing through it reg­u­larly in the same di­rec­tion but is not part of a traf­fic sep­a­ra­tion scheme. Some fair­ways are marked as such on nav­i­ga­tion charts, but many are not.

Below is one ex­am­ple of a fair­way, where two nar­row dredged channels are con­nected by a large, deep lake. The fair­way is not men­tioned on the chart; you just have to in­tuit where ships might nav­i­gate be­tween one chan­nel and the other. Once you re­al­ize that you might be in a fair­way, you must as­sume that Rule 9 ap­plies and avoid im­ped­ing the ves­sels uti­liz­ing the fair­way.


Un­like a fair­way, a traf­fic sep­a­ra­tion scheme (TSS) is al­ways clearly printed on our charts. And our re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in and around them are de­fined pretty clearly as well. The rules for op­er­at­ing in a TSS are sim­i­lar to those for a nar­row chan­nel. You can think of a TSS like an on-the-wa­ter ver­sion of a North Amer­i­can high­way, with in­bound and out­bound traf­fic sep­a­rated by a me­dian (called the “traf­fic sep­a­ra­tion zone”). You en­ter and exit the TSS just like a car would merge onto and off of a high­way. And just as with a chan­nel, if you must cross the TSS for any rea­son, you should do so at a right an­gle.

A TSS may be off­shore or in­land, as il­lus­trated above. Ves­sels greater than 66 feet are ob­li­gated to fol­low the TSS; smaller ves­sels are not, how­ever, and are in­stead per­mit­ted to use the in­shore traf­fic zone, which is the area be­tween the TSS and the shore­line. If, for what­ever rea­son, a small boat needs to use the TSS, then like all other traf­fic it must proceed in the cor­rect lane (in­bound or out­bound) and may not im­pede the pas­sage of other ves­sels fol­low­ing the traf­fic lane. Fish­ing ves­sels and sail­ing ves­sels of any size are sim­i­larly re­quired to not im­pede the pas­sage of ves­sels fol­low­ing the traf­fic lanes. Fish­ing ves­sels, how­ever, are al­lowed

to fish within the traf­fic sep­a­ra­tion zone (the “me­dian” or, as it ap­pears on the chart, “the pur­ple part”) so long as their nets, lines, pots, and other gear do not ex­tend into the traf­fic lanes.


In ad­di­tion to all of this, any U.S. mil­i­tary ves­sel op­er­at­ing in U.S. wa­ters has a legally de­fined “naval ves­sel pro­tec­tion zone” sur­round­ing it, whether un­der­way, at an­chor, or moored. It is a felony of­fense to op­er­ate a ves­sel within this zone, which ex­tends 100 yards around the ves­sel in all di­rec­tions. In ad­di­tion, you must slow to bare steer­age­way (the ab­so­lute min­i­mum speed at which wa­ter mov­ing over your rud­der will al­low you to turn prop­erly) when within 500 yards of the naval ves­sel. This is to say that no mat­ter what the naval ship is do­ing, you must main­tain a min­i­mum clos­est point of ap­proach (CPA) of one-quar­ter nau­ti­cal mile, and if you have the wa­ter to do so, you prob­a­bly want to ex­tend that to one-half nau­ti­cal mile or more. The penalty for vi­o­lat­ing this rule is up to six years in prison and/or $250,000 in fines—and by all ac­counts they have very lit­tle sense of hu­mor about this.


VHF com­mu­ni­ca­tions for ves­sel pass­ing ar­range­ments are only ever spec­i­fied for U.S. In­land Rules wa­ters, never for wa­ters gov­erned by the in­ter­na­tional COLREGS. None­the­less, in prac­tice we use VHF ra­dios in all U.S. wa­ters for col­li­sion avoid­ance, so it is im­por­tant to know which VHF channels are used for this pur­pose.

Chan­nel 16 is used for in­ter­na­tional hail­ing and dis­tress, and it is never wrong to first con­tact a ves­sel on 16 and then switch to a work­ing chan­nel. How­ever, in wa­ters with a ves­sel traf­fic sys­tem (VTS)—es­sen­tially an air traf­fic con­trol for ships—large com­mer­cial

and mil­i­tary ves­sels are not re­quired to mon­i­tor VHF chan­nel 16, so they may not hear you hail­ing them. (Pre­sum­ably a VTS op­er­a­tor would hear your hail and for­ward that to the ves­sel in ques­tion, but that takes more time than we may have to avoid a col­li­sion.)

