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The One-Minute Guide to the Nautical Rules of the Road
By Charlie Wing
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2007 International Marine
All rights reserved.
What Every Boater Needs to Know
The purpose of the Rules is not, as is commonly thought, to grant one boat the right-of-way over another. The idea of a "right-of-way" fell out of favor as it became clear, through court cases, that avoiding a collision between two boats requires the participation of both parties. The purpose of the Rules is to present, in a situation where danger of collision between two boats exists, guidelines for the actions required of both. Under the Rules, one boat is designated the stand-on vessel; the other the give-way vessel (see page 12). These designations carry obligations for each vessel to act in a specified way to avoid collision.
It is important to note that the Rules never address situations involving more than two boats. Whenever the possibility of collision exists between more than two boats, common sense must be your principal guide.
Vessel: anything that carries people or cargo on or in the water, including kayaks, personal watercraft, WIG craft and seaplanes, and super tankers.
Power-driven vessel: any vessel underway with an engine that does not fall into any of the other special categories defined below.
Sailing vessel: a sailboat underway with sails (not using an engine).
Vessel engaged in fishing: any boat fishing with equipment which limits its ability to maneuver (nets, trawls, etc.).
Vessel not under command: a vessel unable to maneuver as required by the Rules, due to mechanical breakdown or any other reason.
Vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver: a vessel that, due to the nature of her work, cannot maneuver easily. Examples include buoy tenders, dredges, dive boats, minesweepers, and tugs with difficult tows.
Vessel constrained by her draft: a vessel that may go aground if it deviates from its course. (Note that the Inland Rules do not contain this definition.)
Underway: not anchored, grounded, or otherwise attached to shore. A boat does not have to be moving either through the water or over the ground to be underway.
Restricted visibility: any condition that reduces visibility, including fog, heavy rain, snow, and smoke.
Give-way vessel: the vessel obligated to keep out of the way of the other.
Stand-on vessel: the vessel obligated to maintain its course and speed.
Wing-In-Ground (WIG) Craft: a multimodal craft which, in its main operational mode, flies in close proximity to the surface by utilizing surface-effect action.
Do the Rules Apply to Me?
In a word—yes. The International Regulations for the Prevention of Collision at Sea (COLREGS) apply to all vessels, from kayaks to ocean- liners, on all of the oceans and bodies of water outside the magenta (red) Demarcation Line printed on charts. The United States Inland Rules apply on the Great Lakes, Western Rivers, waterways, and specific bays inside the Demarcation Line.
How Am I Responsible?
Everyone having to do with the operation of your boat—its owner, master (person in charge underway), and crew—is responsible for obeying the Rules, as well as for using caution, good sense, and good seamanship. However, the Rules acknowledge that they cannot cover every conceivable situation. If absolutely necessary to avoid immediate danger, you are, in fact, required to break the Rules. In other words, use your head for the purpose intended, not as a hat rack.
Does My Boat Need a Lookout?
Absolutely! Your boat is required to maintain a lookout for the possibility of collision at all times and to use all available methods and equipment (eyes, ears, radio, and radar, if installed). Of course, if you are the only person on board, then you have to serve as master, crew, and lookout all at the same time. If there is more than one person aboard, however, the master should appoint a separate lookout.
What Is a Safe Speed?
You must never exceed a safe speed for the conditions. The Rules do not define "safe speed," but the courts have often interpreted it as the speed that would allow a boat to avoid collision. Factors you must consider include: visibility conditions, background lights, traffic intensity, maneuverability of your vessel, maneuverability of other vessels, wind and current, navigational hazards, depth of water, and the limitations of radar.
Determining Risk of Collision
Collision with another boat is possible when the compass bearing to it remains constant as your two boats converge. The rule specifically says that you must use all available means, including radar if you have it, to aid in this determination. Fortunately, for small boat operators without radar, a relative bearing sighted against a stanchion or other fixed part of your boat may substitute for a compass bearing, as long as you maintain constant course and speed. If there is any doubt at all, consider that collision is possible.
Action to Avoid Collision
The give-way boat's action to avoid collision must be early and large enough to assure the stand-on boat that she is taking action. Given room to maneuver, changing course is better than changing speed because it is more immediately obvious to the other boat. A course change large enough to be obvious would present a different view of the give-way boat in daylight and different navigation lights at night. A large enough speed change would be throttling down to no-wake speed or even stopping.
