Paddling in Ports

Cautions when Kayaking in Shipping and Port Areas

Most often when paddling we think of our interaction with nature. We love glorious stretches of unspoiled coastline and encounters with wildlife far from the weekday crowds. Despite this ideal, it is fair to say that many of us will explore areas that are the haunt of commercial shipping. Waterways such as San Francisco Bay and my own home waters of Port Phillip are just two examples of the many places where commerce and recreation meet. It is also fair to say that some of us will seek out such waters to satisfy a curiosity about aspects of seafaring other than paddling.

Ports of the world are often vibrant places, pulsing with activity and interest where an observer can witness a different kind of wild life. Inhabited by men and machines of great variety, performing tasks that go unnoticed by the majority of land dwellers, the activity rarely ceases. A visit to a working port area can put you in touch with the world as you contemplate the different flags, destinations and cargoes.

Some seafarers like myself occasionally cross from professional to recreational, enjoying the delights of human-powered travel. I enjoy the contrast of having thousands of horsepower available one day, and only my paddle the next. In this article, I will relate some of the perspective I've gathered from over 30 years as a professional seafarer.

Whatís the Problem?

Navigating a large vessel in port waters is an exciting business. Much attention needs to be given to pilotage to ensure the safe passage of the ship. The same can be said in the coastal waters of port approaches. As navigational hazards increase with the proximity of land, so do the traffic levels rise. The shipís officer needs to be on the lookout for everything from other large ships right down to the smallest of recreational craft. The constraints of navigating a large vessel in confined waters can make collision avoidance a tricky business. These difficulties may be amplified by recreational mariners who have little understanding of the space and time needed to manoeuvre these leviathans.

Modern ships come in a great variety. Today, ships are more specialised than 30 years ago, with designs suited to their particular cargo and trade routes. Each design of vessel has its own characteristics when it comes to actually "driving" the ship. The speed of response to a close quarters situation will depend mainly on the size of the ship and the configuration of its machinery. Many smaller ships will have variable pitch propellers and articulated rudders making them quite manoeuvrable. Large bulk carriers and tankers, and most large container ships, will have a single engine with a fixed propeller. This means that in order to stop the ship, the engine must be stopped and restarted in the opposite direction. You wonít stop the ship by simply reversing the engine. First, there is a great deal of momentum to be overcome. Secondly, the reversing propeller has a "paddlewheel" effect that will slew the ship off course and make the rudder ineffective. Once the ship has stopped, it is at the mercy of wind and current until steerage way can be restored. Most ships are greatly affected by the wind when at slow speed, particularly vehicle carriers, and tankers and "bulkies" in ballast. In coastal waters and port approaches, shipmasters need to consider constraints imposed by the draught of the vessel. Even where there are no marked channels, a ship with a deep draught may have little sea room in which to turn. A turning ship needs a lot of room. When the rudder is put over, the stern will swing out opposite to the direction of the turn, and the ship will move sideways initially before settling on the new heading. Other factors such as trim and rudder immersion will affect the speed of the turn. Over the years I have witnessed many close calls caused by people who just didnít know any better. I hope this article will help to enlighten and encourage.

Order on the Seas

It can seem worse than driving in Italy! It is easy to feel intimidated when large vessels are using the same expanse of water as the paddler. Sixteen feet of kayak is dwarfed beside 600 feet of ship, and the solitary paddler seems insignificant next to thousands of tons of steel and horsepower. It helps to have an understanding of how the shipping world operates in order to stay safe in these circumstances.

The first realisation is to understand that there are rules that govern the way in which ships are "driven". These rules, known as the International Collision Regulations or "Colregs" apply to all users of the seaways, and in many respects are similar to the laws that govern our road use. They dictate which vessel has right of way, how vessels should pass or overtake each other, as well as precautions taken in order to avoid collision. The kayaker needs to have a familiarity with these rules, applying them as required. They will give the paddler an understanding of how other vessels should behave. The recreational kayaker is not expected to have as deep a working knowledge of the Colregs as is a professional mariner. However the paddler should know to pass "red to red", to keep to the starboard side of the channel, and that a vessel crossing ahead from starboard has right of way. The paddler should know that the risk of collision exists when the range between vessels decreases while the bearing remains constant. Another important rule to remember is that which prohibits any vessel of less than 60 feet in length from impeding a vessel that can only operate safely within the confines of a channel.

