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Our summer safety guide - Dispelling common myths

Sometimes it seems as if there are more myths than facts about the Rules of the Road. Some popular myths may “seem right” but are, in fact, oversimplified or downright wrong.

Sometimes it seems as if there are more myths than facts about the Rules of the Road. Some popular myths may “seem right” but are, in fact, oversimplified or downright wrong. Here are a few of the more common misconceptions I have heard from boat owners and operators.

• Myth: A sailboat always has the right of way over a powerboat.

Fact 1: The Rules don’t describe “rights.” They describe responsibilities, often by saying “shall keep out of the way of the other.” The Rules for vessels in sight of one another call the vessel that must keep out of the way the “give-way” vessel. The other is the “stand-on” vessel, which also has specific responsibilities. (The only mention of “right of way” is in Inland Rule 14(d), which applies only to power-driven vessels on the Western Rivers system.)

Fact 2: Rule 18(b) requires a sailboat to keep out of the way of a vessel not under command, restricted in her ability to maneuver, or fishing.

Fact 3: Rule 9 directs a sailboat or a boat smaller than 20 meters (65.6 feet) to “not impede the passage of a vessel that can navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway.”

To further dispel this right-of-way myth, consider the collision between the single-handed racing sailboat Coyote and the drifting fishing boat Lady Olive Marie near George’s Bank in August 1994. Lady Olive Marie was drifting with engines idling and running lights on — on a clear night, in a strong northeast breeze — and Coyote ran into her. Coyote was showing no running lights. Her skipper had installed a D-cell powered red/green flashlight for side lights, and a similar stern light, some 8-1/2 hours earlier. Their batteries had run down.

Lady Olive Marie was maintaining a visual and radar lookout, but the rough weather obscured Coyote on radar, and her running lights were out. Coyote wasn’t keeping a lookout, her skipper apparently having dozed off. He didn’t see the fishing boat until his bowsprit pierced her hull. The court ruled that Coyote was essentially invisible from Lady Olive Marie and held Coyote solely at fault for the collision.

Fact 4: Rule 13 states “any vessel overtaking any other vessel shall keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken.” A sailboat overtakes a powerboat more frequently than you might expect. This often happens when small boats are trolling for fish or otherwise operating at slow speed, with a sailboat booming right along on a comfortable reach.

But doesn’t a sailboat have to keep out of the way of any boat that is fishing? Here’s another myth of the Rules, one that leads to much confusion. The Rules’ definition of “fishing” is a narrow one, meaning “fishing with nets, lines, trawls or other fishing apparatus which restricts maneuverability but does not include a vessel fishing with trolling lines.” The vast majority of the recreational boats that are fishing are not “fishing” according to the Rules. Clear enough?

So a powerboat trolling with lines should keep out of the way of a sailboat. But if a sailboat is approaching a shrimp trawler with nets down, the sailboat must keep out of the way. Watching an approaching shrimp boat carefully to determine what she is doing is critical to understanding your responsibilities under the Rules. You can recognize the trawler by her configuration, but you need to know whether she is dragging her nets or running free.

The wires extend aft when trawling. The net doors will be hauled out of the water when the boat is running, but be careful. Trawler crews sometimes haul one net at a time; the doors of the starboard net could be up in the air, while the port net is still dragging. A shrimp trawler runs free at around 10 to 12 knots, and around 3 knots while dragging nets. If you are close, the bow wave is a clue, as are the wires.

The Rules require trawlers to display a double cone shape in the daytime and all-around green over white lights at the masthead at night, when trawling. Unfortunately trawler crews seldom, if ever, lower these shapes when they are running free with the nets on deck.

• Myth: You can always identify a boat at night by her distinctive running lights.

This is, after all, a fundamental requirement of the Rules. Would that it were always so. In just an hour and a half on a recent outing I saw several incorrect running lights near Beaufort, N.C. A sailboat of about 35 feet — sails furled, under power — was using her tricolor masthead light. It’s only for use under sail. An outboard runabout on plane had red and green side lights but no all-around white light. This happens all the time. From anywhere ahead, the runabout showed the lights of a sailboat. Two yachts, well longer than 100 feet in length and worth millions of dollars, each had the forward masthead light abaft the side lights. A large shrimp trawler moored at a pier was showing green over white lights at the masthead, side lights and stern light, indicating it was fishing even though it was moored and obviously not fishing. These were just a few blatant examples; I was out on a casual cruise, not a running-light inspection.

• Myth: It’s a good idea to turn on a sailboat’s masthead strobe light when in an area of large-ship traffic, such as Chesapeake Bay.

This is flat wrong. Inland Rule 37 describes a strobe light as a distress signal. Using a high-intensity strobe light on Inland Waters will call out the Coast Guard to assist you. The strobe is for genuine distress, not routine use.

• Myth … or not? A tricolor lantern at the masthead of a sailboat less than 65 feet (20 meters) is the best way to display running lights.

In my opinion, based on many years at sea on Coast Guard ships, this statement is true or false depending on your boat’s location. At sea the tricolor lantern is excellent. Its light arcs are unobstructed, it is high enough to be seen continually despite swells, and it is above the spray near the sea surface. However, when I saw sailboats near shore at night from a ship’s bridge, the tricolor lantern often was nearly on a level with shore lights. That makes it hard to distinguish, and you usually see only one of a sailboat’s lights. Running lights nearer the boat’s deck, seen from a ship’s bridge, are in the dark area of water below the shore lights. When you are near shore, the tricolor lantern isn’t as visible to a ship’s lookout as side and stern lights mounted lower down, in my opinion.

If you have an auxiliary sailboat with a tricolor lantern at the masthead, you also should have side lights, a 20-point masthead light, and a stern light for use while the engine is running. You should be able to show just the side lights and the stern light while sailing in an area of background lights. Check out the switch locations so that you can turn on the proper set of lights without having to fumble or hunt for a flashlight to see the switch labels.

The best way to avoid myths is to learn the Navigation Rules thoroughly. The accompanying article contains some hints about reviewing the rules, by modern and traditional methods.

Capt. Bill Brogdon is retired from the Coast Guard, having served as captain of three ships, the last of which was the 378-foot cutter Dallas. He is the author of “Boat Navigation for the Rest of Us,” published by International Marine/McGraw-Hill.