Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Rules of the Road - Set to Poetry

Vin Pica waxes poetic about the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea...

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

Photo Courtesy of The U.S. Coast Guard

Over 125 years ago, Captain Eldridge set to poetry the most essential aspect of the Rules of the Road (COLREGs.) From this, the renowned Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book, the marine industry's most respected tide and current reference guide since 1874, was born. I have had one at the helm of my vessels since, well, I can’t remember that far back.

But the poem is worth dusting off and passing on to the current generation of mariners and boat skippers… In short, it is the essence of avoiding collisions at sea. This column is all about that....

The Poem - Dissected!

Here is what the Captain penned, and here is the dissection…

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 stays 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.

* “There’s nought for me to do but see” is the original version.

Now, granted, you can’t reduce an inch of regulations to 4 stanzas of
poetry, completely, but these words are key to the essential elements of
what the rules are all about - avoiding a collision at sea!

Sound Collision Alarm!
When patrolling, we often come upon situations where we see private boaters
closing on us in a fashion that will cause a collision unless someone starts
to act. I always, as I am taking the action necessary, call out, “sound
collision alarm”, as a teaching aid. From time to time, a trainee will ask,
“How’d you know?” as if I was clairvoyant. To determine the risk of
collision is relatively easy – the hard part is keeping an eye on the
skipper ahead of you who just might, at the last possible second, decide
that he needs to do something too…! Until you are well and by, stay sharp!
And here are the ways to see a collision coming before crunch time!

Bottom line, if you are overtaking another vessel, you are the give-way
vessel. There are three ways - with the 3rd always winning out - to tell if
you are indeed over-taking:

1. At night, you can see a white light and no red or green side lights.
The white light is either an anchor light or it is the stern light. You are
overtaking that vessel. Don’t hit her!
2. During the day, if at a distance you see an uninterrupted wake from
one side of the boat to the other, you are overtaking her. If you see a
break in the middle of the wake, you are not. (see "Head-On" below)
3. When in doubt, assume you are the overtaking vessel and act

When two vessels are on reciprocal (opposite) compass courses, obviously
this is a problem. There are 3 ways - with the 3rd method, as usual, always
winning out to tell:

1. At night, if you see three lights - red, green and a white light
above them, you are definitely heading straight at each other. If the white
appears to be largely above the single colored light, e.g., you see red and
white almost in a line, the green light may be just out and she is heading
straight at you!
2. During the day, if at a distance you see an interrupted wake in the
middle of the boat’s aspect, you are very likely heading right at each
other. That break is the bow cutting through the water.
3. When in doubt, assume you are on reciprocal courses and act

In this situation, both vessels are “give-way” and both are required, where
conditions permit, to turn to starboard and open up a passing lane between
them. Remember - take “early and substantial” action so that your maneuver
is “telegraphed” to the other skipper.

When two vessels appear to be heading across each other’s paths, this is by
definition a crossing situation – and, like in your car – a collision needs
to be avoided! But how can you tell if you are actually on a collision
course. There are 3 ways – with the 3rd method, as usual, always winning

1. At night, if you see a red light and a white light above it and
trailing behind, you are crossing each other’s path and she is the stand-on
vessel (red means stop!) You are thus the give-way. If you see a green and a
white light above it and trailing behind, you have a crossing situation
where you are the stand-on vessel – but keep an eye on her always! During
the day, you can obviously see if the vessel is crossing your path on your
starboard side (you are give-way) or on your port side (you are stand-on.)
2. Mark the other boat’s progress against something fixed on your boat
- a cleat, a stanchion, the anchor – anything that is traveling with you. If
the opposing boat continues to hover on or around that fixed mark as you
both continue your course and speed, a collision is about to happen! If
still in doubt, watch the land behind her. If she appears to be gaining on
the land, she will pass ahead of you. If she seems to be falling back
against the land, she will pass behind you. If the land is unchanged against
her course over the water, sound collision alarm!
3. When in doubt, assume you are on a collision course and act

In this situation, the give-way vessel is, by preference, to turn to
starboard (towards the stand-on boat) and go behind her (go “under her
stern”). Remember – take “early and substantial” action so that your
maneuver is “telegraphed” to the other skipper.

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. I have found with a lot of new boaters on the water they really don't have a clue about boating etiquette. I wish more would take the time to become boating educated. Thanks for the tips

  2. There are a lot more of these poems that are used to teach upcoming JOOD (Conning officers) the rules. Such as "Red over White, Fishing at night. "Red over Green, sailing machine." "White over Red, Pilots ahead." "Green over White, trawling at night." "Red over White over Red, there's a ship that can't turn up ahead." "Red over Red, Captain is dead. (Vessel not under command) "White over White over White, pushing or towing at night."

  3. There are a lot more of these nautical poems, when I was qualifying as a JOOD 20 years ago, I learned them like the back of my hand and was frequently quizzed about lights. Here are a few to remember, "White over Green, trawling machine." "White over Red, Pilot ahead." "Red over green, sailing machine." "When red to green does appear, it is your duty to stand clear, but green to green, red to red, all serene, go ahead." "Red over white, Fishing at night." "White next to white next to white, there's a tug up ahead with a tow out of site." "Yellow over white, towing at night."