San Francisco Bay is one of the busiest ports in the world. There are several things every small boat user needs to know:
- Ships have the right of way in shipping channels by law.
- Large ships cannot maneuver easily and need a lot of time to stop.
- Large vessels cannot see small vessels very well. It is safer to assume a large vessel cannot see you.
- Large ships are restricted to narrow channels or fairways where it is deep enough for them to move. Even if ships do see you, and have time to maneuver, they may not be able to do so safely because the water around the shipping channel is too shallow.
- It is your responsibility to be aware of your surroundings and keep clear of larger vessels.
- Know where the shipping lanes are and stay out of them. Use extreme caution if a crossing is necessary.
- Larger boats leave large wakes.
You can also monitor VHF Channel 14 to determine the location and route of large vessels. You can view live movement of ships in the Bay.
The Harbor Safety Committee has a guide to marine communications on San Francisco Bay.
You should become familiar with the Rules of the Road from the U.S. Coast Guard. Some of the most important:
Rule 9 – Places the obligation on you to avoid large vessels navigating in a narrow, deeper channel.
Rule 5 – Requires every vessel to maintain a look-out at all times. As a small boater you need to be aware of what’s in front of you, beside you, and behind you.
Security Exclusion Zones
The U.S. Coast Guard has established security zones in areas in San Francisco Bay. Entering these areas is prohibited. The U.S. Coast Guard has a brochure of these areas.
If you are using a radio, the following channels are helpful:
Channel 16: Emergency, distress, and safety calls.
Channel 14: To monitor U.S. Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service.
Channel 13: For communications with commercial vessels.
Channel 22A: Calls between the Coast Guard and public. Severe weather warnings, hazards to navigation, and safety warnings are broadcast here.
NOAA’s nautical charts provide detailed maps of the San Francisco Bay and are available for order or for download. Their website includes weekly “Notices to Mariners” with updates.
Many people are surprised to learn that hunting is allowed on the Bay. Small boaters should be aware of these areas and know the hunting seasons. Hunting regulations change year to year so please check the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and California Fish and Wildlife Service (CDFW) websites for the latest information and maps.