11 - Sharing with the big boys



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General guidelines for safety around large vessels




You may have the technical right of way over a larger vessel, but insisting on it could get you killed. Size really does matter.

NOTICE: After 9/11 all naval vessels require a 100 yard exclusion zone. Failure to keep a distance of at least one hundred yards at all times is grounds for fines and/or arrest.



Life Lines

from America's Inland and Coastal Tug and Barge Operators

Information obtained from the:



AWOFAmerican Waterways Operators Foundation


Safety Tips That Could save Your Life

While our nation's inland and coastal waterways play host to hundreds of recreational boats, at the same time they also carry barges, tugboats, towboats, and large ships loaded with tons of cargo.

Being aware of the constraints under which these commercial vessels operate can arm recreational boaters with the best protection against danger and could save your life!

This information is intended only as a supplement to other sources of information on seamanship and rules of the road. It assumes that you, the boat operator, know the rules and appropriate signals. If you don't, contact the United States Coast Guard concerning boating safety training.

What Recreational Boaters Should Know
Commercial vessels, including towboats and tugboats, operate 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

The speed of a ship, towboat, or tugboat can be deceptive. A tow can travel one mile in seven minutes-a ship even faster-and it generally takes 3/4 to 1 1/2 to stop. For example, if a water skier falls a thousand feet in front of a moving tug or tow, the skier has less than one minute to get out of the way.

Large vessels must maintain speed to steer, and they must stay in the channel- it's the only place deep enough for them to operate. Many channels are unmarked. On some waterways, the channel extends bank to bank, so expect vessel traffic on any portion of the waterway.

A pilot's "blind spot" can extend for hundreds of feet in front of deep-draft ships, tugboats and towboats pushing barges.

Line of Sight

In narrow canals a tug's or tow's powerful engines can cause a smaller vessel to be pulled toward the tow when passing alongside.

"Wheel Wash" is a strong underwater current caused by towboat or ship engines that can result in severe turbulence hundreds of yards behind a large vessel.

A tug without barges in front could be towing a log raft, barge, or other objects on a long submerged line behind it, which lie low in the water and are difficult to see. Never pass closely behind a tugboat.

Tow line


Sailboating on inland rivers can be hazardous, and sailboaters and wind surfers should know that a tow or tug can "steal your wind"- so you won't have the same wind you started with when executing a sailing maneuver near a commercial vessel.

Operating in adverse weather or low visibility can prove extremely dangerous. Why take a chance?

Ships, towboats and tugboats use VHF radio channels 13 and 16. If you are unsure of your situation, or their intentions, feel free to contact them. Remember, you are sharing the waterways with vessels operated by highly trained and conscientious professionals. If you have a true emergency, or need information, they can and will help if properly contacted.


What Recreational Boaters Can Do
Towboats and barges approaching bridges and locks must be lined up and committed to their approach well ahead, and it's dangerous and difficult for them to change course. For safety, stay out of their path.

Designate a lookout. Assign one person in a recreational boat to look out, particularly for commercial traffic.

Understand whistle signals. At least five or more short blasts on the whistle is the "danger" signal. Stay clear of vessels sounding the "danger" signal.

Don't water ski or jet ski in and around tows. That's a risk not worth taking. Jumping wakes, riding close alongside, or cutting under the bow or stern of a tug or tow could cause a boat or skier to be sucked through a towboat's large propellers.

Do not do!


Avoid cargo loading docks and "parked" or moored vessels in fleeting areas. There are many loading area, or "terminals", along the nation's inland and coastal waterways. Stay clear!

Wear a life jacket at all times. Over 82 percent of those killed in boating accidents in recent years were not wearing life jackets.

Don't operate a boat while drinking alcohol or using drugs. It is estimated that more than half of all recreational boating fatalities are related to alcohol. It's proven that the marine environment compounds the effects of alcohol.

Watch for ship, tug or towboat lighting at night- don't rely on trying to hear a vessel approaching. Pay attention to the sidelights of tugs and tows, rather than the masthead lights (mast lights are not displayed by pusher towboats on the Western rivers, making it even more critical to keep a sharp lookout). If you see both sidelights (red and green), you're dead ahead, and in the path of danger.
Use safe anchorages. Coast Guard navigation aids, like buoys, mark channels for shipping, and it is illegal and dangerous to tie up to them. Each year commercial vessels ram and sink boats anchored in navigation channels or tied to buoys.

Unsafe anchoring


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EVEN THE BEST BOATERS CAN FIND THEMSELVES IN SERIOUS TROUBLE ON THE MILDEST OF DAYS ON THE WATER. PARTICIPATION IN THIS SPORT IS A STRENUOUS ACTIVITY. CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN BEFORE UNDERTAKING ANY SUCH ACTIVITY. PLEASE BE AWARE THAT EACH BOATER TAKES FULL RESPONSIBILITY FOR HIS OR HER OWN SAFETY, AND IS TOTALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR ASSESSING THE DANGER LEVEL AND ACCEPTING THE CONSEQUENCES OF PARTICIPATING IN THIS SPORT.


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