Imagine a time, way back, when ships at sea had no rules governing their right of way and avoiding collisions. At that time, sailing vessels were used to transport cargo, ferry passengers, harvest fish from the sea and carry the mail. Recreational boating, as we know it today, didn’t exist. Yachting was the domain of royalty and upper class society. Add into the mix that when rules were adopted, different nations had their own regulations that reflected their country’s maritime heritage for stand-on and give-way vessels, lateral at sea navigation marks for channels, and onboard navigation lights. Internationally, inconsistencies and contradictions abounded and collisions at sea were frequent.
During the age of sail, the mindset of maritime nations was that ships moved slowly. Being governed by the laws of physics, sailing masters knew that ships couldn’t sail into the eye of the wind nor could they sail in the absence of wind. With the advent of steam-powered vessels in the mid-19th century, ships could maneuver at will irrespective of wind direction and wind velocity.
As part of an 1838 act of Congress in the U.S. that addressed steamboat safety, steamboats running between sunset and sunrise had to display one or more signal lights, but color, visibility, and location were not specified. In England, Trinity House (which was responsible for lighthouses, navigational aids and deep sea pilotage) pressed Parliament into action to pass the Steam Navigation Act of 1846. That law required that steam vessels pass port-to-port that crossing vessels make course alterations to starboard, and that sailing vessels on the port tack give way to vessels on the starboard tack. Two years later the United Kingdom issued regulations requiring steam vessels to display red and green sidelights, as well as a white masthead light.
Back in the United States, English maritime law was having a great influence on Congress. In 1858, in separate but similar actions, the U.S. and England recommended colored sidelights for sailing vessels. Also, fog signals were required to be given on steam vessels using the ship’s steam whistle, and on sailing vessels with a foghorn or bell.
In 1863 the British Board of Trade, in consultation with the French government, developed a new set of rules. By the following year, more than thirty maritime countries, including Germany and the United States, had adopted those new international regulations. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Rules to Prevent Collisions at Sea into U.S. law in 1864. Some of the provisions of these first international rules were that the overtaking vessel was required to stay out of the way of the overtaken vessel, and that the stand-on vessel was required to maintain its course only. The only sound signal prescribed while underway was a whistle at one-minute intervals during fog or poor visibility.
The most well-known document of that era was The Rule of the Road written in 1867 by Thomas Gray, the assistant secretary to the Maritime Department of the British Board of Trade. That pamphlet became famous for its mnemonic verses such as:
Two Steam Ships meeting:
When both side-lights you see ahead —
Port your helm and show your RED.
Two Steam Ships passing:
GREEN to GREEN — or, RED to RED —
Perfect safety — go ahead!
In 1889 the United States convened the first International Maritime Conference to consider regulations for preventing collisions, held in Washington, D.C. The resulting Washington Conference rules were adopted in 1890 and went into effect in 1897. Significant developments in this new body of rules included a requirement for stand-on vessels to maintain speed as well as course, for steamships to carry a second masthead light, for the give way vessel not to cross ahead of the stand on vessel, and for the use of whistle signals to indicate course changes.
For the next 70 years additional rule changes were made, and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was promulgated on a regular basis beginning in 1914 following the Titanic disaster.
The worldwide, harmonized collision regulations that recreational boaters and commercial shipping use for safe passage today, were first introduced by the International Maritime Organization 1972 for ratification by member states. Beginning July 15, 1977 the International Rules for Preventing Collisions at Sea (IRPCS), more commonly known as COLREGs, became the rule of law. It is the foundation navigational document for all vessels operating on the high seas.