Boaters Should Be Careful Near Commercial Vessels

Water Ways
Honolulu Star Bulletin (03/06/99)
By Ray Pendleton

The boat tied up at the Ala Wai Marine boatyard looked as if it had been hit by a hurricane. Its mast, rigging and lifelines were gone and there was damage from stem to stern.

"What happened?" I asked a nearby worker. "Did anyone survive?"

"She got between a tug and its barge last night," he answered. "And yes, somehow everyone on board was rescued. Their, and the boat's, survival was a miracle."

This incident took place some time ago, but I bring it up now because of a recent article in Sea Magazine warning Washington State boaters about commercial shipping in their area. The advice surely applies to Hawaii's boaters as well.

Recreational boaters, and particularly those who operate around commercial harbors such as Honolulu, Barber's Point, Hilo, Kawaihae, Kahului, Kaunakakai, Nawiliwili and Port Allen, can reduce their chances of dangerous encounters by understanding more about commercial shipping operations.

One aspect of commercial vessels underway that is often underestimated by boaters is their speed.

A tow going eight-and-a-half miles per hour - and, of course, ships are even faster - can cover a mile in about seven minutes, but it will need between 3/4 to 1 1/2 miles to stop. If you are dead in the water 1,000 feet in front of an approaching tug, you will have less than a minute to avoid a collision.

And boaters must remember that in narrow waterways, such as harbor entrances, tugs with barges and large vessels must maintain their speed to be able to steer.

Boaters cannot depend on being seen by commercial pilots either. Ships may have blind spots that extend for hundreds of feet in front of the vessel.

And even their radar may not pick up a small outboard when there is a lot of surface clutter on the screen due to poor sea conditions.

Just passing near a commercial vessel can also be hazardous. The wheel wash, or propeller turbulence created by a tug or ship can cause a smaller boat to be sucked toward, and even under, the larger one.

This same wheel wash can also create severe turbulence in the water for hundreds of yards behind a large vessel.

Another, and surely more important reason for never passing closely astern of a tugboat is, of course, the likelihood of being snagged by the chain or cable between it and a barge it may be towing.

While the tow wire is usually submerged, there is no guarantee it will remain below the draft of a passing boat. One surge and the effect to a plastic boat would be like a cheese slicer on a block of cheddar.

At night towing vessels can be identified by their two vertical masthead lights - three if the end of the tow is further than 200 meters (about 219 yards). These lights will be in addition to their normal running lights. There will also be a yellow light above the tug's stern light.

Finally, there is always the rule of tonnage. Even though you may think you have the right of way, it is always best to give way to larger vessels. Otherwise, you could end up being dead right.

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