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Does the Balboa Ferry Always Have the Right of Way?

I sail out of Newport Beach and I spend a lot of time cruising through Newport Harbor. I frequently encounter the Balboa Ferry on its regular run from the Peninsula to Balboa Island, and it seems like I am in collision avoidance mode every time I get near those boats. Can you explain how the Rules of the Road work when a recreational sailboat operates near a ferry?
Most boaters who operate recreational vessels in Newport Harbor have been advised at one time or another to stay clear of the Balboa Ferry. This is probably good advice — but, in fact, the ferry has no special right-of-way privilege.

The Balboa Ferry is a power-driven vessel that is not constrained by its draft nor restricted in its ability to maneuver, and as such it is required to give way to a sailing vessel under most circumstances. Further, under most circumstances, it is treated like any other power-driven vessel when determining the right of way with another powerboat in a crossing or overtaking situation. This is similar to the treatment of Catalina Express or Aqualink boats in Long Beach or a thousand other ferries around the country.

The folklore concerning the Balboa Ferry’s special right-of-way treatment may be due to the mistaken belief that the vessel falls under Rule 9(b) of the International and Inland Navigation Rules. This rule provides that “a vessel of less than 20 meters in length or a sailing vessel shall not impede the passage of a vessel that can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway.”

Many local yacht clubs in Newport Beach promote this misunderstanding through their publication of a standard list of safety tips for sailboat racers. They warn that the “Rules of the Road require that you not impede large vessels (including the Balboa Ferry) which have limited maneuverability in ‘a narrow channel’ which includes the Harbor.”

The yacht club warning is misleading. Rule 9(b) does apply to vessels that must travel within a narrow channel, but the characterization of a particular body of water as a “narrow channel” will vary depending on the vessel involved. Newport Harbor may be deemed a “narrow channel” for a container ship, but that characterization will not apply to a small ferry boat. Further, even if that section of Newport Harbor were considered a “narrow channel or fairway,” the ferry actually crosses the channel — it does not “navigate within the channel.”

We should insert a warning here: Boaters should not view this information as a license to blindly ignore the ferry as they cruise through Newport Harbor. That section of the harbor is typically very busy with east-west recreational traffic, and the north-south route of the ferry can be very disruptive to the orderly flow of boats within the harbor. Under these circumstances, it may not be possible for the ferry to change course or speed without affecting two or three other boats.

Rules 2, 5, 7 and 8 of the International and Inland Navigation Rules require a boater to keep a sharp lookout and to take steps to avoid a collision, regardless of who has the right of way. The most prudent course may be to duck behind the ferry, even if you do have the right of way.

We should also note that the rules involving a boat such as the Balboa Ferry are subject to change. Under some circumstances, a local order or Coast Guard regulation may grant a privileged status to a vessel that would not otherwise enjoy such a benefit. This designation might apply to a construction vessel or to a special event, and it would almost surely be temporary in nature.

The best source for this kind of information is a detailed chart of the area as supplemented by the Coast Guard’s weekly Local Notice to Mariners. Or simply call the local Coast Guard unit for more information.

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