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HSH Yacht Articles

Navigating the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW)
Navigation Rules and VHF radio


Jeremy R. Hood

For most of us navigating the ICW on the Gulf Coast, the dangers are increased by the amount of commercial traffic using the waterway. While following the channel can sometimes not be easy, doing so with other vessels around increases the difficulty and it is all too easy to find yourself aground, pushed out of the channel on the downwind side by a tow boat hogging the channel. When I first starting using the ICW in this area, it seemed to me that this was a constant danger and an inevitable event that would occur on every trip, particularly when navigating along the waterway at night. But in the last couple of years this has not happened so much. The reason is that with more experience and consequently better communications with the other vessels using the waterway I have been able to avoid the type of situations that earlier led to difficulty.

Navigating the ICW by day is difficult enough at first and as with all aspects of seamanship it is best to gain some experience first as crew before you attempt to skipper a vessel along the ICW yourself. At night the difficulties are considerably greater.

Following the navigation rules

You may think that this would be straightforward along the ICW but it is not. All of the ICW is covered by the Inland Navigation rules which require vessels in sight of each other, within 1/2 mile of each other and approaching, to communicate by sound signals or (more usually now) by VHF radio before they alter course to pass. While this is rarely done by two recreational vessels which meet (though it should be according to the rules), the commercial shipping on the ICW will nearly always keep to the rules and thus when you meet a tow (tow boat and barges) coming towards you it is important to know the rules and to abide by them.

When vessels are meeting head-on in the ICW they should get in touch by radio (usually channel 13) and agree on which side to pass each other. In most cases this will be starboard to starboard but on occasions a tow will request a port to port passing. Because in the past these communication took place using whistles (really a horn) you will often here the tow boats saying something like "meet me on the one whistle" or even "meet me on the one". This is a contraction for both vessels agreeing to pass port side to port side (requiring each to remain on the right of the channel). A two whistle meeting will involve passing starboard to starboard and will sometimes be requested by tow boats when there are strong cross winds or difficult bends in the channel or both. Being much less maneuverable than most recreational vessels, such a request should always be agreed to.

While meeting vessels head on is fairly staightforward according to the rules, there is some confusion concerning overtaking because of the somewhat abbreviated convention used by tow boat operators. Approaching a tow from behind the rules indicate that you should indicate which side you will pass and that this should be acknowledged by a similar sound signal from the vessel about to be overtaken. In practice though you will normally call the vessel ahead on the radio and ask which side to pass. They will often reply with something like "pass me on the one" which means to them pass me on my starboard side. However to avoid any confusion arising when overtaking a tow it is best to confirm the maneuver by replying on the radio, "Thank you, I will be coming past you on your starboard side".

VHF Radio Channels

When using the VHF radio to communicate with other vessels on the ICW the communication will normally take place on channel 13 though you may need to initiate contact on channel 16. However the practice varies along the ICW and with individual operators. Though all commercial vessels, locks and bridges should monitor channel 16, not all will reply on this channel. Good practice suggests you try channel 16 first and if you fail to make contact then try the working channel. Channel 13 is normally used for intership communications and for contact with most bridges. Locks vary with some using channel 13 and others channel 14.

Along the ICW between New Orleans and Houston there are three Vessel Traffic Service areas monitored by the Coast Guard. Those in the Houston / Galveston area and along the Mississippi River in New Orleans are voluntary schemes and vessels are not required to check in though I normally do so when on the Mississippi River. The Vessel Traffic Service at Morgan City, Louisiana is different in that it is compulsory for all vessels, including recreational vessels, to contact "Berwick Traffic" on Channel 12 when in the area.

Vessel Traffic Services will advise all vessels of other shipping in the area and of any dangers that pertain.


Excerpts from the Inland rules relevant to most of the ICW*

  • Rule 14 Head-on Situation
    Unless otherwise agreed, when two power driven vessels are meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses so as to involve risk of collision each shall alter course to starboard so that each shall pass on the port side of the other.
  • Rule 15 Crossing Situation
    When two power-driven vessels are crossing so as to involve risk of collision, the vessel which has the other on her starboard side shall keep out of the way...
  • Rule 34 Maneuvering and Warning Signals
    (a) When power driven vessels are in sight of one another and are meeting or crossing at a distance within half a mile of each other, each vessel underway...
    • (i) shall indicate that maneuver by the following signal on her whistle: one short blast to mean "I intend to leave you on my port side"; two short blasts to mean "I intend to leave you on my starboard side"; and three short blasts to mean "I am operating astern propulsion".

    • (ii) upon hearing the one or two blast signal of the other shall, if in agreement, sound the same whistle signal and take the steps necessary to effect a safe crossing...

    (c) When in sight of one another:

    • (i) a power-driven vessel intending to overtake another power -driven vessel shall indicate her intention by the following signals on her whistle: one short blast to mean "I intend to overtake you on your starboard side"; two short blasts to mean "I intend to overtake you on your port side; and

    • (ii) the power driven vessel about to be overtaken shall, if in agreement, sound a similar sound signal...

    (h) A vessel that reaches agreement with another vessel in a meeting, crossing or overtaking situation by using the radiotelephone... is not obliged to sound the whistle signals prescribed by this Rule, but may do so...

* Special Inland Rules apply on the Mississippi and other rivers as well as on the Great Lakes. In these areas the rules may be different.

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