Stu Hochron is founder and author of the truly excellent sailing online newsletter News From The Bow. He and his wife Shana sail their beautiful Freedom 45 in the Northeast mainly. The image is care of Bowsprite. You should definitely check out this truly original blog. Fantastic water colors. Adam
New York’s East River is home to ferries, tankers, tugs (pushing and towing) and all sorts of commercial traffic. The safety of these working boats depends, to a significant degree, on their ability to communicate with each other while underway. Their captains are required to monitor channel 16, and so too should all pleasure craft. However, many pleasure boaters are unaware that nearly all commercial vessel VHF radio communications, including some calls to pleasure craft in their area, are NOT heard on channel 16.
We all know that Channel 16 is for initial contact with other boats, and to make distress calls or conduct emergency communications with the Coast Guard. As you will note, this definition does not include routine discussions of navigational safety between vessels, which is the purpose of channel 13. Channel 13 is designed for conversations regarding safely between vessels. Some call it the bridge-to-bridge channel. This is where you communicate your intentions to another boat, such as discussing the side on which best to pass, whether to slow or increase speed to avoid a collision, etc. No wonder vessels over 20 meters in length operating in the U.S. are required to monitor both channels 13 and 16.
Most new VHF marine radios permit the user to monitor up to two channels in addition to channel 16. On Blewberry Pancakes we monitor channels 16 and 13 at all times.
It is surprising how cooperative large ships become when a small pleasure craft calls on channel 13 in an effort to preempt a problem. As commercial vessel skippers generally do not expect pleasure craft to monitor channel 13, the professionals often a) assume the pleasure boater is not monitoring channel 13 and b) wait until a potential problem is looming until urgently calling the pleasure boater on channel 16. Naturally, accidents are best prevented using early intervention and relaxed conversations regarding safety…exactly the type of communication envisioned by the designers of channel 13.
My most recent conversation on channel 13, while we were sailing “wing on wing”, is paraphrased below. You will note that I initiated the call, as commercial vessels do not expect me to be monitoring channel 13.
BP: Tug pushing fuel barge South on Warren River off Prudence Island, this is Blewberry Pancakes, the dark hulled sailboat off your starboard bow calling.
Tug: This is the Jane Doe, are you the sailboat headed downwind before me?
BP: Yes Captain. How would you prefer to pass me?
Tug: What are your options, Captain?
BP: I am at your discretion, Captain. I can move as you wish to avoid you. Please advise.
Tug: In that case, please favor the “green side” of the channel, and I’ll move to port to pass you.
BP: Roger that. By the way, I appreciated you asking me which direction I could head. Are you a sailor?
Tug: No Captain, but I understand sailboats and wish to sail one day. Have a good day.
BP: The same to you. Blewberry Pancakes out.
The above encounter demonstrates the advantages of using channel 13. You can easily contact commercial vessels in a non-emergent, relaxed manner. The conversation is unhurried, and allows each side to express his/her concerns. Potential navigational problems are avoided early. Most often the commercial captain appreciates the call and a tone of mutual respect is established.
Make an effort to monitor both channel 13 and channel 16 the next time you are on the water. By listening you will learn how commercial vessels use this channel, and how you can utilize it to easily avoid unpleasant encounters with much larger ships.