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Legal Perspective - Large Vessels Also Encouraged to Slow Down

July 2, 2019

With July here, boaters look forward to a summer of fun and relaxation. Many will endure packed commuter trains and traffic jams as they rush home from work to make the most of each precious weekend. Once on the water, the urgency of those stressful commutes often slows down to a pace better suited for enjoying quiet sunsets at anchor. This “slowing down” on the water also takes place in a literal sense, with buoys warning boaters to obey their “5 MPH” or “no wake” messages.
The reasons for obeying these floating speed limit signs are clear. From a safety standpoint, slow speeds reduce the risk of collision. They result in smaller wakes. Anyone who ever experien
ced being tossed about in a small dinghy after a large boat carved out a deep trough is all in favor of reduced speeds in confined waters. And from a legal standpoint, maritime law holds vessel operators responsible for damages or injuries caused by their wakes. Slow speeds are also respectful toward delicate ecosystems and shore side structures such as gas docks and swimming floats. But we don’t often think of the concept of slowing down in the realm of larger vessels.
Maybe the reason for this is that most boaters don’t normally find themselves in the close company of large vessels running at their ordinary sea speeds out on the open ocean. In the age of ocean liners, ships like the S.S. United States opened up their throttles after clearing Ambrose Light and headed for Europe as fast as their powerful steam turbines would take them. With an incredible 240,000 horsepower in reserve, the United States would easily outpace many Cold War-era destroyers of the day without breaking a sweat. ‘No speed limits out here. As a matter of fact, speed was even encouraged as a matter of national pride, with the coveted Blue Riband going to the ship that achieved the fastest transatlantic crossing.
Even after jetliners replaced such oceangoing greyhounds in the 1960s, some of the merchant ships in operation throughout the 1970s were no slouches themselves. Sea-Land operated a class of SL-7 container ships that could do 33 knots. That’s quite a clip for a 50,000-plus ton ship, and is considerably faster than cargo ships today. So does that mean the sky’s the limit for speed on the open seas? Are slow speeds only relevant for small pleasure boats operating near anchorages? Not exactly.
A recent development demonstrates this. An open letter to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) requested mandatory speed measures for ocean shipping. It was signed by environmental groups and over a hundred shipping companies. IMO is an agency of the United Nations that oversees international shipping. Its regulations govern safety, security, environmental, and shipboard operations.
What’s the reason for requesting reduced ship speeds? It’s related to air quality. Slower speed
s result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The letter to IMO calls for maximum average speeds to be established for container ships and maximum absolute speeds for other types of vessels. Since this is a recent development, we’ll have to see how it will be handled within the international shipping community and what the impact will be on air quality in the future.
Large ships have other good reasons to slow down, such as reduced wear and tear on their multimillion-dollar power plants. But maybe one of the best reasons of all is for the welfare of wildlife. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) ten-knot speed restrictions for ships 65-feet or longer were implemented to protect North Atlantic right whales. The chances of a whale surviving an encounter with a ship are better if the ship is steaming at reduced speed. Similarly, recreational vessels are also asked to observe caution for wildlife in certain waterways.
So just as boaters could be required to maintain slow speeds in certain designated areas, large vessels can also have their own good reasons for slowing down, even on the open ocean. While the reasons for reduced speeds between large and small vessels aren’t always identical, they do share the element of often being for the common good.
Best wishes for a Happy Fourth of July and safe summer!

Tim Akpinar is a NY based maritime attorney and has taught law at SUNY Maritime College.

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