The nautical rules of the road can seem like pretty dry material to new boaters, but people who are experienced on the water know how valuable they are in preventing collisions and keeping everybody safe. A clear understanding of the basic right-of-way rules will get you through most situations on the water, but in challenging conditions like entering and leaving major traffic areas, all the players, including professional mariners, need to be on their toes. I recently made an offshore passage that reminded me of how valuable those rules are.
Waterblogged readers may have followed my posts about my winter job as chief mate aboard Grande Mariner, a 180-foot Blount Small Ship Adventures vessel. We recently delivered Grande Mariner to the Bahamas after a voyage to Belize and Guatemala, transiting a curious stretch of water called the Yucatan Channel. The channel, nearly 100 miles wide between Cancun and the western end of Cuba, is a crossroads between the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Straights, and the western Caribbean. As such, it has plenty of shipping traffic — so much that close in to Cabo San Antonio on Cuba’s west end is a north-south traffic separation scheme — but you have to be in pretty tight to get in it. There’s another traffic separation scheme just to the northeast as you skirt Cuba’s north coast.
I mention these traffic schemes because at the beginnings and ends of these schemes things can get particularly interesting. Think in terms of a traffic roundabout (rotary) without knowing where boats will come from when they’re approaching the scheme, or head to when they exit. And in Grande Mariner, we weren’t even entering one of the traffic separation schemes — we were crossing from the island of Cozumel to Key West in a SW to NE direction.
In this area, it helps to have your radar set on a long-distance 24-mile scale to see who’s coming into the washing machine and anticipate their next course. I quizzed my lookout throughout the transit on which ships had the right of way and what he would do in each situation. Great practice, particularly with multiple ships coming from all directness at once.
We crossed in daylight, but I asked him to envision which sidelight he would be seeing at night and use the green=go, red=give way rule of thumb. I also made him keep a Closest Point of Approach (CPA) of two nautical miles.
You may not be in a busy sea lane like this very often, but I suggest you play the “who has the right of way and what do you need to do” game to avoid a close-quarters situation — especially in an area when a course change around a point, for instance, will change the game halfway through. Ships coming at each other at a combined 40 knots turn slowly and stop very gradually. Speed changes are unusual in big ships in open water. More normal are changes of course significant enough to let the other guy know what you are doing. Big-ship operators want to know what the situation is about 12 miles out so they can alter course soon after they confirm things visually and keep those CPAs comfortable.
I know it’s not a quiz game people in pleasure boats play very often, but these are perspectives that mariners on ships hope that pleasure-boaters have too, when they find themselves in shipping lanes with the big guys.
I hope my deck hand learned something, I know my review and explanations helped refresh and sharpen my own traffic skills.