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A COLREGS Refresher: Know The Rules Of The Road

Rules of the Road is an in-depth course that dives into the Navigational Rules of boating. Instructor Robert Reeder, will review each rule in detail, citing both inland and international distinctions, and teaching the safe operation of both recreational and commercial vessels in US and International waters. These concepts are essential knowledge for the smallest dinghy to the biggest Superyacht.

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How well do you know the Rules of the Road? Here’s a situation you might encounter. You are transiting a narrow East Coast river during daylight hours with clear visibility. You see, at a distance, the top of a tug’s wheelhouse heading toward you and know the tug will soon come around the bend. How should you proceed?

Photo of container ship

A working knowledge of the Rules of  the Road will help inform your decision-making  when operating around container ships and other commercial vessels.

Your equipment is in good working order. Experience has taught you to plan ahead and use all of the means available to you. You have AIS and know the name of the vessel. You call the tug on the VHF radio, and a reply comes immediately: “Hi captain, I see you. I’m pushing a deep-draft barge, and I’m gonna need plenty of room. Can you hold back and I’ll meet you on two whistles after I make the bend?”

Do you know what the tug means and what the Rules of the Road require you to do? You’ve been notified of the tug’s needs and the special circumstances of its deepdraft barge. The rules require you to take early action and comply with the request to take off all way or slacken speed so as not to impede the safe passage of a vessel constrained by its draft in a narrow channel.

The tug’s skipper also requested that you deviate from the default conduct of two meeting vessels (passing port to port). “I’ll meet you on two whistles” is working vernacular that commercial vessels use; it means, “I intend to leave you on my starboard side.” You should acknowledge the tug skipper’s request on the VHF, stop your vessel before the bend and let the tug go by starboard to starboard.

All vessel operators must have a good working knowledge of the Rules of the Road, which are found in the handbook of the Coast Guard Navigation Rules and Regulations, a compendium that includes International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, or COLREGS. The handbook contains maneuvering conduct rules for both inland and international waters. An updated copy should always be on board (also available online at

Even if you’ve been a boater for many years, it’s a good idea to brush up on the COLREGS. It’s easy to develop bad habits.

Your goal should be to understand the rules well enough to know where your boat fits in the hierarchy of responsibilities among vessels. Are you or the other vessel propelled by machinery? Is either vessel sailing, fishing (not to be confused with trolling), not under command or restricted by its ability to maneuver? Are you the stand-on (privileged) or give-way (burdened) vessel?

I can’t cover all of the rules in a short column, but in general, when two power-driven vessels are crossing, the vessel with the other on her starboard side shall keep out of the way. At night, the side-light memory aid “red means stop” is useful.

Any power-driven vessel overtaking another shall keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken. At night, if you can see the other vessel’s side lights, you are not overtaking.

When two power-driven vessels are meeting head-on, each vessel shall alter course to starboard so that each passes on the port side of the other. At night, meeting vessels should see each other’s masthead lights in line and red/green side lights.

Whether under power or sail, make course alterations early and substantial enough to be readily understood by the other vessel. Avoid successive small alterations in course and speed, keep a safe distance and take way off completely if necessary.

Display the required lights and be sure they are visible. Take care not to block navigation lights with a kayak, dinghy, deck gear or passengers. Do not obscure the meaning of navigation lights with a boat’s color LED decorations.

The rules state: “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing, as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.” This means radar and collision-avoidance equipment alone are no substitute for eyes and ears.

There is no such thing as the “rule of tonnage,” but ships do have difficulty seeing small craft and maneuvering quickly, so they present special challenges. A ship’s aft wheelhouse has a deck the size of a football field forward of it, which creates a blind spot dead ahead. If you are in this sector, you will not be seen.

Stay on your toes and act early in the vicinity of large commercial vessels. A ship traveling at 17 knots covers 1.7 miles every six minutes. That’s a lot of closing distance in a hurry if you go below to make a sandwich. Add to this that a ship’s “transfer” is cumbersome if it does try to avoid you at the last minute. An average loaded supertanker doing 17 knots requires about a half-mile from the time the rudder is put hard over to the moment it achieves a 90-degree course change.

One last reminder about ships: The height of eye on a big ship’s bridge is well more than 100 feet above the water. If you radio the bridge and tell the mate you are the “white sailboat on your starboard bow,” he or she might see a dozen sailboats like yours. Identify your vessel with your GPS position or bearing and range. Make certain it is you he has identified before you make maneuvering agreements.

Photo of Pat Mundus

Pat Mundus

“Know before you go” is an apt saying. Know your place in the rules hierarchy, and know how you are required to operate. Act prudently and in plenty of time, and avoid small heading changes that are hard for other vessels to discern. Use all means available to you, including eyes and ears (yours and your crew’s). Display proper lights and make sure they are not obscured. Last, do not hesitate to give commercial vessels a wide berth. Your passengers rely on your sound judgment.

Pat Mundus is a retired merchant ship deck officer who cruises her ketch, Surprise, in the Bahamas and the Caribbean. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue.



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