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Near Miss on Great Lakes Shows Importance of Knowing Right of Way

By: Scott Way

A viral video making the rounds this week shows a near miss between a sailboat and a freighter in Port Huron, Michigan.

As you can see in the video below, the smaller sailing vessel is in the path of the commercial ship Cuyahoga and doesn't appear able (or willing) to move until the freighter starts blowing its horn. Kudos to the sailor in the end, though, as he does manage a quick about-face and avoids the collision by only a couple feet. By the time Cuyahoga passes by it's almost certain the ship couldn’t see the sailboat below save for the tip of the mast above the rail, but thankfully nobody went overboard.

Without talking to both parties and seeing a wider angle it's impossible to know all the factors leading up to the event, so it remains unclear if Cuyahoga made the turn to avoid the collision, whether it was following a route based on depths in the channel, or whether it was preparing to dock.

Here's the video:

Boating rules make it clear that in shipping channels commercial vessels have the right of way in nearly all situations. There is also the argument for gross tonnage, as well as the rules when operating in narrow channels. The sailor's argument (or belief) may have been that since they were currently under sail they had right of way. It's also possible the sailboat was fighting a strong current and couldn't maneuver like it wanted, forcing it to make a sudden last-minute change of direction. That being said, when approaching from the port side (which the sailboat was doing after the ship's turn), the sailboat becomes the give-way vessel and must allow Cuyahoga to continue as the stand-on vessel. Here's a handy graphic from BoaterExam to clarify things:

Bottom line: sailors and powered vessels are often at odds, for a variety of reasons, but there are regulations that dictate the terms for all encounters between two boats on the water. It's important for all boaters, regardless of whether they’re sailing or powered, to know their regulations, be proactive as any situation unfolds, and be a smart boater.

For a quick refresher, check out the Nautical Rules of the Road from BoaterExam.

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1 Comment

Kenneth Cramb
Kenneth Cramb
Dec 14, 2021

The larger vessel has the Right of Way as it is Constrained in its ability to Manoeuvre . I witnessed this once years ago in Vancouver Hbr when a large Ferry was leaving a wharf and a arrogant sailboat skipper ( the term is used loosely) demanded the right of way in very light airs. Again in Bamfield on he West Coast of Vancouver Island , I was proceeding to dock my large vessel when a power boat attempted to go by me on the wharf side and was cut off. He started to yell at me - so I stepped out onto the side deck and so that all could hear - loudly asked him if he was aw…

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