The Rules of the Nautical Road, a Primer
Iíve noticed a general lack of knowledge of the Rules here and on other forums and on the water. While this is almost universally true for the casual recreational boater, itís also an altogether too common state for a large number people who consider themselves, and are, otherwise pretty serious seamen. Hopefully, my little primer can help rectify that for those who read it or at least make people consider learning a bit more about the Rules.
These are some of my thoughts and interpretations of the Rules. These are not the actual Rules
. Those can be found here.
Why the Rules Matter
Some who are reading this have been been boating for years and you've never had a serious mishap with another vessel despite having a (way) less than perfect understanding of the Rules. You're probably saying to yourself, "It can't be that important to really know the Rules or I would have had a problem by now". Maybe you're lucky. Maybe you only boat in daylight hours and when the weather is fine. Maybe you figure that all you need to do to stay out of trouble with other vessels is to apply a little common sense and courteousness. Maybe youíre right. Maybe not.
Deadly collisions are rare. So are environmentally disastrous ones. But rare and never ainít the same thing and if something catastrophic happens do you really want your lack of preparation to be the cause? Especially when itís really not very difficult to be prepared?
Next to understanding your (properly equipped) vessel and how to operate her really well, nothing is more important to your safety on the water than understanding the Rules.
First, read the Rules
(and keep a copy onboard your vessel). Donít just flip through them occasionally. Donít just look up a light configuration when the need arises. Donít just look up the crossing situation Rule to see if you or someone else did the right thing in this instance or that. Don't just rely on things you read here or on other internet forums (including this post) or on advice you get from your neighbor down the dock. Donít just take a Rules course from the CG Auxiliary or Power Squadron. Do all of those things, just donít do them first. First, read the Rules. Read them from start to finish. The Rules are an interdependent system that only makes sense when taken as a whole; you have to read the Rules first.
Second, study the Rules
. Understand them. Memorize them when possible. Get a copy of the latest addition of Farwell's Rules of the Nautical Road
and read it. If youíre a visual learner (and even if you're not), make little paper boats and put them in the positions the Rules describe for the various situations (head-on, crossing, overtaking, etc.) and step through scenarios described in the Rules and scenarios you've seen. Draw the arcs of visibility of the lights on your paper boats so you can visualize what youíll see in those situations at night. Make light configuration flash cards (print this
and cut out the pictures) and use them so that youíll know instantly what youíre seeing in the real world. You usually wonít have time to consult a book (or be able to see it) when you most need to know what those lights mean.
Third, understand that terminology is important
; terribly important. Learn it and use it. Always. Use give-way and stand-on, not burdened and privileged. Use masthead light, not steaming light. Thatís a head-on situation youíre in, not a meeting situation. Those red and green lights are sidelights, not running lights. It might seem pedantic, but the only way to have a reasonable chance at a common understating of the Rules is to start with a common lexicon.
Fourth, follow the Rules
. On these forums I often read about ďbeing courteousĒ or ďjust using common senseĒ when it comes to what to do in a given situation. Thatís a recipe for disaster. A big part of what makes the Rules work is that if everyoneís following them, you can know what to expect.
I make one exception to this. In situations where I can establish communications with the other vessel before the situation gets ugly, I may, as the stand-on vessel, choose to maneuver after letting the other vessel know my intentions and getting her agreement (this is not in accordance with the international rules but itís generally accepted practice and passes the smell test).
Fifth, (almost) never turn to port to avoid collision
. If youíre thinking about turning to port, youíre almost always thinking wrong. This is especially true if you think youíre being courteous or using common sense.
The Navigation Rules and Regulations
Part A Ė General
Rule 3 Ė General Definitions
: Definitions are critical. Memorize these.
Understand that thereís no such thing as a ďvessel constrained by her draftĒ in the inland Rules because almost every vessel is constrained by her draft in inland waters (at least some of the time).
Understand that almost no one here will ever be onboard a ďvessel restricted in her ability to maneuver". That designation is for vessels that canít maneuver due to the nature of their work (buoy tenders, dredges, vessels launching and landing aircraft, etc) and you arenít working. Heaving-to doesnít qualify.
Know where the international/inland demarcation line is for your homeport. Know the compass bearing to a prominent object or a natural range between two objects for where you typically cross the line. If youíre visiting an unfamiliar port, note the demarcation line on the chart before you start in.
Part B - Steering and Sailing Rules
Section/Subpart I - Conduct of Vessels in Any Condition of Visibility.
Rule 5 Ė Look-Out
: This may be the most important Rule. Always obey this one and youíll rarely be surprised.
