From naïve boaters rudely shoving their way through a bridge opening when they don’t have the right of way, to inconsiderate captains approaching a bridge with too much speed…we’ve seen it all. We’ve also witnessed inexperienced boaters get pushed into bridge abutments and fenders due to unsuspecting currents. I have to believe and hope these avoidable mistakes occur simply due to lack of knowledge. Like with any boating scenario, there are clearly written rules of the road that must be obeyed when approaching a bridge span.
With hundreds of miles of inland waterways surrounding the state, not to mention dozens of inlets, passes and cuts, Florida boaters encounter more bridges and overpasses than anywhere else in the world. With these bridges come basic rules that are simple and straightforward—basic rules that every boater should follow.
...a bridge opening should not be requested if you can safely pass under the bridge by physically lowering your outriggers or antennas.
First and foremost, regardless if you require an opening or not approach bridges cautiously. This is no place to be a hot shot. Next, inland rules state that vessels waiting for a bridge opening with a following current have the right of way over vessels motoring into the current. This is simply due to lack of maneuverability. If you are heading into the current, stand off and wait patiently until the bridge fully opens and oncoming vessel traffic clears the passageway. The boat(s) with the current at their stern need ample room to navigate through the bridge opening safely, so don’t crowd them! If you are unsure of the status of the current, bring your vessel to a standstill. If the drift pushes you toward the bridge, you have the right of way. If the drift pushes you away from the bridge, oncoming traffic has the right of way.
If you are new to boating or have completely forgotten everything you learned in your safe boating course, you may need a refresher. Bridge crossings are not on a first-come, first-served basis. If for whatever reason you are in doubt of who has the right of way, hail your fellow boater and confirm who will be passing through the bridge opening first. This will make everyone’s life safer and easier.
After approaching the bridge slowly and while keeping a safe distance, request a bridge opening by hailing the bridge tender on VHF 09. If there are other vessels waiting for the same opening, position your vessel behind the last boater. Only call the bridge tender by phone (the phone number is visually displayed on the side of the bridge) if you are unable to hail them after multiple attempts by VHF.
The bridge you are waiting for may be on an open-by-request basis or it may be on a predetermined schedule, like every 15- or 30-minutes. The bridge tender will notify you of his/her intentions and make sure you don’t enter the bridge fender system until the bridge span is fully raised.
If you are all alone approaching a bridge, the bridge tender may not open unless you officially request for an opening. Circling or maintaining position in front of the bridge is not considered an official bridge opening request and will often result in you missing the opening. Also, a bridge opening should not be requested if you can safely pass under the bridge by physically lowering your outriggers or antennas. Laziness does not justify a bridge opening and because the bridge tender has the right to deny your request for an opening at his or her discretion, make sure you know your actual minimum required clearance. Keep in mind that the clearance indicated in feet on the bridge fender is at the lowest point of the opening.
It is equally important to state a non-intention. As a courtesy, if you are approaching a bridge and your vessel requires the clearance but you do not intend to pass through the bridge and have no intentions of officially requesting an opening, hail the bridge tender and advise him of your intentions.
Don’t lose sight of the fact that bridge tenders have other duties, so they may not respond to you immediately. Wait a reasonable amount of time before hailing again and make sure you are hailing the correct bridge tender. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to boaters mistakenly hail the Hillsboro Blvd. bridge tender when they were actually trying to reach the Hillsboro Inlet bridge tender.
According to Coast Guard regulations boaters are also entitled to hail a bridge tender by sounding one prolonged blast, followed within three seconds by one short blast, repeated until acknowledged by the bridge tender. Unfortunately, this approach usually backfires, as no one likes being honked at and you’ll usually end up waiting until another boat officially requests an opening, so forget the horn idea.
It’s important to mention restricted openings, which are periods of time a bridge is not required to open on schedule or on request. For example, when emergency vehicles are approaching boaters get the back seat. Holidays and parades are also good examples. Restricted hours may also refer to a block of time when the bridge is not required to open on schedule for recreational boat traffic, like during morning and evening rush hour traffic. However, during these blackout periods bridges often open for commercial traffic, which means you may be able to sneak through with a commercial vessel. No matter what you should always keep a clear line of communication with the bridge tender.
Finally, regardless of what the rules of the road state, be courteous and respectful to your fellow boaters. If you see a towboat at work or any vessel restricted in maneuverability, allow them ample time and room to pass through the bridge. Commonsense supersedes anything written on paper and it is the operator’s ultimate responsibility to take whatever action is necessary to avoid collision.