Boaters get traffic light at Severn bridge

December 01, 1993|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff Writer

`TC You take the boat out for a spin on the Severn River to get away from the grind of commuter life, and what do you see hanging under the old drawbridge? A traffic light telling you when you can pass through the open draw.

The light, which belongs to the State Highway Administration, is the solution to a lot of confusion and disputes over which boats have the right of way, explained Joyce Williams, a spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources.

Apparently, this is the first time a signal has been used to control traffic under a bridge in Maryland, though several Annapolis area sailors recalled similar signals being used in the Caribbean and in large shipyards.

Boats have been restricted to a single lane of traffic under the 69-year-old bridge ever since one of two, 135-ton weights that allow the leaves of the draw to go up and down broke off and plunged into the water July 27, allowing only one side of the bridge to open.

The confusion and backups have resulted in disputes and several near-accidents as boats tried to pass under the bridge in different directions simultaneously, Maryland Natural Resources Police have reported.

"There are rules of the road, but not many people have been following them," said Jack Sherwood, a sailboater and managing editor of Rags, an Annapolis-based sailing magazine. "There have been times when the [bridge] tender has had to come out and direct the boats through."

Ned Shuman, a retired Navy captain who keeps a sailboat on Weems Creek, recalled attempting to sail through the narrow opening in October when several other boats approached and tried "to muscle through the other way."

Ms. Williams said the bridge tender activates the light, installed above the bridge railing, when two or more boats approach the open draw span at the same time.

Boats under sail usually have the right of way over boats under power, Ms. Williams said. But because most sailboats must use their motors to power through the narrow opening, it's unclear to many if they should be considered sailboats or powerboats, she added.

Separate rules also govern who has the right of way in tidal water and in rivers, Ms. Williams said.

But the Severn is a river whose ebb and flow is determined by the tide, creating further confusion, she said.

Several commercial boat captains said that the light would be unnecessary if the recreational boaters were better trained in the rules of the road.

Barney Rowe, who runs an Ocean City-based school that trains commercial boat captains, predicted the highway traffic signal on the water would confuse novice boaters.

"I would think you would have to have a massive educational campaign because the navigational lights [marking the channels] are red and green already," he said.

The drawbridge, which had previously opened for boaters on demand, opens four times daily, 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

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