Nautical Sound Signals: The Prolonged Blast

Horns can be mouth-powered, hand-held, or fixed-mount, like this one, which has a DC-powered compressor to produce a 126 dB blast.

Horns can be mouth-powered, hand-held, or fixed-mount, like this one, which has a DC-powered compressor to produce a 126 dB blast.

It’s a clear, sunny day, and you hear a 4- to 6-second blast of a ship’s whistle or horn. What should you do? Please, look for the source! This signal is given by a vessels leaving an obscured berth or moving around the blind bend of a waterway. They can’t see you and probably don’t even know you’re there, but they’re telling anyone within hearing, “I’m here and moving, so watch out!”

The prolonged blast is a required warning signal I make every workday aboard a charter schooner in Newport as I drop docklines and leave the obscured long alleyway that serves as the boat’s berth. I know it annoys the local businesses that surround the berth—more than one business owner has asked me not to do so — at least until I’ve explained that it’s required by the Rules of the Nautical Road.

I can understand merchants ashore being naïve about our water-world rules, but the startled look on many boater’s faces and their panicked reactions when I come around the blind corner is often a stressful time, and it shouldn’t be.

I’m blowing the horn because it is required, and it is prudent! I’m trying my best to keep us all safe. So, please, no more startled looks or single-finger salutes. Be appreciative that a collision can ruin everyone’s day and that mariners will ignore pressure from ignorant landlubbers and try and keep all boaters safe.

Boaters must be keenly aware of their geographical location when using sound signals, because there are multiple sets of rules — International, Inland, and Pilot rules, as well as Great Lakes and Western Rivers, where different meanings are sometimes assigned to sound signals.  But the prolonged blast is one of the few signals that transcends all the variations and has the same meaning everywhere: I can’t see around the bend or obstruction, so watch out!

Note that the Inland rules for leaving a berth or coming around an obstructed bend calls for a “long blast,” not the international “prolonged blast” of 4 to 6 seconds. In this case a long blast should be even longer, say 8 to 10 seconds according to Farwell’s Rules of the Nautical Road.

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