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Don't try to tangle with the big guys

The Golden Rules for recreational boats in shipping channels: keep a sharp lookout and steer clear

The Golden Rules for recreational boats in shipping channels: keep a sharp lookout and steer clear

Rick Defreitas saw the David-and-Goliath encounter unfold as if it were in slow motion — and it stunned him, because he thought for sure the yacht would give ground to the oncoming container ship.

Defreitas, service manager at Fort Lauderdale’s New River Marina, saw the sport cruiser, which estimates to be about 36 feet, idling in the center of the ship’s channel at the ocean entrance to Port Everglades. Its crew was trying to load a plastic kayak and its paddler onto the boat’s swim platform.

Some 500 yards distant from where the yacht was pitching in the swells, a 500-foot container ship was making its approach to the port.

It was bearing down on the pleasure boat.

“I saw the bow of the ship coming into the cut and the bow of this little boat, and it wasn’t moving,” says Defreitas, who was headed out the cut to sea-trial a 66-foot Cheoy Lee named Ocean Star at midafternoon Jan. 8. “The guy’s not even aware this freighter is coming down on him. I thought he was going to pull out of the way, but he didn’t.”

The channel there is 500 feet wide and sandwiched between two rock jetties. Defreitas says a tug was pushing on the ship’s port stern. Another was pulled up alongside its port bow, helping guide it.

The yacht had 15 to 20 seconds to get out of the way from the time Defreitas saw the drama begin to unfold. “I heard the freighter’s horn,” he says. “There were several long blasts. I think I remember hearing bells go off, too.” The yacht still did not move. The paddler was aboard, but its crew still was wrestling with the kayak.

“The ship had to turn to port,” Defreitas says. “It was a surprisingly hard turn for a boat that big. I thought, ‘Holy mackerel. This is going to be hard.’ The tug was pushing him off the jetty. I know he had to be pushing as hard as he could to keep from going onto the rocks.”

The ship was now on the south side of the channel, where Ocean Star’s skipper, Capt. Tom Isom, had planned to pass the ship port to port. He had to take evasive action now and cross the ship’s bow to the north side and pass the container ship starboard to starboard.

The yacht crew did finally get the kayak aboard, and after the ship had passed they motored back into the center of the channel and put the kayak and kayaker back in the water.

“We don’t know what [the skipper’s] intentions were, but we yelled at him, and the pilot boat stopped and said something to him,” Defreitas says. “The cut is no place to hang out. It’s rough. There’s a lot of traffic. It’s just not a safe place to be.”

He adds that trying to save the kayak was a fool’s errand. It almost caused a 500-foot ship to go on the rocks. “If I had been that [skipper] and I looked up from my boat and saw that ship coming, I’d have said, ‘Hey, pal, get in the boat. Leave the kayak. We’re moving.’ ”

Close calls are an everyday occurrence, says Thomas Hackett, co-director of Port Everglades Pilots Association. His office hands out brochures titled “Steer Clear!” to boaters and offers to send a pilot to speak to clubs to talk about safely navigating Port Everglades.

The brochure advises boaters:

• Avoid ship channels, if possible.

• Don’t anchor in them.

• Indicate early whether or not you can get out of the way of a ship so it can take evasive action.

• Keep a 360-degree lookout at all times while in the channel.

• Run the auxiliary engine in the channel if you’re on a sailboat. A ship can “steal a sailboat’s wind” as it passes.

• Five short whistle blasts means danger. Get out of the way quickly.

• Rule 9 of International and Inland Rules of the Road requires a small boat not to impede the passage of large ships because they are very limited in their ability to steer, speed up, slow down or stop, and require deeper water for safe navigation.

• Stay to the sides of the channel when a ship approaches.

Ships come in and out of the Port Everglades cut 12,800 times a year.

“It was either kill someone in the boat or take evasive action,” Defreitas says. “The pilot did a great job. I don’t know how he got that ship to move around like that.”

Contact Port Everglades Pilots Association at (954) 522-4491 or P.O. Box 13017, Fort Lauderdale, FL33316, to schedule a pilot to speak at a yacht club.