Recreational Boating Safety – The Danger Signal

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist, United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla.
Friday was a busy day in the Houston Ship Channel and the Galveston Channel. Besides the usual commercial shipping traffic and ferry operations, there were several military operations going on. In addition, there were some recreational boaters moving in the area, some of whom demonstrated a lack of knowledge of or disregard for the Rules of the Road. While monitoring four different radio frequencies I overheard several pleas from commercial vessels as well as Coast Guard vessels to recreational boaters to keep out of their way.

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.

My job for the day was running a safety zone for the USMC amphibious training exercise operating between the Galveston ferry landing and the Coast Guard docks. With all the vessel traffic in the area and the haphazard operation by some recreational boats, it was inevitable that we would hear the Danger Signal: five short blasts of the horn. This column will review some of the Rules of the Road in order to remind recreational boaters of their obligation to operate in a safe manner around other vessels. The first thing we need to discuss are the definitions of the different types of vessels.

Navigational Rule 3 – General Definitions
The following list of definitions is not complete. I have just selected a few that will help in understanding the other rules. My own comments and further explanations are in parentheses. Certain vessels are required to display dayshapes during the day and lights at night, and I will mention some of the patterns that may be used.

(a) The word “vessel” includes every description of watercraft, including non-displacement craft, WIG craft, and seaplanes, used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.

(b) The term “power-driven vessel” means any vessel propelled by machinery.

(c) The term “sailing vessel” means any vessel under sail provided that propelling machinery, if fitted, is not being used. (A sailing vessel that is using its auxiliary engine to move through the water displays a black triangle dayshape with the apex pointing down ▼).

(d) The term “vessel engaged in fishing” means any vessel with nets, lines, trawls or other fishing apparatus that restricts maneuverability, but does not include a vessel fishing with trolling lines or other fishing apparatus that does not restrict maneuverability. (The light displayed by trawlers is green over white- trawling at night.) The dayshape is two triangles, one over the other, with points touching. A fishing vessel with gear sticking out from either side includes a black triangle attached to the obstructing gear during the day, and a red light over a white light with an additional white light displayed on the obstructing gear. “Red over white, fishing at night.”)

(f) The term “vessel not under command” means a vessel that through some exceptional circumstance is unable to maneuver as required by these Rules and is therefore unable to keep out of the way of another vessel. (The dayshape is two black balls, one over the other. The light pattern is two red lights, one over the other. “Red over red, the captain is dead.” The abbreviation often used for these vessels is NUC.)

(g) The term “vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver” means a vessel that, from the nature of her work, is restricted in her ability to maneuver as required by these Rules and is therefore unable to keep out of the way of another vessel. The term “restricted in their ability to maneuver” shall include, but not be limited to:

(i) a vessel engaged in laying, servicing, or picking up a navigational mark, submarine cable, or pipeline;
(ii) a vessel engaged in dredging, surveying, or underwater operations;
(iii) a vessel engaged in replenishment or transferring persons, provisions, or cargo while underway; (yes, that means two vessels side by side while moving; ships don’t stop to take on pilots)
(iv) a vessel engaged in launching or recovery of aircraft;
(v) a vessel engaged in mine clearance operations;
(vi) a vessel engaged in a towing operation that severely restricts the towing vessel and her tow in their ability to deviate from their course.

(We see many of these types of vessels in our waters. Their dayshape is a ball over a diamond over a ball. The light pattern is red over white over red. Our abbreviation for such a vessel is RAM.)

The importance of identifying and classifying the vessels above will become apparent in the next rule to be discussed. The next rule is often described as The Pecking Order of Rights of Way.

Rule 18 – Responsibilities Between Vessels
Except where Rules 9 (Narrow Channels), 10 (Traffic Separation Schemes), and 13 (Overtaking) require:

(a) A power-driven vessel shall keep out of the way of:
(i) a vessel not under command (NUC);
(ii) a vessel restricted by her ability to maneuver (RAM);
(iii) a vessel engaged in fishing;
(iv) a sailing vessel.
(b) A sailing vessel underway shall keep out of the way of:
(i) a vessel not under command (NUC);
(ii) a vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver (RAM);
(iii) a vessel engaged in fishing.
(c) A vessel engaged in fishing while underway shall, as far as possible, keep out of the way of:
(i) a vessel not under command (NUC);
(ii) a vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver (RAM).

This is not the entire rule, as it also discusses seaplanes and exotic vessels such as WIG craft (Wing in Ground craft, which are classified as boats but have the ability to fly over the surface of the water as much as 15 feet above the surface. They act like a plane but cannot reach any great altitude due to the small size of their wings.)

Rule 18 established a pecking order or hierarchy of responsibilities between vessels operating in close proximity. For a vessel to claim the privilege designated by Rule 18, it must meet the definition stated in Rule 3. In addition, she must display the proper dayshapes or lights so other vessels operating in the area can easily identify the entitlement claimed by that vessel. It is important to note that power-driven vessels are required to keep out of the way of all vessels except seaplanes and any vessels overtaking her. This also applies anytime a power-driven vessel is underway but not making way (drifting in the water or under propulsion but not enough propulsion to advance in position). So, if a power-driven vessel sees a vessel approaching that is higher on the pecking order list, she is required to make way in order to stay out of the way. For example, if you are drifting with your engine off while over the deeper barge channel in the Intracoastal Waterway and a barge tow is seen approaching, you are required to crank up and get out of their way.

