Let’s Talk About Proper Bridge Etiquette

Inland waterways are rife with bridges and overpasses of all shapes and sizes. It is your responsibility as the captain to be aware of these potential traffic hazards, including their variety of configurations (think swing, lift, floating, or bascule) and implied rules of the road. 

In order to safely navigate the waterways, it’s very important that you familiarize yourself with some common knowledge for interacting with both stationary and drawbridge structures — that way you won’t find yourself up the river without a paddle! 


boats going under a crowded bridge

The Importance of Pre-Determining Bridge Types

Depending on your route, you may encounter a stationary bridge or a drawbridge, which opens and closes for larger vessels to pass under safely. Each of these passages will require a different approach, so it’s important to be prepared well in advance of your journey. 


Encountering a Stationary Bridge

Many bridges are high enough to allow standard boat passage, but some may have low clearance during the rainy season with higher water levels. Be sure to check maps and charts for both the horizontal and vertical clearances of the center channel span. 

The clearance board or gauge on the bridge’s right will mark the current vertical distance between the bridge channel span and the waterline, but not the water depth under the bridge. Always know your vertical clearance to avoid issues with passage. 

Sailboat captains must be careful to check the clearance of the boat’s mast before passing under bridges, which is difficult to do from the operator’s position on the ship. Always be prepared with this knowledge before you set sail. 


Encountering a Drawbridge

Many drawbridges will open and close when a boat arrives, but some operate on a set schedule, such as every half-hour. Be sure to check your route ahead of time and plan accordingly. However, even with scheduled openings, you should still call and tell the operator of your intent to pass. Communication is key.

In order to request passage, you will need to contact the bridge operator using your VHF marine radio. Know the bridge’s name before you call ahead, as some areas of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) will have several bridges all within radio range. Let them know what boat you are operating for total clarity. If they do not answer your call, assume they have not heard your request and continue to try to make contact until you’ve received confirmation. 

Most bridges monitor VHF Channel 13, 16, and in Florida, Channel 9. Don’t hail the bridge operator until you are within sight of the bridge, and use low-power (1 watt) with your VHF radio to minimize radio traffic with other boaters in the general vicinity. These operators will also be able to tell you the bridge’s clearance and offer you any other special instructions or warnings.


Tips for Signaling a Drawbridge Operator

Know how to signal the bridgetender if you’re unable to reach them via VHF radio. Use one long blast (four to six seconds long) followed by one short (one-second) sound blast to request a bridge opening. 

If the bridge operator returns the signal, the drawbridge can be opened immediately. If it can’t be opened or is in the process of closing, the tender will sound five short blasts as a danger signal, and you will need to stop and stand by until given further clearance. 

Never ask for a bridge opening if your boat will fit under a closed bridge — and lower radio antennas and movable masts if necessary. In fact, requesting an unnecessary opening can result in hefty penalties. If other boats are waiting, proceed slowly and cautiously as you navigate the area. 


Be Cautious While Waiting

Avoid getting stranded between bridges — not all lift bridges open on demand or on a set schedule, and railroad drawbridges can stay down for hours. Know your route and be prepared well in advance. 

It’s also likely that a crowd of boats will gather on both sides of the bridge when waiting for it to open, so it’s imperative that you remain attentive at all times. Strong currents and winds could make things difficult, and other boaters may be less vigilant, which could cause drifting and collision issues if you’re not at the ready. 


Know Your Bridge Etiquette

If you’re not familiar with the rules of the road when it comes to operating a boat out on the open water, be sure to read this guide to boating etiquette. 

Always approach bridges slowly and cautiously to ensure your wake doesn’t cause issues for other boaters. Be cautious as debris often collects around the pilings on bridges, which creates dangerous obstructions to your vessel. Also, be aware of strong currents or exposed rocks in the area. 

Keep an eye out for speed limit signs, people swimming, kayaking, or fishing, or boats in distress. 

Once the drawbridge has opened, wait your turn to proceed and always keep to the right. If the channel is narrow, you may need to wait longer for larger vessels or ones that have restricted mobility, such as a sailboat or boat under tow. When in doubt, wait it out!

Sailboats should douse their sail and use their engines for bridge crossings to ensure no issues come up. 


Follow the Lights at Night

Be sure to pay attention to any bridge lights when navigating the bridge area under the cover of darkness.

→ A green light will mark the center of the navigable channel under the bridge.

→ A red light will mark any supporting piers, so use these red lights to avoid hazards you may not see until it’s too late. 


Understanding Who Has the Right of Way

When two boats are approaching each other from opposite directions of a bridge, the boat that has the right of way is the one that has the current to their stern, because if the current is running behind you, it’s propelling that boat forward and offers less control over the vessel. The other boat must yield to the vessel which has the current flowing toward their bow. 


Explore New Destinations with Morningstar Marinas

At Morningstar Marinas, we pride ourselves on the community of boaters we’ve created across the Southeast’s top boating destinations. Our facilities and services paired with our friendly and knowledgeable team members will help you quickly and efficiently get out there on the water, so you can start having fun! Morningstar Marinas is more than just a place to store your boat — we’re here to offer you an unforgettable boating experience, everytime.