Recreational Boating Safety – Conduct in Restricted Visibility

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
A few weeks ago, I made some recommendations on assessing risk before going out in your boat. Those recommendations are based on the US Coast Guard General Assessment of Risk (GAR) procedure we must perform before going out to sea. One of the assessments we must perform is an assessment of the environment. The procedure requires us to assess the risk of external conditions surrounding the trip. We consider weather, night/day operation, sea state, currents, water temperature, air temperature, visibility, and the likelihood of any changes in the above. This column will concentrate on operating in restricted visibility.

The Station Galveston Flotilla of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary operates out of the USCG Station Galveston base on Galveston Island. They aid the Coast Guard by providing maritime observation patrols in Galveston Bay; by providing recreational boating vessel safety checks; and by working alongside Coast Guard members in maritime accident investigation, small boat training, providing a safety zone, Aids to Navigation verification, in the galley, and watch standing.

Restricted Visibility versus Restricted Vision
Restricted visibility should not be confused with restricted vision. The Coast Guard definition of Restricted Vision is “A vessel operator’s vision is said to be restricted when it is limited by a vessel’s bow high trim, or by glare, bright lights, a dirty windshield, a canopy top, etc.” Restricted Vision is a defect that must be corrected in order to operate safely.

Restricted visibility due to fog, especially near the coastline, is a fact of life on the Gulf Coast. Restricted visibility is about running in fog, heavy rain, or at night. The regulation also includes running in mist, falling snow, and sandstorms. Below are some excerpts and discussions of the Rules of the Road pertaining to operating in restricted visibility. It is important to note that Rules 5-8 below must be complied with at all times, but become especially important in restricted visibility.

Rule 5: Post a Lookout
In 2018, the latest year for which we have statistics, “Improper Lookout” was the number 2 contributing factor of recreational boating accidents. There were 440 reported accidents in which there were 27 deaths and 316 injuries. Like all living organisms, humans have senses that allow them to move safely within their environment. The two primary senses that sailors use on the water, no matter the time of day or night, are our eyes and ears. The only position on a boat that is required by law is the lookout. Rule 5 of the Rules of the Road says that you must designate someone to watch for dangers that may come from any direction. “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.”

Although you may have the latest electronic innovations such as GPS, radar, and infrared, your primary means of avoiding a collision remain your eyes and ears. That said, the rules also state that you must use all means available to avoid a collision, and that includes those electronic devices mentioned above. If you have operational radar aboard your boat, that radar must be utilized to help prevent a collision with another vessel. Rule 5 applies in all types of visibility, but you can see where it is most important when visibility is restricted. Hearing plays an enhanced part in a lookout’s job whenever visibility is restricted.

Rule 6: Safe Speed
Excessive speed was the number 5 contributing factor in recreational boating accidents. In 2018 there were 276 accidents involving excessive speed, with 25 deaths and 231 injuries reported. Operating at a safe speed becomes even more critical when visibility is restricted. Reducing your speed also reduces your engine noise, thus allowing you to better hear sound signals such as fog horns, whistles, and bells. Below is the wording of Rule 5:

Every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed so that she can take proper and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions. In determining a safe speed the following factors shall be among those taken into account:

(a) By all vessels:
(i) The state of visibility;
(ii) The traffic density including concentrations of fishing vessels or any other vessels;
(iii) The maneuverability of the vessel with special reference to stopping distance and turning ability in the prevailing conditions;
(iv) At night, the presence of background light such as from shore lights or from back scatter from her own lights;
(v) The state of wind, sea and current, and the proximity of navigational hazards;
(vi) The draft in relation to the available depth of water.

(b) Additionally, by vessels with operational radar:
(i) The characteristics, efficiency and limitations of the radar equipment;
(ii) Any constraints imposed by the radar range scale in use;
(iii) The effect on radar detection of the sea state, weather and other sources of interference;
(iv) The possibility that small vessels, ice and other floating objects may not be detected by radar at an adequate range;
(v) The number, location and movement of vessels detected by radar;
(vi) The more exact assessment of the visibility that may be possible when radar is used to determine the range of vessels or other objects in the vicinity.

Rule 7: Risk of Collision
Rule 7 comes into play whenever another vessel is detected, whether by sight, hearing, Automatic Identification System (AIS), or radar. Below is the wording of the rule:
(a) Every vessel shall use all available means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions to determine if risk of collision exists. If there is any doubt such risk shall be deemed to exist.

(b) Proper use shall be made of radar equipment if fitted and operational, including long-range scanning to obtain early warning of risk of collision and radar plotting or equivalent systematic observation of detected objects.

(c) Assumptions shall not be made on the basis of scanty information, especially scanty radar information.

