Boating Basics Part 1: Big Ships, Little Boats

The following is an excerpt of the Maine Island Trail Guidebook. To learn more about the Guidebook, click here

Areas around Portland, Penobscot Bay, and Eastport have deep draft channels where you may encounter deep sea vessels and large tug and barge units. Follow these guidelines to stay safe in busy waters shared by a diverse array of commercial and recreational craft.

Rules of the Road

When in doubt, yield to common sense. When on the water, always assume that a larger vessel is more difficult to maneuver and that its deep draft confines it to mid-channel. Tugs, tows, fishing vessels, ferries, and large commercial vessels have the right of way over all other vessels. Know the Rules of the Road, including lights and sound signals. Five or more short blasts of the horn signals danger!


Crews on large ships often have difficulty seeing small craft – even when small boaters wear bright colors and reflective material. It’s best to assume that another vessel cannot see you. Be extra cautious at times of reduced visibility!


When operating a motor vessel, you are responsible for the effect of your wake. Be aware of boats, docks, and ferry landings that may be affected as you pass by. Observe wake and speed limits, and be particularly conscious around non-motorized small craft.

VHF Radio

Commercial vessels announce their intentions on channel 13 when approaching busy harbors and when getting underway from berth or anchorage. Monitor this channel when in busy harbors to attempt to avoid large ships.

Tugs & Tows

If you see a tug near a barge or freighter, it’s safe to assume they are connected by a hawser. Never attempt to pass between these vessels.

Lobster Boats

Always at work and sometimes hard to predict, lobster boats can present a variety of potentially dangerous situations. These boats will often travel in erratic courses from buoy to buoy, and while working on a string of traps, a lobster boat cannot maneuver at all. Lobstermen working on a trap line may also have their attention focused on the next buoy rather than nearby traffic, which is why staling clear of their boats is the safest course. If crossing is unavoidable, do so on the working side and pass from behind.


While big and stable, ferries are vulnerable to wakes while at dock transferring passengers. To compensate, the vessel often stay in gear while at the dock to hold themselves against it, which creates strong was currents. They can also generate strong propeller wash while maneuvering into an away from the ferry landings. Always give them a wide berth.

Deep Draft Vessels

Stay clear. Do not assume that a vessel at anchor is stationary and steer clear of vessels approaching a bridge or at berth.