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The Importance Of Rule 5  And Situational Awareness

Learn how Coast Guard Navigational Rules work and apply to recreational boaters — and also gain a firm understanding of the international and inland navigation rules that govern how boats identify and interact — by taking Boaters University's Fundamentals Of Seamanship course. 

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You will gain a firm understanding of the international and inland navigational rules that govern how boats identify and interact.

The MarineTraffic app allows you to track the 
locations of ships worldwide. Being able to identify nearby traffic makes it easier to raise someone on the bridge to clarify movements in advance.

The MarineTraffic app allows you to track the locations of ships worldwide. Being able to identify nearby traffic makes it easier to raise someone on the bridge to clarify movements in advance.

As boaters, we can stay out of harm’s way by gaining a better understanding of commercial ships. Whether in confined waters or at sea, ships have their own operational challenges, mainly because of their size, speed, lack of maneuverability and limited visibility.

Photo of Pat Mundus

Pat Mundus

Maintaining a proper lookout, as described in COLREGS Rule 5, is perhaps the most important part of seamanship. A merchant ship’s watch officer handles navigation, traffic targets, the ship’s performance and an array of VHF radios, displays, alarms and phones. Many ships do not have manned engine rooms on the open ocean. It’s sobering to realize that a container ship at an average sea speed of 20 knots covers 2 miles in six minutes, usually with a substantial blind spot dead ahead — sometimes as far as a quarter-mile or more. Suffice it to say, the ship’s crew is often busy handling its own burdens. We boaters need to maintain our own alert lookout, even if we have all the newest technology on board.

In high-traffic scenarios, have a second person to watch for targets, and use good, clean binoculars. Make your vessel as visible as possible. Recreational boats are not the most robust radar targets, so carry a good radar reflector mounted as high as possible. Prevent your navigation lights from becoming obscured, and make sure they are properly displayed; ships often say they have difficulty discerning the navigation lights of small craft.

Know the Rules of the Road and abide by them. That’s what the commercial ships expect boaters to do. Ensure that all watchstanders know the basics of navigation-light configurations, and that they should call for a second set of eyes if confused or concerned. If you are on a sailboat and worried that a ship does not see you, shine a flashlight or spotlight steadily into your sails. Steadily is the key; a momentary flash only confuses a ship’s watchstander. And never shine a spotlight into another vessel’s wheelhouse.

Be especially on your toes around fairways and other areas where deep-draft ships keep to a designated channel. Rule 9 of the Navigation Rules states that small craft “shall not impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway.” Large ships maneuver with difficulty, especially if partially laden, causing their rudder to be less effective. In simplest terms, unless you need to be there, stay out of the channel or run the edge, where ships will not transit.

Don’t cut off a ship. If you need to cross a channel, cross at a perpendicular angle to the ship. Wait for the ship to pass, and if it’s a tugboat, watch for a tow behind it. Barge side lights, in particular, can be hard to spot with crowded shore lights in the background.

If you’re at all uncertain about a ship’s intentions, contact the bridge on VHF channel 13.

If you’re at all uncertain about a ship’s intentions, contact the bridge on VHF channel 13.

Many ships travel inland waters at maneuvering speed — 12 to 15 knots. Do not expect a ship to slow or stop. Reversing a ship’s engine could cause loss of control, and even if a ship wanted to stop for you, it could take more than a mile.

The working radio channel for vessel-to-vessel communications is VHF 13. Ships have a pilot on board in inland waters, and you can monitor that channel to learn what vessels are underway and where. Combined with radar and/or AIS, the VHF radio information will give you a good idea about inbound and outbound traffic. Even if your own vessel is not equipped with AIS, you can receive AIS cellular identification information on your smartphone or iPad with the MarineTraffic app (visit

Five whistles is not a friendly greeting. If a ship is blowing its whistle at you, you’re in danger.

Anchoring in a channel is illegal and life-threatening. If you find yourself disabled, by all means call an approaching ship on the VHF. When you do hail a ship, identify yourself relative to a buoy, known reference point or GPS position. The ship watchstander might be looking at a dozen other small craft that you can’t see.

Be prudent when passing a ship that is docking or turning around in the channel. Prop wash from tugs and ships maneuvering off a berth are powerful forces that could suddenly throw you off course. Docking craft and line handlers can dart out from behind structures or a ship’s mass. And, of course, naval vessels demand an especially wide safety zone.

Your family and guests depend on your alert situational awareness. Use every means available to see and be seen by ships. Understand the special circumstances ships contend with and keep clear in narrow channels.

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue.


Photo of container ship

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