Does Anyone Know the Navrules?…

Every day on the water brings new challenges and new stories.  I was on the water just last night and experienced a close call with another vessel that I just had to share. 

We all (should) know that the Navigation Rules are to be followed by all vessels while underway.  They are unambiguous and specific as to the actions to be followed in order to prevent collisions at sea.  While commercial operators are required to pass exams to demonstrate understanding and competence, there is no such thing for recreational boaters and I would guess that 95% of boaters do not know them.  Even those who take state-mandated courses for their boater safety cards only get the briefest of exposure to the Rules.

I was at the helm of a 91’ Skipperliner that was chartered for a pleasant four-hour graduation party and dinner cruise.  We were slowly transiting at a speed of around 4.8 knots along the San Francisco waterfront by the Ferry Building.  I could see a sailing yacht on a beam reach and approaching my starboard bow, and her position was at about 030 Relative or about the 1:00 o’clock position.  It looked something like this (although further apart):

So what do the rules say about this situation?  First of all, Rule 18 requires a power-driven vessel (me) to keep out of the way of a sailing vessel.  Many (but not most) folks know this rule – this is an easy one.  By Rule 18, I was required to keep clear.  And I do so, even for the smallest sailboats.

Rule 17 is the rule about the action of the stand-on vessel (her).  It says that the stand-on vessel (the sailing vessel in this case) SHALL maintain course and speed.  The reason for this is so that the burdened vessel (me) doesn’t need to guess their action and can maneuver as necessary.

Rule 17 also says that the stand-on vessel (the sailing vessel) can take action to avoid collision if I did not take sufficient action.  More on that later.

As I saw the situation develop, I brought both engines to neutral and then astern on the starboard engine to slow down, and at the same time altered course to starboard to let the sailboat pass ahead.  I also sounded one short blast on the whistle indicating that I intended to leave her on my port side.  NOTE – this maneuvering signal in Rule 34 is technically for power-driven vessels but I wanted the sailboat to fully understand my intent.

In retrospect, the captain of the sailing vessel probably did not know the meaning of that whistle signal.  Imagine my alarm when the sailing vessel then turns to port right in front of me!

I was dead in the water with no way on as the sailboat passed my starboard bow.  As it went by, I could see the skipper shaking his head, undoubtedly thinking “another powerboater not giving way to me and my exalted sailboat…”  

Incidentally, Rule 17(c) includes some important text on this topic.  It says that a vessel (the sailboat in this case) who has another on her port side SHALL NOT alter course to port in a crossing situation, specifically for this reason.  This rule happens to be for two power-driven vessels but you can see the applicability here.

What could have been done differently?  I’m not sure.  I took action as early as I could after I saw the sailboat steady up on a course towards me.  He probably did not notice my reduction of speed and alteration of course to starboard to avoid him.  And he may have interpreted my whistle signal as a “honk on the horn” as we hear in our cars every day.

He was also on a starboard tack and his sails may have blocked his view a bit.  He might also have been intimidated by the larger vessel and thought that turning to port was his best option.

In any event, it’s a lesson to always be prepared and assume the other boater does not know the Rules.  Thankfully in this case he maneuvered clear and avoided trading of paint or worse.