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How To Be Safe When Boating on Crowded Waters

By James Moffitt

Photos by Meghan Marchetti/DWR

Boating on crowded waters over holiday weekends or during busy fishing seasons can be stressful, irritating, and even dangerous. Being confident in your understanding of basic maritime norms and boating safety will make it easier for you to safely navigate crowded waterways and avoid crashes.

Below is a quick refresher on how to navigate crowded waterways and some tips from Capt. Reid Parker, a guide for Current Culture Fly shop and seasoned boat navigator.

Give Way Vs. Stand On

These are two of the most important terms when it comes to safely navigating any waterway. According to the Coast Guard’s U.S. Inland Navigation Rules, the give-way vessel is the vessel that must yield in any situation, while the stand-on vessel shall maintain course and speed.

But, when it comes to navigating at the moment, who is who?

Breaking Down the Differences

In most cases, boats are going to cross paths in one of these three ways:

  1. Meeting head-on: If you’re meeting another vessel head-on, each vessel should maneuver to starboard to avoid a collision.
  2. Overtaking: In this case, the faster vessel may be passing a slower vessel. The give-way vessel here would be the one passing the stand-on or slower vessel. In this case, the give-way vessel should pass the stern of the stand-on vessel.
  3. Crossing: When two power-driven vessels are crossing, the vessel on the starboard side should have the right of way and is a stand-on vessel.

“I think it’s all about communication. If you have to pass closely to someone, try to get their attention and make sure that you both have an understanding of what you’re going to do to maneuver your boat. There are situations where we’re guiding and there may be a lot of other boats. We make it a point to talk to the other people and make sure we all are OK with how we’re positioning and how close we are to one another. Be friendly, be approachable, and communicate. Make sure you slow way down and pass slowly,” explained Parker.

Determining Right of Way

Another thing that you may come across when navigating busy waterways is different types of vessels. Below is a list of the order in which boats should receive right-of-way:

  • NUC – Not Under Command
  • RAM – Restricted in the Ability to Maneuver such as a barge or tow
  • CBD – Constrained By Draft such as a deep draft freighter or cargo vessel
  • Fishing – Fishing vessels, usually refers to commercial fishing operations when actively engaged in fishing with nets, lines, trawls, or fishing apparatus (does not include vessel fishing with trolling lines or apparatus that does not restrict maneuverability)
  • Sailing – Sailing without auxiliary power (not motoring)
  • Power – Powerboats and sailboats that are motoring

It is important to note that if you are the stand-on vessel, but it appears the give-way vessel is not taking the required action to avoid a collision, you should take whatever action is necessary to avoid a collision.

Tips for Navigation

Knowing the rules of the road is a great first step, but it’s also important to be mindful and polite when operating on busy waterways. Taking a commonsense approach to your time on the water will go a long way and help you and the others around you enjoy the beautiful resource.

Be Quick at the Launch

One of the most congested areas of any waterway is the boat ramp. Being mindful of how much time you’re spending there and making sure you get on and off the water efficiently is a great way to ease everyone’s stress and make everyone’s boating experience more enjoyable.

Prep your boat to launch away from the ramp itself, be ready to go, and communicate with your group. By working together, you can get on and off the water quickly and help to ease congestion at the ramp.

Avoid Peak Times

This one almost goes without saying, but avoiding peak hours will make your trip more enjoyable. You can try getting to the ramp a bit earlier or staying on the water a bit longer to give others around you a chance to come and go without adding to the congestion. Keeping your vessel out of the fray will keep you and your passengers safe.

“I think it’s smart to go early and stay late. In our case, the fishing will be better, and it will be less crowded,” said Parker. “Noon on a Saturday, you can be sure it’s going to be packed. If you can, be the first one on the water. Just be sure to pay attention to the tides though, because they can affect both the fishing and the navigation of some of the waterways.”

Mind Your Speed

No matter where you’re navigating, it’s important to mind your speed at all times. Avoid kicking up a large wake, especially when passing people fishing, on anchor, or in self-propelled vessels like kayaks. Maintaining a safe speed helps you and others around you stay in control of their vessels.

“The biggest thing is safety—you should come off speed when overtaking any kayaks, canoes, or rafts. It’s important not to throw a big wake and to just be polite,” explained Parker.

Overall, safely navigating waterways comes down to understanding the rules of the road and using some common sense. Combine this with good boating safety practices like using a life jacket and not drinking alcohol, and you’re sure to have a great time.

  • July 27, 2023