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Boat Traffic

San Francisco Bay is one of the busiest waterways in the world. Oil tankers, container ships and freighters are seen on the Bay every day. These vessels cannot maneuver easily and have little chance to avoid you, even if they can see you. The average paddler moving at about three knots, has no chance of outrunning a ship traveling at up to 15 knots. Know where the shipping lanes are. (Shipping lanes, channel markers, and other nautical aids are shown on Nautical Charts, which are available at local marine shops.) If you must cross a shipping lane use extreme caution and cross at right angles.

BASK trip

Watch out for ferry boats, too; some of these travel at speeds up to 30 knots. Motor boats and even sailboats can be a hazard, especially during races. Barges can travel outside of the shipping lanes and can quietly and suddenly appear close by. Stay alert and maintain a 360-degree watch.

When approaching busy sailboat and powerboat traffic, such as is often encountered in Raccoon Strait, a courteous group of kayakers will close ranks and form a tight pod, thereby discouraging other vessels from maneuvering through the middle of the pod.

Be especially careful when paddling at night. The law requires that you carry a white light that can be shown to warn other vessels of your position in time to prevent collision.

Sharing the waters with a variety of other vessels, kayakers need to be familiar with the Coast Guard's Navigation Rules (see links below). These "Rules of the Road" outline what we kayakers are required to do in various situations and identify the equipment that we are required to have on board. The Rules include both "International" and "Inland" rules; when in the Bay or Ocean, kayaks and other vessels are subject to the "International" rules.


  • US Coast Guard Navigation Center—Detailed information about navigation rules.
  • USCG Navigation Rules (PDF)—An excellent resource with good diagrams.
  • Mariner's Guide to the Port of New York & New Jersey—This 28-minute safety video, though made for NY, is well worth watching and very relevant to SF Bay. It works through different types of users (large ship, kayak, power boat, and sailboat) and talks about the challenges they have and what each can do to help get along and stay out of trouble. If you just want to see the kayak stuff, start at about 6:10 and make sure you watch until at least 8:10, but really the whole things is very informative and gives you a better perspective on how to paddle in a busy area.