(SAVANNAH, GA) – Not knowing the boating “rules of the road” can be dangerous and have serious consequences.

“It’s crucial for boaters to know the basic ‘rules of the road’ so they can have fun safely without endangering themselves or others,” said Kent Shockey, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla Staff Officer for Public Education and Member Training.

Danger and damage aren’t the only problems that can arise when boaters don’t follow the rules.

“There are also legal consequences for violating statutory boating rules,” said Edwin D. Robb of the law firm Bouhan, Williams & Levy LLP. “If you violate a rule and there’s a collision where that rule is relevant, there is a legal consequence. There is a rebuttable presumption that you’re at fault. You will have to prove you could not have contributed to the incident.”

There are a few basic “rules of the road” that every boater should know, said Shockey, who frequently gives boating safety courses through the USCG Auxiliary.

Like automobile drivers in traffic, there are certain situations that every boater will encounter. In a “head-on” situation, both must turn to the right (to starboard), to avoid a collision. Boaters must make a distinct, noticeable move (at least 15 degrees) so the other boat can tell you’re turning, Shockey said.

Boat navigation or running lights help boaters get their bearings. A green light is on the right side (the starboard side) of a boat and a red light is on the left side (the port side).

At night, if you see green, red and white lights coming toward you, the boat is coming right toward you and you are in a head-on collision situation. You should turn your boat to the right (starboard).

A “crossing situation” is similar to cars meeting at an intersection. The terms “give-way” boat and “stand-on” boat help explain what should happen in a crossing situation. The “give-way” boat should take every action it can to prevent a collision. The “stand-on” boat should stay on the same course and speed so the other boat can predict what it is going to do.

If the other boat is on your right side (starboard side), you are the “give-way” boat and must stand clear of the other boat, the “stand-on” boat, which should maintain its course and speed. In other words, if a boat is on your right, it is the stand-on boat and continues its course and speed. If a boat is on your left, it is the give-way boat.

In a crossing situation, if you look to your right and see red and white lights, red means danger. You are the “give-way” boat and must stop, slow down or turn to the right to pass behind the boat.

In that same crossing situation, the other boater would see green and white lights and would be the stand-on boat, where they continue the same course at the same speed. If however, it becomes obvious that the other boat on its port side does not know the rules and an accident is imminent, the boater can take steps to avoid an accident, such as slowing down, turning to the right to pass side by side, or stopping to go behind him.

If there’s any doubt about what to do, slow down or stop and evaluate the situation, Shockey said, but of course look to see if there is a boat behind you before doing so.

By law, you must have a lookout at all times and you must go at a safe speed, determined by water conditions, visibility, maneuverability, amount of traffic, etc. A safe speed in one situation might be 25 miles per hour, and in another situation safe speed might be five miles per hour. Boaters must look around 360 degrees, not simply look in front of them.

Unlike cars, boats don’t have clearly marked lanes, traffic lights and simple ways for the driver to know the rules.

“Things can happen very quickly on the water and you’ve got to be prepared for other boaters who might not be knowledgeable of the rules of the road,” Shockey said.

An “overtaking situation” is similar to a car passing another car. If you are the boat being overtaken, or passed, you have an obligation to maintain your course and speed (don’t speed up to avoid being passed). The overtaking boat (the one passing) must keep out of the way of the overtaken boat.

In an overtaking situation, when you come up behind a boat and you see a white light, it could be the stern light on the boat or an anchored boat, and you don’t know which. In either case you are the give-way boat. You can pass, but it is helpful to use sound signals.

If you want to pass a boat on their right (your left), you should give one short blast of your horn. If it is clear and safe, they give one blast back. If there is danger, they should give five short blasts, which is the danger signal.

If you want to pass a boat on their left (your right), you should give two short blasts. If safe, they would respond with two short blasts. If there is danger, they should respond with five short blasts (the passageway could be too narrow because of docks, etc.).

