When Two Vessels Pass – The Passing Dilema

By World Wide Marine Training

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was perfect harmony among boaters on the water? After all, for many of us, our boats are a refuge from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. At a minimum, boating should be a relaxing experience.

One source of irritation is the awkward process of vessels passing each other in narrow channels. More often than not, a sailing vessel (while motoring) is being passed by a power-driven vessel.

There are two schools of thought on the “powerboat passing the sailboat” maneuver. One view is that operators of powerboats just speed by, oblivious to the wake that is created and the damage that is done. The other view is that if operators of sailboats would reduce their speed and move over a little, they could be passed with minimum wake.

The Navigation Rules cover a few topics related to the matter at hand. In determining the safe speed of a vessel, Rule 6 considers factors like traffic density, maneuverability, and your draft in relation to available water depth. Rule 9 states that vessels should keep as near to the starboard limits of a channel or fairway as possible.

Together, those Rules provide the basic ingredients for safe passing. Beyond that, Navigation Rule 13 clearly puts the burden of responsibility on the “overtaking” (passing) vessel. But it doesn’t end there. Rule 34 requires that there be a maneuvering agreement, by whistle or VHF radio, between vessels within 1/2 mile of each other.

In inland waters, most boaters would prefer to use their VHF radio to communicate with another boater to reach a maneuvering agreement. However, that only works if the radio call is answered.

There are those of us that prefer to reach a maneuvering agreement by the use of a whistle signal. That too can be problematic if the operator of the other vessel fails to respond to the whistle signal (the Inland Rules require either an affirmative or negative reply).

The bottom line to all of this is that faster boats will always be passing slower boats in narrow channels. It behooves us all to make those close-quarters situations as pleasant as possible.

Our prescription for the “passing dilemma” starts with communications. If you don’t have a VHF radio in the cockpit of your sailboat, keep a hand-held unit with you at the helm. Respond to radio calls from other vessels approaching you from astern. Discuss the terms under which approaching vessels will pass you.

Whatever your speed, a passing vessel will proceed by at least two knots faster. If you are making 6 knots, you’ll be passed at eight to ten knots. Most powerboats make a much larger wake at ten knots than at their cruising speed. An eight to ten knot pass is no picnic!

Do yourself a favor when a vessel astern of you approaches. Slow down and move over. If you’re at three or four knots, a passing vessel can go by at “no wake” speed.

We’ll all be a lot happier and healthier if the Navigation Rules are complied with. Before signing off, we would like to clear up one last thing. What we all know as the “international hand signal” is not recognized under the Navigation Rules. We hope that you’ll all refrain from using it!

Until next time, we wish you clear skies, fair winds and calm seas!


World Wide Marine Training, LLC, is a U.S. Coast Guard Approved facility authorized to give examinations for captain’s licenses up to Master 200 Tons, Able Seaman up to Unlimited, STCW Basic Training, Radar, ARPA and other Endorsements. Please visit www.worldwidemarinetraining.com or call toll-free 866-249-2135.