Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tugboating Top Tips

Memorial Day. The “Unofficial” Start to Summer.
Pay no attention to all of that “remembering our nation’s fallen warriors” stuff. 

It’s time to get the hamburgers and hot dogs a grillin’, get all boozed up, and head out on the water in that boat that you haven’t even looked at since last October. Woo!
For us, the “Unofficial” start to WAFI and MAFI season is more like it. Interestingly enough, this week (May 20th to the 26th) is also called National Safe Boating Week. I submit that it should be renamed “Idiots with More Money Than Brains” week. It’s catchy. Not surprisingly, this weekend there was no shortage of a complete lack of nautical knowledge to be found.
Stupid hurts. And is a bit expensive.
So in an attempt to spread some nautical tid-bits of seafaring knowledge with the masses, I present to you: Tugboating Top Tips for the Woefully Unprepared Seasonal Boater (abridged version).

Tip #1: Radio Checks.
Stop it. Just stop it. Especially on VHF Channel 16! All summer long Channel 16 is clogged up with weekend warriors and their “Radio Check, Radio Check”. And all summer long the watchstanders at U.S. Coast Guard stations all over the country reply with “Radio Checks are conducted on VHF Channel Zero-Nine”. I get it. You haven’t even though about doing any maintenance on your boat since you put it away last fall. I’m sure the squirrels have had a glorious time nibbling on you radio wires in the dead of winter. But a simple check of your equipment shouldn’t have to be broadcast to the entirety of the nautical world on the one channel that is designated as an emergency hailing frequency. So cut it out!
It's okay. You can switch channels.

Tip #2: More Radio Stuff.
Here is another VHF Radio Top Tip. If you are trying to contact a commercial vessel on VHF Channel 16 (and this is especially important in the New York Harbor area and major ports with a Vessel Traffic Control system), don’t be too surprised if no one on that commercial vessel is listening. Now, stick with me for a second, as I’m sure some of you are confused. Most people assume that everyone is listening on Channel 16 all of the time, as well you should. It’s in The Rules. Here’s the legal stuff:

In general, any vessel equipped with a VHF marine radiotelephone (whether voluntarily or required to) must maintain a watch on channel 16 (156.800 MHz) whenever the radiotelephone is not being used to communicate. (FCC 47 CFR §§ 80.148, 80.310)

So there it is. Except when it’s not. More legal stuff:

In addition, every [commercial] power-driven vessel … (condensed to take out some legal mumbo-jumbo) must also maintain a watch on channel 13 (156.650 MHz) --channel 67 (156.375 MHz) if operating on the lower Mississippi River-- ; …(more condensing) These vessels must also maintain a watch on the designated Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) frequency, in lieu of maintaining watch on channel 16, while transiting within a VTS area. (See 33 CFR §§ 2.36, 26, and 161; 47 CFR §§ 80.148, 80.308-309)

So there you go. Simple, right? Here is the gist of it:

Commercial vessels are listening in on VHF channel 13 ALL OF THE TIME (channel 67 on the Miss. River). So if you need to get ahold of a commercial vessel, take a second and switch from channel 16 to 13 and hail them on that channel. Your chances of success on reaching said vessel on 13 are much better than calling on channel 16.

Case in point. In my wheelhouse I have 4 mounted VHF radios and a portable VHF radio at my disposal. While operating in a Vessel Traffic area, I have one radio monitoring Vessel Traffic, a second radio always tuned to channel 13 to monitor and communicate with any concerned vessel traffic, a third radio monitoring my company’s “house channel”, and the fourth radio monitoring our vessel’s “working channel”. Listening in on four different radio frequencies is a handful. At times, to help to try to limit “information overload” radios #3 and 4 might get turned down, or turned off. Based on the amount of radio chatter, you sometimes need to prioritize which radio channels need to be monitored. Channel 13 and the Vessel Traffic channels are at the top of the list. To add on monitoring channel 16 in a busy harbor just adds to the confusion. Hence, the “in lieu” provision in the above legalese.

So, to sum up the last couple of paragraphs of long winded babbling and to make this as simple and easy as possible:

Call commercial vessels on channel 13. There, easy.

Sidebar: Out to sea, chances are pretty good that you will be able to get a commercial vessel on channel 16, just don’t expect the same results in the harbor.
Mariner Multi-tasking.

Tip #3: Navigation Lights.
Squirrels like navigation light wires just as much as they like marine VHF radio wires. So before you head out in “Druken Engineer” (name of an actual boat I heard calling the USCG for assistance) for the first time this year, check to make sure your navigation lights work. Last weekend I heard a boat call a tug who was making up to their barge mid-stream say they were hard to see because their sidelights were burned out. Not smart. Also, not smart is displaying the incorrect navigation lights. I already dislike sailboats. What makes me dislike them even more is when some salty sailboat captain decides the way to best be seen is to put on not only one set of running lights, but two! Here is a nice little diagram that highlights what I’m talking about.
Please note the “EITHER” in reference to the running lights in the first picture. It means you can display ONE or THE OTHER. Not both! Don't be "That Guy".

Tip #4: Power driven vs. Under sail.
Since I’m already ripping on sailboats, and since pictures are worth a thousand words. Let me end with this flurry of pictures. See if you can spot the subtle differences between a sailboat and a power driven vessel. The Rules of the Road concerning these two types of vessels are quite different.

Not a sailboat. Power boat.

Power boat with a big aluminum lightning rod attached. Not a sailboat.

So there you go. Four simple Top Tips to help make your summer boating experience a bit more fun and a bit safer. But hopefully safer. Because if you're safer, that makes me safer. And I'm all for that.

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