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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Staying Alive!

Part 2: Rules to Live By

by Farwell Forrest

Most of us do most of our canoeing and kayaking in our minds. A weekend at a nearby park is a welcome—and rare—respite from the routine of our workaday lives. A two-week holiday on a wild river is the high-point of our year. A month spent "north of 55" is, quite literally, the trip of a lifetime.

We spend the balance of our years in the prosaic but essential business of getting a living, raising our children, and observing the endless pageant of the seasons through the windshields of our cars. We're seldom too busy to dream, however, and in our day-dreams we're almost always alone on the water.

In the real world, of course, things don't always work out that way. Unless you only run Class IV-VI rivers, you're likely to find yourself sharing the water with everything from pedal-boats to containerships on your weekend outings. The pedal-boats are seldom a problem, but even if you paddle something as formidable as Old Town's 105-lb, 20-ft-long XL Tripper, almost every other boat you meet on the water will either be bigger than you are or faster—or both.

I live on a reservoir. Five years ago, the water-jet-powered scooters that the industry likes to call "personal watercraft" were uncommon, even rare. (Just about everyone else calls these watercraft "jet-skis"—a trademark that quickly became a generic term.) Today on my home waters there are more than a hundred "resident" jet-skis parked at docks along the shore, and holiday weekends bring two or three times that number of visiting craft. Jet-skis aren't very big—though they get bigger every year—but they can be fast. Very fast. I've clocked some at 60+ mph. At the other end of the recreational scale are 30-ft-long cigarette boats. (That's another trademark that's become a generic noun.) They're not much slower than the jet-skis, in fact, but they're a hell of a lot bigger.

Big or small, you don't want to be hit by either one. Of course, if you spend much time on navigable (commercial) waters, whether inland or along the coast, you'll meet much bigger vessels. I usually paddle a nearby stretch of the St. Lawrence River once or twice each summer. It's a rare trip when I don't meet up with everything from 36-ft sportfishing boats to ore carriers. I keep my distance from them all.

And that's the important thing. Canoes and kayaks can't help but come out second-best in any collision with a larger or faster boat. Prevention is simple—or so it seems. Stay out of their way! Unfortunately, this isn't always as easy as it sounds. A jet-ski or runabout heading your way and moving at 45 mph is getting closer to you at the rate of about 66 feet every second. If visibility is poor, or if the driver of the fast boat isn't paying attention to where he's going, he can be on top of you before he knows it, and long before you have a chance to get out of his way. It's the watersport equivalent of roadkill—only this time, you're the 'possum in the road. It's not a pleasant place to be.

OK. What can you do to avoid becoming recreational roadkill? First, make sure you know the Rules. "What rules?" you ask. "I didn't know there were any rules!" That's not surprising. As a visit to almost any lake or seacoast on any weekend will quickly confirm, very few boaters other than licensed professionals know anything about the Rules—and even fewer make any attempt to follow them.

Nevertheless, there are Rules. Known formally as the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea, and informally as the Rules of the Road, they govern the conduct of vessels in both international and (in a slightly modified form) inland waters. They also form the basis for most state navigation laws.

Not surprisingly, the Rules are complex. Happily, the provisions of most interest to paddlers are summarized in David Burch's Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation, 2d edition. If you ever boat on waters where you can expect to meet commercial vessels, or if you're thinking about doing so sometime in the future, get a copy of Burch's book and study the "Navigation in Traffic" section of Chapter 10. You'll be glad you did. Then, if your curiosity still hasn't been satisfied, pick up the Handbook of the Nautical Rules of the Road, 2d ed., by Christopher B. Llana and George P. Wisneskey. It's just about the last word on the subject.

"Hold on, there!" you say. "Didn't you just write that very few boaters know anything about the Rules, and that even fewer bother to follow them? What's the point of learning about rules that nobody follows?"

Good point. The Rules are most useful when you're sharing the water with licensed commercial vessels. On America's increasingly crowded recreational waterways, however, you're on your own, with only one Rule to guide you. This Rule can't be found in the International Regulations, but it's universally known among sailors as the Gross Tonnage Rule. Simply stated, the Gross Tonnage Rule goes something like this: If a vessel is bigger than you are, keep out of its way. Nowadays, the Gross Tonnage Rule probably ought to be amended to take small, ultra-fast craft like jet-skis into account. Just add the words "or faster" to the original: If a vessel is bigger or faster than you are, keep out of its way.

There's an important corollary to the Gross Tonnage Rule. Since your chance of being hit increases dramatically if you're not seen, do everything you can to be noticed. Wear a brightly-colored life jacket. (So-called International Orange and bright lemon yellow are probably the two best colors under most conditions.) If you're a kayaker, chose a paddle with high-visibility blades. Carry a whistle. (Not all whistles work when they get wet. Test yours before you need it.) If you boat at night, carry a waterproof flashlight and signal flares. In fact, carry these with you even if you're certain that you'll never be out after sundown. Accidents happen. Plans change. And a sudden storm or fog bank can leave you in the dark in minutes, even at high noon. Why take chances with your life?

Stay alert. Know and follow the Rules. Obey the Gross Tonnage Rule. Wear bright colors. Carry a whistle, a waterproof flashlight, and flares. With any luck, you'll live forever. At least I hope you will. Staying Alive is the first requirement for having fun on the water, after all!

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

Paddlesport's more popular than ever before. That's a good thing, right? Well, yes—but not every change is for the better. Next week, Farwell looks at one thing that seems to have been lost along the way. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise that we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read every one—and we will. 'Nuff said.

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