We kayakers are an independent lot who tend to wander off the beaten path to explore. Most other boaters travel along marked channels while we meander wherever we please. In lots of ways, we are the jaywalkers of the waterways. Many kayakers, despite the fact that they sit in boats, barely acknowledge being “boaters” at all. We just don’t connect well with the larger world of boating.
I have found that kayakers, regrettably, are second only to jet skiers in their ignorance or application of boating regulations. Even experienced kayakers, people who regularly give lessons to expert paddlers, often misunderstand or misinterpret the Rules of the Road, also known as the International Regulations for Avoiding Collisions at Sea, or COLREGS. (The complete rules are available online at http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/mwv/navrules/rotr_online.htm
). Under the rules, kayaks are unquestionably classified as vessels and, as kayakers, we are expected to act in the manner we’d expect other boaters to act; namely, in accordance with the Navigation Rules in navigable waters or the applicable state laws if we’re not. A very common error kayakers make is assuming we have the right-of-way over other boats because we are “hand-powered” small craft. This isn’t true—at least not in waters subject to the Rules of the Road and under the jurisdiction of the United States Coast Guard (USCG).
The Navigation Rules are 38 numbered rules. Professional mariners must learn every rule by heart, but unless a vessel is required to be operated by a licensed mariner, many boats are dr
iven by people with virtually no idea of what the Navigation Rules are. Kayakers are certainly no exception. No one really expects kayakers to memorize the Rules, but we really should at least be familiar with the rules that apply to us. After all, the rules are what govern the operation of almost all the vessels you will encounter as a paddler; and virtually all of them are bigger and faster than your kayak.
Kayaks (as well as other hand-propelled watercraft like canoes and rowing boats) are within the definition of vessels as defined by Rule 3(a): “every description of watercraft used…as a means of transportation on water.” Kayaks are therefore subject to the rules. The Rules of the Road draw a distinction between sail and power but, with the exception of a single reference to boats under oars, don’t provide special rights-of-way for boats under human power.
According to Rule 3(b) “The term ‘power driven vessel’ means any vessel propelled by machinery.” A paddle can be defined as machinery, but definitions aside, my advice is to assume that kayaks are to be treated under the law as if they were powerboats. In other words, do not assume any right-of-way other than those specifically given out in the rules.
Under the Rules of the Road, any master of a vessel who fails to operate in accordance with these rules can be held legally responsible for any damage that ensues. Though it might not seem that a kayak could cause much damage to any boat, a vessel that gets damaged in the course of avoiding a collision with your kayak could take legal action against you. As paddlers, we do have good reason to learn the Navigation Rules and understand how they apply to us.
Rule 5 is the first of the rules that apply to your conduct as the master of your vessel. It has special significance: “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout 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.” Notice both sight and hearing are mentioned. This means that if you wear corrective lenses to see properly, you must be wearing them when you paddle. And it means that you must keep your ears clear so that you can hear signals from other vessels. Listening to music on your MP3 player may be enjoyable, but if it impairs your ability to avoid an accident you may be held liable even if you had right-of-way.
Rule 6 requires that you proceed at a safe speed. That may not often be an issue for kayakers, but if your speed is a factor in any collision, you bear a responsibility for damages.
Avoiding a collision is a primary responsibility as Rule 7(a) states: “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.” This means that if you have any inkling that there
might be a risk of a collision, you are required to take appropriate action. Usually, in a kayak, the appropriate action will be to get out of the way or make sure that the other vessel’s operator sees you.
Rule 8 provides some details about avoiding a collision. Evasive maneuvers should 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.” Act decisively and don’t wait until the last minute.
Rule 9 requires vessels in constricted channels to stay at the outer limits at the starboard side of a channel in order to maximize the distance between them. It also prohibits vessels under 20 meters, vessels engaged in fishing and boats under sail from restricting the passage of a vessel which can only safely operate within the confines of a channel. It should be obvious that a 700-foot steamship needs deep water and plenty of maneuvering room, so it should be equally obvious that paddling in front of a ship entering or leaving a harbor or in a constricted channel is going to create a problem. If you are unsure about being near any “restricted channel,” my advice is to keep a sharp eye on tugs, ships or ferries and keep out of their way.
Rule 10 applies to Traffic Separation schemes, better known as shipping lanes. In short, kayaks don’t need to be in shipping lanes and should avoid them “by as wide a margin as possible.” If you do have to cross the lanes, abide by 10(c) and “cross on a heading as nearly as practicable at right angles.”
The second section of the Rules—Conduct of Vessels within Sight of Each Other—applies to rights-of-way when two boats approach each other.
Rules 13 through 15 cover the three conditions under which you can encounter another vessel: overtaking, head-on and crossing. (Submarines have been known to surface under surface-going vessels, but that encounter is inexplicably missing from the Navigation Rules.) The rules covering encounters are very much like the rules of the paved road—just swap vehicle for vessel and right for starboard: If you’re passing, you’re obligated to keep clear of the slower vehicle. If you’re head-on, you need to get to the right side of the road. And if you’re crossing, you must yield to the vehicle to your right.
