By the Book

These are the five rules of the road every boater should know
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It doesn’t matter if you’re racing a sailboat or operating a commercial vessel. It’s everyone’s responsibility to know the rules of the road and to avoid collisions.

It doesn’t matter if you’re racing a sailboat or operating a commercial vessel. It’s everyone’s responsibility to know the rules of the road and to avoid collisions.

I was out on the water recently and saw a small, recreational vessel nearly collide with a larger commercial fishing boat in the river. It was yet another reminder that even though 70 percent of the Earth is covered with water, two boats can still manage to occupy the same location.

We have maritime rules of the road to prevent this situation. Officially known as the 72 COLREGS, they comprise nearly 200 pages of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Rules and Regulations Handbook. Professional mariners need to pass a test showing that they know these rules. For recreational boaters, knowing just a few of the regulations can add safety for everyone on and around the boat.

Many of these rules are common sense. Rule 5, for example, requires the boat operator to post a lookout. This includes using sight and hearing to monitor the conditions around the boat, and to note the traffic flow. Doing so is harder than it sounds for some boaters who are listening to their stereo, or poring over their multifunction displays, or being distracted in other ways. Observe nearby boats, watch your wake, and keep an eye out for personal watercraft, kayakers and scuba-diving flags. Glance astern regularly, particularly when operating in slow displacement mode or unregulated speed zones. Some weekend warrior could be getting ready to climb up your transom while ignoring all of the above.

A lookout is equally important offshore, where colliding with a log, running over a hunk of semisubmerged plastic or hitting other debris could ruin your day and wallet along with your hull, engine and running gear. Savvy skippers appoint a crewman as the lookout so the skipper can concentrate at the helm. Solo skippers have double the responsibility. Quit texting and yapping on the radio, and cruise at lower speeds.

Rule 6 requires a vessel to proceed at a safe speed. According to the Coast Guard, safe speed means leaving sufficient room to maneuver out of harm’s way, or to stop making headway in time to avoid a collision. In determining safe speed, consider visibility, boat-traffic density, wind, current, water depth, sea state and, at night, background lights on shore that could make it difficult to see another boat’s running lights. If your boat has radar, then use it for safe navigation, and always operate at a speed that will minimize damage if you hit something.

Rule 7 states that if there is any doubt about a possible collision between two vessels, then risk truly exists. You must take action to avoid a potential accident. Alter course and speed in a big way that’s apparent to the other boat. Don’t assume that the other boat has a lookout. Never trust another skipper to know what you are thinking. Do not be lulled into believing the other operator knows what he is doing.

In fact, you are better off thinking he does not know anything. I recall an incident drift fishing in the ocean one summer day when a large sailboat under power had a bead on my cockpit from about a football field away. I jumped to the flybridge. With one hand on the engine start button and the other on my VHF radio, I called the boat on Channel 16 so the Coast Guard (and, hopefully, the sailboat’s operator) could hear me. At the 50-yard mark the sailboat veered off, but it passed me close enough that I could see the operator and the newspaper he was reading.

Rule 9 says you should stay to the starboard side of a narrow channel as long as doing so is safe and practical, but you must not hinder a larger vessel that needs all available maneuvering room. This includes sailing craft that must yield to a power vessel constrained by draft.

In print, this rule makes sense, but on the water, you may find fishing boats or a sailing regatta in the fairway, a location that is illegal if they obstruct traffic. If you are forced to maneuver around a drifting or anchored boat because there is a shoal on your chart to starboard and you can’t clear it with your draft, then you could find yourself on the wrong side of the channel when another boat heads your way. That other boat may think you want to pass to starboard, creating confusion.

This is when cool heads and lookouts are so important. Remember Rule 8: Do whatever it takes to avoid a collision, even if it means pulling the engines out of gear or slamming them into reverse.

Knowing these five rules will go a long way in the safety department. You can do even better by buying the latest issue of Navigation Rules at marine outlets, bookstores or online for under $15. There is an amazing quantity of regulations governing lights and day shapes, sound signals in clear and limited visibility, and steering and sailing rules.

Note, too, that a copy of International and Inland Rules is required to be kept aboard boats about 40 feet length overall or larger. 

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue.

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