Inland Navigation 101
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Buoys, Lights and Daymarks
On inland rivers, constant use is made of navigation aids placed both on the water and on the shore. Most buoys and navigation lights are established and maintained by the Coast Guard, but there are also many private navigation lights marking water intakes, docks, piers and other waterfront facilities. These private lights can be valuable in reaches where government lights have not been established.
Buoys are placed to mark the channel and to mark obstructions lying close to the channel. The most common types are red nun buoys and black or green can buoys. Looking downstream, a nun will mark the left side of the channel and a can will mark the right. They shouldn't be passed too closely, as there's a possibility of fouling the mooring cable or going aground if the buoy has shifted.
Sunken barges or other obstructions are sometimes marked by temporary light buoys. These may show a quick-flashing white or red light on the left side of the channel and white or green light on the right side — or may be only an oil drum with a lantern. Stay clear.
Other buoys include radar buoys placed above dams and above and below bridge piers to return a strong radar echo for commercial craft in low-visibility conditions. Special-purpose buoys, orange and white horizontally striped, are often placed by private interests to mark construction, dredging or submerged hazards. If the purpose of a buoy is not immediately apparent, it should be given a wide berth.
Lights and daymarks are placed along the shore and are used mainly as a reference to the chart to determine the run of the channel. Navigation lights are red on the LDB and green on the RDB, and may be fixed or flashing. All daymarks are reflectorized and can be picked up at night with a spotlight at a considerable distance. Those on the left bank have red reflectors, while those on the right bank have green. Lights and daymarks also carry number boards, giving the mileage at that particular location.
Typical buoys and daymarks are shown in a chart accompanying this article. Federal law prohibits mooring to, tampering with, or otherwise damaging or obscuring any aid to navigation.
Bridges, Locks and Dams
Bridges are marked with a green light at the center of the channel span, and red lights mark the piers. On some bridges, the navigation span is further marked with three white lights in a vertical line.
Locks have three green lights in a vertical line at the upstream end of the riverward lock wall and two green lights on the downstream end. Each end of the landward wall is marked with a red light.
Dams are marked with buoys above and below the structures, which indicate the restricted area in which boats may not operate. The buoys are orange and white horizontally striped. Note that buoys marking the dams are usually removed in the fall to prevent their destruction by ice.
When traveling on the river, always know your position and the location of the next lock and dam. It's often impossible to see a dam from upstream, and most boaters who go over one either didn't know it was there or thought it was farther away.
Don't let locks stop you. They aren't just for commercial traffic — they're for you, too, and there's no charge for using them. By learning how to use the locks, you can increase your cruising range and extend your adventures.
All boats going through a lock should have at least 50 feet of line that can be used to moor the boat to the lock chamber wall or tossed up to the lock tender to secure at the top. Make sure you have fenders on the sides of your boat when you enter the chamber and have someone standing by to pay out or take in mooring line as the water level in the lock rises or falls.
When approaching a lock, stay in the navigation channel as marked by the buoys. Be aware that some areas near locks and dams are dangerous, and stay clear of those areas. Hold station about 400 feet from the end of the lock walls, in case large craft are about to leave the lock in your direction, and let the lockmaster know that you wish to lock through by:
· Using VHF radio channel 16 to identify yourself and your intentions,
· Using a marine whistle to signal one long blast for four to six seconds,
· Or pulling the small-craft signal cord located near the end of the upper and lower lock wall.
Once notified, the lockmaster will tell you how to proceed via radio or loudspeaker. Be sure to pay attention and obey the traffic signals:
· A red flashing light means the lock is not available. Stand clear and do not enter.
· An amber flashing light indicates the lock is being made ready. You may approach the lock guide wall, but don't attempt to enter the lock chamber.
· A green flashing light means the lock is ready and you may enter the chamber.
In addition to traffic signals, the lockmaster will signal with horn blasts. One long blast means enter the lock; one short blast means exit the lock.
Enter and exit the lock at a no-wake speed. Follow the instructions for tying off or tossing lines to the lock tender. Don't tie your boat to the ladder or any other fixed point, as the water level will change during the lockage. In a crowded lock chamber, you may be asked to tie off to another boat.
For safety reasons, the lockmaster has full authority over the movement and placement of vessels in the lock and its approaches. Failure to follow the lockmaster's orders will not only delay the lockage, it can be dangerous.
Shut down your engines during the lockage and have your passengers remain seated with everyone wearing a personal flotation device. Wait for the lockmaster's signal before untying mooring lines to leave the lock.
Barges and Tows
Don't mess around with barges, towboats and tows. Towboat skippers are experienced, professional pilots. Still, they can only operate within the capabilities of their vessels. So, give them all the room possible; don't flirt with disaster.
The typical tow consists of a towboat pushing 15 barges. It can be as large as 1,200 feet long, carry 18,000 tons and draw up to nine feet of water. Tows require most of the river in a sharp bend and need more than a mile to come to a full stop. Considering the corresponding characteristics of a motorboat, it's obvious why the inland navigational rules clearly state that small craft must keep clear of them.
Pleasure craft should never cross the bow of a tow closer than 1,200 feet, as visibility from the pilothouse of a towboat is restricted by the barges. A blind spot of 1,133 feet exists beyond the front of empty barges, a little less on loaded barges. Needless to say, if your engine quits or if a water skier falls when you're in the tow's blind spot, there's little the tow pilot can do.
Running close alongside tows is dangerous, too, since the boat's propellers create suction that can trap a small boat and pull it up against the steel hull in an instant. The nine-foot-diameter props also put out huge volumes of water directly behind the towboat, and even the largest cruiser or houseboat may find it almost impossible to maneuver in this turbulence.
When meeting a tow at a bend in the river, be alert for "whistle signals" — usually communicated via VHF radio these days — that indicate the tow's intention. "One whistle" or "on the one" means that the tow will pass on your port side; "two whistles" or "on the two" means it will pass on your starboard side. Downbound tows usually swing to the outside of a bend, running with the current in the deepest part of the channel. Upbound tows normally hop to the inside, favoring the slower water there.
Learn to recognize tows at night. The two amber towing lights at the stern of the towboat are in a vertical line. The amber light at the center of the tow on the bow flashes. It's common practice among towboat pilots, upon sighting a pleasure boat at night, to turn on a searchlight momentarily. This is done to light up the bow of the tow to make it more easily seen.
Even moored barges, and other workboats, can be dangerous. Not only may there be lines beneath the surface running from anchors several hundred feet upstream, but there's a current sweeping beneath the upstream end of those craft that could sweep you under.
Be careful and communicative with tows, and you have nothing to fear.
Editor's note: For more information on Quimby's Cruising Guide or to order, visit www.heartlandboating.com/Quimbys/.