An important point to mention here is that there is no true Right of Way on the water. Instead the Rules of the Road define which vessel must keep out of the way of other vessels under the rules. The rules place the responsibility of avoiding collision nearly equally on both vessels, and that is where the Danger Signal and its implications come into play. When the Danger Signal is given, both vessels involved are responsible for doing everything within their power to avoid a collision.

Rule 34 – Maneuvering and Warning Signals
“When vessels are in sight of one another and meeting or crossing at a distance within half a mile of each other, each vessel underway, when maneuvering as authorized or required by these rules, shall indicate that maneuver by the following signals on her whistle.” What follows is a summary of a few of the requirements of Rule 34.

Sound signals are composed of short and prolonged blasts and must be audible for at least one-half mile:

  • Short blast—about one second in duration
  • Prolonged blast—4-6 seconds in duration

Sound signals can communicate a change in direction to other boaters.

  • One prolonged blast tells other boaters “I am about to get underway.”
  • One short blast tells other boaters “I intend to pass you on my port (left) side.”
  • Two short blasts tell other boaters “I intend to pass you on my starboard (right) side.”
  • Three short blasts tell other boaters, “I am operating astern propulsion.” For some vessels, this tells other boaters, “I am backing up.”

Sound signals let other boaters know where you are located during periods of restricted visibility, such as extreme fog. If you hear the fog signal of a vessel you cannot see, slow to a minimum speed until you are sure there is not a risk of collision.

  • One prolonged blast at intervals of not more than two minutes is the signal used by power-driven vessels when underway.
  • One prolonged blast plus two short blasts at intervals of not more than two minutes is the signal used by sailing vessels.

Sound signals are used to warn other boaters or alert them to danger.

  • One prolonged blast is also a warning signal (for example, used when coming around a blind bend).
  • Five (or more) short, rapid blasts are used to signal danger or to signal that you do not understand or you disagree with the other boater’s intentions.

Why We Don’t Hear More Sound Signals
With all the requirements for using sound signals, why don’t we hear more horn and whistle signals? It’s because mariners mostly use their marine VHF/FM radios to communicate their intentions, and that includes communicating a Danger Signal.

Houston Traffic Radio Transmissions
The “marine dispatcher” for our area, officially known as Vessel Traffic Service Houston/Galveston, exists to prevent groundings, rammings, and collisions by sharing information and implementing appropriate traffic measurement measures. Their reporting channels are channels 05A, 11 and 12, and their call sign is Houston Traffic. Channel 05A is the initial reporting channel. Channel 11 is for communicating with Houston Traffic inbound at Baytown Bend Light 111 and above, while channel 12 is for outbound and below that location. Although most recreational boaters are not required to participate in VTS or be a passive participant, monitoring these three channels is not only a safety recommendation but is just plain interesting to boot. When making marine information bulletins, Houston Traffic will make an announcement of an important marine information bulletin on Channel 16, the international calling and distress channel, and then instruct vessels to go to Channel 05A to hear the bulletin.

Coast Guard Radio Transmissions
Vessels that are required by law to have a marine VHF/FM radio are required to monitor Channel 16, the distress channel. Recreational boaters that have marine radios are also required to monitor Channel 16. Like Houston Traffic, the Coast Guard also transmits important marine information bulletins. Like Houston Traffic, the Coast Guard Watchstander will make the initial announcement of an important broadcast but will instruct vessels to change to Channel 22A to actually hear the safety bulletin.

Bridge to Bridge Navigation Safety: Channel 13
Channel 13 is the Intership Navigation Safety (bridge to bridge) channel. That channel is where you will first hear a “danger signal” much of the time. Whenever a vessel concludes that it is on a collision course with another vessel, the easiest way to make that situation known is to make a transmission on Channel 13 directed at the other vessel. For instance, a large automobile carrier (called a RoRo, or Roll on- Roll off vessel) on Friday attempted to contact a sailing vessel that was operating dangerously close to the RoRo’s route. At this point the RoRo was a vessel with restricted ability to maneuver, as it had to remain within the Galveston Channel due to its draft. After two quick attempts to make radio contact, the RoRo captain went to the horn signal, five short blasts. That was the closest call of the day, but it was by no means the only one. We heard several calls on Channel 13 warning other vessels of the possibility of collision.

Rule 8 – Actions to Avoid a Collision (Summary)
(a) Any action taken shall be positive, made in ample time and with due regard of good seamanship.
(b) Any alteration of course and/or speed to avoid collision shall be large enough to be readily apparent to another vessel observing visually or by radar. Avoid small changes in course or speed.
(c) If there is sufficient sea room, alteration of course alone may be the most effective action to avoid a close quarters situation provided it is made in good time, is substantial and does not result in another close-quarters situation.
(d) If necessary to avoid collision or allow more time to assess the situation, a vessel may slacken her speed or take all way off by stopping or reversing her means of propulsion.
(e) A vessel which is required to not impede the safe passage of another vessel shall take early action to allow sufficient sea room for the safe passage of the vessel. A vessel, the passage of which is not to be impeded remains fully obliged to comply with the rules when the two vessels are approaching one another so as to involve risk of collision.

Listen for the Danger Signal, whether from a radio transmission or a horn, and take action to avoid a collision. Remember, there is no true right of way on the water.

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 – The Danger Signal”

  1. Constance Dearing says:

    Thanks Robert!

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