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Safe Seamanship

Safe seamanship comes with knowledge, practice, and an attitude that prudently evaluates risks.

Safe Seamanship

Adapted from, Beating the Odds: A Guide to Commercial Fishing Safety, 7th Edition, Jerry Dzugan and Susan Clark Jensen, 2018

Safe seamanship is not automatically bestowed upon you just because you own a vessel. It comes instead with knowledge, practice, and an attitude that prudently evaluates risks. Lack of basic knowledge is the main reason for a great many “accidents,” especially in the small-boat fleet.

This article introduces the fundamentals of rules of the road, stability, anchoring, actions to take if your vessel is holed or breaks down, emergency pumps, the role of drug use in vessel accidents, float plans, and emergency radio use.

Rules of the Road

All vessels in Alaska are governed by the International Rules of the Road. Other parts of the nation may use inland rules in some areas. You can keep your vessel off a collision course by knowing these rules, and remembering that it may be necessary to deviate from the rules in order to avoid immediate danger.

It is illegal for all hands to sleep while a vessel is underway or drifting. You must maintain a proper lookout at all times by sight and hearing, as well as by all available means appropriate, including radar. This constant watch allows you to fully appraise the situation and the risk of collision.

Safe Speed
You must proceed at a safe speed at all times so you can take action to avoid collisions, and can stop within a distance appropriate for the prevailing circumstances and conditions.

Avoid Collision
Depending on relative position, vessels are termed either “stand-on” or “give-way.” A stand-on vessel maintains its course and speed, and a give-way vessel changes course and/or speed to avoid collision.
All vessels have a duty to avoid a collision, thus strictly speaking no vessel has the right of way.

The Zones of Approach define your action and relationship to another vessel. The vessel that gives way should take early and substantial action to keep well clear. As the stand-on vessel, it is also your duty to see that a collision is avoided. As such, maintain course and speed, but be prepared to act if the give-way vessel does not take appropriate action. Risk of a collision exists if another vessel’s compass bearing doesn’t change or changes very little relative to you. When in doubt, assume the risk of collision exists.


Help avoid collisions by: signaling intentions, taking early and positive action, making obvious course and speed changes, and slowing, stopping, or reversing if necessary. In general, a vessel being overtaken is a stand-on vessel. When meeting head-on, vessels should pass port to port unless they have clearly communicated other intentions to one another over the radio.

In a crossing situation, if the other vessel is on your starboard side, it is the stand-on vessel. As the give way vessel it is your duty to keep out of the way and, as far as possible, avoid crossing ahead of the vessel unless your speed allows you to easily do so.

When in doubt whether a situation is crossing or head-on, assume it’s head-on and act accordingly.
In general, the pecking order between vessels is:


  1. Overtaken vessel

  2. Vessel not under command, e.g., engine disabled

  3. Vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver

  4. Vessel constrained by her draft

  5. Vessel engaged in fishing

  6. Sailing vessel

  7. Power-driven vessel

  8. Seaplane


In general, give way to vessels above you on this list. For example, in a narrow channel, vessels restricted to the channel have priority over fishing vessels, sailing vessels, and vessels under 20 meters. Vessels fishing with trolling gear are not categorized as “vessels engaged in fishing” in the pecking order because their maneuverability is not considered restrictive.

Vessel diagram illustrating Zones of Approach in relationship to other vessels.

Zones of Approach

Sound Signals

Horn blasts help you signal your intentions. One short blast means, “I am altering my course to starboard.” Two short blasts mean, “I am altering my course to port.” Three short blasts mean, “I
am operating astern propulsion.” When there is danger or doubt as to who is doing what, the signal
is five or more short blasts.

It is sometimes very difficult to hear another vessel’s horn. In these cases, radio communication with the other vessel may be necessary to determine its intention. Do so early. Other sound signals for overtaking in a narrow channel, approaching an obscured bend, and making way in restricted visibility are detailed in the complete rules. The Navigation Rules International-Inland  (COLREGS) is available for download from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Navigation Lights

Navigation lights can tell you a great deal about what nearby boats are doing. Required navigation lights for different types of vessels are diagramed in the COLREGS. Learn to identify the lights you are most likely to encounter.

