Handbook of the Nautical Rules of the Road by Llana & Wisneskey

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Rule 9 -- Narrow Channels


With Rule 9, the Rules become more specific. Although Rule 9 applies in all conditions of visibility, it applies only on certain waters and to certain vessels. Rule 9 is also the first to contain significant differences between the International and Inland versions.

Two terms are used throughout the Rule that are not defined. They are "narrow channel" (namesake of the Rule) and "(narrow) fairway." We must assume that the drafters of the Rules either believed their meanings to be obvious or else were not able to formulate suitably concise definitions.

Rule 9 applies only on waters described by the two terms. What is "narrow" depends on the type of vessel and the circumstances. A "channel" is a natural or dredged lane restricted on either side by shallow water; it is often marked by buoys. A "fairway" is generally in open water, and the water on either side is not much shallower than within the fairway. Fairways are used to route vessels away from natural hazards, oil platforms, mines, or smaller vessels. Fairways should be differentiated from the lanes in traffic separation schemes; vessels in the latter should follow Rule 10 rather than Rule 9.


INTERNATIONAL

INLAND

(a) A vessel proceeding along the course of a narrow channel or fairway shall keep as near to the outer limit of the channel or fairway which lies on her starboard side as is safe and practicable.

(a)(i) A vessel proceeding along the course of a narrow channel or fairway shall keep as near to the outer limit of the channel or fairway which lies on her starboard side as is safe and practicable.

 

Just as all cars drive on the right side of the road (in the United States), paragraph (a) requires all vessels to navigate on the far right side of a narrow channel, whether or not traffic is approaching from the other direction. If that is not "safe or practicable," however, the mariner is justified in moving closer to the center or even over the center to the left side (providing the traffic permits such action).

 

INLAND

(ii) Notwithstanding paragraph (a)(i) and Rule 14(a), a power-driven vessel operating in narrow channels or fairways on the Great Lakes, Western Rivers, or waters specified by the Secretary, and proceeding downbound with a following current shall have the right-of-way over an upbound vessel, shall propose the manner and place of passage, and shall initiate the maneuvering signals prescribed by Rule 34 (a)(i), as appropriate. The vessel proceeding upbound against the current shall hold as necessary to permit safe passing.

 

Paragraph (a) of the Inland Rules contains a provision that was added to deal with the control problems experienced by some downboud vessels on rivers. The provision concerns power-driven vessels transiting narrow channels and narrow fairways on the Great Lakes and Western Rivers. In addition, the Coast Guard has specified other bodies of water on which the provision applies: Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, Tombigbee River, Black Warrior River, Alabama River, Coosa River, Mobile River above the Cochrane Bridge at St. Louis Point, Flint River, Chattachoochee River, and the Apalachicola River above its confluence with the Jackson River (see Title 33 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 89, Subpart B).

The vessel proceeding downbound with a following current has the right-of-way and is given the choice of passing arrangements over an upbound vessel. The downbound vessel is required to contact the upbound vessel and to initiate maneuvering signals. The upbound vessel is required to accept the downbound vessel's proposed manner of passing unless doing so would jeopardize its safety. It is also obligated, if necessary, to hold position until the downbound vessel has passed. Normal port-to-port passing should be the rule except in the area of bends where both sides of the channel may be needed to make the turn.

 

INTERNATIONAL

INLAND

(b) A vessel of less than 20 meters in length or a sailing vessel shall not impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway.

(b) A vessel of less than 20 meters in length or a sailing vessel shall not impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway.

 

Paragraphs (b) and (c) are the same for the International and the Inland Rules and direct certain vessels not to impede other vessels that can safely navigate only within the narrow channel or fairway. Rule 8(f) "shall not impede" language says that vessel directed not to impede shall take early enough action that sufficient sea room exists for safe passage. If risk of collision does arise (ideally it should not), the impeding vessel retains its duty to stay out of the way, notwithstanding any stand-on rights the more general Steering and Sailing Rules may have given it. In other words, the vessel directed not to impede should stay well clear!

Paragraph (b) gives rights to non-sailing vessels that are over twenty meters long and that can safely navigate only within the narrow channel or fairway. Both conditions must be met. The Rule does not assign rights between power-driven vessels less than twenty meters long and sailing vessels, as these vessels fall into the same class--for Rule 9(b) purposes.

 

INTERNATIONAL

INLAND

(c) A vessel engaged in fishing shall not impede the passage of any other vessel navigating within a narrow channel or fairway.

(c) A vessel engaged in fishing shall not impede the passage of any other vessel navigating within a narrow channel or fairway.

 

Paragraph (c), unlike paragraph (b), gives rights to any vessel navigating within a narrow channel or fairway, not just to those that can safely operate only within the channel or fairway. Vessels engaged in fishing--defined in Rule 3(d)--must stay out of the way, although they are permitted to fish in the channel or fairway if it is otherwise not being used.

 

INTERNATIONAL

INLAND

(d) A vessel shall not cross a narrow channel or fairway if such crossing impedes tha passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within such channel or fairway. The latter vessel may use the sound signal prescribed in Rule 34(d) if in doubt as to the intention of the crossing vessel.

(d) A vessel shall not cross a narrow channel or fairway if such crossing impedes tha passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within such channel or fairway. The latter vessel may use the danger signal prescribed in Rule 34(d) if in doubt as to the intention of the crossing vessel.

