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Sharing the water with big ships

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Lessons for small boats

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I picked up an important bit of wisdom many years ago that is unofficially known as "the rule of tonnage," which is really a polite way of saying, "Stay the hell out of the way of big ships." It's also sometimes known as "might makes right." You get the point. If you ply the same waters as commercial traffic, you need to be particularly vigilant. Keep this in mind, too: Never assume that the watchstander on a large ship sees you. Never. That easily could prove to be a fatal assumption.

Here are several strategies that may help keep you out harm's way:

  • A tug, towboat or ship can take anywhere from a half-mile to 1-1/2 miles or more to stop, so get out of the way early and leave no doubt as to your intentions.
  • Don't try to "outrun" a commercial vessel. A ship's speed can be deceptively fast, 15 knots or more in open water. They also may have to hold a speed of 6 to 8 knots to maintain steerage.
  • The skipper of a tug or ship has a blind spot that can extend forward from a few hundred feet to 1,000 feet or more depending on the size of the vessel. If you can't see the ship's bridge, it means the skipper can't see you. Don't cut across the bow, or you'll disappear- figuratively and perhaps literally, too - from sight.
  • If you're on the water at night, it's crucial that you can recognize and read the lights on all vessels, particularly commercial traffic, given their size and restrictions in maneuverability and stopping. Make sure you can distinguish the lights of a tug pulling a barge from other vessels so you don't blunder between the two, which can have fatal consequences. If you have any doubt about what the lights mean, stop and work it out through careful observation before proceeding. Sail with a radar reflector. And carry a flashlight to shine on your sails or deck to make yourself more visible if the situation dictates it.
  • If you find yourself in a potential collision situation, steer to the oncoming ship's port side. When the skipper reverses power, the bow of the ship should swing to starboard.
  • Watch out for the severe turbulence that is sometimes generated hundreds of yards behind a large ship by its so-called "wheel wash."
  • If you need to contact the skipper on a commercial vessel, use channels 13 and 16.
  • Recognize that five or more short blasts on the ship's whistle is the danger signal.

- William Sisson

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