Diagram shwoing the required navigation lights for a Power-driven vessel underway - less than 50 meters in length. Same for International and Inland waters.

Power-driven vessel underway - less than 50 meters in length.
Same for International and Inland waters.

Aids to Navigation
All of North and South America use the same buoyage system to laterally mark areas safe for navigation. Buoys have standard shapes, colors, numbering, and position. Although buoys can be invaluable aids to navigation, their lights may extinguish, they can shift location or capsize, or they may be carried away by the tide, ice, or a vessel. If buoys don’t appear to be where the chart says they should be, they may not be there. Beware! Prudent mariners never rely on a single source for navigation information.

The following table compares the different buoy characteristics. Lights on buoys flash at different time intervals and these time intervals are noted on charts.

Returning from Sea
Unlighted Buoy
Lighted Buoy
Right side of channel
Left side of channel
Mid-channel or safe water
Red & White Vertical Stripes
May be lettered

"Red Right Returning" is a memory device that refers to the fact that when entering a channel from the open sea or proceeding upstream, you must keep the red aids to navigation on the right or starboard side of the boat. You must also keep the red aids to the right when heading in a northerly direction along the Pacific Coast, clockwise around a significant land mass, or in the general direction of flood tide.

Daymarks are marker boards held up by poles and visible only during daylight hours. A light will have a marker board and visible at night. The small symbols next to the buoys, daymarks, and lights in the table above show how they will appear on nautical charts. For a more thorough explanation of aids to navigation and chart symbols, please refer to the Coast Guard's booklet, U.S. Aids to Navigation System and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's, U.S. Chart No. 1.


Vessel instability leads to many accidents and deaths in the fishing industry. You can reduce the chance of capsizing by knowing the factors that affect stability and taking steps to ensure that your vessel remains stable enough for your operating conditions.

The term stability refers to the ability of a vessel to return to the upright position after being heeled by an external force. Do not assume that a comfortable ride indicates a stable ship. Vessels with a long period of roll from side to side may ride better than those that return upright quickly, but they can be less stable.
Stability can be viewed as the relationship between a vessel’s buoyancy and its load. The load can be people, gear, supplies, and fish, or unplanned weight such as water on deck or spray ice. Factors that change a vessel’s buoyancy or load, or cause the load to shift, can lead to a change in stability that can be life-threatening.

Stability problems often result from a combination of factors and frequently involve a change in weather or sea conditions. Some common vessel stability problems are listed below.

Converting a vessel from one fishery to another can make a previously stable vessel very unstable. Many deaths could have been prevented if vessel owners had consulted with a naval architect about conversions and followed guidelines in a revised stability book.

The most dangerous type of conversion involves the addition of deck or fishing equipment, especially up high, and the addition or modification of deckhouses. You should have a stability analysis performed if the sum of the added weight and the removed weight total more than 3 percent of the original lightship weight (weight of the empty vessel).

Free Surface Effect
Shifting liquids or semi-liquids can cause a decrease in stability known as free surface effect. The shifting can be from any liquid or fish carried aboard, and can be in tanks, compartments, or on deck. Free surface effect problems can be avoided by following your stability test recommendations and a few simple guidelines:


  • Use checkers to keep loose fish from sliding around on deck, but make sure the on-deck water can drain. Keep the scuppers and freeing ports clear.

  • Keep crab or refrigerated seawater tanks either full or empty. Half-full or slack tanks are an invitation for a rollover.

  • Prevent the water level from dropping in saltwater tanks by installing a check valve in the discharge line, and install alarms that will tell you when tanks are not completely full or completely empty.

  • In fish holds, use bin boards that run the length of the vessel. This can greatly reduce loss of stability due to free surface effect. Make sure the bin boards are secure and strong. The fish in the hold must not be allowed to shift.