All boats should have correct navigation or running lights, Shockey said. Small boats usually have a combined bow light with green on the right (starboard) and red on the left (port). They have a 360 degree white stern (back) light. If you anchor at night, only shine your 360 degree light, and it must be high enough to be seen. Larger boats have the red and green lights separate, with green on the right as always and red on the left as always. They have a white light that shines 225 degrees in the front and 135 degrees in the rear.

Boaters involved in an incident should also know the obligations to rescue endangered boaters, Robb and Shockey explain. If you are in an incident, you have a statutory obligation to assist the other people, without necessarily endangering your own boat and the people on that boat. If you are not involved in the incident, you do not have a statutory obligation to assist vessels involved in the incident, Robb explained.
A boater not involved in the incident who gratuitously renders aid will not be held liable unless his conduct worsens the situation or unless he acts in a reckless manner. In other words, that boater will not be liable if he acts in a reasonable manner.

Boaters who are injured may have legal rights against owners of other vessels and passengers may have rights against the owner/operator of the boat in which they are riding.

Boaters also must understand the use of Personal Floatation Devices (PFD) and requirements for them. There must be one PFD for each passenger and children under 10 years old must wear a PFD. The PFDs must be Coast Guard approved, in serviceable condition, the proper sizes and readily available.

In addition, boaters must understand wake issues (wake zones and consequences of causing damage). Boaters should also understand fueling, how to prevent spills and what to do in the event of spills. There are legal consequences for fuel spills and other spills. Boaters should also know there are repercussions for radio hoax calls as well as causing a drain on safety resources.

Robb and Shockey will discuss “Keeping the Boating Season Safe and Legal” May 15.
The discussion will be held 2 p.m. Sunday, May 15 at the Isle of Hope Marina. Each will speak about 15 minutes, followed by a question and answer session. The talk is free and open to the public. Please call the Isle of Hope Marina for more info at 912-354-8187.

Edwin D. Robb has been with Bouhan, Williams & Levy LLP since 1970. His practice concentrates in the areas of Maritime and Transportation Law. Robb is a graduate of Dartmouth College and received his J.D. from the University of Georgia Law School. He served as an officer in the U.S. Navy from 1963-1973. He was a Lieutenant Commander and served as a Deck Officer (Surface Warfare Officer) on a LST, US Pacific Fleet in the early stages of the Vietnam War. He later served on various Destroyers in the US Atlantic Fleet both on active duty and in selected Reserve crews. He is a member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States (Member, Nominating Committee; Member, Stevedores, Marine Terminals and Vessel Services Committee); Southeastern Admiralty Law Institute (Speaker at Seminars). He is a member of the Navy League, Savannah Council (Judge Advocate); Military Order of World Wars, Savannah Chapter (Adjutant).

Kent Shockey graduated from the University of Arkansas, George Washington University and the Army Command and Staff College. He served two tours as an Infantry Officer in Vietnam and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel, USMC. A member of the USCG Auxiliary for 25 years, he accumulates each year more than 1500 hours of recorded effort in Public Education, Water Safety Patrols, Member Training, Vessel Safety Checks, and other areas.
Find out about boating safety courses offered by the USCG Auxiliary at http://www.savannahaux.com. Free safety checks for boats are available.

About Bouhan, Williams & Levy LLP:
Founded in 1886, Bouhan, Williams & Levy LLP is a broad-based, general law practice with an emphasis in corporate, business and transactional law and civil litigation on the local, national and international levels. The firm provides services to a range of clientele including major corporations, small businesses, professional entities, insurance companies, financial and lending institutions, non-profit corporations, individuals and public sector boards and authorities. Bouhan, Williams & Levy LLP and its attorneys have consistently been named to prestigious groups such as the 2010 U.S. News & World Report’s Best Law Firms Rankings, Best Lawyers in America, Georgia Lawyers, Rising Stars, Georgia Trend’s Legal Elite, and the American Trial Lawyers Association’s Top 100 Attorneys in Georgia, among others. Bouhan, Williams & Levy LLP is headquartered in the Armstrong House at 447 Bull Street in Savannah, Georgia.
http://www.bouhan.com/ 912-236-2491.

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