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Rules of the Road Refresh - Responsibilities between vessels

by Patrick Kelly / RCR Yachts 8 May 17:01 UTC
Rules of the Road Refresh © RCR Yachts

The sound of wind in the masts at the local boatyards has been replaced by the sounds of buffers, sanders, and music as owners prepare their boats to emerge from a long winter's nap.

Pretty soon we'll all be on the water, and hopefully out of one another's way! How skilled are you with the US Inland and International Navigation Rules when it comes to keeping clear of other vessels? As we get our boats ready for the season, we would be well-served to prepare ourselves also, since knowing the rules not only keeps you and your vessel safe, but also can keep simple misunderstandings from becoming big expensive problems. All vessels must avoid collision, period. Therefore, the term "Right of Way" as it pertains to boats is bogus—if the first rule is to avoid a collision, then who is "right" if a collision occurs (answer: no one)? We need to concern ourselves with the terms "Stand-On" and "Give-Way" as they pertain to who must do what to avoid collision. More on that later, but first, a brief technical discussion:

Responsibilities between vessels

The COLREGS established a set of international rules to prevent collisions at sea which comprise the basis for rules commonly referred to as the "Rules of the Road." For our purposes, a key component of the rules involves knowing your type of vessel and the responsibility each has when navigating near other types of vessels; something like a pecking order. Vessels can be broadly categorized into three types: Power Vessel, Sailing Vessel, or Fishing Vessel. A Power Vessel is any vessel being propelled by machinery. A Sailing Vessel is any vessel being propelled by sail and with its engine not providing propulsion. A Fishing Vessel is any vessel using nets, lines, or trawls that restrict her maneuverability in commercial fishing operations, but it does not include vessels engaged in fishing by other means (think trolling lines, rod/reel, etc.) This is an area that leads to some confusion, so it might help to think about the size of the fishing operation. Consider two vessels, both operated by machinery. One is dragging a large purse seine net aboard, the other has six rods all trolling lures. Though both are catching fish, the rules recognize the purse seine vessel as the one "engaged in fishing."

In addition to the types of vessels outlined above, there are other vessels, who by the nature of their work, might also warrant special treatment. These are referred to as vessels Not Under Command (NUC) or Restricted in her Ability to Maneuver (RAM), and they take precedence over other vessels in the pecking order. A NUC is a vessel unable to maneuver according to the rules because of some exceptional circumstance. While it is still early in the investigation, the M/V Dali container ship that collided with the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore may fall into this category as her ability to maneuver was somehow compromised. A RAM, on the other hand, is a vessel that is restricted in her ability to maneuver based on the nature of her work. Think of a buoy tender or a dredging vessel—these operations are complex and limit a vessel's capability to quickly maneuver according to the rules.

It follows that NUCs and RAMs, respectively, have the highest priority over other vessels, regardless of power, sail, or fishing. Beyond these classifications, it is simple to work out the responsibilities between vessels:

  • A Power Vessel gives way to: NUC, RAM, Fishing Vessel, Sailing Vessel.
  • A Sailing Vessel gives way to: NUC, RAM, Fishing Vessel.
  • A Fishing Vessel gives way to: NUC, RAM.

Stand On and Give Way

With the prioritization of traffic understood, we can really simplify who becomes stand-on or give way in any situation by keeping two big ideas in mind: 1) ALL vessels have a responsibility to avoid collisions at all costs, even if deviation from the established navigation rules occurs, and 2) The action you take to avoid collision will depend on which vessel is the Stand-On and which is the Give Way. We'll put some practical situations together in a moment, but first, know that the Stand-On vessel has the responsibility to maintain course and speed to the best of her ability. Further, the Give Way vessel must make an alteration to course and/or speed large enough to be readily apparent to another vessel either visually or by radar.

Sailing Vessels

When two sailing vessels approach one another, the one with the wind on her starboard side is the stand-on vessel. When two sailing vessels have the wind on the same side, the vessel to windward shall give way to the vessel to leeward. If it cannot be clearly determined which vessel has wind on her starboard side, then both vessels shall give way to one another.

Overtaking Vessels

Any vessel overtaking another from a direction aft of the beam (abaft) is the give-way vessel. The vessel being overtaken becomes the stand-on vessel, and the situation is not complete until the overtaking vessel is past and clear of the stand-on vessel. If vessels are in a head-on situation, both become the give-way vessel, and each shall adjust their course to starboard so as to pass one another on each vessel's port side.

Crossing Situations (Powered Vessels)

Think of a clock. If you observe traffic on your starboard side between the 12 o'clock and 4 o'clock positions, then you are the give way vessel. If you ever wondered why most powerboat helm stations are on the starboard side, now you know!

Keeping all the navigational rules straight can be cumbersome, so hopefully a brief categorization and some clear definitions are helpful. This article did not go into day shapes or sound and light signals, but these are worth committing to memory also. You can always reference the USCG Navigational Rules and Regulations Handbook, and in fact, if your vessel is 12 meters (39 feet) or greater in length, a copy is required to be aboard! See you out there!

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