The “Rules of the Road” or Collision Avoidance Regulations (COLREGS) were designed to give direction to vessels in order to set a standard that everyone could follow in order to prevent collisions of two or more vessels. They are many in number and cover almost every imaginable sequence of events which may lead to collision. You do not have to memorize them all but be aware of the basic rules which apply in order to operate safely on the water. You will be using terms when dealing with the rules of the road which may be unfamiliar to you. Because the rules are federal laws, the definitions of these terms are important. The following terms are found throughout the rules of the road. You should have a thorough understanding of their meaning.
- Vessel – Every craft of any description used or capable of being used on the water.
- Power Driven Vessel (Motorboat) – Any vessel propelled by machinery.
- Sailing Vessel – Any vessel under sail alone with no mechanical means of propulsion. (A sailboat propelled by machinery is a Motorboat.)
- Underway – Not at anchor, aground or attached to the dock or shore.
- Danger Zone – An arc of 112.5 degrees measured from dead ahead to just aft of the starboard beam.
- Right-of-way – The right and duty to maintain course and speed.
- Stand-On Vessel – The vessel which has the right-of-way.
- Give-Way Vessel – The vessel which must keep clear of the stand-on vessel.
- Visible (when applied to lights) – Visible on a dark, clear night.
- Short Blast – A blast of one to two seconds duration.
- Prolonged Blast – A blast of four to six seconds duration.
Practicing the art of good seamanship is a talent that is developed over time by acquiring knowledge and skills. You must keep safety foremost in your mind when operating your boat. Do what you can to stay out of the way of other boats and always proceed at a safe speed. Safe speed means taking into consideration the current operating conditions and your own level of skill and experience.
Most specific speed regulations are local ordinances or state laws. Many states have speed and distance regulations that determine how close you can operate to other vessels, the shoreline or docking area, and swimming areas. For example, some state regulations require that you maintain a no-wake speed when within 250 feet of shore or when within 100 feet of another vessel. Be sure to check with state and local authorities to determine what regulations apply to you.
The rules are very specific about maintaining a proper lookout. We must keep eyes and ears open to observe or hear something which may endanger someone or affect their safety. You must look up for bridge clearances and power lines, down for floats, swimmers, logs and divers flags and side to side for traffic prior to turning your boat. A proper lookout can avoid surprises.
A good rule to follow is to assign one or more people to have no other assigned responsibilities except the task of lookout. They can then rotate the lookout duty.
Vessels are required to sound signals any time that they are in close quarters and risk of collision exists. The following signals are the only ones to be used to signal a vessel’s intentions (inland rules only).
- One short blast – I intend to change course to starboard.
- Two short blasts – I intend to change course to port.
- Three short blasts – I am operating astern propulsion (backing up).
- Five or more short and rapid blasts – Danger or doubt signal (I don’t understand your intent).
Note: Inland rules use sound signals to indicate intent to maneuver. In international rules the signals are given when the maneuver is being executed.
Vessels indicate their intention to maneuver by using sound signals. If you do not agree with or understand clearly what the other vessel’s intentions are you should sound the danger or doubt signal (5 short, rapid blasts). Each vessel should then slow or stop until signals for safe passing are sounded, understood and agreed to.
The danger or doubt signal can also be used to tell another vessel that its action is dangerous. If a boat is backing up into an obstruction you would sound the danger signal to warn the operator.