With the “pleasure” boating season fast approaching in the Northeast, and already underway further south, I thought I’d take advantage of a news flash from the Sunshine State to reiterate a few key points about our duties and responsibilities when our vessels are moored or anchored. The particular accident cited in the story happened in good weather and broad daylight, and resulted in multiple fatalities and severe injuries, so it isn’t my intent to make light of it. It’s serious enough that the NTSB is investigating it. But the accident involved a single vessel going at high speed in a long, straight channel (the ICW). Excessive speed and operator error were almost certainly the primary causes when they crashed head-on into a small moored tug and construction barge along the bank.
As a group, pleasure boaters are generally marginally-skilled to unskilled operators, especially in relation to the speed and horsepower at their command, and have little understanding of the hazards of operating near working commercial vessels, or even stationary ones. When alcohol and general weekend revelry are involved, as they often are, bad things tend to happen. Add the additional peril of darkness and the odds increase considerably that a tragedy will occur. Individual exceptions exist, of course, and some people do bother to voluntarily attend a safe-boating course and actually pay attention. The boating regulations of our various states have gotten stricter in the last decade or so and in some cases the courses are mandatory. This has probably helped somewhat. But taken as a whole their behavior is often, in a word, moronic.
So it’s best to think defensively: just because your vessel is not underway (i.e. anchored, on a mooring buoy, securely moored or aground) doesn’t mean that you are relieved of the obligation to make sure that others can readily see you. The applicable Navigation Rules is really only the first step if you want to avoid problems.
Rule 30 – Anchored Vessels of both the International and Inland rules reads as follows:
(a) A vessel at anchor shall exhibit where it can best be seen:
in the fore part, an all-round white light or one ball;
at or near the stern and at a lower level than the light prescribed in subparagraph (i), an all-round white light.
(b) A vessel of less than 50 meters (164 feet) in length may exhibit an all-round white light where it can best be seen instead of the lights prescribed in paragraph (a) of this Rule.
(c) A vessel at anchor may, and a vessel of 100 meters (328 feet) and more in length shall, also use the available working or equivalent lights to illuminate her decks.
That’s pretty simple and straightforward, but I don’t worry about whether or not the length overall (LOA) of the anchored tug and barge is over or under 100 meters. Just put the lights on. Always. In addition to any deck flood lights the barge may have, I include both the typical amber deck lights that ring the decks of most tugs and towboats along with any bow and stern flood lights you may have in my definition of “working or equivalent lights.” I’ve heard the opinion expressed occasionally that in so doing you may simply wind up attracting more of them to you like mindless insects to a porch light. Maybe so, but I’d rather be accused of using too much light rather than too little. In any case, if someone ever invents The Pleasure Boat Zapper they’ll become an overnight hero within the greater U.S. Merchant Marine. I’ll even offer to help out with the infomercial.
In the Pilot Rules of 33 CFR § 88.13 – Lights on moored barges (also located in Annex V of the Inland Rules) we get into an area from which many a lawsuit has sprung. It reads:
(a) The following barges shall display at night and if practible in periods of restricted visibility the lights described in paragraph (b) of this section:
Every barge projecting into a buoyed or restricted channel.
Every barge so moored that it reduces the available navigable width of any channel to less than 80 meters (262 feet).
Barges moored in groups more than two barges wide or to a maximum width of 25 meters (82 feet).
Every barge not moored parallel to the bank or dock.
(b) Barges described in paragraph (a) of this section shall carry two unobstructed all-round white lights of an intensity to be visible for at least one nautical mile and meeting the technical requirements as prescribed in § 84.15 of this chapter.
(c) A barge or group of barges at anchor or made fast to one or more mooring buoys or other similar device, in lieu of the the provisions of Inland Navigation Rule 30, may carry unobstructed all-round white lights of an intensity to be visible for at least one nautical mile and meeting the technical requirements as prescribed in § 84.15 of this chapter and shall be arranged as follows:
Any barge that projects from a group formation, shall be lighted on its outboard corners.
On a single barge moored in water where other vessels normally navigate on both sides of the barge, lights shall be placed to mark the corner extremities of the barge.
On barges moored in group formation, moored in water where other vessels normally navigate on both sides of the group, lights shall be placed to mark the corner extremities of the group.
(d) The following are exempt from the requirements of this section:
A barge or group of barges moored in a slip or slough used primarily for mooring purposes.
A barge or group of barges moored behind a pierhead.
A barge less than 20 meters (66 feet) in length when moored in a special anchorage area designated in accordance with § 109.10 of this chapter.
(e) Barges moored in well-illuminated areas are exempt from the lighting requirements of this section. These areas are as follows: ***See Annex V for details. Included are parts of the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal, Calumet Sag Channel, Little Calumet River, Calumet River, and Cumberland River***
If you were the last one to handle the barge or barges then it’s your responsibility to ensure that they’re properly secured and lit (if required) before you depart the scene, at least initially. It’s also wise to document the particulars of this in the official log book. If the barge or barges are unmanned then the duty to maintain the lights should then fall, at least in theory, to the charterer or owner (if they aren’t your company’s equipment) once you’ve done your bit.
I’m not a big fan of our society’s overly-litigious nature and the “It’s your fault, so give me lots of money because you didn’t do everything humanly possible (and more) to prevent me from behaving like a moron and hurting/killing myself!” mindset that dominates the public realm. It’s a huge waste of time and resources, and detracts from the timely resolution of the legitimate grievances and injuries. Give them a Darwin Award and be done with it, I say. But juries are often sympathetic to them, no matter how flagrant their irresponsibility and stupidity. As the professionals we’re generally expected to anticipate and mitigate even near-suicidal behavior. C’est la vie. It’s a reality in our line of work and if a few simple steps can avert trouble then you might as well do it.