Navigating beside giants

To kick off our northwest boating season, a local ship captain recommends reading “How to Avoid Huge Ships” by John Trimmer. Here’s a no-frills distillation for fellow socially-distancing boaters.

Ships as big as the Columbia Tower lying down buzz down the Sound at 18+ knots. Being designed to cross oceans in a straight line, they’re clumsy and lack credible brakes. While a ferry can stop in a boat length and a half, that merchant ship zipping past Kingston may not be able stop before Bainbridge Island.

These ships have a very big diesel engine with no clutch. Backing down to stop requires stopping the diesel, shifting it to run in reverse, and then restarting it with compressed air. At max speed the air blast may not be able to overcome water pressure on the propeller. Without propulsion a freighter can’t steer.

These behemoths travel in two “traffic lanes.” Each is a half-mile wide, with a quarter-mile wide zone in between. Northbound ships use the east lane and southbound ships use the west. Seattle controllers, who manage the traffic, can be reached on VHF channel 14. They’re helpful when crossing traffic lanes (see cartoon). Ships keep each other informed on channel 13. We can also use it to let them know what we’re up to. When calling, identify the ship by their location and yourself by your location. At night turning a white (“flare-up”) light on and off can help them identify you.

Boats under 60 feet aren’t supposed to use the traffic lanes or interfere with the ships that do. When crossing a lane go straight across. Distances to large ships appear greater than actual and their speeds appear slower. So don’t try to cut ahead. Even if you’re a mile ahead, that freighter will be on top of you in under 4 minutes. So head astern of it making your course change early and obvious. Currents push big ships around in Admiralty Strait. Give them room when the tide’s running. Compared to Puget Sound, navigating through shipping traffic in Elliott Bay and the Duwamish Waterway is the major leagues. You’ll have to read the book on that.

Tugs with tows follow the traffic lanes. Don’t go between the tug and its tow. The barge can’t stop. You may get caught on the underwater tow cable and the tug’s wake will push you into the oncoming barge. At night tugs have two or three white lights in a straight line and a yellow light above their stern light.

Being near a big ship has risks. Water being pushed out from the propeller and can bounce a boat around or tip small boats over. The water passing down the ship’s side can pull you against the ship as it bends in towards the stern. The bow wave will bounce you around but it’s manageable. The less noticed stern wave includes multiple larger waves traveling at the ship’s speed. Besides bouncing us, these waves also cause surf on nearby beaches.

Don’t expect a merchant to see you if you’re closer than 500 yards. Even if you’re further out, the ship’s masts and cranes can obscure you. At night your running lights also may not be seen. Ships normally see you on radar but rain can clutter radars. As fiberglass is a poor reflector, it’s wise to have a radar reflector.

Knowing the rules of the road is important but also remember the ode “to the life of William Jay, who died maintaining his right of way – he was right, dead right as he sped along, but he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong.”