How to Paddle in Congested Waterways
Share the road with the big rigs
By LCDR Scott C. White
Paddling offers a unique freedom to explore an area, which has caused paddlesports to become incredibly popular over the past decade. Nearly 17 million people canoed or kayaked at least once in 2010, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. As more people pick up the sport, more paddlers are venturing into diverse and congested waterways that large commercial vessels also use. Paddling in these waterways among commercial ships can present challenges and safety hazards that everyone should know about.
When paddling in a potentially congested waterway there are two things to keep in mind: the commercial ship’s ability to see paddlers and its speed moving down the waterway. The line of sight to a canoe or kayak from the pilothouse of a loaded container ship can be a quarter of a mile in front of the ship; however, that may not be far enough to make necessary changes in direction. These ships need to move at a certain speed in order to maintain steerage and will close that quarter mile in just over two and half minutes. Those ships can also draw upwards of 40 feet of water and are restricted to the deepest navigational channels; they cannot maneuver around a self-propelled vessel in the confines of a port. Paddlers can be easily overtaken if they are not paying attention.
Paddlers should know the steps to avoid conflicts with larger vessels. Here are a few:
- Become familiar with the waterway and the types of activities on the waterway prior to launching your vessel.
- File a Float Plan with someone who will know where and when you intend to paddle. Review publications such as NOAA’s Coast Pilot and relative nautical charts. Many ports have local Harbor Safety Committees, which are forums designed to unite all waterway users in a particular port region to share information. Additionally, many Safety and Security Zones surrounding certain vessels and landside facilities have been enacted over the past decade.
- Always adhere to prescribed Safety and Security Zone regulations. If in doubt contact your local Coast Guard Captain of the Port office.
- Exercise caution upon entering the waterway, especially when paddling near commercial docks and ferry landings.
- Paddlers should keep a broad distance from larger vessels and pier bulkheads to avoid unexpected and powerful wakes.
- Help make you and your vessel more visible by wearing bright colors and ensuring that you have appropriate navigation lights when paddling between sunset and sunrise.
- A portable VHF radio monitoring channels 13 and 16 is an essential tool to make contact with a commercial vessel.
- Always ensure that the operator of a larger power vessel sees you prior to paddling in front of the vessel. Simply extending your paddle or oar directly vertical can enhance you visibility.
- The safest way for boats to cross the path of a powerboat is astern.
Paddling provides excellent access to all sorts of waterways. Paddling in a busy port environment can be fascinating when exercising a certain amount of awareness and precaution. Happy paddling!