At first glance, the difference between driving a car and steering your pontoon boat may not be immediately obvious. Both have steering wheels, throttles, and an expectation that vessels will pass each other on the left side, just like on the highway. However, even though the official rules of maritime navigation are informally called the Rules of the Road, these rules make it clear that there are great differences between steering a pontoon boat and driving an automobile. A responsible pontoon captain who is attentive to safety will want to familiarize themselves with the Rules and conduct themselves accordingly on the many waterways that they’ll travel and explore in their pontoon boat.
The Rules of the Road, officially called the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, were written in 1864 during the time of the Civil War, when steamboats were gaining popularity. The Rules were updated several more times over the past century and a half. Although times have certainly changed on the waterways since the Civil War, many of the rules have not. The most current version of the Rules has 38 items that govern turns, maneuvers, and other sorts of signals required of maritime craft, including pontoon boats, operating in American waters. The primary purpose of the Rules is to help avoid collisions between maritime vessels. Every state in the union has adopted these U.S. Inland rules. In theory, anyone operating any sort of maritime vessel—from a small pontoon boat to a massive luxury cruiser—is expected to abide by the Rules. However, only a few of the Rules have direct applicability to pleasure craft such as pontoons, so here we’ll only cover the Rules that directly apply to pontoon boat operation and navigation.
The most important Rule is called the "Rule of Good Seamanship” and is at the heart of the rest of the Rules. "Good Seamanship” has never been strictly defined in the Rules, although there are seven broad generalities. The first is to obey the Rules unless extreme circumstances necessitate departure from them. Second, you should take whatever action necessary to avoid a collision. Third, if you cannot avoid a collision, you should attempt to alleviate possible damage of the collision by maneuvering to take a "glancing blow.” Fourth, you must know how to use a radiotelephone and be able to use it to communicate with other vessels. Fifth, sensibly enough, you need to keep a proper lookout at all times. Many pontoon boats offer wide, unobstructed views, but if, for whatever reason, the captain does not have a 360-degree view of the horizon, he or she must enlist a crew member as an additional set of eyes and ears to be alert to the sight or sound of other vessels. Sixth, you must insure that other crafts can see your pontoon boat by using proper lights. Seventh, your boat is equipped with a radar device; you must use it at all times. Although they are not specifically covered in the text of the Rules, court decisions over time have added additional items to the definition of "good seamanship,” such as proper training for crew and equipping of your pontoon boat with appropriate navigational charts.
However, the general and important rule of "Good Seamanship” has a caveat, called the "General Prudential Rule” which states that any of the Rules can be ignored if circumstances warrant extreme action. For example, a pontoon boat should ignore a Rule if it would cause them to collide with another craft. There may be occasions where it is impossible to obey a Rule, such as navigating near rocks or in shallow waters. Also, there are situations that are not covered by the Rules, such as when three or more craft are involved. When more than two craft are involved, none have right of way and all must yield and be sure to execute all maneuvers to avoid collision. Finally, if circumstances warrant, both vessels can agree to not follow the Rules if they have communicated and decided that this course of action is necessary, but this is extreme and has legal perils, since a miscommunication can lead to disastrous consequences. As you can see, the Rules depend on commonsense, good communication, and a general understanding of how vessels are expected to interact during maritime encounters.
The Rules articulate specific requirements for maneuvers involving the interaction between two vessels. When two craft approach each other, neither has the right of way and both are expected to pass each other on their left, or port, sides. If one vessel is coming up behind another, or overtaking it, the slower vessel has right of way. If the slower vessel does not want to be overtaken, it should sound five long whistle blasts and the faster vessel must steer clear and wait for another occasion to pass. A faster vessel must always steer clear of the slower one. If the direction of vessels involved is neither head-on, nor overtaking, they are referred to as crossing. In a crossing situation, the vessel that is approaching another on its starboard side must slow down or alter course to avoid collision, while the other vessel maintains course and speed.
The Rules explain specific methods for audible communication between vessels by using "whistle signals,” that are, in modern times, sounded by air or electronic horn blasts. Although many small pleasure crafts, such as pontoon boats, often fail to use whistle signals, the Rules require that all maritime vessels use audible means to indicate their maneuvers and how they will interact with other vessels. These "whistle blasts,” similar to Morse Code, are structured in series of short and long blasts. A short blast is a sound of about 1 second. One short blast means that your pontoon boat wants to pass on the port side of the other craft. Two short blasts indicate that your pontoon boat is attempting to pass another craft on its starboard side. Three short blasts means you are operating your pontoon boat with its engines in reverse. Five short blasts mean your pontoon boat is in danger or is unsure of the intentions of a different craft. A long blast lasts around 5 seconds. One long blast would be used to announce the location of your pontoon boat to other crafts, such as when leaving the dock. However, weather conditions, such as rain, fog or other adverse situations, can alter the meaning of these signals. In these situations, one long blast every two minutes is expected from your pontoon boat so that other vessels are aware of the presence of a power-driven vessel. Two long blasts communicates that your pontoon boat is adrift or otherwise not progressing. One long blast and two short blasts are required of special vessels, such as sailboats, fishing boats, and tugboats; other power-driven craft (such as pontoon boats) are expected to give right of way to these kinds of special vessels. If you anchor your pontoon boat in adverse conditions that affect visibility, you must ring a bell for five seconds every minute.
Obviously, there are no speed limit signs posted on rivers or other open waters, but the Rules do have some guidelines for proper speed on the water. They require that all vessels, including pontoon boats, maintain reasonable "safe speeds” that can insure the avoidance of collisions between craft. When there are no other vessels on the waterway, "safe speed” might be full open throttle, while "safe speed” during dense fog conditions might be slow enough so as not to produce any wake. Pontoon captains must factor in a variety of variables so as to determine the safe speed of their pontoon boat: the state of visibility, the density of other vessels around, the maneuverability of your craft, the strength of the waves or wind, the depth of the water relative to your hull, and, at night, the background lights on the shore that could obscure the lights of other vessels and your own. In short, the "safe speed” of your pontoon boat is relative to the prevailing conditions.
The Rules, while appearing complicated, are really designed for one single purpose; to avoid dangerous or deadly collisions between vessels. If you use a bit a caution, commonsense, and alertness, you’ll fulfill the spirit of the Rules and ensure fun times on your pontoon boat.