Sea Savvy - Boats and bridges: a widening problem


Know your rights and responsibilities when transiting bridges that open for navigation

Know your rights and responsibilities when transiting bridges that open for navigation

Boats streamed through the opened bridge as the tide raced swiftly, eddying around pilings and fenders. The skippers intently concentrated on avoiding other boats and the unforgiving bridge structure.

Read the other story in this package: Sea Savvy - Signaling the bridge tender

A local television personality walked onto the bridge, beyond the waiting cars, posturing for his camera crew. He leaned out over the water and started shouting at the boat operators. “You’re holding up traffic. Why don’t you go around? Why don’t you go around?”

The bridge tender repeatedly told the “personality” over the bridge’s loud hailer to clear the bridge or he’d have to call the police. The “personality” remained longer, yelling. “Why don’t you just go around?”

“Around” would have been around Cape Hatteras — 237 nautical miles out through the Chesapeake Bay entrance, past Cape Henry, on to the treacherous waters of the Graveyard of the Atlantic, and ultimately back in again at Beaufort Inlet, assuming the weather then allowed. The bridge was in Chesapeake, Va., on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. The scene on the bridge made great evening news footage. It was a well-calculated ratings promoter, as people sitting in easy chairs at home said, “Great, he’s doing something about rush-hour traffic jams.”

The waterways of the East Coast are choked with bridges, many of which require openings for boats larger than skiffs and runabouts. Many are within a few minutes by car of other bridges across the same body of water. Cars can “go around.” No driver likes the delays when bridges open for boats. But the failure of a bridge to open for boats can and often does threaten the safety of those on board. Even if you’re operating a small boat that doesn’t require openings this is important, because you need to know the issues facing larger boats as you and they negotiate opening bridges together. And you may someday own one of those larger boats. The problems would diminish significantly if people understood the issues. Some of these people are boaters, but the majority are people in cars and trucks who simply don’t want to wait.

What many don’t understand is that a boat isn’t like a car. When a car stops, it stops on a road that isn’t moving. When a boat stops, its road keeps moving, sometimes carrying it directly toward the bridge, other boats, obstructions or shallow water. Also, even low winds cause a boat to continue moving along. It takes a tornado to do this to a car. In addition, a boat usually has no available detour. And — this is critical — when a boat is delayed, dangers from weather and darkness often follow, while travel in a car is seldom affected by either.

In December 2003 a strong cold front passed through central Florida. Winds whipped up to 30 knots with higher gusts, and boaters on the Indian River anxiously were seeking harbor before nightfall. The Jensen Beach Bridge wouldn’t open because a contractor building a new adjacent high-rise span had requested that boats be blocked until late that evening. But no work was in progress on the bridge, apparently because the weather was so bad.

None of the dozen or more boats trapped on the north side of the bridge had heard Notices to Mariners regarding this closure. We were among them, and we listen. We also checked the appropriate Web site, which had no notice. With no shelter and waves building over a fetch of around 16 miles, boats were having a difficult time merely holding in place at anchor. If the bridge had remained closed until evening, these boats would have had to travel in the high winds and attempt to find shelter in the dark — risky for the boats and possibly the people. Only persistent calls to the Coast Guard and the construction company finally got the restriction lifted.

In this instance a fixed bridge was being built to replace an opening bridge. Many bridges are fixed because they have vertical clearances appropriate for the water they span, allowing most boats to pass. These bridges have other advantages, too — no maintenance of moving machinery, no bridge tender expenses, and no obstruction of vehicular traffic.

But many bridges must open because of their limited vertical clearance, including a surprising number of newer ones. And increased effort is being made to restrict openings. To the general public, the logic is simple: the fewer openings, the fewer delays in the car. To local politicians, the logic is both simple and compelling: It’s a no-brainer for making voters happy. To boaters, it’s a far more serious issue than a matter of convenience or self-aggrandizement.

The extent of the problem can be seen in the number of bridges (fixed and opening) in representative areas. In the Norfolk/Chesapeake, Va., area, for example, there are 11 bridges on the ICW within 13 miles. In Myrtle Beach, S.C., there are 10 ICW bridges within 22 miles. In Daytona Beach, Fla., there are four ICW bridges within 1.5 miles, and from Palm Beach to Miami — a distance of 82 miles on the ICW — there are 42 bridges. In all of these instances, cars can “go around”; boats cannot.

