Small Craft Traffic Avoidance

Do you like when small craft get in touch to clarify traffic situations, or do you prefer them to just stay out of your way?

Here’s an example: I’m in a 60 footer making 8 knots in unrestricted waters, and you’re at 2 miles, overtaking on my port quarter. I see that it’s going to be close, with your CPA a cable on my port beam, and for whatever reason I want to correct to port (say I’m hugging the coast). It’s still nice and early, with TCPA 15-20 minutes away.

I can either make a large course correction to clarify my intentions, or get on the horn to explain what I’m doing. In the former case it works out with minimal hassle for the big guy, but every once in a while I will notice that he took corrective action to port at the same time as I, and now has to swing back. This always leaves me somewhat mortified, realizing that those rudder moves cost more fuel than I’ll burn all day.

When I do call him up, any answer is always to the tune of "sure no problem I’ll alter to starboard ", but in a significant fraction of cases I’ll get no response. I’d say we’re talking 25% non-response if I call with the ship’s name, and 80%+ if I make a call for “ship in position … heading …”

I take that as a hint that these small craft traffic calls are rather annoying and to be avoided. What’s your take?

I operate in a VTS area with lots of small vessels.
Inside passage BC. Salish Sea, Puget Sound.

Not bothered either way. I pretty much assume nobody is looking the G&T wine or beer is poured.
Just follow the rules. Is my first preference. I follow the rules. When overtaking I am give way, I will give way. CPA may vary depending on traffic and Sea room.

Again in a VTS area. My vessels name position routing ETA is broadcast both by my vessel and VTS. I routinely make passing arrangements with other vessels.

If called by any vessel on VTS channel I will reply.
If called on 16 I will decline to go to a working channel for passing arrangements. I won’t refuse to make a passing arrangements. I will direct vessel requesting to call on VTS channel

Two reasons 1 it’s recorded 2 So any other vessels can hear our arrangements.

I prefer to make passing arrangements which are complying with the rules.

In the case described. I am give way. I am on the small vessels port quarter. The vessel is on my Starboard bow.

Clearly I will alter com to Starboard and pass astern. If hearing me say so makes you happy, I am happy to oblige.
Additionally I will tend to pick the open water or more open water side. For obvious reasons.
Lot of the little fecklers tend to be constrained by thier draft.
Others just go point to point.

I find I gots of request for G to G. I prefer R to R but hey sometimes it works.
Even if someone asks for something I don’t particularly like. I don’t usually bother to argue with fools.

I just do what required.

Out of a VTS area I am less inclined to make passing arrangements on VHF particularly if not in compliance with rules.

I’ve seen comments from small boats about using AIS and DSC.

Call me using VTS Chanel. I will be polite friendly and cooperative.
I may not answer imeadiatly. I may be attending to something else. I will prioritize. But I will respond.

I occasionally will call a small vessel when I have ID from AIS again I make the call on VTS Chanel and 16 directing vessel to VTS.
Particularly if overtaking in a narrow Chanel where there is a point reason for alteration. Usually just to make them aware I am going to overtake on Port or Starboard.
Sometimes to request preference or check it’s ok.

Without actual asking WTF are you in the middle or on the wrong side of the channel.

Call me using DSC and a Working channel I might not be polite.
I certainly will not make a passing arrangements. You will curt response to comply with coll regs.

You just set of an annoying alarm on my Bridge while I am possibly busy doing something which is a higher priority than your call.

I don’t like any nuisance alarms. They are a distraction. You just distracted me.

DSC goes directly to whatever working channel. I never make passing arrangements on working channels.

VTS and other Vessels can’t hear what we are saying it’s effectively a private conversation.

One thing I should make clear
most of the vessels I make passing arrangements with are local domestic commercial vessels or pilots.
I often recognize thier voices and even know them personally. We are doing this not just in English but our own local version.
It’s a busy area and I am listening very carefully to other vessels communication.
What they do may affect my actions? When I hear a pilot give his position and ETA I am estimating where and when we will meet and any adjustments I may need to make based on hearing this call.
They are doing the same when I call.

I have much less confidence making arrangements with pleasure vessels when there are lots of them about. Why? I may not be sure who I am talking to.
I will try and clarify. I will be reluctant to make an arrangement which does not comply with the rules. If I have any doubt about which vessel I am talking to.

Truthfully. I can tell right away when I am talking to a local pro.
The VHF procedure is just as bad as mine.

Navy or CG quite official. And your usual not talking to a shot caller.

Small pleasure vessels are actually more likely to use good calling protocol.

Covering another call so I miss the the interaction of other vessels is quite annoying.
This is a major reason why I don’t like to receive a DSC call.

Offshore even with good AIS identification. I would hesitate to make passing arrangements. I don’t work offshore anymore so what they do I wouldn’t know.


