Slocum, McGee and the Rules Governing Your Saltwater Steed

By John K. Fulweiler

John Fulweiler EsqJoshua Slocum, that trusty navigator of the oceans blue, used carpet tacks spread across the deck to alert him of uninvited guests. And McGee of John D. MacDonald’s twenty-one novel series salvaged hearts and dollars all while guarding his floating home with the chime of a secret alarm. Hold on, as I might plead to a frowning judge, a moment’s time and the point of these two observations will become clear. For now, join me at the weather pin where the gun just popped and we’ve got the jump on the fleet as we beat through these maritime legal curiosities. 

Sometimes when you swing leg over rail, there’s a sense of stepping away from it all and into a wild west of sorts. All that salty air and vast expanse lulls you into a perception that, at least in the waters of the United States, isn’t all that accurate.  They’re a lot of rules governing your craft. Take for example something as seemingly benign as your boat’s name. The National Vessel Documentation Center will tell you it can’t be more than 33 characters and it better not be or sound anything like a word used to solicit assistance at sea. And for you Star Trek fans, cute hailing ports like “Cardassian Prime” won’t fly either, because the homeport on a documented vessel must be in the United States. On a more serious front, they’re rules about monitoring the marine radio, maintaining a radar watch, sounding an anchor bell and the list goes on. 

Say your bateau is bigger than around thirty-nine feet, and I’ll remind you federal regulations demand you have a copy of the Inland Rules of Navigation aboard and available “for ready reference.” Strike a navigational aid (“It was the big genny and the cockpit conversation was good”) and you’ll need to file a report with the Coast Guard’s nearest Marine Inspection Office. T-bones, rounding mark crunches and all such similar racecourse maladies yielding damages in excess of $2,000 may likely require Coast Guard paperwork describing the when, why and how of the moment.  Whales, you ask? A federal regulation mandates you keep a football field length from the humpback whale and Naval vessel alike. Want to join the Coast Guard Auxiliary and putter around in a “Mae-West” style lifejacket for the weekend? Best be over 17 and own at least a twenty-five percent interest in a motorboat, yacht, aircraft or (and I always thought this was an odd option) a radio station. Even sailing regattas get the Coasties’ attention with a regulation insisting that in certain circumstances an application must be submitted “no less than 135 days before the start of the proposed event.” 

Why all these rules have you wanting to pull the plug and let her sink, right? Maybe pursue something ashore like whacking a white ball across manicured greens. Better not! The federal statute addressing the destruction of a vessel by its owner has as its penalty, life imprisonment. 

It’s fun to parse these rules and regulations and maybe even chide their authors for such red tape, but a lot of it makes sense. The bending blue sea is a shared commons and some refereeing of our collective endeavors is just smart business. The general maritime law picks up and runs with this baton by advancing consistent principles in admiralty decisions that arguably benefit the recreational sailor and merchant mariner alike. For instance, there’s the Pennsylvania Rule dating back to 1873 which places the burden of essentially disproving causation on the party violating a statute involving marine safety or regulation regardless of what the maritime accident’s salty circumstances might show. Similarly, there’s the 19th Century’s Oregon Rule arising from a case involving a steamship plowing into an anchored vessel. There, in a rule adopted in subsequent admiralty decisions, the court explained that when a moving vessel collides with a stationary object, the moving vessel is presumed to be at fault.  Obvious outcome, maybe, but it stands as an indelible underscoring of the obligations imposed on vessel owners and operators. Clearly, through the courts’ collective willingness to point fingers, these admiralty decisions encourage both knowing and adhering to the applicable navigational laws. 

Now back to Slocum and McGee. For most of us chickens, sailing around the globe or cracking a foe’s jaw, whilst admittedly enviable endeavors, simply aren’t in our cards. And so, instead of a life girded by carpet tacks and secret cockpit chimes, I submit that the rules and laws governing your saltwater steed are an able substitute.  That is, they give us some measure of understanding of where the shoal water lies, they aim to keep us safe from others and they (alright, alright) keep us admiralty attorneys making way and underway!

This article is provided for your general information, is not legal opinion and should not be relied upon. Always seek legal counsel to understand your rights and remedies. 

Underway and making way.

Admiralty attorney John K. Fulweiler, Esq. practices maritime law on the East and Gulf Coasts. As a former partner of a Manhattan maritime firm, John now helms his own practice located in Newport, Rhode Island where he helps individuals and businesses navigate the choppy waters of the maritime law. John can be reached anytime at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or via e-mail at    

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