To further complicate matters, many opening bridges are old, constantly breaking down and unable to open. As I write this I’m listening to a Coast Guard securitee announcing that the Socastee Bridge in South Carolina is yet again “closed until further notice.” To “go around” would mean a 115-nautical-mile diversion down Winyah Bay and into the ocean to re-enter at Cape Fear, into the forecast gale. The Socastee Bridge has a recently built high-rise immediately adjacent to it. The original idea was to replace the old bridge. But people complained, and the old bridge still operates, with bridge tenders on duty 24/7/365. This has been a repeated pattern.

Other old bridges on the Atlantic ICW in South Carolina include the Lady’s Island Swing Bridge, Little River Swing Bridge and Wappoo Creek Bridge, which spans a narrow cut where the current often runs as much as 4 knots. And the Sunset Beach pontoon bridge in North Carolina becomes stuck in the mud and is unable to open at low tide. All of these old bridges have immediately adjacent or nearby high-rise bridges. Breakdowns on any of these close the ICW, the country’s north/south water highway.

So many bridges

Navigation on U.S. navigable waters is controlled by the federal government. While nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice, I will quote some of the Code of Federal Regulations, or CFR. Consult an attorney or qualified government official for interpretation or application of these and any legal issues. (The federal bridge regulations can be viewed online at Click on e-CFR, then Title 33, then part 117.

33 CFR §117.5 states: “Except as otherwise required by this subpart, drawbridges shall open promptly and fully for the passage of vessels when a request to open is given in accordance with this subpart.”

Riding herd on the problem is the already overtaxed Coast Guard. Gary Kassof is bridge program manager for the First Coast Guard District, which covers northern New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. He estimates the district has around 2,000 fixed and 175 opening bridges. Waverly Gregory, bridge administrator for the Fifth District Bridge Administration Office, says there are approximately 1,500 bridges (300 to 400 opening) within the Fifth Coast Guard District, which covers Maryland, Virginia, District of Columbia, North Carolina, a portion of New Jersey, and a portion of Pennsylvania. The Fifth District Bridge Administration Office is staffed by six people. Barry Dragon is chief of the bridge operations section for the Seventh Coast Guard District, which is responsible for some 6,000 bridges (around 250 opening) in Florida (except the Panhandle), Georgia, South Carolina, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The office responsible for them is staffed by two people.

Coast Guard bridge officers must deal not only with the large numbers of bridges and local politicians but with the many bridge owners, including counties, municipalities, states, the military and private companies. And an owner often will subcontract bridge operation to a private company. Adding to the melee is the fact that bridges regularly need repair and maintenance, bringing in private contractors spurred on by performance bonds, bonuses and penalties.

Restricted openings

Five types of problems confront boaters. The first, as we have seen, is the increasing number of restrictions on opening times. The problem is more critical than merely having to wait for a few minutes. Sometimes bridges are locked down for as long as three hours at a time because of rush hour. This problem is exacerbated when there are multiple bridges with restricted openings in the same area. Missing one can mean a long delay at the next bridge and the next. You can find yourself caught out in a storm or running at night in difficult waters.

It isn’t simple to establish safe opening schedules. Boat movement between bridges can’t be quantified like vehicular movement between points on highways. For example, one can assume that most vehicles traveling between two points with a 25-mph speed limit will travel at 30 mph and will arrive roughly within the same time period. You can’t do this with boats. Some have displacement hulls, others planing. Some are slowed by waves, current and wind, and some aren’t affected at all. Further, on a crowded day — particularly with wind and current — some boats will get through the bridge quickly. Others may take up to 15 minutes longer because they must wait for boats coming through from the other side, stay in line, and carefully jockey to avoid collisions.

But we boaters can have a say regarding restricted openings. Often overlooked by politicians, rushing soccer moms and those who wait until the last minute to leave for work is the fact that it’s unlawful to close navigable waters without prescribed procedure and permits. For permanent restrictions (as opposed to temporary changes necessitated by repair or maintenance), a period of public comment is required by federal law. It’s important to pay attention to announcements of public comment periods and to respond. You usually can get these announcements in the Coast Guard Local Notices to Mariners ( ). The issue to stress in your communication is convenience vs. safety.

