Hello BCKFC family.  In plying social media, I often see questions asked about how kayakers (human powered craft operators) are supposed to behave in certain navigational situations.  On the navigable waters of the US, the Navigation Rules provide the legal guidelines.  Certain states may have additional laws, but here I will only focus on the Navigation Rules.

You may be wondering how I am qualified to provide commentary on The Rules.  Presently I am the Recreational Boating Safety Program Manager for the Eighth Coast Guard District in New Orleans.  I am retired from Active Duty Coast Guard.  I was a certified coxswain (captain in the civilian world) on boats up to 45 feet in length.  In order to get and maintain that certification, I had to take and pass Navigation Rules tests on a regular basis.  As an enforcement officer I was charged with enforcing the Navigation Rules.  I was always very interested in The Rules and sought to learn as much as I could.  I took an active role in training my fellow Coasties.  There are some other relevant experiences, but in the interest of brevity I’ll spare you the details.

This is a link to The Navigation Rules or here if you prefer the book layout complete with images.

So what do The Rules say about human powered craft?  We are “vessels under oars” in the Navigation Rules.  No special mention is made of pedal drive systems under the rules, but since pedal drives don’t fall into any other category of vessels, we are human powered and we look and maneuver like vessels under oars, all human powered craft will be considered vessels under oars.  First and foremost, vessels under oars are imbued with NO special privileges.  In fact in the “Steering and Sailing” part of the rules, vessels under oars are not specifically mentioned at all.  We are simply “vessels” with all the attendant responsibilities.

Where we kayakers (vessels under oars) are singled out under The Rules is in Rule 25 in the “Lights and Shapes” part.  Rule 25 tells us that while we are underway (not anchored, made fast to the shore or aground) a kayak may be lit in one of three ways. It may be lit as a sailing vessel under 7 meters with red and green sidelights and a 135 degree stern light. It may be lit with a single white light visible for 360 degrees. The last option for paddlers is to keep a white light ready at hand and show it in sufficient time to prevent a collision.

While we are on the subject of lights, let’s discuss anchor lights. Rule 30 applies here.  When at anchor we are required to display a 360 degree white light.  It should be high enough that it’s not obstructed by any part of our body.  Rule 30 e provides some exceptions.  When not in or near a narrow channel or where other vessels normally navigate we are not required to have an anchor light.

This is where things can get interesting for kayakers.  Backing up to Rule 20 we find some very important language.  “(b) The Rules concerning lights shall be complied with from sunset to sunrise, and during such times no other lights shall be exhibited, except such lights as cannot be mistaken for the lights specified in these Rules or do not impair their visibility or distinctive character, or interfere with the keeping of a proper look-out.”  This section answers a lot of our “what if” or “what about” questions.

If you see me paddling out before sunrise or after sunset, I will be wearing a bright white headlight in the off position.  I will have clipped to the eye of one of my fishing rods a battery powered 360 steady (not flashing) blue LED light displaying over a 360 degree arc of visibility.  How does my light configuration measure up against The Rules?  The headlight is ready at hand and can be turned on without fumbling in the dark looking for it.  The blue light is not flashing.  It won’t be mistaken for a flashing blue law enforcement light.  The steady blue light provides me with continuous illumination and should not be mistaken for any of the other lights prescribed in The Rules.  Additionally, it is likely to contrast with any background lights in the area.

That should put a wrap on lights.  There are a few other rules I want to touch on.  Kayaks in channels seem to be a sore spot with motor boat operators.  Kayakers can use channels.  When we do, we have a few burdens.  Rule 9 b says we cannot impede the passage of a vessel that can navigate only within that channel.  9 g tells us we should avoid anchoring in a channel.  If we cross a channel, we must do so in a way that does not impede a vessel operating within the channel.  In general, I avoid channels as much as I practically can.

On a final note, while I have your attention I’d like to issue a word of caution.  When you are fishing the beautiful and bountiful backwaters of our area, be ever mindful of the fact motor boat operators don’t always operate with due caution.  If you are near a blind bend or a waterway intersection where you are obscured by vegetation, you are vulnerable to oncoming motor boat operators who aren’t prepared to react in time as required by Rule 6.

I will happily answer any questions you may have. If you think I am mistaken on something, let’s have that discussion too. Remember, this was not intended to be a comprehensive dissertation on The Rules but rather highlights designed to answer the questions I hear most frequently.

Paul Barnard of U.S. Coast Guard