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The Boating Barrister - Habits: The Maritime Law Isn't So Forgiving of Them

By John K. Fulweiler

Habits are a funny thing. You’ve got good habits like making a float plan that keeps a fuel reserve, and bad habits like running in open water without a float plan. You’ve got joggers and smokers, the prepared and the unprepared. Sometimes a mariner's innocent habits can lead to shallow water. Yup, your nautical patterns might chart a course straight onto the legal shoals, making it worthwhile to survey the whip and whirl of your boating practices. And like most surveys, while we can’t speak to every habit, we can start you thinking about how your conduct might contribute to a future legal shipwreck.

Whether it’s a vehicle or a vessel, some of us like to lean on the throttle. It’s a speed habit that pushes you through an intersection on an orange light and gooses you out of the channel with a broad wake. And it’s a problem in the maritime setting because the admiralty law sometimes imposes liability on a boat owner for the damage caused by a vessel wake. That afternoon of boating can come back to haunt you when you’re served with a lawsuit alleging a loss due to your vessel’s wake. (“How’d they prove it,” you ask? Through eyewitness testimony, testimony as to your habit of gunning it out of the harbor, the fuel dock’s video camera, etc.)

Boating for most of us is an escape from the humdrum, but some sailors take it too far. Leaving your marine radio at home or keeping it off may be contrary to federal regulations requiring certain sized vessels be equipped with and monitor VHF marine radio channel 16 while underway. Likewise, under the admiralty law this kind of blind boating can cause you all sorts of trouble in the event of a collision. So as much as you like to treat Saturday afternoons aboard the boat like an oyster to its shell, you should take care that you’re maintaining a proper watch.

With a nod toward the far end of the bad habits scale, pulling up another’s lobster traps, taking the wrong size or too many of a fish catch, or hauling off stones and coral from some beaches can result in stiff criminal penalties. Worse still, under certain circumstances there is the potential of losing your vessel under a civil asset seizure proceeding. These are nautical habits equivalent to speeding through mid-town with an open beer and an unfiltered cigarette particularly so when the weathered lobsterman catches you pilfering his crustaceans.

Chatting with your buddies on marine distress channels may be convenient (“Hey, it’s the channel that always comes up when I turn the radio on.”), but it’s also prohibited by various regulations. While you’ll want to check the regulations yourself, outside of hailing another vessel, working communications must generally be moved to channels designated for this sort of fishing-hole gossip. 

Anchoring without lights or outside a designated anchoring zone, pumping the holding tank in coastal waters, heaving cups and cans over the rail (“crab condos, right?”), and sloppy fueling that splashes seaward are also some of the many habits that can run afoul of federal and state regulations and can impose unwanted evidentiary burdens under the admiralty law. These habits are like turning out of the channel early; you might get away with it for years and then the circumstances will align and you’ll rip out an outdrive and ruin the weekend. Plus, and to be blunt, we’re all trying to share the same ocean resource and these particular habits crumb it up with a selfishness unbecoming of a true mariner. 

They’re other bad habits that have us nautical wonks shaking our fists. Running with your fenders out or keeping an unlit ensign up after sunset probably won’t offend the admiralty law, but it might offend your fellow boater’s sensibilities. What you need to remember is that no matter your vessel’s size, you are its master and that title carries with it the weight of a very long maritime tradition. And so the next time you must go down to the sea again, take care to avoid a legal shipwreck by leaving your bad habits back in port. 

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.

John K. Fulweiler, Esq.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 john@fulweilerlaw.com.    


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