Bridge tenders

The second problem confronting boaters lies in the performance of some bridge operators. I should first emphasize that most are professional, courteous and helpful. Many own or have owned boats of their own.

Milton Hartman is general operations manager for the bridge section of C&S Building Maintenance, headquartered in Gainesville, Fla. One of its three operations is the management of moving bridges. The company’s Web site states that it has “operated drawbridges in Dade, Broward, Brevard, Duval, Hendry, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Martin, Monroe, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Sarasota, St. Johns and Volusia counties during the past eleven years.”

For four years, Hartman lived aboard a 35-foot sailboat with a 23-hp engine, so he’s familiar with the problems. He says he instructs his tenders to give extra consideration to single-screw displacement boats and tugs and barges if there’s a strong current. He also says safety always is a primary consideration, and notes that automobile drivers, pedestrians and boaters all contribute to the problem.

“I recently spoke with a man who had just bought a 38-foot trimaran and was planning to bring it up the Florida coast and didn’t even know how to use a VHF radio,” says Hartman.

Laura Porter is president and operations manager of the Florida Drawbridge Co., which has “trained and managed approximately 90 percent of the bridge tenders currently working in Miami-Dade County,” according to information on the company Web site. She says the training for their operators includes eight hours of classroom study, three days of on-the-job training, and written and operational tests.

But bridges are operated by many entities with varying standards. It isn’t unusual to pass through two contiguous bridges operated by different organizations and with different levels of professionalism. And it isn’t unusual to encounter problem bridge tenders. Hartman says bridge tender salaries, to his knowledge, range from minimum wage up to an exceptional $20 an hour for some railroad bridges.

One serious problem can occur when bridge tenders attempt to run your boat. For example, bridge tenders often insist that a boat be a certain distance from the bridge before they’ll open. A typical instruction is to “bring it up to my fenders.” They do this to avoid unnecessary traffic delays and because they’ve seen skippers who have hardly a clue about how to operate their boats. (We regularly hear skippers who don’t even know which bridge they’re about to pass through.)

But in many situations it’s dangerous to come too close to the bridge before it begins the opening procedure. This could result in collision or groundings for numerous reasons, such as tide and/or wind pushing the boat toward the bridge with limited space for maneuverability, congestion from other boats also at the fenders, other boats that don’t need an opening coming from the opposite side, and other boats that do need an opening barreling through from the opposite side as soon as they have clearance. Another wrinkle is the refusal of some tenders to open a bridge at a scheduled time unless the boat is at a predetermined point. This assumes that the boat is slower than it may actually be.

Responsibility for boat operation lies with the skipper, not the bridge tender. And bridge tenders are required by law to open the bridge upon proper signal, unless under duly authorized restriction or exceptional circumstances. Failure to do so can result in a fine levied against the bridge owner and/or operator, currently up to $15,000 but soon to rise.

Some bridge tenders seem to lack an understanding of their jobs. We once listened in horror as a tug pushing a huge barge bore down on the Wappoo Creek Bridge just south of Charleston, S.C. The tug had requested an opening, and the bridge tender had said to “bring ’er on.” As the tug neared the bridge on about 4 knots of current in addition to its own overwhelming momentum, the bridge tender said, “You’ll have to stop, I can’t open the bridge. One of the traffic gates isn’t working right.”

At that point it seemed impossible to stop the tug from smashing into the bridge, with cars sitting on the road. The skilled captain churned in full reverse and swung her into the bank, a move that may well have saved lives.

On April 27, Massachusetts sailors David and Nancy Greenwood approached the Little River Swing Bridge in South Carolina at approximately 2:30 p.m., in high winds and with strong current pushing them toward the span. They were northbound on Wind Walker, their 37-foot catamaran with a 23-foot beam. Greenwood says he called the bridge well before arriving to say he would need an opening because of the wind and current. However, he says the bridge tender didn’t answer. He says he kept calling but never got an answer.

Getting no response on channel 9 — the designated channel — Greenwood says he also tried channels 13 and 16, still with no response.