The stand-on vessel is obligated to maintain course and speed. In a collision situation, the actions permitted or required of the stand-on vessel take place in four stages.
1. Before the risk of collision exists, either boat may maneuver as it pleases.
2. Once risk of collision exists, the stand-on boat must maintain its course and speed.
3. If it seems to the stand-on boat that the other boat is not going to keep out of the way, then she should sound the danger signal (five short blasts) and may take any action except a turn to port for a give-way boat on her port.
4. If the situation develops to the point where a collision can no longer be avoided by the action of the give-way boat alone, the stand-on boat is required to sound the danger signal and take the most effective action it can to avoid the collision.
One-Minute Guide Decision Tree
The decision tree found on the inside front cover acts as a quick reference when approaching another vessel. If you can see the other boat, use the "In-Sight Situation" guidelines. Begin at the top and move down the left-hand column until you find the circumstance that pertains to you. If you are in an area of restricted visibility, use the bottom portion of the tree. The following information will help you identify your situation.
In a Narrow Channel or Fairway
A channel is a safe route between hazards, or a deeper route through shallow water. It is "narrow" when boats in it are severely limited in room to maneuver. A fairway is the thoroughfare between docks and piers in a harbor. In general, stay out of narrow channels and fairways that are trafficked heavily by large ships and tugs. When in a narrow channel or fairway, however:
* Stay as close as possible to the starboard side.
* Sailboats, fishing boats, and boats of less than twenty meters should stay clear of boats that are confined to the channel.
* Do not cross the channel if it will interfere with a boat confined to the channel.
* Do not anchor in the channel.
* Sound a prolonged (four-to-six second) blast when approaching a bend or other obscured area. Boats approaching in the opposite direction should answer with the same signal.
Traffic Separation Schemes
Traffic separation schemes (TSS) are inbound and outbound traffic lanes, divided by separation lines or zones, and printed in magenta on charts. Their purpose is to provide one-way lanes for large ships into and out of major ports. Between the traffic lanes and any adjacent land masses, you will usually find inshore traffic zones (labeled as such on your chart). Sailboats, fishing boats, and all boats under twenty meters (65'7") are free to use these inshore traffic zones, and in any case, are to stay clear of any ship using a traffic lane. If you must cross a traffic lane, do so quickly, far away from other vessels, and at a right angle to the flow of traffic.
Note that vessel traffic services, found only in the Inland Rules, are roughly equivalent to traffic separation schemes.
You are overtaking another boat when you approach it within the 135° arc of its sternlight. If there is any doubt as to whether you are overtaking, assume that you are.
When an overtaken boat must take action to be safely passed (as in a narrow channel), both boats must first reach agreement through sound signals (see page 31) or via VHF radio (Inland only). The burden is on the overtaking boat to steer clear until it is totally past and safely clear of the overtaken boat.
Power-Driven Vessels Meeting Head-On
Power-driven vessels meeting head-on should each alter course to starboard and pass port-to-port. Head-on is when you see: 1) in daylight, another boat headed nearly straight at you, or 2) at night, both sidelights or the masthead lights of the other nearly in line. If you have the slightest doubt whether the situation is head-on, assume that it is.
Exception: Power-driven vessels proceeding downbound on the Great Lakes and Western Rivers have the right-of-way over upbound boats and should propose the manner of passage via sound signals or VHF radio. Also, both upbound and downbound power-driven vessels have the right-of-way over all types of crossing vessels.
Power-Driven Vessels Crossing
A boat crossing your path from your starboard side should stand on (maintain course and speed), while a boat approaching you on your port side must give way. The give-way boat should not cross ahead of the stand-on boat. Remember, a stand-on boat on your starboard side sees your green "go" light, while a boat on your port side sees your red "stop" light. Conversely, you see the "go" light of a boat on your port, and the "stop" light of a vessel on your starboard. Exception: On the Great Lakes and Western Rivers, any type of vessel crossing a river must keep out of the way of a power boat ascending or descending the river, regardless of port and starboard.
Two Sailboats Meeting
First, a sailboat is a "sailing vessel" only when she is using her sails as her only source of propulsion. Next, the "tack" of a sailboat is the side opposite that on which the mainsail is carried (or, on a square-rigged vessel, the largest fore-and-aft sail). Given these definitions, the rule governing sailboats is simple:
* When two sailboats are on different tacks, the boat on the port tack must keep clear.
* When two sailboats are on the same tack, the boat to windward (upwind) must keep clear.
