When and where are narrow channels “narrow”?

Rule 9 of both the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (ColRegs) and the U.S. Inland Navigation Rules prescribe the actions required of vessels navigating “narrow channels.†Unlike Rule 10 (Traffic Separation Schemes) that applies to established and defined boundaries, Rule 9 provides no delineation as to what constitutes a “narrow channel†for purposes of application of the rule. 

In his compendium of court cases (The American Law of Collision), John W. Griffin observed that “the violations of the Narrow Channel Rule are, of course, very numerous.†

Unquestionably, a major cause of violations has been the lack of definition as to where, when or what constitutes a “narrow channel†and in fact, the courts themselves have been inconsistent in after-the-fact determinations. Three appeal cases heard before the Fifth Circuit serve to illustrate the problem facing the mariner.

In a 1986 case (Canal Barge v China Ocean Shipping), the court observed that Rule 9 “does not define ‘narrow channel’ or list the bodies of water to which it applies … application has been left to the courts … the determination (being) a mixed question of law and fact.†In 1994, a case (Marine Transport Lines v Tako Invader) was remanded to the lower court “for explicit findings on the question of whether … (a certain section of the Mississippi) … is a narrow channel within the meaning of Rule 9.†In 1996, the court in Alaska v Reliant Seahorse held that “vessels navigating the Mississippi River must adhere to the Narrow Channel Rules (9) and (14) unless otherwise agreed.†The court’s comment is itself confusing since (a) the entire river had never been designated a “narrow channel,†(b) barring that, “must†was unqualified as to where or under what conditions and (c) Rule 14 (Vessels Meeting) is not a “Narrow Channel Rule.†Despite the similarity of Rule 14(d) to Rule 9(a)(ii), the former neither mentions nor refers to “narrow channels.â€

Following a collision between two towboats on the Ohio in 1982, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended that the Coast Guard publish interpretive rulings in order that navigators may know when to apply the Narrow Channel Rule, observing that “it will do little good to learn months after an accident that a court has ruled that a particular portion of the waterway, under a particular set of circumstances was or was not a narrow channel under the rules and that the narrow channel rule should or should not have been applied by the persons involved in the accident.†No such interpretive rulings were forthcoming but there has been recent significant movement in that direction.

In 2009 the U.S. Coast Guard requested study by, and recommendations from, the Navigation Safety Advisory Council (NAVSAC) as to (a) whether there is a need to designate waterways as narrow channels and (b) what criteria might be used to so designate. Meeting in September 2010, NAVSAC reviewed the NTSB communication and agreed that although Rule 9 has the potential to be an important collision avoidance rule, it is often unclear to the mariner when Rule 9 applies and as a result, avoidance action may be delayed and mariners may (and do) reach different conclusions, increasing the possibility of conflicting actions.

Addressing task (a), the Council agreed unanimously that there was a need to designate such waterways but as for task (b), the objective was shifted from one of providing an algorithm (essentially a check-off list) for mariners to utilize in deciding whether the waterway, in that situation, at that time, under those conditions and geography was “narrow†in the context of Rule 9, to a process to be utilized by U.S. Coast Guard sector and district commanders in recommending that XYZ channel/waterway would be designated a narrow channel for purposes of applying the rule. 

Accordingly, it was NAVSAC’s recommendation that:

(a) The U.S. Coast Guard designate those waters that it determines are narrow channels/fairways for purposes of applying Inland Rule 9;

(b) That the list of waterways so designated would not be all-inclusive — that since designation would be an on-going process, a channel not listed might be found so by a court in the event of an accident;

(c) That the commandant of the Coast Guard prepare and provide guidance to sector and district commanders and others in the process and criteria by which Rule 9 waters/waterway designation will be made;

(d) That the U.S. Coast Guard work closely with its Canadian counterparts in order to minimize conflicts in implementation of Rule 9 on the Great Lakes.

The courts have made the application of Inland Rule 9 a moving target since what applied today may or may not be recognized tomorrow — even within the same channel. This severely hobbles Griffin’s goal of an “established usage†standard, providing little or no guidance to the watch officer whose major defenses against collision are consistency and predictability and whose greatest enemies are uncertainty and confusion. 

Consistency and predictability can come only from established waterway status, not left to the vagaries of, as history attests, post-facto court decisions. In agreeing that there is need for clarification as to channels being designated as “narrow†for the purposes of Inland Rule 9 and further, recommending a process by which such designations be made, NAVSAC has taken a major step toward easing the burden on mariners navigating those waters and reducing collision risk is closer to fruition.

About the Author:

Following graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy, Jim Austin served aboard both a destroyer and cruiser with duties that included navigator, assistant CIC (combat information center) officer and air intercept controller. He subsequently worked on the submarine launched ballistic missile program for the General Electric Co.’s Ordnance Division. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard master’s license and writes frequently on ship collisions as seen through the twin lenses of the navigation rules and maritime law. He’s a retired physician living in Burlington, Vt.

By Professional Mariner Staff