As he got close to the bridge and the span didn’t open, he had increasing problems holding in place in the very narrow channel. The wind pushed him slightly to the east side of the channel, and he hit something under water, damaging his port rudder. (We experienced a similar problem at this bridge a few years ago, although we suffered no damage.) Only as he was trying to recover and on the west side of the channel did the bridge tender come up on the VHF telling him to not go so far over or he might run aground. Greenwood had to tie up at a marina ($1.50 a foot) and hire a diver, who informed him that the rudder shaft apparently was bent, because the top of the rudder was impacting its skeg.

The operators of this bridge, which in my opinion is in a hazardous location, now are requesting limited scheduled openings rather than openings on request, as presently required. If you wish to comment, write to Commander (dpb), Seventh Coast Guard District, 909 S.E. First Ave., Room 432, Miami, FL 33131, or contact Barry Dragon at .

In the last six months three different bridge tenders have informed us that they or their supervisors had established opening restrictions. The CFR contains no specific regulations for these bridges, except that they must open on request. There was no public notice, no public comment period, and no approval by the Coast Guard bridge officers. The problem is worsened by the fact that other bridges ahead often open only at certain times (sometimes only once every hour or two). Therefore, a few minutes of unexpected delay at one bridge can ultimately evolve into hours of delay for slower boats that then can’t make the next bridges in time.

There’s a flip side to the issue of failure to open: Some boaters request an opening when it isn’t needed. This is illegal, and offending skippers can be (and sometimes are) fined up to $15,000, though the amount is scheduled to increase.

33 CFR §117.11 states:

“No vessel owner or operator shall —

(a) Signal a drawbridge to open if the vertical clearance is sufficient to allow the vessel, after all lowerable non-structural vessel appurtenances that are not essential to navigation have been lowered, to safely pass under the drawbridge in the closed position; or

(b) Signal a drawbridge to open for any purpose other than to pass through the drawbridge opening.”

33 CFR §117.4 tells what parts of the boat must be lowered. For details, visit . Click on e-CFR, then Title 33, then part 117. Or go to

The CFR is pretty straightforward until you encounter bridge tenders who don’t agree with your measurements and want to take control of your boat, directing you to come up to the bridge to be sure you can’t get through without an opening. The problem, once again, is the perception that a boat is like a car. We all know a boat is very different, but some bridge tenders apparently don’t.

If the tide is pushing you toward the bridge, if there are eddies around the bridge pilings and fenders, or if the wind is blowing, coming close enough to the bridge to determine whether you’ve got inches to spare can be foolhardy. Also, waves or even wakes can cause the vessel to rise while underneath the bridge, even though there may have been a foot or more of clearance outside. The problem is compounded by the fact that you normally can’t tell, standing on your deck and sighting up, whether an “appurtenance” is going to clear. The angle of vision creates an optical illusion that you’re going to hit, even if you do have clearance.

Bridges usually have tide boards on their fenders that indicate vertical clearance, but the numbers on these occasionally are inaccurate and often are covered with scum. Some of these denote minimum vertical clearance — usually at the sides — while there may be greater vertical clearance in the middle of the span. Some note center clearance.

Communication failures

The third problem with bridges involves poor or improper communication by the boat operator or bridge tender. A proper signal is key to a successful passage through an opening bridge.

Hartman, of C&S Building Maintenance, says the most important thing to remember is that a vessel always should request an opening, even if one is scheduled, one is already in progress, a request already has been made by other boats, or the bridge is open. He says not only is this required by law, it’s critical for reasons of safety. He points out that sometimes when the spans are up a bridge tender can’t see a vessel coming through. 33 CFR §117.15 gives the proper signals for contacting the bridge tender. Visit, and click on e-CFR, then Title 33, then part 117 to view the signals. They also are available at .

However, all too frequently the bridge tender doesn’t acknowledge your request or signal, as required. Sometimes he or she may be busy operating controls or may not hear the call on the VHF because of operational noises, horns or other VHF traffic. Sometimes the tender simply isn’t doing his or her job.

33 CFR §117.21 states: “When a vessel approaches a drawbridge with the draw in the open position, the vessel shall give the opening signal. If no acknowledgment is received within 30 seconds, the vessel may proceed, with caution, through the open draw.”

