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By Barbara Merriman, Dana Point

Five short blasts from the horn of a vessel underway is the designated US Coast Guard danger/doubt signal required to be blown when there is immediate danger. I’m surprised that in Dana Point Harbor we don’t hear this all the time on weekends.

The explosion of stand-up paddleboard (SUP) enthusiasts is providing a way for more and more people to enjoy the water on a very low cost basis. However, because most of the paddlers (and many boaters) don’t have an understanding of the Rules of the Road, as written by the Coast Guard, there are a lot of near misses each weekend. The following is a personal example.

A couple of weekends ago, I was one of 12 guests, all members of Dana Point Yacht Club, on a beautiful 48-foot powerboat for a cruise and lunch at sea. It was a delightful time, until we returned to the harbor. It could have been a “Three Hour Tour”—“Gilligan’s Island” all over again! As often happens at this time of year, the wind had picked up to between 18 to 20 knots, making maneuvering a large boat like this, at slow speed with virtually no keel, very difficult. Two attempts were made to dock the boat in its slip, but because of the wind and SUPs in the way, the skipper decided to use the large empty slip at the Dana Point Yacht Club as a temporary haven until the wind subsided. That slip, when not reserved, is available to members.

As we approached the slip, there were two paddlers – one with a baby – coming across the entrance of the slip, so one of the guests on the bow of our boat told them to move out of the way. Instead they moved toward the slip. After another verbal warning, they hastily got out of the way, but in the meantime we were even more restricted in our ability to maneuver because we were sideways to the wind. Thankfully, our skipper/owner has extensive skills in boat handling, and was able to slide into the large slip, but it was like docking a large sailboat, with the sail up, and no keel to counteract the wind. The two paddlers probably had to go home and change their underwear.

Adding to the stress of this time, a man began yelling at us from the docks at the Sailing and Events Center. He told us to go somewhere else—that the SUPs had right of way. We replied that they have no right of way. At that point, the heckler jumped into a Whaler and roared across to us, still yelling. When he got to our dock, his boat scraped the stern of Hu-Nu, sitting innocently in its slip. No apology. The man said he worked (out of) the Sailing and Event Center and his name is Chris, and he knows that SUPs have right of way. Two members of our group currently have 100 Ton Masters licenses, and I had one of those for 15 years (I let it expire two years ago). We know the rules. To get this license, you must have extensive time on the water and pass four difficult written tests. Many other guests onboard knew the rules because there are ongoing seamanship classes at the yacht club.

Pleasure craft boat owners are not required to take any kind of test. They just buy a boat and go. We refer to that as “more money than brains.” It’s the same with human-powered craft.

At the very least, the SUP and kayak users should read the large sign for human powered craft posted at the launch area on Baby Beach. The first sentence says, “You do not have right of way.” This is followed by a diagram of the best routes to take inside our harbor, avoiding boats. There are stickers available to go on paddleboards and kayaks that have these rules. Boat owners need to be prepared to use the danger/doubt signal given to them by the Coast Guard. A better understanding of rules and right-of-way could save a life in our harbor.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Brad Gross, Dana Point Harbor Director, also received a copy of this letter and asked that the following provision be immediately added to all demo permits for human-powered water craft and SUPs:

“Each user, prior to being assigned equipment, will be required to read the attached Dana Point Harbor Guidelines for Human Powered Craft and acknowledge by initial that they have read and understand the guidelines. Operators must maintain the forms on site during the rental or demos. Operators may maintain the forms on file at the site for repeat users.”

This diagram is posted on the rules for human-powered craft sign at the Baby Beach launch area and on the decals Merriman referred to in her letter:

Map: Courtesy of OC Dana Point Harbor

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comments (3)

  • Clearly there needs to be a boundary to protect people that just want to enjoy the day in the harbor especially at baby beach. Glad the person with the baby on the paddle board was not killed. Just because you have the right of way doesn’t give you the right to run someone over. Now that’s lacking common sense.

  • You missed the point which was safety for everyone. Read it again!

  • I sail a 30-foot sailboat out of Dana Point Harbor and occasionally like to paddleboard there as well.

    A supposed “rule” that SUPs have no right of way is dangerously irresponsible and cannot possibly be the right result. SUPs are “vessels” per USCG rules, entitled to all of the rights and privileges of any vessel on the water due to that distinction. The right of way rules are ancient. Changing them in one harbor because owners of medium-sized vessels (that includes 48 feet) suffer some minor annoyance is dangerous and short-sighted. For example, the rule everywhere, and per the USCG, is that overtaking vessels are the give-way boat. A SUP approached from the rear has limited maneuverability and limited visibility compared to a vessel under steerage and power approaching from the rear. The overtaking vessel always gives way to an overtaken vessel. This article proposes that it is the SUP boarders duty in this circumstance to give way to a vessel approaching from his rear that the SUP boarder may not even know is coming.

    No one would suggest special rules for the many small sail boats in the harbor, because everyone, including pilots of 48 foot vessels, understands that a vessel under sail simply has the right of way over powered vessels, and always has. Just because SUPs are relatively new, busy-bodies and complainers want special privileges over them, but changing the rules to soothe frustrated egos only serves to confuse the issue and engender confusion.

comments (3)

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