Contrary to popular belief, the phrase ‘right of way’ is never mentioned once in the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (IRPCS). Prior to 1977, vessels were called either burdened or privileged in potential collision situations, which may have led to the assumption that the privileged vessel had right of way at all costs. One can just imagine a boater standing before an admiralty law judge pleading, “But your Honor, I was the privileged vessel and I thought I could do anything I wanted!” Today, the steering and sailing rules of COLREGS are based instead on actions by a give-way vessel and actions by a stand-on vessel.
Action by Give-Way Vessel
Every vessel which is directed to keep out of the way of another vessel shall, so far as possible, take early and substantial action to keep well clear.
Action by Stand-On Vessel
Where one of two vessels is to keep out of the way, the other shall keep her course and speed. The latter vessel may, however, take action to avoid collision by her maneuver alone, as soon as it becomes apparent to her that the vessel required to keep out of the way is not taking appropriate action in compliance with these Rules … This Rule does not relieve the give-way vessel of her obligation to keep out of the way.
The steering and sailing rules are divided into three sections: Conduct of vessels in any condition of visibility; conduct of vessels in sight of one another, and conduct of vessels in restricted visibility. The four bedrock rules to avoid collisions are those of look-out, safe speed, risk of collision and action to avoid collision.
Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions.
Every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed so that they can take proper and effective action, and be stopped within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions.
Risk of Collision
Every vessel shall use all available means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions to determine if risk of collision exists. If there is any doubt such risk shall be deemed to exist.
Action to Avoid Collision
Any action to avoid collision shall be positive, made in ample time and with due regard to the observance of good seamanship. If necessary to avoid collision or allow more time to assess the situation, a vessel shall slacken her speed or take all way off by stopping or reversing her means of propulsion.
By following these four rules alone the prudent mariner should be able to avoid a collision, after all, they just espouse common sense. However, accidents continue to happen in both recreational boating and the commercial maritime industry, and it is the human factor that is responsible for 80% of these mishaps.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s 2015 Recreational Boating Statistics reported that 35% of the accidents that year were collisions. The five top causes of these accidents were operator inattention, operator experience, improper lookout, machinery failure and excessive speed. Three out of these five top causes are clearly covered by the four major rules of the road and should not be an issue. Just as we have done on our highways, we have carried distracted driving to our waters. While at the helm, driving a boat is a full time job, and smartphones and cocktails should be avoided.
The remainder of the steering and sailing rules covers specific topics such as navigation in narrow channels and traffic separation schemes. The familiar opposite tack and same tack rules for two sailing vessels in sight of one another and the overtaking rule are included as well. Two power-driven vessels meeting in head-on or crossing situations are given complete guidelines governing their actions. The crossing situation rule refers to what is commonly called the danger zone. It extends from dead ahead to two points abaft of the starboard beam of one’s boat (an angle of 112.5°). If another power-driven vessel enters your danger zone, that boat is the stand-on vessel, and your boat is the give-way vessel.
These rules defined in the IRPCS only refer to two vessels meeting. Obviously, in a crowded harbor or coastal area the master of a vessel must assess each possible collision situation, in the order of their approach, to make the correct choice according to the COLREGS. A hierarchy of vessels, based on their maneuverability, is regulated by the responsibilities between vessels rule, and is remembered by most sailors with the mnemonic: New reels catch fish so purchase some (Not Under Command, Restricted Ability to Maneuver, Constrained by Draft, Fishing, Sailing vessel, Power driven vessel, Seaplane). Operating in conditions of restricted visibility has its own set of challenges. Rule 19 lays out the actions for vessels not in sight of another whether detected by radar alone or by fog signals.
A copy of COLREGS kept within easy reach of the helm is a must, along with one of the many quick reference guides for rules of the road. Both should be well worn and dog-eared as a testament to their use and your commitment to safety.