Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rules of the Road

I was astonished to read recently in a sailing magazine that sailboats in particular and regattas in general have the right of way on the water over any other vessel. To give the writer credit, at least he knew that there are "rules of the road," even if he didn't really understand what they are. Some motorboat and personal watercraft operators seems to thinks it's a free-for-all out there. It's not, or at least it's not supposed to be.

Rules of the road have several levels, starting with the COLREGS (Collision Regulations) that were agreed to by international treaty. Many nations, including the United States, have their own variations on these in domestic waters. The US, in fact, has slightly different sets of rules for the Great Lakes, the "western rivers" (Mississippi, Missouri, and their tributaries), and "inland" waters in general.

I could blog several times a week on the Rules of the Road alone, but some general principles do apply. In terms of right of way, a less maneuverable vessel generally has the right of way over a more maneuverable one and a slower vessel over a faster one. Every vessel is required to keep a proper lookout and every vessel is obligated to take action to avoid a collision if possible.

That sailboater does indeed have the right of way in a lot of situations, but not every time. If he's using his engine, in a narrow channel or designated traffic lane, or encountering a vessel that can't maneuver due to it's work (dredging or recovering divers, for instance), he may have to give way. And that regatta? Unless the Coast Guard or local law enforcement declares the area off limits, it's nothing but a bunch of folks out sailing.

Any vessel more than 12 meters in length is required to have a copy of the rules onboard. The current edition is Navigation Rules (International-Inland), COMDTINST M16672.2D, the so-called "D" Edition. Find the latest updates in the Notices to Mariners, or on the Coast Guard web site at http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/mwv/navrules/navrules.htm.

To find the complete Rules online, try Handbook of the Nautical Rules of the Road (Third On-line Edition) by Chris Llana and George Wisneskey at http://navruleshandbook.com/index.html

Filed from M/Y Safari Explorer at Baranof, Warm Spring Bay, Southeast Alaska.


  1. The Rule of the Road

    When all three lights I see ahead,
    I turn to Starboard and show my Red:
    Green to Green, Red to Red,
    Perfect Safety -- Go Ahead.

    But if to Starboard Red appear,
    It is my duty to keep clear --
    To act as judgment says is proper:
    To Port or Starboard, Back or Stop her.

    And if upon my Port is seen
    A Steamer's Starboard light of Green,
    I hold my course and watch to see
    That Green to Port keeps Clear of me.

    Both in safety and in doubt
    Always keep a good look out.
    In Danger, with no room to turn,
    Ease her, Stop her, Go Astern.

  2. Thanks, JED. I would only add that the Rules and subsequent court cases based on them prefer a course change to a speed change as that is more obvious to another vessel, and that turning to starboard is preferred over changing course to port.

  3. This is good grist for the mill indeed Rob. Perhaps an entry about the seeming difference in symantics between the "stand-on vessel" and the "right of way vessel". Though the two are virtually the same in meaning, those that refer to themselves as having the right of way often fail to realize that carries with it a certain burden of responsibility. Specifically that of giving the "give-way" vessel some consistent and predictable set of circumstances to actually give way to. I say this as a sailor knowing that maintaining course and speed as the stand-on vessel is a little observed requirement of many pleasure sailors.

  4. Indeed, are you really practicing good seamanship as required by the rules when you tack back and forth in front of a large vessel? "Right of way" doesn't mean you get to do whatever you want on the water, any more than it means that at a four-way stop in your car (you can't just drive back and forth through the intersection, for instance).