Saturday, June 2, 2012

Sailors, Models and Rules of the Road

 OK, so why are they not called "Rules of the Sea"? I do not know.

Are these boats looking for the same marker?
[courtesy Judy O.]

Boaters in general, especially swashbuckling pirates, are not particularly enthused by rules, which is part of why the open water appeals to them. But there is a safety issue when boating around other boats. Some are big, some small, some are fast, some slow, some captains are sober, some maybe not quite. There have been dozens if not hundreds of books and manuals written about the Rules of the Road and safe boating, but I thought it might be helpful to distill the knowledge of the ages into a practical, if irreverently tongue-in-cheek, (partial) summary.

Perhaps most importantly, in practice the Rules are, to paraphrase Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean, "more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules". For instance, the Rules take some pains to identify the boat with the right of way, meaning other boats must yield. Yet, even if you have the right of way, you have an obligation to avoid a collision; this leads to a moral dilemma in a race when you have established your right of way to thwart your opponents' attempts to gain an advantage, yet they can expect that you will avoid hitting them despite having the right of way. Like Capt B said, "more what you'd call guidelines." Yes, he was a (fictional) pirate, but he was a sailor.

First, how do those navigational markers work. Red and green, post and float. Lights or none. And where are the highway signs to tell you how far to the next marina? Even on a well-marked channel such as the Intracoastal Waterway (two words that are abbreviated with three letters as "ICW"), you need to have some decent navigating skills (not celestial) and a chart and/or guidebook. The main rule with markers is "red right returning", an alliteration designed to remind you that the red markers are on your starboard when you are returning from sea. OK, you did know that "starboard" means "right", right? [Should be "red starboard inbound", but it does not roll off the tongue the same way.]

Simple enough, but it does not work when you are northbound on the ICW. Then, the greens should be on your right. Green is traditionally "port" (left), but to maintain consistency throughout the length of the ICW, it is (someone said this to me once) "red light returning to New Orleans". Now, they might have been confusing a nautical marker with another red light in N'Orleans, but it works. That should keep you heading in the right direction on marked waterways.

Note that not all boats are tacking in the same direction prior to race start.
Which way to the wind? Is that boat on a port tack?

Also important is the issue of traffic and right of way, as I alluded above. Some simple rules (and, of course, some exceptions and commentary):
  1. Pass oncoming traffic port to port (just as you would in your car on a highway, they approach on your left side). Exception: If oncoming vessel is too far on "your" side of the channel, then pass them starboard to starboard. This would NOT work on land.
  2. If overtaking a vessel, pass it on their port side, just as you would when passing a car on the highway. Exception: If the vessel is too far to the port side of the channel such that there is not enough room to pass, then pass them on their starboard side. NOTE: These first two rules can be simplified to  "Pass on side that offers the most safe passage".
  3. Vessels under power must yield to vessels under sail. NOTE: This rule is rarely followed as the power vessels usually just outrun the sailboats.
  4. Vessels under sail on port tack must yield to vessels under sail on starboard tack. NOTE: This may sound arbitrary, and it is, but someone must give way.
  5. The most useful rule of all is the Rule of Gross Tonnage (a practical, if not actual, rule). If the other vessel is bigger than yours, it has the right of way. This is useful when approaching a towboat pushing a huge barge on a narrow channel; the towboat captain will no doubt tell you where he wants you to be or not to be; there will be no question. One other situation a sailboat frequently faces is the tendency of a captain's brain to shrink in direct proportion to the size of his motor vessel.
Several weeks ago, Cameron was invited to join a group of sailors that race model sailboats in our marina. Ashley, our Dockmaster, said the club was looking for young blood. He was serious. At our first meeting, if you dropped Cameron from the mix, the average age was seventy-something. On the other hand, the gregarious and competitive group confessed that, in the heat of battle, they became so engrossed in the race that they had been known to tear off a toenail or walk off the dock. With blood loss and drowning as risks of the sport, Cameron was in! After all, men who liked battle could appreciate his Live Action Role Playing with swords and chain mail and such.

My first question was: what happens if the battery dies when the boat is "out there?" (As Captain Ron says, "If it is going to happen, it is going to happen 'out there'.") "That's what kayaks are for."

Ashley loaned us his old Fairwinds, Phoenix. Thirty-inch LOA and about four and a half feet from keel to masthead. Cameron's first practice in the water was in winds howling Force Two with the helm at the limits of land-based control. Not really. When Cameron sheeted in, Phoenix caught the wind, bolted upright and tore across the water, the rail almost buried, but no weather helm. Rounding the windward mark and turning downwind, Cameron quickly figured out how to "pop" the jib over so he could sail wing and wing.

Beam reach

Burying the rail (almost)

Rounding the mark

With the remote radio controls, it is a bit of a challenge for those us with ample gray hair (and therefore diminished gray matter) to steer the boat on its return course where, of course, the controls work in reverse. Cameron can do it just fine; me not so much.

Helmsman (Cameron) and tactician (me) observing from shore.

Sailing models is great fun and depends on true sailing skills, but is nothing like the real thing since you can only watch. On the other hand, you can push the Rules of the Road and actually hold your right of way even if it results in a collision. You are penalized (two full turns of the boat), but no one dies, the boats do not sink and the Coast Guard is not involved.

Fair winds and small wakes.

Obviously, these are NOT the legal rules, nor is this list complete. The United States Coast Guard would not find my practical rules sufficient. I refer you to the actual Rules of the Road, the Colregs (Collision Avoidance Regulations) and all the other laws governing safe and responsible boat handling.

Despite a plethora of laws, safe boat handling also requires common sense, such as learning at least as much about handling a boat as you would about handling a car before you operate one.


  1. What fun and what a good way to practice sail trim and tactics!

  2. Captain Jim,
    Great blog! Just joined goggle blog so I could leave you notes. We experienced the rule of gross tonnage on the ICW. Three barges and a tug. He was not on our AIS. I tactfully hailed him and inquired if he could see our AIS data to which he responded that he didn't have AIS. I've enjoyed your photos for rules. Fair winds......Pat


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