Know-how - Mike's take on the Rules of the Road


There is a place in hell for the stupid, and an even lower place for those whose stupidity causes harm to others. The Rules of the Road are to help people avoid ending up in either of these places.

Beneath these waves rests Simon McRae,

who died defending his Right of Way.

He was right, dead right, as he sped along,

but he's just as dead as if he'd been wrong.

There is a place in hell for the stupid, and an even lower place for those whose stupidity causes harm to others. The Rules of the Road are to help people avoid ending up in either of these places. If you handle any vessel, you need to understand the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) and the 1980 U.S. Inland Navigational Rules. Charts show the demarcation lines, so you’ll know which rules apply. We’ll cover some of the Inland Rules pertaining to vessels in sight of one another.

1. Mike’s No. 1 rule: Mass has right of way. The larger the vessel, the less maneuverable it is. Ships can’t turn or stop quickly. When a ship has sea room in which to change direction, changing rudder orientation will affect the aspect of the ship well before its track alters. This is the “advance” of the ship — its continued movement along its original track after a change in rudder angle. Keep in mind that if you’re close to a ship, there is a very good chance you’re invisible from its bridge.

2. Ships won’t use reverse to stop. At speed, the force of water flowing past the screws won’t allow its use. When they do reverse, the water flow across the rudder is disrupted, the rudder becomes ineffective, and vessel movement becomes unpredictable. Few captains will risk this in crowded waters; they will shut down the engines and “coast” to a stop. This can take from a half-mile to more than a mile.

3. “Right of way” as a term isn’t in the Rules, but we understand the concept. It comes into effect when the possibility of collision exists. If the possibility exists, it must be treated as if it does exist. A “danger bearing” is a bearing that doesn’t change as the distance between boats closes. The most obvious is a head-on collision. Each vessel sees the other bearing dead ahead, until … crunch. If the angle of any portion of the other vessel doesn’t change relative to you and the distance is closing, with no altering of course or speed, it’s going to be crunch time. These rules concern two vessels only. In a situation involving more than two vessels, they are applied to your boat and one other in each instance. You can’t violate the Rules with regard to one vessel while applying them to another vessel.

4. Three situations are recognized in the Rules: meeting, crossing and overtaking. In a meeting situation — two vessels approaching more or less head-on — neither has right of way. One vessel normally sounds a short blast to indicate, “I intend to leave you on my port side.” The other signifies agreement with one short blast for a port-to-port passing. For a starboard-to-starboard passing, the signal is two short blasts to indicate, “I intend to leave you on my starboard side.” Again, a reply of two short blasts from the other vessel signals agreement. If there is disagreement or confusion, five short blasts indicates danger or doubt.

5. A crossing situation occurs when vessels approach but aren’t meeting, and each has the other forward of 22.5 degrees abaft the beam. The boat seeing the other on its starboard side must not cross ahead of that vessel and must keep out of its way. The vessel to starboard is the stand-on vessel; the other — the one required to take avoidance action (slow, stop or turn to starboard, but not to port) — is the give-way vessel. Signals should be one, two or three short blasts. Three short blasts means, “I am operating astern propulsion,” followed by agreement or danger/doubt signals. Note: no boat can cross a narrow channel so as to impede the progress of a vessel that is restricted to that channel or fairway.

6. Overtaking is when one vessel closes on another from more than 22.5 degrees abaft either beam. The overtaking vessel is the give-way and must keep out of the way of the overtaken, or stand-on, vessel. It signals with one or two short blasts indicating on which side the give-way vessel intends to leave the stand-on vessel. The stand-on then signals agreement or danger/doubt. In every situation, if the give-way vessel hasn’t done enough to avoid collision, the stand-on vessel must take action.

7. Remember Simon McRae.