Sunday, January 25, 2009

Navigation Rules for Kayakers

By Scott Szczepaniak

At the last Lowcountry Paddlers meeting, there was some discussion about kayaks and the Rules of the Road. There was some discussion over a recent Sea Kayaker magazine about the same subject. The following is my perspective on the subject…

The “Navigation Rules” are published by the United States Coast Guard. Rule 18 is entitled “Responsibilities Between Vessels.” This rule is often referred to the “pecking order.” Power driven vessels shall give way to sailing vessels, sailing vessels shall keep out of the way of a vessel engaged in fishing (not hook and line recreational fishing but towing a net such as a South Carolina shrimp boat), etc.

There is no mention of kayaks, canoes, vessels under oars in Rule 18.

Rule 25 is entitled “Sailing Vessels Underway and Vessels under Oars.” This is the closest that the Navigation Rules come to addressing kayaks. The Coast Guard Navigation Center has posted on-line a FAQ dealing with the issue:

Where do Kayaks and Canoes fit into the Navigation Rules? Neither the International nor Inland Navigation Rules address "kayaks" or "canoes," per se, except in regard to "vessels under oars" in Rule 25 regarding lights. One could infer that a "vessel under oars" should be treated as a "sailing vessel" since it is permitted to display the same lights as one, but, ultimately the issue of whom "gives way" would fall to what would be "required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case" (Rule 2).”

The experienced kayaker often interprets Rule 2 as the “Big and Ugly Rule” also known as the “Rule of Gross Tonnage.” These unofficial, but eminently sensible rules mean that if it is bigger or uglier than you and your kayak, stay out of the way!

Some additional practical navigation rules for kayakers:

Avoid paddling in marked navigational channels.

When crossing channels, cross as a group, at right angles to the channel to minimize your time in the channel. Look both ways before crossing.

When navigating in windy tidal creeks, get quickly to one side or the other if you hear a boat engine. Better yet, try to keep to on side or the other at all times.

If you capsize in the path of a container ship in Charleston Harbor, it is proper nautical etiquette to pray. Especially when the ship sounds the danger signal – 5 or more short blasts on the horn.

I often ask the question during discussions of kayakers rights of way – “Do you want your tombstone to read: ‘But I had the right of way!’”

Scott is a former Coast Guardsman and commercial boat captain. He is the managing owner of Sea Kayak Carolina and an American Canoe Association Open Water Coastal Kayak Instructor. He considers himself an expert in Navigational Rules; what do you think? Email him at

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