 

Paragraph (d) of both the International and Inland Rule 9 prohibits all vessels from crossing a narrow channel or fairway in a way that would impede a vessel that could not safely operate outside of the channel or fairway. Rule 8(f) "shall not impede" language is operative here. If your vessel is directed not to impede another, try to avoid causing the other vessel to change its course or speed. If you blunder into a risk-of-collision situation, the general Steering and Sailing Rules will not apply to you--you will continue to be obliged to stay out of the way. Be mindful, however, that Rule 8(f)(iii) says that the general rules will apply to the vessel you are impeding. It may be helpful to contact the other vessel (for example, on channel 13 VHF-FM) to inform the operator or your intentions--early, of course.

The Rule also provides for the vessel constrained to the channel to sound five or more short blasts if in doubt as to the intentions of the vessel sounding the crossing signal. The International version of Rule 9 says that this sound signal "may" be used--although International Rule 34(d) requires its use in case of doubt--while the Inland Rule 9 says it "shall" be used.

Note that the Internation version refers to the "sound signal prescribed in Rule 34(d)," while the Inland Rule refers to the "danger signal prescribed in Rule 34(d)." Neither version of Rule 34(d) refers to the five or more short blasts as the "danger" signal, but rather calls for the signal's use when "either vessel fails to understand the intentions or actions of the other, or is in doubt whether sufficient action is being taken by the other to avoid collision."

Thinking of the five-blast signal as a danger signal may cause a vessel operator to delay its use until a situation of potential danger has developed into one of immedite danger. Its early application in the circumstances of doubt described in Rule 34(d) would likely focus the attention of the parties while there is still time to act effectively in a non-crisis environment. Think of the signal as a "doubt" rather than a "danger' signal.

 

INTERNATIONAL

INLAND

(e)(i) In a narrow channel or fairway when overtaking can take place only if the vessel to be overtaken has to take action to permit safe passing, the vessel intending to overtake shall indicate her intention by sounding the appropriate signal prescribed in Rule 34(c)(i). The vessel to be overtaken shall, if in agreement, sound the appropriate signal prescribed in Rule 34(c)(ii) and take steps to permit safe passing. If in doubt she may sound the signals prescribed in Rule 34(d).

(ii) This Rule does not relieve the overtaking vessel of her obligation under Rule 13.

(e)(i) In a narrow channel or fairway when overtaking, the power-driven vessel intending to overtake another power-driven vessel shall indicate her intention by sounding the appropriate signal prescribed in Rule 34(c) and take steps to permit safe passing. The power-driven vessel being overtaken, if in agreement, shall sound the same signal and may, if specifically agreed to, take steps to permit safe passing. If in doubt she shall sound the danger signal prescribed in Rule 34(d).

(ii) This Rule does not relieve the overtaking vessel of her obligation under Rule 13.

 

Paragraph (e) gives the procedures for overtaking in narrow channels and fairways and should be read in conjuction with Rule 13, the Rule for overtaking in general, and with Rule 34(c), which prescribes the sound signals for overtaking. The requirements for overtaking in narrow channels and fairways and the sound signals for overtaking in general vary substantially between the International Rules and the Inland Rules.

The International Rule 9 requirement for overtaking applies only when the overtaken vessel (in addition to the overtaking vessel) has to take maneuvering action to permit a safe passing. If the overtaken vessel agrees with the overtaking vessel's passing proposal, the the overtaken vessel is required to "take steps to permit safe passing." The Inland Rule requirements for overtaking in narrow channels and fairways are the same as the general Inland Rule requirement for overtaking and are therefore redundant.

The sound signals used for overtaking in open water are the same for overtaking in narrow channels, although the International overtaking signals are different from those used on inland waters. The Inland Rule signals used for crossing are also used for overtaking. The International overtaking signals are longer (although perhaps less likely to cause confusion). The sound signals will be more fully discussed with Rule 34.

International Rule 9(e)(i) says that when doubt exists as to the other vessel's intentions, the overtaken vessel "may" sound the Rule 34(d) five short blast doubt signal, while the Inland version requires ("shall sound") the sounding of the signal. Both are legally superfluous and merely act as reminders of the Rule 34(d) requirement ("shall" in both International and Inland) for all vessels to sound the five-blast signal when doubt exists.

 

INTERNATIONAL

INLAND

(f) A vessel nearing a bend or an area of a narrow channel or fairway where other vessels may be obscured by an intervening obstruction shall navigate with particular alertness and caution and shall sound the appropriate signal prescribed in Rule 34(e).

(f) A vessel nearing a bend or an area of a narrow channel or fairway where other vessels may be obscured by an intervening obstruction shall navigate with particular alertness and caution and shall sound the appropriate signal prescribed in Rule 34(e).

 

Paragraph (f) cautions vessels nearing a blind bend or other area where an approaching vessel may be obscured and reminds them to obey the Rule 34(e) signal requirement. The requirements in this paragraph (International identical to Inland) offer nothing new--the requirements for lookout, safe speed, and so forth cover needed precautions and Rule 34(e) covers the signal requirement.

 

INTERNATIONAL

INLAND

(g) Any vessel shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, avoid anchoring in a narrow channel.

(g) Any vessel shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, avoid anchoring in a narrow channel.

 

Anchoring in a narrow channel is obviously not a good practice and is prohibited by Rule 9(g) except under pressing circumstances. A separate and older law (Section 409 of Title 33, U.S. Code) repeats the prohibition for U.S. waters; it is unlawful to tie up or anchor barges or other craft in navigable waters in such a manner as to prevent or obstruct the passage of other vessels or craft.

Anchorage regulations cover background, procedures, rules, and a list of special anchorage areas and anchorage grounds. These regulations are contained in Title 33 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Parts 109 and 110.

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