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When You’re Wrong in the Right of Way

In mid-October, after a summer of bizarre weather, it was 80-plus degrees and windless at Latitude’s satellite office in San Quentin Village. The Bay went completely glassy for almost five days in a row — conditions that are otherwise unheard of on this always-some-kind-of-wind stretch of water. In these rare, placid moments, I grab an old, fiberglass windsurf board and go for a paddle.

When You're Wrong in the Right of Way
Here’s San Quentin beach, as seen on a windy day this summer, and through sunglasses. Mid-August and -October saw some ultra-glassy days.
© 2020 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

On about day three of the ‘paddle-athon’, I spotted two alien craft skimming the water. Oh, right, they were electric foilboards, I realized, which is now apparently a thing. Each rider seemed competent, but both took the occasional fall. They were in the Larkspur Channel as a ferry, outbound for San Francisco and still in the five-mile-an-hour zone, made its way past San Quentin Prison and into the Bay. I was about 200 yards outside the narrow channel as the foilboarders headed west and toward the oncoming ferry; they were sort of half in and half out of the channel, circling in front of the ferry’s course — not unlike buzzing flies. (I don’t mean to imply anything derogative by that analogy. I’m referring more to their swift, erratic, hovering motion.)

I found myself growing anxious and having the strong opinion that the foilboarders should head left and unmistakably out of the channel — immediately; the time had more than passed for the riders to make clear their intention to yield to a vessel restricted by draft and maneuverability. As the ferry hit the gas and got up to its 20-plus-knot cruising speed, one of the boarders crossed in front of the oncoming vessel at a distance of what I guess was well less than 100 yards. I fully expected the ferry to give a short blast to voice its displeasure (or my displeasure). It didn’t.

“You fu@*ing idiot,” I thought. I was tempted to yell at the rider, but the foilboarder was just out of outrage range.

This foilboarder is about to either wipe out or do a really cool trick. (The rider in this video said it was his first time on any kind of ‘surf’ board (if we can use that term broadly).
© 2020 YouTube/

I don’t recall when I had the epiphany that I almost wanted the foilboarders to be in the wrong. Maybe I wanted to lord my sense of superior, cautious seamanship over some poor hapless fool whom I deemed in violation of the code. That I was so outraged was a startling realization, and now I felt in the wrong, but wrong in the right way, I guess. (I should also say here that many of you would be appalled at my safety choices on the water, so please don’t hear me claiming I’m holier than thou.) If I’d had the chance to speak with the two riders after some time had passed, I would have stuck a conciliatory tone, asking them to consider giving decisive way to a vessel in the future, adding that in addition to that course of action being an infinitely safer choice for them, it’s also the considerate thing to do for the skipper of a vessel. Oh yeah, and it’s the law.

Nothing brings out comments from Latitude Nation like questions of safety and rules of the road. We even have what we’ll call a committed “safety squad,” or readers who reliably chime in, or wag their finger (as I was ready to do) when there’s even a perceived infraction.

There’s no denying that certain groups of watercraft users are less likely to know and practice the rules than others. In this month’s Letters, Dave Cowell of the Islander 30 Mas Tiempo noted the abundance of kayaks in the Delta this summer, saying, “It’s curious how all of us have to go through the Cal Boat Card [CBC] routine, but not paddlers — be they kayakers, SUPers or rowers, they don’t seem to have to get any education before mixing it up with the rest of us.” Vendors and retailers and rental companies must, for the moment, be the de facto governing bodies and executors of the rules of the road to a growing swath of users. But sometimes, it feels like that responsibility falls on us.

Anyway, here’s the question that I really want to ask: Have you ever caught yourself being unexpectedly outraged at someone breaking the rules of the road? Maybe your cause was legitimate and your anger righteous, but maybe you caught yourself in mid-rant. What is the best strategy, tone and reaction when someone is unaware of the rules? In the heat of the moment, I would have felt more than justified in shaming and embarrassing those foilboarders. More broadly, if sailors are always yelling at non-sailors on the water, then resentment is likely to fester. Isn’t the better strategy to bring those who are unaware into the cadre of mariners looking out for one another?

Or is the occasional tongue-lashing in order?

Please comment below, or write me here.


