Warmer weather will be arriving soon and people will be getting their boats ready for the water. By June the bay and major waterways will have a fair amount of daytime boat traffic. If you are paddleboarding in these areas you should have a good working knowledge of the navigation rules for SUP put in place by the U.S. Coast Guard. Being safe and understanding the rules of navigation in areas where there are motorized vessels can be the difference between having a fun day on the water or a disastrous day.
The Coast Guard has designated SUPs as vessels. As such, if you are paddling outside the surf and/or swimming zones, you need to have three things with you
- a personal flotation device (PFD) on your person or securely attached to your board.
- You also need to have a whistle or horn to signal other vessels and to signal for help in case of an emergency
- And a flashlight or headlamp to signal nearby boats of your location during and after sunset, and in conditions with poor visibility such as fog and rain.
If you are heading out on open water you should definitely be a decent swimmer, know how to self-rescue, and know how to tow another paddleboard. You should also have a good understanding of the currents, tides, prevailing winds and weather for the area you are paddling in.
You can read through full U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Aid here for more information on boating rules. Here are the basics.
Buoys and Beacons
There are two main types of navigation aids that you will find on the water- buoys and beacons. Buoys float on the surface and are moored to the bottom by a chain. Some have lights on top and some do not. A red buoy with cylindrical shape and conical top is called a “nun”. A green buoy with a conical shape and flat on top is called a “can”. Beacons are permanently fixed structures. Beacons with lights on top are referred to simply as “lights” and beacons without lights are known as “daybeacons”. Buoys and beacons are either red, green or both, depending on where they are located. They are also referred to as “lateral aids” and they mark the left (port) and right (starboard) side of a navigable channel, splits or forks in the channel, which channel is the primary one, safe passage around hazards, as well as the centerline of a wide stretch of water.
Red, Right, Returning
Red, right, returning is the basic rule of navigation on the water and all vessels are obligated to abide by it. When you are in a bay or other inland waterway and heading out toward open water you want to keep the green buoys and beacons on your right. When you are returning from open water you want to make sure that the red buoys and beacons are on your right. If there is no route marked then proceed clockwise around landmasses and other obstacles.
Boating Lanes Out of Harbors
All harbors have boating lanes that funnel traffic through specific areas before they reach the larger body of water. These lanes are also marked by green and red buoys that fall under the red, right, returning rule. The lanes in these areas tend to be narrower and often see more traffic than the lanes out in open water. For this reason, it is important that stand up paddleboarders keep clear of these lanes unless they need to cross them. You should never paddle or linger in harbor lanes. Instead, treat them as if you were crossing a street. Watch for oncoming vessels, wait for them to pass, then as quickly as possible cross the lane.
Vessels in Sight of One Another
Vessels that are approaching each other from the front should pass to the right of each other. A single toot from your whistle or blast from a horn will let the on-coming vessel know your intention to pass to the right of them. A vessel that is overtaking another vessel from behind needs to avoid that vessel. The vessel in front should maintain their course and speed. The approaching vessel should use one whistle toot or horn blast to pass on the left and two to pass on the right.
Learning the basic rules of navigation and being able to understand the navigation aids in the water will keep you safe to an extent. You still need to stay focused and aware of your surroundings at all times and recognize when a dangerous situation is developing, such as an approaching vessel that does not see you. Being on a paddleboard among large vessels puts the onus on you to make the decision and take the necessary action to keep yourself and others in your group safe. Read through the Coast Guard’s rules and regulations and contact them with any questions you may have. Paddle boarding is awesome and fun as we all know, but like any other outdoor activity, you will always have to develop and employ your best risk assessment and management skills as part of your daily routine on the water.
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