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Ethical Boating

Spring is right around the corner, which means soon it will be time to hop onboard our boats and enjoy the sun and fun! But while we are operating our boats along the Southern California coast, we need to abide by local laws and just as important, a generally accepted set of rules shared by experienced boaters. While local police departments handle matters regarding statutory law, it is up to us as skippers and crew to maintain a standard of behavior that promotes the safety and pleasure of everyone onboard all coastal vessels.


Controlling Speed

A shallow-draft motorboat is capable of accelerating to high speeds within seconds, throwing a huge wake, depending on vessel size and the shape of the hull beneath the waterline. Inside an enclosed waterway, such as Newport Harbor or Los Angeles Harbor, minimize speed to avoid throwing a large wake toward other vessels underway.

Out on open coastal water well beyond the breakwater, you may find yourself in large swells, which can be dangerous for a speedboat. To enjoy planing in a low-freeboard speedboat on open water, wait for a day when the wind is relatively calm and coastal waters are fairly flat.

A fishing boat or trawler, on the other hand, sits higher in the water, allowing greater protection from breaking waves. If you are on a displacement-hull cabin cruiser, trawler or ocean-going sailboat, you should have little trouble navigating along the coast. However, listen to NOAA Weather Radio (162.5 MHz on VHF in Southern California) regarding potential storm activity and wave height.


Navigating through Channels

When navigating through a marked channel, adhere to the posted vessel speed limit and stay on the correct side of the channel. To ensure compliance, remembering the phrase, “red, right, returning” will help you understand the channel markers. When you leave for open water, keep the green buoy or post marker to your starboard (right) side, and when you return, keep the red marker on your starboard side.

Other signs marking potential hazards may also appear, but these are posted on floating cylinder buoys marked red at the ends and white in the middle. They inform you of rocks, swim areas, no-wake zones and other warnings. The posts also may indicate a boat ramp or gas dock, which will require slow, careful motoring as you approach. When I have room, I prefer to practice the approach at least once, make sure I have dock lines ready, circle around and then re-enter the area slowly and carefully.



The first step in docking is to study the structure to allow sufficient room off bow and stern if there are other boats at the dock. Make sure dock lines are tied to your deck cleats and are in position to be tied to the dock cleats or bollards. Also deploy two or more dock fenders, depending on vessel size, before making contact with the dock.

Approach the dock at slow speed but with enough power to overcome any head wind or side wind that could interfere with vessel control. Now comes the really tricky part. If you are singlehanded, quickly but carefully grab one of your dock lines and step onto the dock to tie the line to a cleat before the boat starts wandering off. With one line tied off, you can maneuver the hull into position manually and cleat off the other line. When you get ready to leave, untie the bow line first and then the stern line. Getting underway will be much easier with the bow pointing out first.



Proper anchoring is one of the most challenging skills we must learn as coastal mariners. Many skippers prefer to take a mooring, if available, which is a relatively easy skill set to master. Anchoring, on the other hand, takes a lot more practice.

Before dropping the hook, check your depth gauge to make sure the amount of chain and nylon rope behind your anchor are enough to ensure safety. A basic rule is to allow, as a bare minimum, a three-to-one scope of chain and rope. Anything less can endanger your vessel if a strong wind kicks up. Your vessel should have, at the very least, a boat length of chain connected to the anchor; the more, the better. On my 1966 Cal 30 sloop Saltaire, I carry 150 feet of 5/16-inch chain with 200 feet of nylon rope.

Also take a look around and make sure you will not meander into someone else’s swing circle. I cannot count the times I have watched inexperienced skippers with large, fancy vessels come into an anchorage, drop anchor, hop into the dinghy and fly off to the local watering hole without giving a second thought to swing room.

When possible, I try to educate these green skippers in how and where to anchor. Some listen while others just flash me the one-finger salute and do as they wish. Almost invariably, their boats gradually meander towards Saltaire and then I have to repeat my anchoring lecture to prevent a tragedy. So follow the 3:1 scope rule, stay out of other vessels’ swing room and also keep someone on anchor watch around the clock.


Marine Sanitation

            The rules for marine sanitation can get fairly complicated, but the underlying goal here is to keep effluent away from beaches, bays and anchorages. It is against both federal and California state law to dump human sewage into the ocean within the three-mile territorial limit, including offshore islands.

Therefore, if your vessel has a “marine sanitation device,” aka toilet, you cannot flush the device straight into the water unless you are at a safe distance offshore. Most contemporary boats have holding tanks for human waste and there are ample pump-out stations to be found along the coast.

From time to time, it is a good idea to clean the holding tank by first pumping it out, then filling it with fresh water and pumping it out again. This should help control strong odors and reduce acids, thereby extending the tank’s lifespan.


If we all agree to play by the rules while underway or at anchor in coastal waters, we can ensure a safe, fun environment for ourselves and our guests. Not only that, but we also will contribute greatly to the health of our coastal fisheries and natural habitats as well.

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