Lifting Weight
Lifting a suspended weight can create problems, especially for marginally stable vessels. When an object is lifted, its weight is immediately transferred to the head of the lifting device. This can cause a vessel to heel past its range of stability.

Be aware of the dangers that lifting can cause. Ensure that your lifting devices are mounted no higher than necessary to be effective. Be careful if your gear is hung up on the bottom and you are trying to pull it free. This can have the same effect as lifting a weight, and could cause your vessel to capsize.

Vessel lifting a load. Lifting weight can make a vessel unstable. When an object is lifted, its weight is immediately transferred to the head of the lifting device.

Lifting weight can make a vessel unstable. When an object is lifted,
its weight is immediately transferred to the head of the lifting device.

Load Height
Generally speaking, a vessel is more stable when weight is stored as low as possible. Stacking crab pots too high or carrying fish on deck can create a serious stability problem, and has caused scores of fishing deaths. Sadly, many of these capsized vessels had a stability report that specified the number of pots that could be carried safely, but the recommendations were ignored and/or exceeded.

Environmental Factors
Certain sea conditions and other environmental factors can reduce your vessel’s stability. Beam seas can be dangerous because they pour large amounts of water on deck, and can create free surface problems if the water isn’t drained quickly through clear scuppers. Large following seas are especially problematic and should be avoided because of the resultant corkscrew-type rolling, the tendency to lose the ability to steer the vessel when the rudder and propeller are out of the water, and the propensity for the vessel to broach.

Icing can also create serious stability problems. These are addressed in detail in the Knowledge Base article, Reading the Weather.

Watertight Integrity
Much of a vessel’s stability rests on its ability to be buoyant, and buoyancy demands that dry spaces stay dry. Keep your vessel’s flush hatches secure at all times. In addition, regularly clean the hatch’s seating surface and check the gasket to make sure it will seat properly. In rough weather, keep doors and hatches closed and secured to prevent water from entering the wrong places. A Dutch door to the galley can permit good ventilation but keep water out when the weather is tough.

Install bilge alarms in all water spaces and check the bilge on a regular basis. Bilge alarms are cheap insurance.

Overloading and Freeboard
Overloaded vessels are often dangerously unstable and are compromised in several ways. First, because the extra cargo or fish is usually carried on deck, the vessel’s center of gravity is raised. This slows the roll, and generally decreases the tendency of a boat to return to its normal upright position. Second, the deck load can begin to shift around, resulting in a free surface effect that will destabilize the vessel.


Third, the extra weight sets the vessel deeper in the water, causing a decrease in the amount of freeboard. This is not a good situation. Freeboard is critical because it represents the reserve buoyancy in
a hull. With low or no freeboard, the ability of a ship to return to the upright position becomes severely compromised. Further, low freeboard means more waves coming on board. This means additional weight on deck, free surface effect problems, and even less freeboard than before.

Keep all of this in mind when tempted to carry those extra pounds of fish or cargo. Never exceed the loading conditions of your stability report. If your vessel does not have a stability booklet, be conservative and prudent in all your loading habits. See the Resources chapter for references with further information
about the more technical aspects of stability and the importance of stability testing.


Be sure your wheel watch understands what they are doing before they stands watch. At a minimum, they should know basic rules of the road, whistle signals, radio distress signals, standard running lights, how to read radar, a compass, GPS/plotter, and a fathometer, and when to call the captain. Try to pair a greenhorn with an experienced hand on the same watch, and give orders to get someone to take over if they become sleepy. Use watch alarms.

Have a compass deviation table made up and posted, and be sure all hands know how to apply it. Be sure you understand the effect of current on your boat. If you don’t know what the currents are for your area, look them up in a Current Table. When the weather or current makes passage of a particular stretch of water so difficult you only think you can make it, remember that the good seaman admits his own limitations and those of his boat, and only does what he knows he can do safely.

