Murky Waters: A Common Misconception on Boat Safety

Boating is a favorite part of many Ohioan summer experiences, but confusing rhetoric in federal boating laws places mariners, recreational and commercial alike, in considerable danger. According to the Ohio Division of State Parks and Watercraft, 2016 saw a total of twelve fatal boating accidents throughout the state. As boating season is now well underway, it is a good time to review the rules, and re-consider some of the hazards that jeopardize summer fun on the water.

Enacted in 1980, the “Rules of the Road” comprehensively outlines solutions for virtually every life-threatening situation that may arise on the water, from sending/recognizing distress signals between nearby vessels to establishing right of way among vessels bound for collision. The surprisingly simple rule for establishing right of way, never amended since its enactment, states:

 "Whichever vessel is approaching from the starboard (rightmost) position is typically granted right of way. In the case of a motorized vessel crossing paths with a kayak or sailboat, the unmotorized vessel, regardless of position, is always given right of way."

Seems easy enough, right? Complications arise, however, when considering, for example, a small motorized vessel, such as a jet-ski, approaching the starboard side of a large, eighteen-foot-plus motorboat. According to the current “Rules”, the jet ski should be granted right of way on the grounds of its starboard position.  What these “Rules” fail to recognize, or at least explicitly identify, is what physicists call the Law of Gross Tonnage—the inability of larger objects to slow down compared to smaller objects.  Applied to the jet-ski vs. motorboat example, the jet-ski may have right of way by law, but given the speed at which the larger vessel can travel in open waters, and the abruptness with which the jet-ski may enter the captain’s field of view, slowing the motorboat in time to avoid collision may be difficult. Thus, when encountering a vessel even marginally bulkier than one’s own, it is safest to yield.

Ultimately, while it may be time to revise our outdated boating code, keeping this simple principle in mind could save lives. But responsibility does not fall singularly on the shoulders of small vessel owners to steer clear of the big guys; large boat owners must be just as conscious of the tremendous power they wield, and of how much they stand to lose by acting recklessly.    


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