Rules of the (Liquid) Road

By: American Sailing Association, Legislation, Safety

“Bad LA traffic” is a stereotype that holds true even on the water. As a newcomer to Marina del Rey, I’ve been shocked at the throngs of boats that squeeze their way out of the jetties like a dense pack of bicyclists. It’s so crowded they’ve even got a traffic separation scheme inside the breakwall: a large middle lane for boats under sail, and two outer lanes for power-driven vessels. Way too freaked out by the zigzagging hubub to sail my boat out, I stick to the outer lanes under power, but remain constantly alarmed by huge sailboats reaching almost into my lane (and my boat) before turning a tight tack in the other direction.

Just thinking about Marina del Rey boat traffic during Summer Sailstice and Father’s Day weekend is enough to make me head for the hills. (Which I am in fact doing, but it’s for a wedding, not out of paralyzing fear of Marina del Rey.) But for those of you headed out this weekend–where ever you are–here’s a quick refresher on the Rules of the Road. Keep it in mind when you go sailing this weekend!

Safe Speed
Regardless of whether a speed limit is posted or not, Rule 6 of the USCG Navigation Rules states that every vessel shall proceed at a safe speed, meaning one where she can take proper action to avoid collision.

Pecking Order
Sailors are quick to remind motor-yachters that we have the right of way (all too often with a snarly flip of the bird), which is true. However, to be truly holier-than-thou, we must remember these points:
–A sailboat under power is a power-driven vessel. You’ve relinquished your “sailor’s rights” as soon as you turn that motor on.
–Any overtaken vessel has the right of way over anyone overtaking. This means that if you’re a sailboat overtaking a power boat (approaching from within the 135-degree sweep off her stern), you’ve got to make way for the other vessel, regardless of it’s propulsion.
–Ultimately, even if you have the right of way, just don’t hit anybody! the cardinal rule applies to everyone: Every vessel shall use all available means to determine if risk of collision exists, and shall make decisive action with ample time to avoid it (my paraphrase of four pages of legalese)!

The Sailing Subset
Regatta right-of-way intricacies aside, there are really only three rules according to the Navigation Rules when it comes to crossing situations between sailors:
–Starboard stand-on. Always.
–Windward give-way. Always.
–And if a sailboat on a port tack sees a sailboat to windward and can’t determine which tack the other vessel is on (say, perhaps, it’s flying a huge spinnaker out front, obscuring the boom), then she should give way to the windward vessel.

But I repeat, the rule that trumps all others is the common sense rule: Do whatever it takes not to hit anybody!

Sadly, there are times when the rules may fail you (such as when others don’t understand or comply with them). So, have a couple of defensive driving strategies in mind. I like to raise the other boat on the VHF to confirm the plan for the pass. I also make my crew ready to tack if approaching any close crossing situation, just in case. Whatever you do, don’t be pigheaded about the rules–protect your boat and yourself. You can raise any offenders on the radio afterward to give them a curt refresher on the Rules of the watery Road!

Have an excellent Summer Solstice, Summer Sailstice, and Father’s Day Weekend!