Our summer safety guide - Rule No. 1: practice makes perfect

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It’s night, a bit rough, and you’re well offshore. Off in the inky darkness you see a tiny light. Or did you?

It’s night, a bit rough, and you’re well offshore. Off in the inky darkness you see a tiny light. Or did you? Spray is coming over the rail, and your boat is rising and dipping in the swells. There it is again, briefly. Then you see that there are two lights close together. Your safety will depend on how you evaluate and respond to the vessel showing those lights, and how you follow the Rules of the Road.

In practice, being a good lookout is far more difficult than it might seem. And seeing is only the first part of the equation. What is it that you see? What is happening? What are your responsibilities and the other vessel’s responsibilities?

There is no way to answer these critical questions unless you know the Rules, and know them well. When I was going to sea aboard Coast Guard ships, I found it necessary to review the Rules carefully about every three months. This included the lights and shapes, and especially Part B of the Navigation Rules: the Steering and Sailing Rules. It is necessary to know these cold in order to avoid uncertainty or even confusion in the stress of bad weather, background lights near shore, poor visibility or limited time.

That’s just the way it is. You simply can’t bluff your way through knowing the Rules. Unless I study them frequently, I tend to slide over some of the details. I expect that I’m not alone in that. It is even more important for the amateur skipper to study the Rules in detail, particularly at the beginning of the boating season or when going to an area where different Rules apply.

Start with the Coast Guard booklet Navigation Rules, International-Inland, USCG M16672.2D. You can buy a copy from the Government Printing Office at (202) 512-1800 (GPO stock number 050-012-00407-2). It costs $14, and every boat 39 feet (12 meters) or more in length is required to carry a copy of the Inland Rules on board in U.S. waters. There also are versions for sale by commercial publishers. The booklet also describes the technical details of required signals and the junction lines between Inland and International Rules.

You can download a free copy of the booklet from the Coast Guard Navigation Center Web site at www.navcen.uscg.gov . Click on the “Navigation Rules” button and download the file in either Microsoft Word or PDF format. (You also can view the Navigation Rules at the site.) This is valuable, since you can search the file for words or phrases. International Rules appear on the even-numbered pages, Inland Rules on odd, so be sure you are looking at the appropriate Rule. The printed booklet lacks an index, but searching the computer file is easy. There also are some minor corrections to the Navigation Rules versions available from the Navigation Center, and a link to the approved Merchant Mariner Navigation Rules test questions.

Also, study a reference book that includes a thorough section on the Rules. Unfortunately many popular books contain oversimplified discussions of the Rules. Nowadays, the Internet gives access to many helpful sources. There is a training session at www.navrules.com/uscgaux that is a useful refresher. Starpath Navigation has valuable products on the Rules at www.starpath.com , including a good computer program called NavRules Plus. There also are free online courses on the Rules at www. docnmail.com/learnmore/sports/boating.htm.

It’s natural to concentrate on the lights for various types of vessels, and it’s necessary to know them in some detail. It is particularly important to understand the lights for tugs and towboats under Rule 24. The lights of a tug or towboat alert you to the position of the barge, and barge lights are notoriously dim. Failure to see barge lights, or to recognize that one was being pushed ahead or towed astern, has led to a long, sad list of fatal accidents.

Even so, don’t spend most of your time on lights; they’re just one step. After all, your maneuvering responsibilities are critical. Study Rules 5 through 10, and especially Subpart II, Rules 11 through 18, with particular care. Don’t forget that Rule 19 takes over in limited visibility; it is critical to understand it well. These are the Steering and Sailing Rules and comprise the heart of the things you need to know thoroughly. I found it handy to make up flash cards of Rules 11 to 18, the maneuvering rules for vessels in sight of one another. With a computer and the downloaded Rules it’s easy to make up these memory-jogging cards.

Read the book, download the information, learn the maneuvering rules, and review them frequently. Then you won’t find yourself facing a close-quarters situation with only vague ideas of your responsibilities. We’re planning a future article in this series that describes action to be taken under the Rules. Most courses are a bit weak on this subject, giving the bare bones but not the details of how to handle situations under the Rules easily and safely.