I have had what seemed like happy people on the other end of the radio when I call to make passing arrangements almost 100% of the time. I am frequently operating small craft in crowded areas, so the pilots I talk to seem happy that I see them and told them I plan on staying on X side of the channel or crossing their stern or whatever.
I once had an odd issue where I was southbound and needed to cut to the west, but was staying on the east side of the channel until the (constrained by draft) ship coming up behind me passed me. I had the room to cross ahead, but didn’t want to in case the wind died off and cut my speed. I noticed on the AIS the ship kept slowing down and I was having to slow up too. WTF??? I called them on 13 and they saw ME on the AIS, assumed I was cutting across to the west, and didn’t want to be too close and had backed off. I told them please go on by, I am waiting for you. It all worked out better than just guessing and it made me think I should have called sooner.
BTW, I would never DSC call anyone unless it was a safety issue. I about jumped off the boat when someone hosing around staring hitting ALL SHIPS, that alarm is LOUD.

I don’t mind at all when smaller guys will call up-- gives me a warm feeling knowing that they’re paying attention, and I’m always super polite to encourage their (competent) participation. It breaks my heart when recreational boaters will occasionally contact our local VTS, (heavy fog, for example,) and our notoriously grumpy VTS man will treat them poorly or try to make them feel stupid. C’mon man. They’re trying to do the right thing.
Since we’re talking about small guys, maybe somebody can tell me why they always feel the need to cross my tug and barge AHEAD of the boat. Always ahead of the boat and not behind the barge. Even when their apparent destination is BEHIND me. Drives me nuts. I wonder if they even know they’re doing it.


I have no idea. The skill level involved varies between sailed around the world 10 times via the Great Capes to “bought boat last week, never been near water before, and is drunk”.

It’s a better picture to show their friends later on. Straight down the bow with a bone in her teeth. That’s my take on why half the small boats off Florida race ahead and then stop at 1.5 miles dead ahead. It usually lasts a half a minute and then they carry on. Of course I’m barreling down on them at 19 knots and audibly cursing their stupid decisions, but that seems to be the trend.


One of my first jobs at 16 was running an old Hatteras as a tow boat I would have a string of 3 or 4 boats behind me and people would find ways to stop in front of me or otherwise cut me off. I couldn’t just stop, all the boats behind me would pile up and any turning maneuvers made my string turn way inside me and possibly hit boats to the side, kind of like the water-ski pickup turn except with boats.

A mile and a half is a long way from a small-boat perspective, with hundreds of times the horsepower per pound of the big boys, and maneuvering response one or two orders of magnitude quicker. Naturally it looks different to you, knowing that if that guy’s engine stops at the wrong moment you’re going to make two boats out of him.

I say a mile and a half because not much closer and we lose sight of them. I realize they have much higher maneuverability, it doesn’t excuse the stupidity of stopping right in front of a fast moving ship. Oh and did I mention that after you lose sight of them, they then decide to change direction and scoot back to your starboard side just as you are about to maneuver. STUPID


I prefer they just stay out of the way. Only call if they plan to cross my bow. I don’t recall them bugging me too much if they do call. To be honest, the ceaseless, drawn out security calls every half mile down the channel by the towboats pushing one tiny barge in perfect viz annoys me more.

I love it on a nice clear bluebird day the constant security call of a tug pushing in limited visibility

If the small boat can’t see the wheelhouses glass of the ship then he is to damn close

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Thanks @Uricanejack for covering the question thoroughly. I have mixed experience with the traffic channel if I’m non-reporting, because VTS tends to get in the mix and ask who the hell am I. I might also have added that the pilot’s channel works flawlessly if in pilotage waters. I appreciate that you follow the rules even with regards to insignificant little gnats, but I take it as given that you just don’t plod around in the way of the big boys. You give way to large vessels by the same token that you hold the door open for old ladies :stuck_out_tongue:

I have no experience driving big boats as in the context of this discussion (a mile an a half of deadzone sounds… exciting), but I have threaded a 100 footer through the unholy soup of launches and sailing yachts that permeates the hotspots around continental Europe, which must be at least somewhat analogous. If all of those had started chattering on the VHF, I would have gone mad in an instant.

I think a part of the reason why yachtsmen (ugh) put themselves in dangerous positions is that proximity feels very different when you’re in a nimble craft, and passing within a few shackles of certain death doesn’t feel very dangerous. Risk assessment is largely intuitive unless the subject has been heavily conditioned, and weekend warriors aren’t able to relate to the risks posed by distraction, mechanical failure, etc.


One important factor is the degree of uncertainty on each side, it’s not a symmetrical situation.

For example a ship going from point A to point B is planning on shortest safe distance while at full speed. A small craft in that cone of concern on the other hand, it’s movements sometimes seem random.

the punters dont know the rules and the commercial vessel watch doesnt want to call the captain…

And they aren’t easy to teach either. That was one of my jobs as a young lad and it was like:
“Here all the colregs. Half the boats we encounter don’t know them and may do any random thing” :roll_eyes:

My theory is there is a thrill factor but also that they don’t want to cross the wake.

Also you see a boat floating level with a small bow wake and translate that to “slow boat”. I have seen others do this and cough maybe me too severely underestimate how soon that “slow ship” is going to be a factor.

I think it also has to do with the same misinterpretation of speed that occurs when watching a very large airplane flying on the horizon. Our senses don’t convey that they’re moving along at 200 knots.

That and the two perspectives are different. From Capt Trimmer, from the wheel house of a ship distance to objects is fore-shortened, from the small vessel it is fore-lengthened.

For example after anchoring in a tight spot the other ships look too close but getting in the launch they seem far apart.

In a car driving a one or two mile straight stretch seems like a long ways.