  1. Chuck Hawley 3 years ago

    Nothing upsets me more than seeing kids riding on the bows of powerboats when their legs over the side. Were they to slip over the side, they’d end up in the path of the propellers of the boat faster than the operator could react. 30 people per year, on average, get killed by propellers, and it is largely avoidable. If I see someone bow-riding, I find it hard not to tell them that they are taking an enormous risk.

  2. Peter Metcalf 3 years ago

    Only the rules of landbound roads. I was already moving in an intersection when a man started walking in the crosswalk. I kept going, he kept going, and spat a luger on my door, just missing the handle (his target). Obviously very practiced at it. But…I recall one day when I was not the skipper on a sailboat in Mare Island channel, the skipper chose to insist on his right of way as a ferry approached from a half mile or so. We both kept on course. Eventually the ferry captain gave way and also a finger. I had no anger whatsoever at the captain, and appreciated his irritation. I couldn’t very well voice my displeasure with the sailboat skipper, as he was an upper classman at CMA where we were students. If I recall correctly, the captain was also a grad of CMA. These situations will continue. 90% of the mishaps I looked into in the CG’s “mishap book” over a period of years (one volume/year) were due to human error. Many, if not most, would be surprising. I’m pretty sure the crew in those situations were, with hindsight, also surprised.

    I don’t know if Latitude has pointed out that the CG Bay Commandant back then (1999 – perhaps the policy remains – anyone have an update?) considered all of SF Bay to be a “narrow channel.” This I got from Commander David Sears, my Rules and other subjects instructor, who was probably the best sailor and engineer I will ever personally have known. And a gentleman, caring, and absolutely fearless. RIP Mr. Sears.

  3. LInda Newland 3 years ago

    A great opportunity to lobby the offenders to join a US Power Squadron (or US Coast Guard Auxiliary) basic boating safety and seamanship class to learn the rules of the road and keep themselves and others safe on the water. No one wants to see another person die or cause the death of an uneducated boater whether it be a big yacht or a board sailor or someone in a human powered vessel.

  4. Capt Dane Faber 3 years ago

    If I tried to list my right-of-way grievances this would be a long email. Ive never encountered the foil boarders, but kite boards and the windsurfers out near the gate are reckless beyond belief. Not a windy day passes that I dont hear of a USCG pahn-pahn for a surfer down. It still amazes me that no great tragedy has yet occurred (a surfer run down by a tanker). I suppose, like the dive boat tragedy in Channel Islands, the practice will become regulated AFTER such a tragedy.

    My top of the list grievance though would be sailors who believe they retain stand-on right over ALL power boats, in all crossing conditions, while MOTORING with sails raised.

    Ive been racing, cruising and power boating bay and coastal waters for nearly 50 years. I have a current 100ton NC and many thousands of sea miles.

  5. Rich 3 years ago

    Yelling, “Hey you mother f*&%$#!” is the wrong response in my opinion. It creates instant conflict. Perhaps waving them over to explain a few “rules of the road” would not only educate them, but gain you karma brownie points.

  6. Victor 3 years ago

    I think your conclusion is very appropriate. Whether is discussing politics or rules of the road you will never change the other by yelling at them or shaming them. Walking beside another, as you propose, is far more likely to improve behavior.

  7. Jonathan Livingston 3 years ago

    Everybody makes mistakes – even the pro’s

    I was approaching the light ship on port pole inbound from sea [passing the Western approach buoy to port making about 8 knots’ on a course that would bring me south of the main ship channel. I noticed the pilot boat on station, I also noticed an inbound container ship coming from the south heading for the southern approach buoy. I also notice that we were on a Collison course. I established bridge to bridge com with the captain of the ship and we clearly established crossing instructions…Great ….I saw the ship slow down and saw the range and bearing change – perfect….then on the same bloody channel the pilot came on and told the ship to come to a new course and increase speed to 10 K…..WTF? I have the kite up and I am single handed and now the ship is turning and coming right at me! The pilot boarded and we were getting closer and closer…..the ship was forced to alter course to keep from hitting me…..The pilot that was now on the bridge radioed me and apologized , asked for forgiveness and could he please alter course so as not to go aground on the south bar…” no worries – and I took the kite down headed up and tacked….all good…..but talk about wanting to read the pilot the riot act!!!!!!!! Remember we clearly exchanged safe passing instructions…..and the pilot boat was on the same frequency. So…..even the pro’s blow it!

    Be safe,

    Punk Dolphin

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