Your safety depends on the careful application of common sense regarding the rules. Not one of us would stand up for our rights on the crosswalk if it was obvious that the truck was not going to stop! We need to apply the Colregs in the same circumspect manner, having regard for the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Have I Been Seen?

The truth of the matter is that you will see the ship before it sees you. Thatís great, it gives you longer to assess the situation. The next truth is that the ship may not see you at all. There are many factors in determining whether you are sighted by the watchkeeper on the bridge of the ship. Some of these factors have been dealt with in other articles. Things like the colour of your kayak, paddle, and PFD can make a big difference. Remember that the lookout will not see you on the horizon but will be looking down at you on the water. Make sure you stand out. I believe that yellow and orange are the best colours in most circumstances, even in fog; red is okay but it becomes black at night. A white boat is hard to spot amongst breaking water and in fog, but stands out well otherwise. If conditions are right, a brightly coloured sail will enhance your profile, as would a flag on a whip.

A light should be displayed at night and at other times of restricted visibility. The Colregs dictate that a small self-propelled vessel with a speed of less than seven knots display a single white light with 360-degrees of visibility. If it is impractical to do so, a lantern or torch must be displayed in sufficient time to avoid a collision. Reflective tape can be useful if there is some ambient light. It is often the case around port areas that ambient light levels are quite high, however if you meet with shipping elsewhere, it is unlikely that reflective tape would be useful for anti collision purposes. Ships donít use headlights! Having said that, the usefulness of reflective tape in a search-and-rescue scenario cannot be over-emphasised. If you often paddle at night or on extended trips, consider fixing reflective material to your boat, both top and bottom, this will greatly enhance your prospects of rescue.

Another factor to consider is the configuration of the ship. If the ship has its bridge up forward, the watchkeeper will not have blind arcs ahead. Many ferries, cruise ships, and vehicle carriers will have this configuration. However, it is still most common for the bridge of a ship to be down aft. This configuration is most convenient for cargo work, ship handling, and crew comfort, but it does cause varying degrees of blind arc for the lookouts. The problem is at its worst on container ships where containers are stacked four or five high along the deck. This can cause a blind arc extending up to 1500 feet ahead of the ship and as much as 30-degrees to either side of the centre line. Consider also that a watchkeeper standing at the centre of a 120-ft wide bridge will also have a blind sector close alongside the ship.

Two more factors are closely related. Modern ships are highly automated and have reduced manning. Over confidence in automation can lead inexperienced officers to forget to look out of the window. If itís not on the radar, itís not there! Such attitudes have led to many narrow escapes and collisions. High degrees of automation have led to lower crew numbers, therefore a higher workload and greater levels of stress and fatigue. These factors combined may result in a less diligent lookout. These are not things for the marine community to be proud off; they are sad facts of modern commercial life.

Remember that if you canít see the bridge windows, the lookout canít see you. At night, you have a better chance of being noticed if you direct a flashlight beam directly at the bridge.

Sound Signals and Radio Communication

Although some kayakers carry a marine VHF radio, it is most likely that a ship will communicate its intentions by means of sound signals. Again, these signals are part of the Colregs and may be supplemented by a flashing light. Those signals relevant to the paddler are as follows:

  • 1 short blast: "I am altering my course to starboard"
  • 2 short blasts: "I am altering my course to port"
  • 3 short blasts: "my engines are going astern" (it will be some time before the ship actually stops)
  • 5 short blasts: "I am unsure of your intentions" or less politely, "get out of the way!"

Paddlers may use a portable aerosol foghorn as part of their equipment. It is useful in fog when the appropriate signal is one long blast followed by two short blasts at intervals of two minutes. A foghorn can also be used to attract the attention of larger craft such as pleasure cruisers, fishing boats, or those involved in water skiing. It is also handy as a means of attracting rescuers. If you donít have a portable foghorn, you can make the same signals with your PFD whistle.

For those paddlers who carry a marine VHF radio and have sufficient battery reserve, it may be useful to listen for radio traffic. Channel 16 is the international distress and calling frequency. This channel should be monitored in open waters. Most ports will have a radio protocol and a port working channel with which you should familiarise yourself. Information gleaned from listening to the working channel will help you to know where vessels are headed.