Keep a dead-reckoning plot on a chart whenever underway in fog, even if your vessel is equipped with a GPS and chart plotter. Be sure the new watch is awake and up for at least 15 minutes after sleeping before they are allowed to be on watch. Also, consider keeping a logbook with entries every 15–30 minutes showing time, location, speed, direction, etc. This will give you excellent backup in case of electronic failure.


If you want to sleep soundly and the holding ground is good, let out cable five to seven times the depth of water. If you expect some adverse weather, let out ten times the depth of water.

If you’re anchoring in tough weather and want to improve your ride, lash three or four (or more) inflated buoys together and seize them to the anchor cable after you have the proper scope out. Then continue to release cable until the buoys are a couple of fathoms under water. Dog your winch, and you’re guaranteed a better ride.

Set up a watch to check the anchor regularly for dragging, and set the alarm on your depth sounder.
Consider adding a cannon ball or weight (sometimes referred to as a kellet or sentinel) a few fathoms from your anchor, to take the strain off your anchor in a heavy blow.


It is difficult for a fishing vessel to occupy a space in the water already filled by a rock. Although some rocks may not be charted properly, the vast majority of those that have been struck are. Most of the time a boat grounds because “somebody goofed.”

Avoidance is the best defense against grounding, and for that you need good charts and full attention to navigation. Try out difficult passages for the first time in daylight and with a rising tide, go slowly, and post a lookout on the bow.

If you do end up aground, call the Coast Guard and do not attempt to refloat until you have inspected the damage as best you can. If you are taking on water, call the Coast Guard again. You may need to beach your vessel until either you can repair the damage or assistance arrives. Plug fuel vents to avoid fuel spills in case of sinking. Never try to get off a rock without assessing damage first.

Cartoon. Fishing vessel fetched up on a rock and holed.
Holed Vessel

If your boat is holed with a large opening, call for assistance immediately. It’s usually a losing proposition to effectively plug large holes while afloat. Small holes can be plugged with almost any material on hand, including a wooden plug wrapped in cloth. Keep several aboard your vessel.

Another good method is to place a pillow over the hole, hold it tight, and brace it by any handy means. A mattress or canvas tarp secured at each outside corner can be dragged under the vessel to cover the hole, too. Although outside patches are often extremely effective, they are subject to chafing away and slippage. Get to a safe harbor or beach fast, if it is safe to do so.

If your vessel is holed near the waterline and is set up so you can cause a deliberate list, perhaps by swinging out a heavy object on the end of a boom or trolling pole, or by transferring fuel from one
side to another, consider doing this on the side opposite the hole to reduce the pressure at the damaged spot. Do not do this if the list will make your vessel dangerously unstable. Again, plug fuel vents to avoid fuel spills in case of sinking.

Lost Propeller or Other Total Breakdown

Occasionally vessels lose their propeller or steering, or suffer engine breakdown. When this occurs, the vessel is suddenly plunged into a totally helpless situation and immediate assistance should be requested. The Coast Guard much prefers to be told “No further assistance required” when halfway there, than to lose the head start on a case.

If you have a total breakdown, anchor if you can. If you are in open water far from land, and you don’t have a commercially made sea anchor, make one. Anything that drags under water is a sea anchor, even a bucket or your regular anchor. When streamed over the bow on about 10 fathoms of line, a good sea anchor reduces the drift due to wind, and the boat will ride well, holding its head out of the trough. Weather permitting, you may be able to tow the boat, or at least somewhat control the direction of drift, if you have a skiff.


Echoes can be used during close inshore navigation to determine approximate distance to land. It takes about 10 seconds for sound to travel one mile and then return as an echo. The following table shows the relationship between the seconds to hear an echo and the distance away in nautical miles.

2 seconds - 0.2 miles

4 seconds - 0.4 miles

6 seconds - 0.5 miles

8 seconds - 0.7 miles

10 seconds - 0.9 miles

12 seconds - 1.1 miles

14 seconds - 1.3 miles

16 seconds - 1.4 miles

18 seconds - 1.6 miles

20 seconds - 1.8 miles

Operating Coast Guard Emergency Pumps

If you neglected to carry an emergency pump, or your pumps cannot keep up with incoming water, the Coast Guard can provide you with emergency, gasoline-powered pumps. The type you are most likely to get comes sealed in a rectangular orange plastic container about 3 feet high, and is capable of pumping about 120 gallons per minute depending on amount of head.

