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Boating Safety Around Commercial Traffic

Mar 1, 2012

Barges like this are a common sight along the Columbia and lower Snake rivers.

by Jerrod Daniels CRITFE Officer

Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Enforcement is committed to maintaining a high level of service and safety to Indian fishers on the Columbia River. This year we aim to further promote Operation Stay Afloat and encourage all fishers to practice navigational safety around barges and other vessels sharing the waters of the Columbia River.

The Columbia River hosts thousands of recreational boats and is used by barges, tugboats and towboats carrying tons of cargo up and down the river. Being aware of the constraints under which these commercial vessels operate can arm fishers with the best protection against danger and could save a life.

Commercial boats such as barges must stay in the channel—it’s the only place deep enough for them to operate. In some areas of the Columbia River, the channel extends bank to bank, so expect vessel traffic on any portion of the waterway. Also, be aware that these vessels travel deceptively fast. A towboat can travel one mile in seven minutes, and it generally takes 3/4 to 1-1/2 miles to stop. For example, if your boat is in front of a moving tug or tow, you may have less than one minute to get out of the way.

Try to give these vessels as wide a path as possible. The powerful engines of large vessels can cause a smaller vessel to be pulled toward the tow when passing alongside. It’s also very easy to get into their blind spot, which can extend for hundreds of feet in front of tugboats and towboats pushing barges. Operating in adverse weather or low visibility can make you even tougher to spot. Use navigation lights while operating during hours of darkness to help them see you.

Stay out of the path of towboats and barges approaching bridges and locks. They must be lined up and committed to their approach well ahead, and it’s dangerous and difficult for them to change course.

Ships, towboats and tugboats use VHF radio channels. If you are unsure of your situation or their intentions, feel free to contact them by VHF radio. Call 911 in an emergency or call CRITFE at 541-386- 6363. If you have a VHF radio use channels 14 and 16. Resort only to dispatching a “mayday” call when there is imminent risk of loss of property or life. Have a cell phone stored in a watertight compartment.

Designate a lookout. Assign one person in your boat to look out, particularly for commercial traffic, both day and night.

Understand horn signals. Five or more short blasts on the horn is the “danger” signal. Stay clear of vessels sounding the “danger” signal.

If you are involved in or witness a boating emergency, key information to give dispatch is: location and type of emergency, how many people are on board and their names, distance from shore, whether or not occupants in the boat are wearing a life vest.

Know your tribe’s boat safety requirements, equip your boat with the proper supplies, and learn all the navigation rules and live by them. In this way, we can all share the river safely.