(d) In determining if risk of collision exists the following considerations shall be among those taken into account:
(i) Such risk shall be deemed to exist if the compass bearing of an approaching vessel does not appreciably change.
(ii) Such risk may sometimes exist even when an appreciable bearing change is evident, particularly when approaching a very large vessel or a tow or when approaching a vessel at close range.

As you can see from this rule, just detecting an object is not enough; you must plot an object’s course to determine if a risk of collision exists early enough to alter course if necessary to avoid a collision.

Rule 8: Action to Avoid Collision
Like the rules above it, Rule 8 applies to all conditions of visibility. Here is the rule:

(a) Any action taken to avoid collision shall be taken in accordance with Rules 4-19 and shall if the circumstances of the case admit, be positive, made in ample time and with due regard to the observance of good seamanship.

(b) Any alteration of course and/or speed to avoid collision shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, be large enough to be readily apparent to another vessel observing visually or by radar; a succession of small alterations of course and/or speed should be avoided.

(c) If there is sufficient sea room, alteration of course alone may be the most effective action to avoid a close-quarters situation provided that it is made in good time, is substantial and does not result in another close-quarters situation.

(d) Action taken to avoid collision with another vessel shall be such as to result in passing at a safe distance. The effectiveness of the action shall be carefully checked until the other vessel is finally past and clear.

(e) If necessary to avoid collision or allow more time to assess the situation, a vessel shall slacken her speed or take all way off by stopping or reversing her means of propulsion.

(f)(i) A vessel which, by any of these Rules, is required not to impede the passage or safe passage of another vessel shall, when required by the circumstances of the case, take early action to allow sufficient sea room for the safe passage of the other vessel.

Rule 19: Conduct of Vessels in Restricted Visibility
Rule 19 of the Rules of the Road says that, first, “every vessel shall proceed at a safe speed adapted to the prevailing circumstances and conditions of restricted visibility.” Isn’t that interesting that the rules say that the most important consideration for seeing and being seen is your speed? All vessels are required to maintain a proper lookout, operate at a safe speed for the prevailing conditions (including low light), and remember that any action to avoid collision shall be positive, made in ample time, and with due regard to the observance of good seamanship. The rules concerning lights shall be complied with from sunset to sunrise, and during such times as visibility may be restricted.

Rule 35: Sound Signals in Restricted Visibility
If you were navigating in heavy fog and heard a horn signal consisting of one prolonged blast followed by two short blasts, would you know what to do? Would you know what it meant? If not, you should at least learn what this signal and a couple of more signals mean, even though this rule is quite long and complicated. If you have ever operated in fog inside a large harbor such as Galveston or Houston, you understand both the complexity of and necessity of the rule. In this column I will give you the very first part of the rule, which lists the three most important sound signals used in restricted visibility. It is up to you to learn the entire rule or purchase a chart that can be used if you find yourself operating in restricted visibility with heavy vessel traffic. Here is the first part of the rule:

In or near an area of restricted visibility, whether by day or night the signals prescribed in this Rule shall be used as follows:

(a) A power-driven vessel making way through the water shall sound at intervals of not more than 2 minutes one prolonged blast.

(b) A power-driven vessel underway but stopped and making no way through the water shall sound at intervals of no more than 2 minutes two prolonged blasts in succession with an interval of about 2 seconds between them.

(c) A vessel not under command, a vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver whether underway or at anchor, a vessel constrained by her draft, a sailing vessel, a vessel engaged in fishing and a vessel engaged in towing or pushing another vessel shall, instead of the signals prescribed in Rule 35(a) or (b), sound at intervals of not more than 2 minutes three blasts in succession, namely one prolonged followed by two short blasts.

Unlike Restricted Vision, which is actually a defect which must be corrected, Restricted Visibility is a normal operating condition. Although very heavy fog can shut down maritime operations, vessels can and do operate in fog and other conditions of restricted visibility to the extent that they can safely do so. The safety of your passengers and your vessel depends upon your understanding of and compliance with the Coast Guard Rules of the Road. If your vessel is 26 feet or longer, you must have a copy of these regulations on board to which you can refer.

For more information on boating safety, please visit the Official Website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division at Questions about the US Coast Guard Auxiliary or our free Vessel Safety Check program may be directed to me at [email protected] I am available to perform free Vessel Safety Checks, and I will come to your location to perform them. SAFE BOATING!


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One Response to “Recreational Boating Safety – Conduct in Restricted Visibility”

  1. Don says:

    Bob: I often take my boat out by myself so I consider myself as the Lookout. It nearly looks like I’m violating the rules and have an “Improper Lookout” by not having a 2nd person. Great information!

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