Rule 16 states that if you must yield the right-of-way to another vessel, you must do it “early and with a substantial action” so the operator of the other vessel knows you are doing so.
As a rule, specifically 17(a)(i), the vessel with the right-of-way—also known as the stand-on vessel—is required to maintain course and speed. As a kayaker, I avoid passing in front of any powerboat since it’s usually much simpler for me to slow down and let them go ahead, regardless of the direction. If you have the right-of-way and it’s clear that the other vessel is not yielding, Rule 17(b) requires you take action to avoid collision, even if you would normally be expected to maintain course and speed.
Rule 18 spells out “Responsibilities between Vessels.” If you are a “power-driven vessel” (and that does include muscle power) you must keep out of the way of vessels not under command, restricted in ability to maneuver, engaged in fishing or under sail. Note that hand-powered boats are not included in the list. As a kayaker, you must stay out of their way, period! If you get in their way and they can’t avoid running over you, then you will be at fault. So much for the “hand-powered” or “smaller” myths! (Some state navigation rules do give hand-powered vessels the right-of-way, but these rules do not apply to navigable waters. Don’t confuse the two.)
Rules 20 through 31 cover “Lights and Shapes.” Rule 25 is the only Navigation Rule that specifically mentions a vessel powered by hand: “A vessel under oars may exhibit the lights prescribed in this rule for sailing vessels, but if she does not, she shall have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.” This seems simple and straightforward, except that if a rowboat (or a kayak or canoe) does display the same lights as a sailing vessel, it would not be unreasonable for other vessels to treat it as a sailing vessel and give it a precedence that, under the rest of the Navigation Rules, it does not really deserve. My experience with “running lights” for kayaks has caused me to rely instead on the part of Rule 25 that directs me to use a flashlight for a white light.
Rules 32 through 38 cover “Sound and Light Signals.” Listed there are the whistles, bells and gongs larger vessels must use. Rule 33 notes “a vessel of less than 12 meters in length shall not be obliged to carry the sound signaling appliances prescribed in paragraph (a) of this Rule but if she does not, she shall be provided with some other means of making an efficient signal.” While a lung-powered whistle has become the standard among kayakers, I remain unconvinced of their efficacy. Since most ships and powerboats are operated from within enclosed bridges filled with engine noise, blowing a whistle might be a waste of breath. I would recommend a compressed-gas “horn” over a whistle if you want to have a chance of being heard. Many states and counties require kayakers to have a whistle on board, so it is still good practice to carry one on your PFD.
Rule 34 provides a list of signals and their meaning:
- One short blast (or flash, if a light is used): I am altering course to starboard.
- Two short blasts; I am altering course to port.
- Three short blasts: I am operating in astern propulsion.
- Five short blasts: Danger! Look out! or What are you doing?
- Two long blasts followed by one short—passing to your starboard side.
- Two long blasts followed by two short—passing to your port side.
Since much of the large vessel traffic is communicating by VHF radio, the only signal you’ll commonly hear, and the most important to pay attention to, is the five-short-blast wakeup call. It usually comes from a large vessel seeing a pleasure boater on a collision course. If you hear this while you are paddling, look around and make absolutely sure it does not apply to you.
Under Rule 35, vessels over 12 meters in length are required to use sound signals in restricted visibility. Kayaks and other vessels “less than 12 meters in length shall make some other efficient sound signal at intervals of not more than 2 minutes.” So if you’re paddling in fog, be prepared to make some “efficient” sound every 2 minutes. Again, an athletic-style whistle is somewhat questionable but it does, at least, allow you to keep paddling while you make the required signal.
Rule 36 specifies exactly what devices are suitable for attracting attention in emergency situations. “If necessary to attract the attention of another vessel, any vessel may make light or sound signals that cannot be mistaken for any signal authorized elsewhere in these Rules, or may direct the beam of her searchlight in the direction of the danger, in such a way as not to embarrass any vessel. Any light to attract the attention of another vessel shall be such that it cannot be mistaken for any aid to navigation. For the purpose of this rule the use of high intensity intermittent or revolving lights, such as strobe lights, shall be avoided.” Rule 37 provides a list of distress signals and the strobe lights commonly carried by kayakers for the very purpose of attracting attention are not among them and are, according to the Rules, “to be avoided.” Rule 37 as applied to inland waters does include a high intensity flashing white light (strobe) as a recognized distress signal. Some will argue that anything that saves a life should be used, and I would not disagree.
It may appear that in 1972, when the Navigation Rules were codified, little thought was given to human-powered vessels operating in the same waters as “real ships.” But the rules do apply to us and we do have a responsibility to understand the rules, operate in accordance with them and do our best to keep everyone safe.
Craig Jungers is a network engineer living in Moses Lake, Washington. He is a retired merchant marine officer who also spent five years living and cruising aboard a 32-foot sailboat with his wife and kids in the 1980s. Craig paddled the Bowron Lakes in Canada in 1972 in a second-hand Folbot and now paddles anywhere from 50 to 180 miles a year. He is the proud owner of 19 boats including four sea kayaks, three whitewater kayaks, a 26-foot sailboat and his 25-foot “Muthah-ship.”