Rules of the Road apply to commercial, recreational vessels

My wife and I own boat that we keep at a marina in San Pedro. We are in the middle of a large port and, as such, we seem to encounter commercial traffic whenever we take the boat out. I usually operate under the policy of “tonnage rules” and try to stay out of the way of all commercial traffic, but I’m sure the actual Rules of the Road are a little more complicated. Can you shed some light on the formal rules for operating a recreational boat in an area with heavy commercial maritime traffic?

This is actually a very timely question from our reader. Last week I participated in a Port and Waterways Safety Assessment (PAWSA) workshop conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard. PAWSA workshops provide a formal structure for identifying risk factors relating to maritime safety within a port and evaluating potential mitigation measures through expert input. The Coast Guard has conducted 50 workshops around the country since 1999, and the findings and recommendations derived from the process have increased port and harbor safety substantially.

One of the most significant risk factors identified by the panel of experts in the PAWSA workshop was the interaction between commercial and recreational traffic within the port. To be blunt, the commercial maritime community is concerned that recreational boaters don’t understand or appreciate the catastrophic consequences that would inevitably result from an encounter with a large commercial ship.

The simple answer to our reader’s question would be to refer him to a previous installment of this column (See “Recreational sailboat vs. tugboat with barge: Who has the right of way?”  The Log, November 6, 2013). We noted in that discussion that the Rules of the Road apply equally to big ships and small boats and that a thorough understanding of the Rules is critical to the safe operation of any boat.  But collision avoidance often extends beyond a knowledge of the Rules.

Large ships are seriously limited in their maneuverability and in the ability of the bridge crew to see a small vessel. A container ship has a “blind spot” where the bridge crew cannot see the surface of the water ahead of them, and that obscured area may extend for a half-mile. The crew must therefore evaluate the likelihood of a collision well in advance. This is a complex exercise in a crowded harbor, even when the surrounding traffic maintains a predictable course and speed.  But small craft are often unpredictable, and this complicates the collision avoidance process considerably.

The risk of collision is reduced substantially for commercial traffic in a crowded port because of the efficient communication procedures that they follow. Recreational boaters understand that communication between vessels starts with a VHF radio tuned to channel 16.  But within a commercial port several other VHF channels are assigned to communications between vessels and between a vessel and the port’s Vessel Traffic Service (VTS – basically the maritime equivalent of an air traffic control tower at an airport).

Federal law designates that VHF channel 13 must be used for “bridge-to-bridge” communication between vessels, and communication with the VTS usually takes place on channel 14. Vessels announce their intention on these frequencies and determine with the cooperation of other vessels whether a change in course and speed is required to insure safe passage.  Unfortunately recreational boaters rarely take advantage of these tools, and as such the large commercial vessels are left guessing when they see a small craft approaching.

The experts at the PAWSA workshop concluded that port safety would be improved considerably by education and communication. All mariners, whether professional or recreational, must have a thorough understanding of the Rules of the Road. It all starts there. And recreational boaters can learn from the example set by commercial mariners when it comes to open lines of communication. Boaters should be prepared to hail a large ship to discuss their intended course under any close passing or crossing situation. VHF channel 16 is useful for hailing purposes at sea, but as noted above channels 13 and 14 are used by commercial vessels as traffic monitoring tools, so recreational boaters should switch to those frequencies of they are unable to successfully hail a ship on channel 16.

Remember, they are a lot bigger than we are, and the consequences of ambiguity and confusion in a close encounter between a large ship and a small boat may be catastrophic.

David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and, as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.

David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates ( in Long Beach. He is an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law at Loyola University Law School, is a member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States and is former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. He is also one of a small group of attorneys to be certified as an Admiralty and Maritime Law Specialist by the State Bar of California. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at (562) 438-8149 or at

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