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A water channel is a naturally or artificially produced waterway wide and deep enough to permit boats to pass. Channels are usually narrow and can present sailing hazards such as rocks or shoals that mariners must beware of when they sail. They are clearly marked on nautical charts, along with information about average water heights and notes about the impact of tides on the depth of the channel, as this can be critical for ships with a deep draft.
Government agencies may use dredging and other measures to control the depth of a water channel. This practice is common in heavily trafficked areas where there are concerns about ships running aground. Nautical charts will highlight the dredged area and indicate the depth the government commits to maintaining. Outside this channel area, water depth may be variable, and there is a risk of running around on deposits of silt and other materials that agencies do not regularly clean out.
Responsibility for maintaining navigable waterways is usually that of government agencies concerned with transportation, shipping, and caring for the environment. On a water channel where ships frequently travel, the government may install indicators and buoys to direct traffic in various directions with the goal of keeping mariners as safe as possible. In addition, technicians must periodically assess the depth to determine if more dredging is necessary to control the channel.
Ship manufacture and repair companies may maintain a water channel leading to their docks for ease of coming and going. They rely on the channel to move customers along safely and may also use the area for testing to make sure boats are seaworthy. Docks and harbors can also participate in channel creation, paying for this service out of harbor fees so anyone benefiting from the channel will also pay for upkeep. These entities need to coordinate with each other and government agencies to keep waterways clear and safe.
While navigating in a water channel, there is less room to turn around and move. This can be dangerous, especially in poor weather conditions. Ships must observe right of way laws, yielding to disabled vessels as well as larger boats that may have difficulty stopping, slowing, and turning to avoid collisions. Failure to follow the law can result in fines and penalties, in addition to legal liability in the event of any kind of accident. Ships must also display proper safety lighting so they will be visible in the dark or fog, giving other vessels a chance to avoid them.
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