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Rules of the Road versus Big Boat Wins

Everybody knows Lake Tahoe is a great place to have a boat and there are days when it seems everybody is here. Lake Tahoe covers 193 square miles of surface area and if you own a submarine it’s average depth is 900 feet. You would think that is enough space for everybody well like I said there are days. To help us get along there are rules, (there are always rules). Sometimes the rules read like an insurance policy and we will cover the basics here, but really with a little consideration we can all enjoy our few days of summer. Courtesy and common sense are as important as the Rules. Don’t use your boat to argue with another skipper. If the other skipper is rude, don’t use it as an excuse for rudeness on your part. You could win the argument, but ruin your whole day.

Now for the rules (read laws published by US Department of Transportation, US Coast Guard)

There are two basic boating rules that apply to all vessels: maintain a lookout and proceed at a safe speed.

  • You must maintain a lookout using both sight and hearing while boating. Not seeing the other guy is the principal cause of boating accidents.
  • There are no speed limits on Lake Tahoe although there has been talk. You are responsible for establishing a safe speed for yourself, but the lake is patrolled by more law enforcement than you can imagine including US Coast Guard. A safe speed depends on boat density, visibility, the wind, water conditions, and other factors like snow.

Not all boats are created equally maneuverable. There is a hierarchy that reflects the ease boats can stay out of the way of each other. For example the Rules State that a power driven boat underway must keep out of the way of a sailboat driven by sails alone. However a sailboat operating its engine is considered a powerboat.

When two powerboats in sight of each other risk a crash, one is defined as the "Stand-On Vessel", the other as the "Give-Way Vessel". There is a-lot to this Stand-On, Give-Way boat rule based on nautical terms, degrees in a circle, and different lights on your boat, but here are the highlights. If your boat is equipped with navigation lights the right side (starboard side) of your boat should have a green light, the left side (port side) should have a red light, and the back (stern) should have a white light.

Who is the Stand-On boat? There are three situations in which the risk of collision exists.

  • First, when you see both red and green lights of another vessel dead ahead, you are on a collision course, meeting Head-On. When the boats are both powerboats, both are Give-Way vessels and both must alter their course to starboard (to the right)
  • Second, when you see another boat’s stern light (the white backlight), and you want to pass that boat (Overtaking), you are the Give-Way boat and must avoid the other boat.
  • Third, when your powerboat approaches another boat and you see its red light (the port side or the left side of that boat), you know you are the Give-Way boat. The other boat sees your green light (your starboard side or the right side of your boat) and knows they are the Stand-On boat. You should alter your course to pass astern (behind) the other boat. Never speed up to pass in front of the Stand-On boat.

When the danger of a crash exists, be cautious. The other skipper may not understand these basic rules of the road. Should the other boat not treat you as the Stand-On boat it is up to you to prevent a crash consider slowing down and change your course usually to starboard (right).

Most boats on Lake Tahoe are out there for afternoon boating and you wouldn’t see the other guy’s boat lights, however the three sectors still exist; the stern (white light), left side of a boat (port side red light), right side of a boat (starboard side green light). The starboard side with the green light is known as the Danger Zone the other boat seeing your green light or in daytime your boat’s right side (Starboard side) knows they are the Stand-On boat and should hold their course.

There are important differences in legal liability between maritime and civil law. All parties usually share some responsibility for a marine accident. This does not mean the share is equal. That is a matter for a court to decide. If you violate the rules and have a collision, you are at least partially responsible no matter what the other skipper does. The same is true for skippers under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In boating accidents, they are usually responsible no matter what the other skippers do. It is not unusual for all parties to be held equally responsible for a crash. Only rarely do marine skippers produce a finding of fault on only one skipper.

There are two sets of rules – International and Inland. Together, they are the Navigation Rules. Two sets of rules are necessary in this country since our rivers, bays, and lakes have some dangers that require special rules for safe navigation. The rules are very involved and we haven’t even scratched the surface here. To learn more about the Rules and to enhance your boating seamanship skills and possibly get a discount on your boating insurance may I suggest you take a course with the US Coast Guard Auxiliary? The courses are fun and inexpensive. They are scheduled many times a year on Lake Tahoe’s north shore. You can find class announcements in the North Tahoe Truckee this Week magazine. The magazine you are reading now. You will meet other boaters and if Mr. Bill Sumner is there he will even teach how to tie a clove hitch.

Take care


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