Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Preventing Collisions At Sea - The Basics

Vin Pica discusses THE RULES, and the basics of preventing collisions on the water...

Guest blog by Vincent Pica
Chief of Staff, First District, Southern Region (D1SR)
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

Photo © Andrew Canepari / Nautical Sites Media

Every boater has (hopefully) heard of the rule of "red, right, return" meaning to keep the red buoys on your right when returning from sea.

What many don’t realize is that this old chestnut is one of many that represent the embedded knowledge of centuries of seafaring known formally as the "International Regulations for the Prevention of Collision at Sea" and the largely parallel United States Inland Rules. Sometimes referred to by the old salts as the "COLREGS" or simply The Rules, it has been estimated that less than 10% of today’s boaters are familiar with them…

And the IMO (International Maritime Organization, global governing body) estimates that 80% of all collisions at sea are due to "pilot error"...

So, this column continues a series of articles on The Rules that have one simple goal: Safety of Life at Sea ...

  • First, back in the day, vessels were designated as “privileged” and “burdened.” The privileged boat would hold her course and speed and the burdened boat would take “early and substantial” action to avoid the collision. What the Coast Guard noticed through court cases though was that skippers involved in collisions would claim that they had “the right of way” or that they had “privileges.” This implied something that doesn’t exist in The Rules – that you have no affirmative obligation to avoid a collision at sea, no matter how much “in the right” you are. So, The Rules were changed to remove this unintended subtlety. Just about every reference to the term “right of way” was removed from The Rules and the terms “privileged” and “burdened” were changed to “stand-on” and “give-way”, respectively. Their courses of action were retained – the stand-on vessel would hold her course and speed and the give-way vessel would take early and substantial action to avoid a collision – plus one caveat. Under Rule 17(b), if the closing conditions between the two* vessels has deteriorated to the point that action by the give-way vessel solely can no longer avoid a collision at sea, the stand-on vessel is “required” to take the best action it can to avoid the collision. Rule 2 also clearly states that a skipper “may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.”  (More on Rule 2 next week.) 
  • Secondly, unlike in the US Court system where everyone is innocent until proven guilty, all parties in front of an Admiralty Board or a Court of Inquiry is guilty. The Board will simply apportion blame and it will never be 100-0. So, even if a guy plows directly into you, see 17(b) above… 
  • Three, there are only three conditions of vessels meeting on the waters – head-on, crossing or overtaking situations. The Rules govern how the skippers are to interact with each other through helm control and sound (or radio) signals.
In that this column is part of the developing series, I will give you some quick rules of thumb** now and come back to you with more in depth information in the weeks ahead.

Rule 13 – Overtaking
Bottom line, if you are overtaking another vessel, you are the give-way vessel. You cannot turn it into a stand-on crossing situation by speeding ahead and then cutting across the over-taken vessel’s starboard bow.

Rule 14 – Head On
If you see a boat steaming towards you in a head-on situation, “both” captains are required to turn to starboard (showing their red port-side light) and return to their respective compass headings once an appropriate passing lane has been established between them. Under the Rules, they are “both” give-way vessels.

Rule 15 – Crossing
OK, I will use the term. If another boat is crossing your bow from your right-hand (starboard) side, she has the “right of way.” Turn to starboard and go behind her (called “going under her stern”). If you can’t, stop your boat until she passes.
Here lies the body of Michael O’Day
Who died maintaining his Right of Way.
He was right, dead right, as he sailed along,
But he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong.

More to follow in the weeks ahead…

 * All the Rules apply to only those conditions where two boats, and two boats only, are involved. When more than two boats are involved in a potential collision, “common sense must be prevail.”

** The term “rule of thumb” came from days when a sailing captain would never draw closer to shore than the width of his thumb on the chart…

BTW, if you are interested in being part of USCG Forces, email me at JoinUSCGAux@aol.com or go direct to the D1SR Human Resources department, who are in charge of new members matters, at DSO-HR and we will help you "get in this thing…"



  1. Thanks for the refresher and the straight-ahead explanations. The teaser e-mail said the estimate is that 80% of boaters are unfamiliar with The Rules. Eighty percent of sailboaters probably are, but my experience is that power boaters bring the average down. Surprisingly, many commercial vessels are big offenders here in SoCal, invoking the unwritten (and unsupportable at admiralty court) of gross tonnage, literally throwing their weight around.

    Capt. Dan
    Sail Channel Islands

  2. And one more thing ... doesn't this situation beg for licensing of boaters?

  3. Anonymous09 May, 2012

    Taking this rules for granted is usually the cause of accidents. Even with the latest navigation advancement and rule of the sea accidents can happen. This is due to human error. The neglect of the rules is a human nature. That is why accidents don't cease to happen.

    J. Harp
    writer @ pedal boat