Our exercise of “caution” aboard Chez Nous includes the horn signal and having someone on deck carefully watching the span for signs of movement. This is particularly critical on boats with Biminis, because they often block the helmsperson’s view of the span as the boat draws near. If there is any indication the bridge is closing, we immediately sound the danger signal with five short blasts, try to call again on the VHF, and evaluate an attempt to abort. Bridges normally sound five shorts on the horn before closing, but this isn’t always the case. In fact, the blasts frequently are sounded after the bridge has started its closing procedure.

We’ve also frequently experienced operators who don’t respond when the bridge is down and don’t open the bridge. If the bridge is restricted you may have to wait another half-hour or more. If a rush-hour restriction is coming, you may have to wait one to three hours — possibly until after dark.

The phone number for the tender often is posted on the bridge, and, after unsuccessful efforts to signal the bridge as per the regulations, try calling on a cell phone, if necessary. If this doesn’t work, call the local Coast Guard and report the problem. If that doesn’t work, call the district bridge operations section for the area, but understand that they may be swamped and you may get voice mail until they have a chance to return your call. Always follow up with a letter reporting the problem. They need this information to fix problems.

It’s important to remain courteous and professional in communications with bridge operators, regardless of your perception of how well they’re doing their job or of their demeanor. Sometimes there may be problems of which you are unaware. For example, the operator may have received word that a fire or rescue vehicle is racing down the highway toward the bridge. The operator should, if possible, inform you on the VHF of the problem.

Construction delays

The fourth type of problem involves construction work on bridges. It’s been our observation that many construction personnel, including supervisory, have little understanding of navigation issues. We once saw a crew block the ICW near Myrtle Beach with a huge barge and crane, and they notified approaching boaters that there was plenty of room to get through. Indeed there was … horizontally. But the boom of the crane hung out over the channel at just the right height to clip off the flybridges of most boats, not to mention what it would do to sailboats.

Private contractors can’t obstruct navigational waters just because it makes their day easier. They must get Coast Guard approval, and that approval should be reasonable and with due regard to safety and your rights of navigation. The restriction should be, if approved, the minimum amount necessary. Further, the restriction should have been amply announced on the Notices to Mariners unless there was an emergency and no time to do so. If you think there’s a problem, call the Coast Guard and request assistance. If the person manning the radio doesn’t understand, request contact information for the local district office, preferably by phone.

I’ve suggested contacting the Coast Guard several times. It’s part of the agency’s job to field such communications, though it has many jobs. Therefore, don’t bother the Coast Guard with this type of problem if it’s working a search and rescue or is involved with something more critical to safety or security. Usually if you’ve been standing by on VHF 16, you’ll know whether something like this is happening locally.

Other boaters

The fifth problem with bridges involves other boaters. If you follow the Navigation Rules and are courteous, these problems diminish considerably. Here are a few tips that may make it easier. Just remember that any good tip can be inappropriate to the circumstances, and it’s always up to the skipper to exercise prudent seamanship consistent with the rules and the circumstances.

1. Respect the problems of boats with maneuverability that is more limited than yours.

2. It’s usually best that boats that have the current with them come through first.

3. Normally, large commercial vessels such as tugs and barges should come through first, and pleasure boats should stay well out of their way. They can’t dodge you, especially with a tow. This is an example of a situation that may create an exception to the preceding point and illustrates the need for communication and prudent seamanship.

4. If there’s any question as to another boat’s intent, communicate with the skipper on the VHF or, if appropriate, by horn.

5. Remain on the designated bridge VHF channel at least from the time you approach the bridge until you’re well clear. It’s helpful to have two VHF sets turned on and to monitor channel 16 and the bridge channel.

6. Don’t unnecessarily hold up vehicular traffic. Go through the bridge promptly (but safely) when it’s safe to do so. Try to discuss with the bridge tender, on the VHF, any concerns or problems you may have with regard to vessel control and opening times.

7. Avoid getting into a cluster of boats too close to the bridge, particularly in narrow channels or when there’s a lot of wind or tide.

Bridge the gap

These problems and others are likely to increase as the number of cars, boats and bridges increases. The general public isn’t going to appreciate the problem unless we explain it. To many, people on boats are merely interfering with traffic when they request bridge openings. In actuality, rights of navigation have a solid foundation in history, are fundamental to interstate commerce, and are matters of safety, not of mere convenience. n

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulf-star 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at