Top 7 boating habits to avoid

This is a guest post written by my good friend and fellow Mainer, Ed Snell. As the chief mate on an articulated tug and barge unit, a lifelong fisherman, charter boat operator, and the owner of Rita B. Offshore Fishing, Ed has witnessed his fair share of boating mishaps and comedies. Here’s his take on the less favorable habits seen on the water.

Ed brings in a shark on Rita B.

As summer begins in New England and thousands of boaters hit the water, a significant portion of them will unknowingly break the written and unwritten rules of the water. Below is an incomplete list of boating faux pas, assembled by a professional mariner in no particular order, to keep your reputation, and your boat, in working order. 

1.) Improper use of the VHF radio

This is a big one. I could probably fill an entire blog post on just this subject. While the VHF radio is used as the primary communication tool on boats, that doesn’t mean it’s intended for lengthy conversation. Here are a few rules of thumb to keep you out of trouble:

  • If your conversation can be conveyed via cell phone, it probably should be. This avoids clogging up the airwaves on a busy weekend with unimportant chatter. UHF radios are also handy for relatively short range communications among a group.
  • Avoid using Channel 16 and 13. Channel 16 is a hailing and distress frequency only, and distress is a heck of a lot more important than hailing. Channel 13 is a bridge-to-bridge channel primarily used by commercial traffic. In addition to using other means of communication, try having other boats that you talk to on a regular basis hang out on a working channel and use the dual watch feature on your radio to monitor channel 16. Channel 09 is designated for non-commercial traffic, but most marinas and fuel docks will stand by on this channel as well.
  • Keep radio traffic professional and don’t swear. You never know who’s listening.
  • NO RADIO CHECKS ON 16! Radio checks between boats are conducted on 09. Some ports also have an automated radio check system. Check your local listings. In the Portland area, for example, use Channel 27.

2.) Poor understanding of the COLREGS (The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea)

The maritime “rules of the road” express a hierarchy of which vessels have the right of way over others. If you really want to get into it, the COLREGS can be as complicated as you’d like to make them; here are a few helpful hints.

Just because you’re sailing doesn’t mean you have the right of way. Often sailboats in inland waters wrongly think they are the stand-on vessel because they’re sailing when in reality they’re in a narrow channel and are instructed not to impede traffic in that channel. And if you’re motor-sailing, you’re not legally sailing at all.

“But I’m fishing! I must have the right of way…” This is a common misconception. The term “fishing” as defined by the rules means commercial fishing in such a way that impedes the maneuverability of your boat. Trolling for bluefish doesn’t count.

Also, Just because you technically may have the right of way, doesn’t mean you should take it. All vessels have a duty to avoid a collision, no matter who is the stand on vessel. Every boat should have a copy of the rules aboard.

Spend some time with this book

3.) Overuse of the deep-water channel

A lot of hassle can be spared if those who don’t require deeper water don’t use it.  Many, if not most, larger ports have a deep-water channel that is maintained to a certain depth to facilitate large commercial traffic. In most cases, the water outside the channel is deep enough for recreational and even some commercial traffic; 10, 15, 20 feet of water is plenty when you consider most recreational boats draw between 2 and 6 feet of water.

Running outside the channel, where appropriate, can be the safest and most efficient way to run a boat because you’re out of the way of vessels that don’t have the option of ducking outside the buoys.  Know the draft of your boat, the height of the tide, and familiarize yourself with the charts. If you need to run inside the channel, stick to the right-hand side of it.

Also, it seems silly to have to say it, but stopping your boat to drift or anchor inside a channel, for any nonemergency reason, is never a good idea.

Familiarize yourself with the various aids to navigation

4.) Congestion at boat ramps

The number of people who show up at boat ramps and don’t have their act together is astounding. Here are some tricks to make things go smoothly.

Have your boat ready to go before you back up to the ramp; straps off, plug in, etc. The object of the game is to occupy the ramp for as little time as possible. Think of the boat ramp as a busy intersection.

If you don’t have much experience backing up trailers, practice! Take a couple of parking cones into an empty parking lot and practice until you get the hang of it. You’ll look like a pro when it counts!

Try to use boat ramps at off-peak times. It’s not always possible, but it can be a good excuse to get an early start or to stay on the water later to avoid waiting in line. As a bonus, some boat ramps only collect money at peak times, so you may be able to save a few bucks.

Practice make perfect

5.) Poor etiquette at public docks

Town docks, fuel docks, restaurants, etc. These are the places where poor etiquette is too often on display.

If the dock says to pick up and drop off only, that doesn’t mean leave your boat there while you go up the street to the store.

When you are allowed to tie up, try to take up the least amount of space needed on the dock. Pull as far forward as possible to give other boats plenty of room.

6.) Excessive wake

Everyone knows that throwing a wake inside a no wake zone is a bad idea, but that’s not the only place to be concerned about your speed. When you see lobstermen working, small vessels such as kayaks or sailing dinghies, marine construction operations, or anyone else who is sensitive to excessive wake, be cognizant and adjust speed accordingly.

It is important to note that slowing down doesn’t always mean your wake goes away. For boats on a plane, you’re likely not throwing a large wake until you slow down to the speed where your boat falls off of plane.

I once pulled this maneuver to swing by and say hi to a friend running a day sail charter. My “friendly” gesture of slowing down just enough to come off plane, not only killed their headway, but also sent water through the scuppers and soaked the feet of many of the passengers. Whoops.

While on the topic of wake, I’d be remiss if I didn’t scold those who are overly sensitive about wake, as well. While it is a good idea to be courteous with your wake, it’s pretty tacky to hop on the radio and yell at every single person who throws more than a ripple, especially if you’re outside of a no wake zone. (See #2)

Be aware of your boat’s speed and how it affects your wake

7.) Hollywood reenactments

I started my career on boats that took tourists deep-sea fishing, whale watching and on harbor cruises. A lot of times, the same guy sporting the phony Caribbean accent is humming the Jaws theme or quoting the Gilligan’s Island theme song. One can only hope this person is too seasick to make it to the bow to spread his arms like he’s on the Titanic.

If you’re on your own boat, by all means, crack as many jokes as you like. You might find, however, that commercial trip and charter operators have had more than their fill of puns, quotes, and reenactments. And we all know how Matt feels about pirates…

There’s one in every crowd…

I hope that this saves you some embarrassment or hassle this summer, and helps us all to get along on the water.  By operating your vessel responsibly and being courteous to fellow boaters you can contribute to the overall safety and enjoyment of the waterways. I’ve called this list incomplete because I’ve no doubt that many readers will add to this list in the comments section. What’s your biggest boating pet peeve?

To join the conversation with other cruisers and sailors in Maine, visit Maine Sailing and Cruising. If you’re interested in fishing trips or Casco Bay excursions leaving out of Portland, be sure to connect with Ed on the Rita B.

Matt Garand

About Matt Garand

Lifelong Mainer, and professional mariner, Matt Garand is the creator of A Life Aboard, a look at year-round living on a sailboat in Maine. Matt and his wife, Skye, live aboard in South Portland and use every available chance to throw off the lines and explore the coast.