Rule 6 Ė Safe Speed
: Be a prudent seaman when deciding how fast to travel. Understand that if you donít have radar, the weather is bad, itís dark out, etc. your safe speed may be very low or even zero. Thereís no shame in recognizing your limitations and responding appropriately to them and the conditions at hand. To the contrary, it's the mark of a seaman.
Rule 7 Ė Risk of Collision
: This Rule is important because it tells you whether Rules 8, 9, and 12-18 even come into play.
Rule 8 - Action to Avoid Collision
: Take note of paragraph (f) in this Rule as it is important when applying Rule 9.
Rule 9 - Narrow Channels
: This Rule is interesting. While the first part of the Rule is clear, thereís one aspect that most people, even professional mariners, typically donít understand real well. Namely, that this Rule supplements but does not override Rules 8 and 15.
Rule 9 instructs vessels of less than 20 meters in length and sailing vessels (and fishing vessels) not to impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway. But what if a sailing vessel or small power-driven vessel does impede the passage of a vessel constrained to the channel or fairway? The vessel that shouldnít have been impeded is not relieved of her responsibilities under Rules 8 and 15!
Section/Subpart II - Conduct of Vessels in Sight of One Another
Rule 11 Ė Application
: These Rules only apply when you can see the other vessel. That means a couple of things:
- Even though you may be able to use your radar to determine that youíre in what would be a crossing situation (or head-on or overtaking or whatever) if you werenít in heavy fog (or squall or whatever), youíre not in a crossing situation per the Rules. If youíre in the fog or an obscuring squall, youíre operating under Rule 19;
- If you have a radar contact thatís over the visible horizon, youíre not bound by these Rules even if youíre on what would eventually be the stand-on vessel. Thus, thereís nothing keeping you from maneuvering to keep a situation from ever developing into something to which these Rules apply.
Rule 13 Ė Overtaking
: This Rule is pretty clear to most people. One thing to note is that this Rule overrides the hierarchy of vessels in Rule 18. The overtaking vessel is always the give-way vessel.
Rule 14 - Head-on Situation
: Just come to starboard if youíre in any doubt at all as to whether risk of collision exists. This is especially true if the paths of the two vessels will take them relatively close aboard in a starboard to starboard position. People are often tempted in that situation to come to port just a little to open up the passing. Thatís the first (mis)step in whatís known as the Dance of Death. In this dance your initial misstep is followed closely by the other vessel seeing the situation for what it is (a head-on situation) and complying with the Rules by turning to starboard. This can obviously make your poor decision worse. When you finally figure out that the other vessel has turned to starboard, you decide itís time to do the right thing and turn to starboard yourself. At about that time, the other vessel figures out that you came to port, are clearly an unpredictable menace, and decides the only thing to do is to turn to port. The dance can go on like this until itís too late to avoid a collision. Think this doesnít happen? Think again. The collision between the Andrea Doria and the Stockholm is probably the most famous example of the Dance of Death, but itís hardly the only one.
Rule 15 - Crossing Situation
: If thereís a good reason to turn to port when youíre on the give-way vessel in a crossing situation I havenít seen it yet. Turn to starboard or slow down (you might be able to increase speed if youíre onboard a very fast vessel that just happens to be going slow).
The Dance of Death is also common in situations in which it isnít obvious whether youíre head-on or crossing. In that case it usually begins with the stand-on vessel (for a crossing situation) seeing it as a head-on situation and thinking a small turn to port will keep it from ever getting close. The other vessel, seeing a crossing situation, does the right thing and turns to starboard. Thus begins the Dance.
Rule 18 - Responsibilities Between Vessels
: The hierarchy of vessels. Note that this hierarchy is superseded by Rules 9, 10, and 13.
Part C - Lights and Shapes
You really just have to memorize the definitions of the various lights and what types of vessels are required to show what lights and when.
There is a convenient way to help you remember which vessels have to display masthead lights and sidelights and when.
Part D - Sound and Light Signals
- The absence of masthead lights is an indication of unpredictability. Think about which vessels donít show masthead lights: Fishing vessels; vessels not under command; vessels being towed; sailing vessels; and pilot vessels. What do these have in common? They can all be expected to behave unpredictably. In the case of sailing vessels, this is because they may turn while tacking or wearing without the reason for the turn being apparent to other mariners (e.g. while beating up).
- Sidelights show aspect. When aspect isnít important, sidelights arenít required. This generally means vessels, other than power-driven and sailing vessels, that are not making way through the water, are not required to show sidelights.
Here again, you just have to memorize this stuff.
This isn't, by any means, a complete treatment of the Rules. Just some thoughts and musing I've collected over time. Depending on how this is received, I may post some other things I've written on the Rules over the past 27 years on and around the water.