While taking a Coast Guard prep course prior to taking the exam for my 100 Ton License, the instructor asked the class, “What is the most important rule in operating a vessel?”   He got all sorts of responses- good ones- yet not what he was seeking.   Finally, he told us that the most important thing we would ever learn about navigation is to assume that most of the other boaters we would encounter know little or nothing about the “rules of the road.”  Point being, for example, that if you were meeting another vessel in a crossing situation, that vessel approaching from the starboard has the right of way.  However, it could be dangerous to assume that the other boater knows that!  Even more so than on a highway, a boater must constantly operate in a defensive mode.  A great example was at a time when I was entering the Kennebunk River at Kennebunkport.  It was low tide, and the channel was narrow with rocky breakwaters on both sides.  I entered at idle speed, just enough to maintain steerage. At the same time, a sailboat, running under sail  against the tide and the wind, was heading towards me in the opposite direction.  As he neared, a gust of wind pushed him into a collision course with the Baby Max.  If I went into neutral, the wind and current would have pushed me into the rocks, so I maintained course and speed.  The sailor barely avoided me, calling me every name in the book as he barely squeaked by.

Keevin Geller

A few hours after docking at Chick’s Marina, we headed for a riverfront bar for a few drinks and dinner. Naturally, the aforementioned sailor happened to be at the bar, next to us.  When he saw me, he started talking about “the jerk in a big powerboat who almost rammed us,” and how he had the right of way because he was in a sailboat under sail, yada, yada, yada.  I politely resisted the urge for Mr. Hand to turn into Mr. Fist, and told him he was wrong.  He scoffed at that, but I explained to him that a larger vessel in a narrow channel was considered to be “restricted in its ability to maneuver,” and therefore had the right of way. To my utter amazement, he then apologized and bought us a round of drinks!
Another aspect of cruising that most captains know little about is flag etiquette.  In my previous column, I mentioned that we were required to fly the yellow “quarantine flag” when entering a foreign port (Canada), until we were cleared by customs, then replacing it with the flag of the country we entered.  There are also many rules about the proper display of flags when in the presence of naval warships, referred to as “ships of the line.”    We were once privileged to enjoy a really moving experience when meeting such a ship.

When heading south for the last time on Baby Max in 1992, I had been running offshore from Hilton Head, S.C. to Fernandina, Florida, at the Georgia line. It was a relatively short run, and we were due to dock around noon. The entire downtown district of Old Fernandina is on the Register of Historic places, and a great place to visit, with superb restaurants and markets, including the oldest bar in Florida- the Palace Saloon.  Equally intriguing, and of much greater significance, is the nearby presence of the U.S. Navy.  Across the river and a few miles down the Waterway,  nestled among thousands of acres of protected salt marsh, lies the King’s Bay Submarine Base.  Despite the fact that few people have even heard of it, this is one of the largest in the USA, and is home to a fleet of Ohio Class nuclear submarines, among others.  The Navy has signs along the Waterway, suggesting that vessels do not approach the base, under threat of lethal force. Cruisers invariably give the place a wide berth.

USS Maryland in port

As we reached the entrance channel, which is dredged to an unusual depth to allow the subs to enter or leave the base to reach the ocean completely submerged, we saw a large vessel heading out to sea on the surface. I believe she was the USS Maryland, possibly on its shakedown cruise, equipped with enough nuclear missiles to vaporize your average country.  As she approached, I could see that the sub was festooned with bunting, and carrying a contingent of naval officers in full dress on the bridge. Little known flag etiquette requires any U.S. vessel “to dip her colors” (lower her flag) when passing a “ship of the line.”   I asked my buddy to take the helm, and as we passed alongside this utterly magnificent vessel, I lowered the American flag in respect. Every officer on her bridge then saluted us! I think my heart stood still!
Since 9/11 and the new world of terrorism, such a happening can no longer occur, and private vessels are not allowed anywhere near military vessels.  A few years later, and equally unexpected, an old friend and I wound up attending the commissioning ceremony of the guided missile destroyer USS Preble in Boston Harbor.  I will do my best to describe that emotional event, in the next issue.

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.