Posted by: towmasters | July 25, 2011

Narrow Channels: Working Towards A Useful Definition

We were at the very top of the Liston Range (inbound for the ConocoPhillips refinery at Trainer, PA) when we met the massive ATB OSG Vision

…which was outbound on another lightering run down to Big Stone Anchorage at the bottom of Delaware Bay. We were well out of the channel on the green (west) side and very gradually slowing down to pick up our barge alongside.

The sailboat you see astern of them in the first photo, however, was doing what sailboats (and many other pleasure craft) often do: navigating in a deep-draft channel when there is absolutely no compelling need for them to do so. In fact, there is a tendency to do it precisely and especially when and where there are very good reasons not to, such as when large ships, tugs with tows and other commercial vessels that must be in the channel because of their draft are in the vicinity. This one was more-or-less paying attention to the fact that they were in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the country and they did move out of the channel, though in a very leisurely manner. But many pay no mind at all until the horns start blowing 5+, and then they either play dumb/ignore you or else panic and begin maneuvering erratically. It’s surprising that despite the casual-at-best approach to good seamanship and navigation, the gross stupidity, the blatant ignorance, and the inattention to their own and other’s safety, very seldom do these boaters actually earn themselves a Darwin Award. It’s rock-solid proof that you can go a long, long way on fool’s luck.

It seems that many recreational boaters, as well as the Coast Guard, assume that we’ll always be able to (and should) compensate for the other’s ignorance, inability or dangerous obstinacy (“I have the right to be in the channel, too!”) . They should remember that without exception we’re just imperfect humans and, as such, we can have a bad day just like anyone else. Some among us are, to varying degrees, incompetent, as is the case with all professions. Regardless, the “Rule of Gross Tonnage” dictates that if we’re having a bad day and they’re having a bad day, resulting in both vessels attempting to occupy the same patch of water simultaneously, the small recreational vessel and its occupants will undoubtedly lose that contest. A good rule of thumb: drive defensively and always stay away from other vessels, any vessels at all, if there’s not a damned good reason to be near them. Distance buys you a greater margin of safety. Perhaps the Coast Guard is reflecting on some of this a little more deeply after their own small vessels have been involved in a pair of recent high-profile, back-to-back accidents (in Charleston, SC and San Diego, CA) which resulted in civilian injuries and deaths. Yes, it can happen to anyone.

Soon enough we were past each other, the sailboat sailed off, and we flopped around on our barge and made up to it . All was well, this time…

…but the sailboats don’t always surrender to not-so-common sense quite so easily.

There is, of course, a rule long since in place to “encourage” small vessels to refrain from being a navigational nuisance to others and a danger to themselves: specifically, section (b) of Rule 9 (the “Narrow Channels” rule) in the Collision Regulations. It reads “A vessel of less than 20 meters in length or a sailing vessel shall not impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway.” It sounds logical enough but there has always been a very serious flaw with it: namely that what constitutes a narrow channel or fairway has never been clearly defined. There are other flaws as well, but that is the big one. As it happens, a timely article titled Taking Narrow Channel Collision Prevention Seriously To More Effectively Manage Marine Transportation System Risk  by Craig H. Allen, published in the Journal of Maritime Law and Commerce, covers this subject in great breadth and depth, and it should be required reading for every mariner.

Here’s the money-quote from the paper: With shrewd understatement, two of the world’s leading authorities on the rules of the road for preventing vessel collisions report that “the term ‘narrow channel’ is not easily defined.” Indeed, the international conference that drafted the 1972 COLREGS rejected a proposal to to include a definition of “narrow channel” and the United States Congress simply ignored the matter. Perhaps, like “pornography,” another mixed question of law and fact, we should be content to know a narrow channel when we see one, even if the rule drafters cannot define it for us. Many believe that mariners – and those who depend on mariners to prevent accidents on the nation’s waterways – deserve better. The U.S National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) agrees. In its investigation into a 1981 collision between two towboats, one of which concluded the inland rivers location fell within the narrow channel rule while the other concluded it did not, the Board reasoned that it does “operators little good to learn months after an accident that a court has ruled that a particular portion of a waterway, under a particular set of circumstances was or was not a ‘narrow channel’ under the rules, and that the narrow channel rule should or should not have been applied by the parties involved in the accident. Who could put it any better than that?

