Port Authority

Florida is a true boater’s paradise providing access to thousands of miles of navigable waterways that lead the way to the open ocean. And although it’s relatively easy to reach remote waters and enjoy secluded honey holes off the beaten path, many of the same waterways we enjoy for recreation are utilized by commercial interests. To ensure safe operation on shared waters, recreational operators need to be fully aware of the boating practices required to navigate near cruise ships, freighters, tankers, barges, tugs and pilot boats.


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Photo: Steve Dougherty

Most recreational boaters recognize that large commercial vessels have the right of way because of their limitations in depth and maneuverability. However, even though the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) specify that these vessels require a wide berth, discerning boaters generally avoid supertankers simply because a collision with a 100,000 ton piece of steel would be catastrophic.

…there are some negligent boaters that simply operate way too close to these massive machines.

With that being said, there are some negligent boaters that simply operate way too close to these massive machines. As the captain of a recreational vessel you, need to understand the limitations of commercial barges, freighters, cruise ships and vessels under power of a pilot or tug boat. While you may not live anywhere near a heavily trafficked port, merchant ships make long distance transits over open water and you may encounter a ship at speed when you least expect it. When you see a commercial tanker making way in the open ocean you will definitely underestimate how fast it is moving. Tankers can cruise upwards of 20 knots and throw a huge wake, so you must always be aware of your surroundings.

In South Florida, prime swordfish grounds are in the direct path of shipping lanes to the Port of Miami and Port Everglades. Whether you are drifting during the day or at night, you must realize that supertankers prepare to slow miles in advance and have an incredibly restricted turning radius. What else you may not be aware of is that your state-of-the-art fiberglass fishing platform really isn’t that visible to the captain and crew in the bridge. You will obviously spot the massive tanker from miles away, but perched high up in the bridge the captain actually has limited visibility and blind spots exist hundreds of feet off their bow. Because of this limited visibility, you should never cross the path of a tanker making way. It’s even dangerous to operate around anchored ships, because you never know when they might start hauling the immense chain. As a rule, you should always pass behind large ships if there is any doubt whether you can safely pass off their bow.

While boaters can keep a close eye on nearby ships that are visible from great distances, you can also avoid commercial traffic by consulting a chart and studying the shipping lanes and channels. Even better than a paper chart, the latest marine electronics reveal critical information to provide complete situational awareness. Utilizing today’s intelligent VHF and GPS units, boaters can also anticipate and track a ship’s movement in advance by viewing its Automatic Identification System (AIS) data. While commercial vessels are required to use AIS to transmit and receive information such as vessel position, status, distance, bearing, speed over ground, as well as the name, length and draft, it isn’t a common tool routinely used by recreational boaters. However, it is being integrated into the newest marine electronics and cannot only identify commercial ships, but radio beacons and other navigational aids and hazards. You can also set alarms to notify you when commercial vessels breach a preset geo fence.

While you must always give way to commercial vessels and stay to the outer edges of narrow channels instead of traveling right down the center, when operating near a port you also need to be aware of restricted areas including turning basins, commercial docks, security zones and pilot operating areas. With heightened security along the nation’s busiest ports, recreational boaters must also distance themselves from military vessels and petroleum facilities. USCG and Homeland Security vessels are present in all major ports and will be quick to order you out of the area even if you pose no threat. As commercial traffic increases, with even larger ships being encountered, it’s more important than ever for boaters to be familiar with the restrictions, regulations and safety precautions required when navigating in the vicinity of commercial vessels.