Don’t smoke—there may be gasoline fumes inside the can. Make sure you keep the canister upright when removing the pump, or the oil may drain from the pump’s crankcase, and the engine may seize
on starting. There will be a waterproof flashlight and instructions in the canister.

Make sure you follow the instructions, or the pump will not work. Do not cut off the end of the discharge hose; this will prevent the pump from priming itself. Make sure all O-rings are in place.

USCG Dewatering Pump Operating Instructions
Alcohol, Drugs, and Fishing

Substance abuse can be a problem within the fishing industry, just as it is in all walks of life. One of the dangerous things about alcohol and fishing is that alcohol is much more potent on board, drink for
drink, than when it is consumed on land. This is due to the hypnotic effect of navigating on the water, the background of steady engine noise, and the long hours and limited sleep associated with fishing.

The effects of drinking alcohol have been clearly demonstrated by skippers who volunteered for an experiment that measured their ability to operate a boat under the influence. Despite the fact that
all of the volunteers felt that their performance actually improved, both observers and objective measurements indicated the skippers’ performance decreased. Not only did the skippers perform poorly,
but their judgment of their own condition was faulty after they consumed alcohol.

Alcohol is not the only drug that causes problems in the fishing industry. Amphetamines, cocaine, and other drugs are all too common. Some can produce a rush that allows you to stay awake for hours on end, but they are highly addictive and can cause a decrease in judgment.

Who wants a crewmember or skipper with impaired judgment and balance? Drugs and safe fishing just don’t mix. Establish an alcohol and drug policy for your crew and enforce it.

Float Plans

The Coast Guard frequently receives reports of overdue fishing vessels. Unfortunately, the party making the report often hasn’t the faintest idea where the boat is. The ocean is a big place, and time and money are wasted when search areas are not clearly defined. If you were overdue, would anyone on shore or in another boat know where you are?

Filing a float plan can save time in an emergency—and may help save your life. You can file in person or by mail, but make sure the person you tell will miss you and initiate a search if you fail to reach your destination on time. Be sure to relay:


  • Your vessel’s name, number, and description.

  • The names of people on board.

  • Safety and survival equipment on board.

  • Where you’re headed.

  • When and where you expect to return to port.

  • Who to contact if you fail to return.

Radio Use in an Emergency

Emergency marine radio calls are made on VHF channel 16 (156.8 mHz) or SSB 4125 kHz.

Emergency Calls
There are three internationally recognized radio signals used for marine emergencies: MAYDAY, PAN-PAN, and SECURITY. All three have priority over other radio traffic. MAYDAY calls also have priority over all other emergency signals. They are to be used only when a vessel or life is threatened by grave and imminent danger, and a request is made for immediate assistance.



To transmit a MAYDAY, make sure your radio is on and you transmit on channel 16 VHF or 4125 kHz SSB. Then state:


  2. Your vessel name and call sign three times.

  3. Position (latitude and longitude are preferred).

  4. Nature of distress (fire, grounding, medical emergency, etc.)

  5. Total number of people on board (P.O.B.)

  6. Amount and type of survival gear on board (immersion suits, life rafts, EPIRB, flares, etc.)

  7. Vessel description (length, color, type, etc.)

  8. Listen for a response. If there is none, repeat the message until it is acknowledged or you are forced to abandon ship.

If time permits, provide the Coast Guard with any additional information they request. They are often unable to begin a search until they have specific details about the nature of the emergency.

If you hear a MAYDAY call and it is not answered, you must answer it and log the details of the call. When you can be reasonably sure you will not interfere with other distress-related communications, advise the vessel in distress what assistance you can offer.


