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 welcomeand rarerespite 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 fasteror 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
bigthough they get bigger every yearbut 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
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 simpleor 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
roadkillonly 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
Rulesand 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
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,
© Verloren Hoop Productions 1999
Paddlesport's more popular than ever before. That's a good
thing, right? Well, yesbut 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 email@example.com. (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 oneand we will. 'Nuff said.