Vessel Traffic Lanes are used to regulate busy traffic in confined waterways for deep-draft commercial vessels such as cargo ships and tugs with barges. VTS is primarily for commercial vessels, although all power-driven vessels 40 meters (131 feet) or longer, commercial or recreational, must be active participants and maintain radio watch on the assigned VTS channel. Within these TSS (traffic lanes or clearways) there is at least one traffic lane in each direction, and usually a separation zone between the directional lanes. There may also be a special zone where a lane splits into two different channels.

Although recreational vessels shorter than 20 meters are exempt from being participants in VTS, they must know how to keep out of the way of large, slow-maneuvering vessels. Pleasure craft, even vessels under sail, do not have right-of-way over VTS participant vessels and must not impede commercial vessels in any way. Pleasure boaters should never travel for any extended period in commercial traffic lanes nor in the center separation zone. If pleasure boaters need to cross shipping lanes, it should be done at as close to 90 degrees as possible; never cross at a shallow angle. Large commercial vessels need to stay within the traffic lane and cannot easily maneuver around another vessel that may be in front of them. As a rule of thumb, pleasure boaters should get out of their way; it’s always best to cross behind a commercial vessel in a shipping lane rather than in front of them. Leave a wide berth from behind, as emergency tow-lines often extend several hundred feet from the stern of a barge.

Vessel Traffic Lane with no magenta separation shown

Traffic lanes are depicted on nautical charts, but may be overlooked if charts are not studied thoroughly. Traffic separation zones are normally shown in magenta or purple; but if there is no designated traffic separation zone, the casual observer may miss noting the traffic lanes on his/her charts. In Rosario Strait for example, the northern section of the Strait does not have a traffic separation zone, so the lack of a magenta color on the chart may mean that a boater may miss seeing the marine traffic lanes depicted as only dotted lines.

Pleasure boaters need to practice extreme caution when transiting across traffic lanes – commercial vessels are traveling at a fast clip and take miles to stop due to their weight and affected inertia. When in doubt, always take the appropriate evasive action. Boaters should also be aware that VTS participants are not required to monitor VHF Ch16; it is advisable for pleasure boaters to monitor vessel traffic channels as well as channel 16 when transiting near or across traffic lanes. See the VTS pages in the Waggoner Cruising Guide for frequencies to monitor and more information.