All vessels that are required to have radios, such as commercial fishing vessels, are required to relay MAYDAYs that are heard, but go unanswered. To relay an unanswered MAYDAY, make sure your radio is on and you transmit on channel 16 VHF or 4125 kHz SSB. Then state:


  2. Your vessel’s name and call sign.

  3. Name and call sign of vessel in distress.

  4. Location of vessel in distress.

  5. Nature of problem with vessel in distress.

  6. Degree of assistance needed.

  7. Listen for acknowledgment.

  8. Transmit additional requested information.



Pronounced "pahn-pahn", PAN-PAN calls are for very urgent messages concerning the safety of a boat or persons. Examples include urgent storm warnings by an authorized station, and loss of steering or
power in a shipping lane. To transmit a PAN-PAN message, make sure your radio is on and you transmit on channel 16 VHF 4125 kHz SSB. Then state:


  1. 1) PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN all stations.

  2. Your vessel name and call sign three times.

  3. Nature of urgent message.

  4. Position (latitude and longitude are preferred).

  5. Total number of people on board.

  6. Vessel description (length, color, type, etc.).


Pronounced "say-cure-i-tay" SECURITY calls are the lowest priority emergency calls and are used to alert vessel operators to turn to another station to receive a safety message. SECURITY warns nearby vessels of a possible hazard.

DSC, Digital Select Calling/Rescue 21
Did you know that by lifting a plastic cover and hitting the red button on some radios you can send a distress message from your vessel that automatically gives your position? The distress signal is stronger and may be heard where a MAYDAY call may not get picked up.

VHF and SSB radios that are GMDSS (Global Marine Distress & Safety System) compliant have this capacity in most of the contiguous United States including the Great Lakes, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and
Guam. Remote sites in Alaska and along western rivers are scheduled to receive modified Rescue 21 coverage by 2017. Your radio must have GPS capacity or be wired into GPS and take the following steps.

Since fishing vessels must carry a marine VHF and/or SSB radio and have a Ship Radio Station License, you may already have a Digital Selective Calling and Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number. If you do not have this number go to  to obtain and MMSI number.

You must program your MMSI into your DSC capable radio so that other vessels may be able to access your vessel’s information. For non-emergencies this will also allow you to give digital written messages privately to other vessels that have shared their MMSI number with you. Remember, however, that you cannot access DSC features without an MMSI number and being registered.

Cell Phones
Cell phones are not a replacement for a marine radio. Some disadvantages of cell phones include:

  • Range depends on repeater availability.

  • No one else can hear you except the person you are talking to.

  • The Coast Guard is unable to locate you based on a cell phone signal or frequency.

  • Cell phones have limited battery life.

  • Cell phones are easily damaged by water.

Putting It All Together

There’s a lot more to fishing than just knowing where the fish are and how to catch them. With lives, vessels, and livelihoods at stake, it pays to take the extra time to be prepared and to practice what to do in an emergency.

Step 1 operating a U.S. Coast Guard Dewatering Pump

1: Attach Suction Hose

Step 3 operating a U.S. Coast Guard Dewatering Pump

3: Put the end of the discharge hose overboard.

Step 5 operating a U.S. Coast Guard Dewatering Pump

5: Attach Fuel Tank

Step 6 operating a U.S. Coast Guard Dewatering Pump

7: Attach the Fuel Line

Step 9 operating a U.S. Coast Guard Dewatering Pump

9: Choke the Carburetor


11: Turn Off the Choke and Set the Carburetor to Run Full-Throttle

Step 2 operating a U.S. Coast Guard Dewatering Pump

2: Immerse Suction Hose

Step 4 operating a U.S. Coast Guard Dewatering Pump

4: Do NOT REMOVE discharge hose end cap!

Step 6 operating a U.S. Coast Guard Dewatering Pump

6: Open Fuel Tank Vent

8: Prime the Pump

Step 8 operating a U.S. Coast Guard Dewatering Pump
Step 10 operating a U.S. Coast Guard Dewatering Pump

10: Start the Engine


12: Turn Off Engine

Anchor 1
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