VHF radio traffic has unfortunately become subject to inane chatter. In areas where there are many recreational boaters, it is common to hear discussions about the best fishing spot broadcast over channel 16. Undisciplined use of the airwaves is a waste of a valuable resource. A disciplined radio user will gain quick attention and respect. To warn shipping of your presence in the area, use a Securité (pronounced say-cure-e-tay) message. This will immediately indicate that you are a serious user with an important message. Be concise with your message and give a callsign so that others may respond if necessary.

Securité, Securité, Securité.
This is kayak group leader, Securité.
All shipping, be aware that a group of five kayaks
is crossing the South Channel, southbound
near the Popeís Eye beacon.
This is kayak group leader, out.

It is important to close the loop with radio communication. Broadcast a cancellation message when appropriate.

All ships, all ships, all ships.
This is kayak group leader,
Channel crossing near Popeís Eye beacon complete.
All kayaks are now clear of the shipping channel.
This is kayak group leader, out.

This call can be upgraded as required by the use of an "urgency" message prefixed by the word "Pan".

Pan, Pan, Pan.
All ships, this is kayak group leader.
All ships be aware, we have two capsized kayaks
in the South Channel near Popeís Eye beacon.
A rescue is in progress.
This is kayak group leader, out.

Close the loop, broadcast a cancellation when the situation is resolved. Save a "Mayday" call for when it is really needed. If you have a serious situation, but do not require further help, then "Pan" is enough.

Observe the "silent period" on channel 16. This starts on the hour and the half-hour, and lasts for three minutes. No calls should be made during this period unless they are of an urgent nature. The silent period allows a weak distress call to be heard; that call could be yours!

Meeting Ships at Sea

As a part of your trip preparation, study the chart and mark out the areas where shipping is likely to be present. Even when there are no marked channels or lanes, if your track coincides with a route between two ports, traffic is likely. Commercial shipping will take the shortest route, but needs deep water in which to operate. Plan your track to avoid places where ships are required to alter course; the officer will be concentrating on his navigation. Also, cross shipping lanes at right angles. Avoid travelling along shipping routes because, although you may hear it, you will not see a vessel approaching from astern. In a marked channel, it will usually be possible to paddle outside of the channel markers. Be very vigilant in places where ships will need to manoeuvre such as pilot boarding grounds, anchorages, and port entrances.

To assess your safety when meeting a vessel on open waters, a few considerations are necessary in addition to those already stated. It is foolish to insist on right of way and cross ahead of a large vessel. A much safer option is to assume that you havenít been seen and cross astern. The Colregs state that, "where one vessel is obliged to give way, the other should stand on"; however these rules technically apply to power driven vessels and should be interpreted with common sense. A ship at sea speed of anywhere between 15 and 22 knots, even in an emergency, will take many ship lengths to stop. During such a manoeuvre the ship will lose its steerage and slew, usually to starboard—not a pretty sight from a kayak. You may have right of way but you will still drown. A further consequence may be that the ship could run aground, resulting in ugly environmental damage. Communicate your intention to pass astern by dramatically altering course or just stop paddling and enjoy the spectacle. If you meet a ship end on, alter your course dramatically to starboard and open the distance between you as much as possible.

A ship traveling at speed will have a significant bow wave that may pose a problem to the paddler. It may be five or ten minutes after the ship has passed that you suddenly encounter a swell of up to six or seven ft. By then you may have forgotten about the ship and turned your attention elsewhere. In deep water most paddlers will cope with, and even enjoy the bow wave. Be wary if you are paddling across a bank or reef where the shallow water will cause the wave to break.

A special word about tugboats towing barges. A tugboat engaged in ocean towing will exhibit by day, a black diamond shape where it may best be seen. At night it will display three masthead lights from ahead and an orange towing light in addition to its stern light. The length of the tow may be as much as 1500 to 2000 ft, the belly of which will be submerged. To the uninitiated, there appears no connection between the two vessels. Never paddle between a tug and tow, it will end in tears!

