Navigating the San Francisco Bay Region during periods of reduced visibility requires mariners to exercise additional caution and vigilance. The safe speed of ferry operations in reduced visibility is based on a number of factors as described in the Rules of the Road (COLREGS) including maneuverability, draft, vessel congestion, manning, and radar capabilities. Passenger ferries are highly maneuverable with short stopping distances and have a shallow draft which enables operation outside of shipping channels. Ferries in the San Francisco Bay Area also follow fixed routes as prescribed in the HSC Ferry Routing Protocol, which adds predictability and reduces the risk of collision. A safe speed for a ferry vessel can be quite different from a deep draft ship or tug and barge along the same route. In addition to Rules of the Road and USCG regulatory requirements, each Ferry operator has developed specific safety procedures.
The Bay Area’s three commute ferry companies/agencies agreed to work with the Harbor Safety Committee, Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service (VTS), the Water Transit Authority and stakeholder parties to develop a protocol safe for ferry navigation in the San Francisco and San Pablo Bays.
The Ferry Operations Work Group conducted a two-year process to develop an approach and maneuvering scheme in the vicinity of the congested San Francisco Ferry Building, as well as a routing protocol in the Central Bay to decrease the risk of collision for commute ferries. The Work Group agreed to protocols and referred them to the Harbor Safety Committee, which adopted the Work Group findings and recommendations in May 2008.
Ferry Traffic Routing Protocol
The Ferry Traffic Routing Protocol consists of planned routes and communications procedures for improving ferry navigation safety. When ferries follow routes, the Closest Point of Approach (CPAs) with other ferries is greatest at points where speeds are typically greatest. The adopted routes cross at predetermined locations at nearly right angles, enabling ferries to predict crossing situations and plan ahead.
Within an approximately ½-mile zone around the San Francisco Ferry Building, the protocol calls for port-to-port meeting and heightened radio communications. For inbound Ferry Building ferries, the protocol requires planning far enough in advance to avoid getting within approximately ½ nautical mile from the Ferry Building if another ferry is still at the inbounder’s dock.
This reduces crowding around the Ferry Building. With ferry routes charted on nautical charts, other types of vessels can more easily predict the locations of ferries and steer clear. The Ferry Traffic Routing Protocol supports aggressive use of electronic nautical charts (ENCs) with intergraded Automatic Identification System (AIS). When all ferries consistently update their AIS data and follow routes, the protocol will ultimately lead to reduced VTS-ferry communications.