By Captain Bill Jennings
Establishing what defines a “safe speed” for power boats has always been a subjective and controversial question. Just a few years ago I had a passion for fast boats, but as I mellow I now prefer to limit my boating speeds to double digit miles per hour. But what about that nice older lady who believes there should be a 25 mph speed limit for all boats? What do you believe to be a safe speed for boats? Tough question. Even maritime regulations are vague about the speed beyond which they label as “too fast."
At an international maritime convention in 1977 some speed rules for boats were established in what is called COLREGS (Collision Regulations). While these rules are generally regarded as law, marine charts will show demarcation lines where the rules do not apply. More significantly, these regulations are basically judgement calls by the boat operator. For example, they state that all vessels must proceed at a safe speed so that “proper and effective action to avoid collision can be taken and to allow stopping within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances." And in the process of determining if the subject speed was “safe,” the courts must take into account factors such as visibility, traffic, vessel maneuverability, vessel draft, weather, and navigational hazards.
The rules go on to state that every boater must determine if, in a given situation, there is any risk of collision and if not certain must assume that there is risk and take immediate and decisive action to steer clear. This seems more like common sense than a speed regulation. One clear regulation that does exist in Canada, from Ontario to BC, is an unposted “speed limit of 5.4 knots, (6.21 mph) within 30 meters (98 feet) from shore except where otherwise posted." Of course, excessive speed was not much of concern in 1977, but since then the potential top speeds of boats has grown three fold.
In my opinion, people’s definition of maximum boat speeds will be based upon the various type of boating which with they are familiar. For example, the average day cruise boat operates between 25 and 45 mph. Of course, current trends to multiple outboards can quickly change that. Tow sport boats are highly specialized and include a top speed that does not require more than 50 mph. While fishing boats are made for fishing, many are able to transport the fishermen to the fishing hole in the 50 to 75 mph range. High performance boats push top speeds even more, with some “off the shelf” varieties able to exceed 150 mph. Race boats run in sanctioned events on a closed course, so their higher top speeds are not relevant to our general question.
In a survey regarding boater’s opinions as to what they consider a safe boat speed, I found significant differences of opinion. Most people seem to base their opinion on their personal “comfort zone” when boating. Lets not forget that the higher we push our boating speeds the more adrenaline we produce in our body. This chemical and the euphoric feeling that it generates is totally addictive and creates an ongoing desire to push speeds even faster.
So, the bottom line is this: what constitutes a safe speed for boats varies with location, boat type, weather, equipment, traffic and the skill level of the person driving. Water represents the last place on earth where it is possible to enjoy pushing the limits of speed, without breaking rules and endangering others.
Let's not lose this freedom. There should never be fixed speed rules for boats beyond what exists today.