* If a sailboat on a port tack is uncertain of the tack of an upwind sailboat, she must still keep clear.
Mixed Vessel Types—The Pecking Order
Other than in a traffic separation scheme, a narrow channel, or an overtaking situation, you must observe a "pecking order." Find your boat in the illustration. You must stay clear of all vessel types above you; all vessel types below you must keep clear of you. Vessels not under command and vessels restricted in ability to maneuver share the top billing.
In order to claim privileged status, a vessel must display its appropriate shapes by day and lights by night. Failure to display such signals may get the privileged vessel in trouble; however, it will not let you off the hook if you tangle with them.
All of the rules above assume that you see the other boat. In or near an area of restricted visibility, you must slow to a safe speed for the visibility, and sound fog signals. If you detect another boat by radar or by sound, you must evaluate the risk of collision. If risk does exist (decreasing range at constant bearing), you must take avoiding action, BUT DO NOT:
* turn to port for a boat forward (unless you are overtaking it);
* turn toward a boat abeam or aft your beam.
Unless you are absolutely certain that there is no risk of collision when you hear the fog signal of a boat forward, you must reduce your speed to bare steerageway or, if necessary, stop. Important: When (and if) your vessels become visible to each other, you both go back to the in-sight rules.
Sounds—Blow Your Own Horn
The Rules state that when a maneuvering action is required to avoid collision, the vessels involved must use sound signals to communicate their intentions. Since adoption of the Vessel Bridge-to-Bridge Radiotelephone Act, the more common practice under Inland Rules is to reach understanding on VHF radio CH13. The roots of the practice can still be heard, however, when captains propose passing on "one whistle" (port side–to–port side) or "two whistles" (starboard side–to–starboard side). The table below shows the sound signals required under both International and Inland Rules.
Vessels are also required to make sound signals when in or near areas of restricted visibility. These signals, identical for both International and Inland Rules, are shown below.
Lights—What Can They Tell You?
The Rules specify the colors and arcs of visibility of navigation lights to be carried by each type of vessel, as described below:
Masthead light (also known as steaming light): white light on centerline showing forward from 22.5° abaft the beam on either side (225° arc).
Sidelights: green on starboard and red on port, each visible from dead ahead to 22.5° abaft the beam. On vessels less than twenty meters, the sidelights may be combined in one unit on the centerline.
Sternlight: white light at stern showing aft from 22.5° abaft the beam on either side (135° arc).
Towing light: the same as a sternlight, except for being yellow.
All-around light: a light of any color that shows 360° around.
Flashing light: a light flashing at a minimum of 120 times per minute.
Special flashing light (Inland): a yellow light flashing at fifty-seventy times per minute over an arc of 180–225°.
Range of Visibility
The Rules also specify minimum ranges of visibility under clear conditions for navigation lights. The table at right shows these ranges according to the size of the boat. Note that, in addition to the information specified in this table, inconspicuous, partly submerged vessels or objects being towed should carry a white all-around light, visible at a distance of three miles.
Color illustrations of required navigation-light groupings for various vessels follow on pages 33–40.
Most recreational boaters use the VHF radio to:
* chitchat with their boating friends
* arrange for fuel and docking
* listen to marine weather forecasts
* call for help when they break down
Strangely, few use it for its primary intended purpose—communication with other vessels regarding safe navigation. The Vessel Bridge-to-Bridge Radiotelephone Act requires certain vessels to monitor CH13 when underway within the three mile limit. These are:
* power-driven vessels over twenty meters
* inspected passenger vessels over 100 tons
* towing vessels over twenty-six feet
In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard has established Security Broadcast Systems in most large coastal ports. In these systems, vessels required to monitor CH13 are also requested to report their movements fifteen minutes prior to getting underway, upon getting underway, and at certain check points in entering and leaving the port.
CH13 is thus your best source of information regarding the movements of large vessels in Inland waters. When you have a question regarding the intentions of another vessel—whether in a head-on, crossing, or overtaking situation—call the vessel first on CH13. If you get no response on CH13, try CH16.
A few ports, as well as traffic separation schemes and vessel traffic services, operate on channels other than CH13—usually CH11, CH12, or CH14. Consult the U.S. Coast Pilot, or call the nearest Coast Guard station on CH16 to obtain the channel for a specific area.
Excerpted from The One-Minute Guide to the Nautical Rules of the Road by Charlie Wing. Copyright © 2007 by International Marine. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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