Thirty years later, here we are. To be fair, a “vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway” will always be a relative term: relative to the ratio between the vessel’s draft and the actual depth of the channel, as well as the depths available outside of the channel. It may also vary with the changing tides, currents and weather. Nevertheless it is still possible to give the rule some practical and useful meaning for all mariners, which is something it has always lacked. In so doing it would also allow for useful instruction to be given to non-professional mariners so that they might also understand their rights and responsibilities better, and maybe a touch of common sense. Too many only hold a partial understanding of the navigation rules, and the parts they tend to know and recite are (surprise!) the parts that tell them that they have the right of way. Who among us hasn’t been subjected to the indignant rage of a weekend-warrior sailboat “captain” as they remind us that they, if only in their mind, have the right of way? Forgotten or, more likely, never learned in the first place are the parts of the rules that burden them with an equal portion of responsibility for safe navigation. The nuances of the rules, and the exceptions, escape them. For those of us engaged in the day-to-day grind of navigating around ignorant pleasure boaters and fellow “professionals” whose grasp of the rules is also lacking, it gets really old.

Ultimately, better education for everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is the only answer that offers to improve the situation. But it’s hard to educate anyone when there is no solid base to start from, a definition or set of definitions that is agreed upon beforehand. There now seems to be some momentum building towards establishing such a base via the recently re-established (praise be!!!) Navigation Safety Advisory Council and through the explicit designation of narrow channels by the U.S. Coast Guard. This could not have come soon enough.

 I will make the following observation/recommendation: the length of a given vessel should, in most cases, be mostly immaterial for the purposes of applying this rule. The whole point of the rule is to avoid situations where those piloting large vessels in locations where their maneuverability is limited solely to the channel are faced with the lousy choice of possibly killing someone or going aground, which may entail serious and costly damage to the environment as well as injuries to personnel, damage to the vessel, loss of cargo, and other unforeseen consequences. It is generally the vessel’s draft that is the deciding practical factor and it should be the deciding legal factor as well. While there is often a direct correlation between a vessel’s length and it’s draft (longer usually means deeper), one does not always follow the other in linear fashion. In any given situation it ‘s possible that the smaller (in length) of two given vessels may, in fact, have an equal or deeper draft and thus have the same or even more limitations as to where it can navigate safely.

Furthermore, if a vessel’s draft allows it to be safely navigated outside of the channel when in the vicinity of vessel’s that need the channel then it should be. In the event of a collision (or a grounding of the channel-constrained vessel as a result of trying to avoid a collision) the burden should fall to the operator of said shallow-draft vessels to explain and justify their unnecessary presence in the channel. Having an arbitrary cut-off of 20 meters in length really doesn’t do anyone any good at all. A 20 meter vessel can impede ships in a channel but a 19.9 meter vessel can’t? This rule definitely needs a re-write.

The arguably narrow dredged channel up the Delaware Bay and River to Philadelphia is a great example. When we have a loaded tank barge (18’6″ maximum draft) there are areas where we need the channel, areas where we don’t, and areas that are questionable. Such is life! Assuming for 100% accuracy in the published charts, which may not always be a good bet, with our draft I’d say it’s about a 50/50 split. When the barge is light and the tug’s draft of 13’6″ is the deeper of the two then it shifts to maybe a 70/30 ratio in favor of being able to be outside the channel to some degree. My own general rule is that if the depths and maneuvering room are sufficient so that I don’t need the channel then I stay out of the channel and leave it to those that do need it.

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  1. This problem exists the world over. In the UK the only paper that is required to sail or steam a large pleasure yacht is a bank statement.

    the expressions “Deep Draught Yacht” or “Clear Channel Yacht” are in common parlance certainly along the southccoast of England.

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