Captain's Tips

Navigating in Restricted Visibility


Whether you’re just starting out your boating journey or you’re an experienced boater, finding yourself in restricted visibility can be a fearful and dangerous experience if you don’t know the rules. Most recreational boaters try not to set schedules when traveling in bad weather. But even the best planning can quickly change and surprise us with heavy fog or rain right when we enter an inlet or other heavy traffic area where navigation around other vessels is required.

You must follow a few essential rules and tips to make this event less stressful and avoid a collision. But before understanding the rules, it’s important to understand the definition of restricted visibility, because the rules are specific for what the captain needs to do.

The term “restricted visibility” means any condition in which visibility is restricted by fog, mist, falling snow, heavy rainstorms, sandstorms or any other similar causes. While this may seem like common sense, it’s essential to know the rules to follow when you are in or near an area that falls within the definition, because other vessels will take similar actions. Staying calm and having patience when navigating in restricted visibility could mean the difference between life and death.

A Valuable Resource

Foggy conditions Credit gorodenkoff from Getty Images

COLREGS (international rules) and U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Rules and Regulations (inland rules) provide instructions for navigating in most circumstances and were designed and implemented to reduce collisions. Specifically, Rule 19 deals with vessels in “Restricted Visibility” when navigating. Additional rules for vessels at anchor or aground are available, but those will not be covered in this article.

Rule 19 applies to vessels not in sight of one another when navigating in or near an area of restricted visibility and states the following:

a. Every vessel shall proceed at a safe speed adapted to the prevailing circumstances and conditions of restricted visibility. A power-driven vessel shall have her engines ready for immediate maneuver. Remember, a sailboat under engine power is considered a power-driven vessel.

b. Every vessel shall have due regard to the prevailing circumstances and conditions of restricted visibility when complying with the Rules of Section I of this Part.

c. A vessel that detects by radar alone the presence of another vessel shall determine if a close-quarters situation is developing and/or risk of collision exists. If so, she shall take avoiding action in ample time, provided that when such action consists of an alteration of course, so far as possible the following shall be avoided:

• An alteration of course to port for a vessel forward of the beam, other than for a vessel being overtaken.

• An alteration of course toward a vessel abeam or abaft the beam

Except where it has been determined that a risk of collision does not exist, every vessel that hears apparently forwards of her beam the fog signal of another vessel, or which cannot avoid a close-quarters situation with another vessel forwards of her beam, shall reduce her speed to the minimum at which she can be kept on her course. She shall if necessary take all her way off and navigate with extreme caution until danger of collision is over.

Safety Suggestions

Stormy sailing Credit travenian from Getty Images Signature

If you have never read any of the rules from the COLREGS or Inland Navigation Rules in the U.S.C.G. booklet, I would strongly recommend it. Below are additional tips to support the rules and added context that may help you.

Slowing down to a safe speed based on the conditions but still allowing control and steerage of the vessel based on wind and current is the best description of what “safe speed” is about. If it’s necessary, you may need to come to a complete stop and navigate with extreme caution until the danger is gone.

• The only time to increase speed or change direction is when it’s necessary to avoid a collision. This is also covered in Rule 19.d.

• If you hear another boat’s fog signal, promptly reduce speed. Use the tools and systems your boat is equipped with.

• If your boat is equipped with navigation lights and sound signals, use them. Sound signals should be sounded at internals not more than two minutes with one prolonged blast (power boats making way)

• Be as visible as possible by using your navigation lights.

• If the vessel is equipped with radar, use it. See Rule 19.d. Radar is one of the best tools for detecting other vessels nearby, navigation markers, land and other dangers to navigation when in restricted visibility.

While Automatic Identification System (AIS) is not called out in the rules, it can be a big help to recreational boaters, as more and more boats are now fitted with it. AIS Transmit and Receive capabilities can let other vessels know where you are and let you know where other vessels equipped with AIS are located. AIS also provides you with the vessel identifier or name that allows you to communicate easily.

Use your VHF Radio. Don’t wait to communicate if you know other vessels are nearby. If you don’t understand their actions, then hail them on the radio and ask their intentions.

Additional tips:

• Know where your emergency equipment is located and have it ready. First aid, flares and alternate sound signaling should be readily available.

• If not already on, wear life jackets until out of the danger area and visibility improves.

Remember, you are responsible for you and your crew’s safety. Never assume the other boat will do the right thing. By following these rules and applying common sense, you will be better prepared to navigate in all conditions, even restricted visibility.

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