Rules for boating around huge ships

Last month we reported that racing sailboats blocked a huge ship enroute to Seattle. The boats broke federal law by “impeding the passage” of a ship in a Vessel Traffic System. 17 boats were disqualified from the race. Causing an 82,000-ton bulk carrier to make a “U” turn in a crowded Admiralty Inlet is risky, and each racer could have also been fined $5,000.

How does the VTS scheme work?

From Cape Flattery down to Tacoma and up to Vancouver, B.C., there are two-lane, water highways. Called the VTS, the lanes are marked on the charts, and yellow buoys in the water mark their turning points.

You can see one of the buoys off Point No Point. Southbound ships use the lane on our side and northbound ships use the lane by Edmonds. Lanes are 1,000 yards wide and are split by a 500-yard-wide separation zone. Large ships are required to run down the lane’s center while tugs and their tows run along the side.

What do we need to know?

While boaters follow the Internal Rules of the Road, federal law also requires us to follow VTS and Homeland Security rules. They are:

1. Boats, including sailboats, not in the VTS system shall not impede a vessel in the VTS lanes.

2. When crossing VTS lanes do that at right angles.

3. Avoid running in a traffic lane or the separation zone. If necessary, go with the traffic, and keep to the outside.

4. Don’t fish in the lanes or within 500 yards of a straight line between the Edmonds and Kingston ferry landings.

5. Stay at least 500 yards away from ferries, cruise ships, military vessels and oil tankers.

6. There’s an additional 1,000-yard security zone around escorted submarines.

VTS traffic is managed from the Coast Guard station at Pier 36, south of Colman Dock. (They offer tours, check the website.) 12 radar sites track ships from the Pacific in. You can see one at Point No Point. Controllers advise ships of conditions and give them directions if necessary. Boaters can also talk to VTS controllers.

Let’s say you’re crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca and get fogged in. You can ask VTS if the nearby traffic lanes are clear. By the way, the worst place to cross the Strait is just west of the line between Victoria and Port Angeles. That’s called “the Rotary” because the big ship lanes from three directions all cross there.

Ships at the “Rotary” also don’t have pilots on board, having either dropped them off or not yet picked them up. So the ship you’re talking to may not speak English as a primary language.

“Seattle traffic” can be reached on Channel 14 north of Marrowstone Island and 5A to the south. Just listening can keep us up-to-date. If you need to contact a ship use Channel 13, which is their “bridge to bridge” network. Ships in the VTS aren’t required to monitor Channel 16. Boaters use that channel for emergency reports and for call-up after which they should promptly switch to a different working frequency.

For an amazing amount of VTS information check out the VTS User’s Manual online. For an essential, 99-page, one-of-a-kind book check out “How to Avoid Huge Ships” by John Trimmer. While out of print and expensive, a copy is stashed at our Kingston library.

Walt Elliott writes a monthly column on Washing State Ferries for this newspaper.