By John K. Fulweiler, Esq.
I’ll hold a sweaty beer in my hand and watch these runabouts tear around Narragansett Bay like they’re on PCP. My memory is the only things I used to see rip up waters like that were the Cigarette-style rigs throwing 100-foot rooster tails. Now, it seems even the simple-looking center console can travel at speeds of 50 miles an hour! Who cares whether it’s “advancements” in the manufacturing or powering technology, it’s still crazy.
Let’s get out in front of this: I don’t have any allegiance to sail over power. and I have no understanding (at all) of what caused or contributed to the sad incident in which a woman sailor on Narragansett Bay died on August 11, 2019. Still, I believe the shared commons that are this country’s coastal waters are suffering from folks with too much boat (sail and power) and too little concern for their fellow recreationalist. All of this means you should be extra careful about knowing something about the law before you pull out of the marina.
A good place to start is by reviewing the Rules of the Road. I just had to renew my Merchant Mariner Credential (it’s what they call your Coast Guard license these days) and it did me good to do so. In studying-up on the Rules of the Road, I was reminded they’re more involved and nuanced than you may appreciate. Don’t forget the big takeaway which is that every boater is burdened with the obligation to avoid collisions, meaning the sailboat skipper generally doesn’t get to hold course under the “belief” sail has rights over power.
The way I think about vessel collisions is that the maritime law makes it tough for any one vessel to claim they were completely in the “right.” The Rules place the onus on both boats to keep clear to avoid a collision. That is, a ‘stand-on’ vessel only has the benefit of the rules requiring the other vessel to alter course or speed, but all bets are off if that doesn’t happen. We’ve all seen Judge Smails (Caddyshack, anyone?) in his Herreshoff 18 holding course smack in the path of some Sea Ray express. He’s assuring his white-knuckled summer intern he’s got rights because he’s under sail on starboard tack, but he’s not considering his own obligation to take action to avoid a collision. A lot of the weekend crowd don’t appreciate that the Rules require each vessel to avoid a collision. When an admiralty court gets hold of a collision case, you’ll often see the fault shared in some sort of apportionment between both vessels. This isn’t to say there can’t be finding that one vessel basically caused the collision; it’s just to underscore that all vessels are to try and take action to avoid a collision.
When it comes to maintaining a lookout, Rule 5’s scant forty-five words places a tremendous burden on vessels. There’s the need to maintain a ‘proper lookout by ‘sight and hearing’ and with all other ‘available means’ so as to make a ‘full appraisal’ of the situation and of the risk of collision.
The recent death of this sailor on Narragansett Bay reminds me of the Team Vestas tragedy, where I understand they smacked into a fishing boat as they were completing a leg of the Volvo Ocean Race in Asia. Any forensic analysis of these incidents will likely focus on issues of speed and the lookout. Every vessel is mandated to maintain a “safe speed” as determined by things like visibility and traffic density. I don’t know whether and how a sailboat race may or may not alter the parties’ obligations, but it’s worth consideration. I’d also be interested in the age and experience of the operator of the powerboat, as well as the speed at which it was traveling.
In investigating this incident, I’d also expect consideration would be given to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Notice to Mariners for District 1. Among other things, this Notice may contain information about the on-the-water activities taking place at the location in which the incident occurred and may give notice to boaters transiting the area to do so with caution.
Some voyages end as abruptly as the complicated drum set of the Wilson sisters’ “Barracuda.” It’s an all-stop, haunting silence that carries the melody or memory of the voyage forward. I didn’t know the sailor who died last week on the waters I look at every day, but I hope her voyage continues with as much richness as it appears her life was lived.
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. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at saltwaterlaw.com.