Table of Contents

Download the PDF Version

Vessel Traffic Systems and Shipping Lanes

The U.S. Coast Guard operates the Puget Sound Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) to provide navigational assistance and a Traffic Separation Scheme (buoys and charted traffic lanes) to the maritime community of Puget Sound. VTS Puget Sound manages the commercial shipping lanes from Cape Flattery through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Tacoma. The Columbia River has shipping lanes but no vessel traffic system.

Avoid commercial shipping traffic lanes by as wide of a margin as possible. Commercial traffic has the right-of-way.

At night, be extra vigilant and note navigation lights, especially sidelights. If both red and green lights are visible, a vessel is approaching you head-on. Be aware that there may be an unlit space of several hundred yards between bow and stern lights, such as when a tugboat is pushing a barge.

Best Practices

  • Stay a long distance behind deep-draft traffic.
  • Cross traffic lanes at 90 degrees to the prevailing traffic or as practical.
  • Never cross in front of a tugboat or between a tugboat and its tow.
  • Leave ample room when crossing or traveling behind a ship or tugboat.
  • Never anchor in a shipping lane, and never tie up to a buoy or other navigational aid.
  • Do not enter into the direct path of commercial vessels that are approaching bridges and locks. It is dangerous for ships to alter their courses in these situations.
  • When necessary to communicate your position to a ship, contact commercial vessels by VHF-FM radio using the locally monitored frequency. Do not use a cell phone.

Recreational Boating Manual for Puget Sound

VTS Puget Sound has a Recreational Boating Manual to help boaters understand the Traffic Separation Scheme and related safety issues from sharing the waters of Puget Sound with commercial traffic.

For more information, visit: