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Does your boat have a sound-producing device...?
And can anyone hear it?

By Wayne Spivak, Branch Chief – National Press Corps
National Marketing and Public Affairs Department, United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

The title of this article sounds ridiculous doesn't it? Even like a pun! But it's a very valid question. Does your vessel have a sound-producing device?

What is a 'sound-producing device', and why as a boater should I really care? Bob Dylan knew; "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind. The answer is blowin' in the wind." (Blowin' In The Wind). And again, it may sound like a pun, but its not.

Without a properly operating sound device, like a whistle, a horn and/or a bell, your vessel, besides being out of compliance with federal regulations, is just not a well-founded vessel. In fact, without a properly operating sound device, you're placing you and your passengers in what could be grave danger.

The Requirements

According to the latest edition of the Navigation Rules (COMDTINST M16672.2D), all vessels greater than 65.6 feet are required to have a sound-producing device. Most recreational boats are required to have a whistle or horn capable of being heard one-half mile away (Rule 33.b and Annex III (C)).

In addition, the Rules (Rule 32) state that to qualify as a whistle, that the sound producing device be capable of providing the following signals: "(b) The term "short blast" means a blast of about one second's duration. (c) The term "prolonged blast" means a blast of from four to six seconds' duration."

Since most of the whistles and/or horns that are used in/on recreational boats are directional in nature, the Rules require these devices face forward on a boat, so the sound will carry and disperse in the general direction of the boat (most boats use astern propulsion very very sparingly).

Sound Signals

There are five basic sound signals a boater should know. I will briefly outline them. Should you require more information on sound signals and the Rules of the Road, the Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary recommend that you take an appropriate safe boating course. The Coast Guard Auxiliary provides several courses, which include this information, as well as our Boat Crew program for members of the Auxiliary.

Sound signals are broken into two types, long and short blasts. Short blast lasts for 1 to 3 second and a long blast from 4 to 6 seconds.

You will normally hear these sets of sound signals:

  • 1 short blast and 2 short blasts which signify intent and acceptance in overtaking situations.

  • Three (3) short blasts signifying a vessel in astern propulsion (as when a boat is backing out of a slip)

  • Five (5) short blasts, which signifies danger or disagreement.

  • One long blast, which is meant as a warning that I am about to move from a position, which may be blind to you. You'll use/hear this signal when your about to leave a slip (either in forward or astern propulsion), where the master of the vessel is blind to possible approaching traffic from the main waterway or as you are about to round bend in a waterway (like a river).

The Why's and Wherefore's

Why sound signals important? On your car, you have both a horn and turn signals. With these signals, which generally can be seen during most hours of the day and night, you provide in advance, to the other drivers, your intent to turn.

Your turn signals tell the other drivers one of three things; your turning right or left, or there is some sought of danger or hazard (when both sets of signals are on). On your vessel, navigation lights are in either the on position or off position. In addition, the ability to see navigation lights during the day is extremely limited. Thus, sound signals were devised to provide mariners with intent. This intent includes the ability to pass an individual vessel on either the port or starboard side.

Again, on your car you have a horn. Besides being used to vent your frustration with other drivers, the horn has some specific legal and safety uses. Included in these uses are to warn pedestrians and other vehicles to danger or dangerous situations. As well as to signify that your vehicle is exiting an area, where you the driver cannot see.

These uses exactly match the five short blasts, which is the danger signal, the three short blasts signifying astern propulsion and the one long blast signifying transiting an area where the master of the vessel is blind to possible approaching traffic.

Sound signals play an extremely important part in the safety of boaters. This is one of the reasons Vessel Examiners conducting a Coast Guard Auxiliary Vessel Safety Check will make sure your sound producing device works (as well as all your safety equipment).

To learn more about navigation, the rules of the road, or to request a Vessel Safety Checks you can contact the Coast Guard (https://www.uscg.mil) or your local Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla (http://www.cgaux.org). A little more boating knowledge could just save the life of a loved one!

[Author's Note: This article is part of a series of articles on safety and safety equipment required by Federal law.]

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