Close Encounters

It is inevitable if you visit a port area that you will need to interact with large vessels at close range. A ship moving to or from a harbour berth is at the ready to manoeuvre but still requires the room to do so. Even at slow speed, a large vessel canít just stop dead and the slower speed makes steering more difficult. These factors combined with narrow channels and increased traffic make manoeuvring within a port a stressful exercise for captains and pilots. The paddler can assist by keeping well clear and not behaving erratically. Be aware of the dangers of propeller wash from astern and from bow thrusters. A ship moving towards a swinging basin or a berth can be expected to operate its engines ahead and astern in bursts of high power, as well as using its bow thruster to assist in the manoeuvre. Large vessels are likely to use one or more tugboats to assist them in swinging around and arrive at or depart from a berth. Tugboats will work quickly, and often seemingly unpredictably, when assisting a large ship. Even as a skipper of many years experience, I never tire of watching ships manoeuvring into port. They are the largest moving things on the planet and to see them operating in a confined area is quite a sight. Therefore, I suggest finding a safe spot out of the way and enjoying the show. If you must move on, pass well clear of both tugs and ship, although never pass a ship that is swinging in a narrow fairway. Wait until the swing is complete before proceeding.

It may sound elementary, but avoid passing between a ship and the wharf to which it is bound. I have seen such foolishness before and only good luck saved the day. The clues to where the ship is going are obvious to an alert observer. If the tugs are on the starboard side of the ship, then the berth is on the port side and vice versa. There will be men on the wharf to take the mooring lines as well as a flag or light to mark the position. Look for Port and Customs Officers and their vehicles. There may be small launches to assist in the transfer of heavy mooring lines. If you are too close to see the action on the wharf you are too close to the action: get out of there!

Hydrodynamic effects are more pronounced with large vessel in confined and narrow waters. As a ship moves through the water, it displaces a mass of water equal to its own deadweight. Therefore, a ship of 60,000 tonnes deadweight will displace about 58,540 cubic metres of water. That water movement could have an effect on a paddler minding his own business in the shallows at the edge of the channel. As the ship passes, a flood of water will push the kayak toward the edge of the channel. Once the ship has passed, that water will return to the deep channel causing a rush of water off the bank. This effect increases with the speed of the ship. Generally, ships are navigated at a speed that will minimise these hydrodynamics. Occasionally, factors such as high winds require a ship to travel faster in order to maintain steerage. In this instance, the effects are more dramatic. Be aware that the surge could sit you on top of a training wall or push you against a channel marker.

There are additional hydrodynamic effects around the hull of the ship, areas of attraction and repulsion. The only way to avoid them is to stay well clear of the hull.

Propeller wash causes a whitewater effect that should not be underestimated. Ships moving in confined waters may give sudden bursts of high power to increase water flow over the rudder. Donít be lulled by the apparent "calmness" of the slow speed. When a propeller is reversed it will cause strong eddies that may reach quite a distance from the ship.

Dangers Alongside

I often see paddlers cruising through the port in which I work. Usually they are passing through on the way upriver towards the Melbourne CBD and beyond. Most are sensible about keeping to the starboard side of the channel and occasionally I get to call them alongside my tugboat for a quick chat. Sometimes I notice them passing too close to the wharves and vessels berthed alongside. By being too close, I mean that they are unable to see things above that may present a danger. When cargo is being worked on a ship or wharf it is possible that debris or equipment may fall into the water. When passing close by to container ships beware of falling twist locks and lashing gear. Beware of passing under extended crane booms. Finally, beware that propellers may be engaged without warning creating sudden wash.

Many ports have regulations dictating how closely you may approach a vessel at a berth or while manoeuvring and a check of the local regulations should be a part of your trip planning.


Most of the dangers mentioned above can be avoided with careful planning and an awareness of what to expect. In that regard, it's no different than planning any other aspect of an expedition, and researching the dangers now can increase the enjoyment later. Some of the principles of collision-avoidance can be applied to smaller recreational and fishing vessels, many of which have blind arcs or inattentive crews.

Watching the activity in a port can be as exciting and interesting as a wildlife-spotting trip. There are many opportunities for photography or learning about new things. The protected waters of river ports may offer paddling opportunities when the weather elsewhere is discouraging.

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© 2006, Wesley Kisting

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