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Course Outline

Puget Sound has a Vessel Traffic System (VTS) run by the USCG that oversees the shipping lanes through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into Seattle. The Columbia River has shipping lanes but no VTS. Shipping lanes are identified on nautical charts.

Commercial ships have limited views from the bridge and require long distances to come to a full stop—often ¾ to 1½ miles. Recreational vessel operators in shipping lanes need to watch for large ships and keep the following in mind.

  • Avoid commercial shipping traffic lanes by as wide of a margin as possible.
  • 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.
  • 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. A pilot’s “blind spot” can extend for hundreds of feet in front of tugboats and towboats pushing barges.
  • Allow ample room when crossing or traveling behind a ship or tugboat. Dangerously strong underwater currents (or wheel wash) created by the engines can extend for hundreds of yards from the 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. Narrow passageways restrict movement for large vessels and make it dangerous for ships to alter their courses.
  • 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 for a distress call. VHF-FM radio is monitored by nearby vessels ready to assist.
    • Contact commercial vessels in Puget Sound on VHF-FM channel 14/5A or channel 13.
  • For more information, see the USCG’s VTS User's Manual for Puget Sound at
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  • Topic 20 of 21
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