Sev­eral dif­fer­ent VHF channels are used to com­mu­ni­cate in VTS wa­ters, and some­times more than one chan­nel will cover a large op­er­at­ing re­gion. Th­ese VHF channels in­clude 05A, 11, 12, and 14. Con­sult your U.S. Coast Pi­lot or Sail­ing

Di­rec­tions for the VTS chan­nel in your op­er­at­ing area. You can also find this in­for­ma­tion in the VTS ta­ble in­cluded in the back of your USCG Rules of the Road book. In­ci­den­tally, pas­sively mon­i­tor­ing your lo­cal VTS chan­nel is a great way to get in­for­ma­tion about which ships are com­ing through your area soon.

In U.S. wa­ters only (not in Canada or else­where), VHF chan­nel 13 (or VHF chan­nel 67 in the lower Mis­sis­sippi River Delta) is used by power-driven ves­sels greater than 66 feet for bridge-to-bridge com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Many ves­sels less than that use VHF chan­nel 09 for hail­ing other small boats and for mak­ing pass­ing ar­range­ments. Large boats and ships, how­ever, do not mon­i­tor chan­nel 09 and prob­a­bly don’t know that smaller ves­sels do.

Mil­i­tary ves­sels fre­quently op­er­ate un­der ra­dio si­lence and may not re­spond to your hail for pass­ing ar­range­ments. Even if they do not re­spond, they are al­most cer­tainly mon­i­tor­ing channels 16 and 13 as well as the lo­cal VTS chan­nel. If you must hail a mil­i­tary ves­sel, hail it sim­ply as “Navy Unit.” If you have been mon­i­tor­ing VTS com­mu­ni­ca­tions, it is also fine to use the ves­sel’s VTS-is­sued num­ber, such as “Navy Unit Two-Seven.” (This des­ig­na­tor may or may not cor­re­spond to the ves­sel’s hull num­ber.) Never hail a mil­i­tary ves­sel as “sub­ma­rine on my port bow” or any­thing to that ef­fect. They are main­tain­ing ra­dio si­lence for a rea­son and an­nounc­ing to the world what kind of ves­sel they are is not help­ing. Hail them once, in­form them of your in­ten­tions once, and do not ex­pect a re­sponse.

Here is an ex­am­ple of a proper hail­ing of a mil­i­tary ves­sel: “Navy Unit in vicin­ity of Foul­weather Bluff, this is Mo­tor Ves­sel Antigone on one-six. I am com­ing right to take your stern, open­ing CPA to one-half mile. Stand­ing by on one-six, Antigone out.”

If it is nec­es­sary to ma­neu­ver to open CPA with them, do so un­am­bigu­ously in such a way as to take their stern (and the sterns of their es­corts, if any) by greater than one-quar­ter nau­ti­cal mile. Re­mem­ber that the naval ves­sel pro­tec­tion zone ap­plies to ves­sels un­der­way as well.

Be­tween nar­row channels, fair­ways, traf­fic sep­a­ra­tion schemes, and naval ves­sel pro­tec­tion zones, our job as small-boat op­er­a­tors be­comes pretty clear. Out­side of an open-ocean cross­ing, in nearly ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion be­tween a small boat and a larger ves­sel, the small boat is the give-way ves­sel un­less it is be­ing over­taken. This is the “law of gross ton­nage” in ev­ery­thing but name. And frankly it’s just good com­mon sense. Good watch!


Keep a safe and le­gal dis­tance away from all naval ships.

Above: Ex­am­ple of a fair­way cre­ated by the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment

Below: Ex­am­ples of how in­shore and off­shore traf­fic sep­a­ra­tion schemes are marked on NOAA charts


The Sea­wolf- class fast- at­tack sub­ma­rine USS Con­necti­cut (SSN 22) de­parts Puget Sound Naval Ship­yard for sea tri­als.

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