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Colregs Definition of Power Driven Vessel

Although I have wanted to get into sailing for decades, this is the year I am going to try to make it happen. I took a sailing 101 course last year and am taking a local course now on general boating as a refresher. When sailing in my 101 course the topic of rules of the road for powered vessels vs sailing vessels was discussed. I realize safety can dictate breaking rules to avoid a collision, but under normal circumstances if a sailboat is sailing and turns on the engine but leaves the transmission in neutral for safety, charging batteries, running the water maker, etc. is it now considered a vessel under power, or a sailboat? I also understand you self identify by the lights you turn on to let other vessels know if you are powered or under sail.

I looked it up under Colregs and under Rule 3 section b, it reads:

"(b). The term “power-driven vessel” means any vessel propelled by machinery."

I figure if the prop isn't turning and being used to "propel" the vessel, then it is still considered a sailboat. We have a river where barges travel and they have priority over sailboats due to “vessel restricted in her ability to manoeuvre”. Some sailboats will start the motor to make sure it will start and run but leave it in neutral "just in case" they need to get out of the way of one of these huge barges and the wind dies.

I asked in my current boating class, and the instructor who is suppose to be knowledgeable in sailing told me "if the motor is running, you are a power boat". I have conflicting information from 2 different instructors. Is this a topic that is a heavy debate, or is it a settled question? I just want to know how to safely operate the vessel, and confusion over who should have priority when you meet might be a contributing factor in a possible collision. Thanks to all in advance.

Here is a copy of the Colregs I found online. Is there a known place to refference the latest version?

https://www.jag.navy.mil/distrib/ins...OLREG-1972.pdf
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Re: Colregs Definition of Power Driven Vessel

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I asked in my current boating class, and the instructor who is suppose to be knowledgeable in sailing told me "if the motor is running, you are a power boat". I have conflicting information from 2 different instructors. Is this a topic that is a heavy debate, or is it a settled question? I just want to know how to safely operate the vessel, and confusion over who should have priority when you meet might be a contributing factor in a possible collision. Thanks to all in advance.
You now have another sailing instructor, me, telling you that unless the transmission is engaged, you are still a sailboat. However, if you are in a collision/allision the final determination will be up to a maritime court to decide. You would not want this to happen. They are likely to ask why - if the motor was running - the propulsion machinery was not engaged if it would have lessened the likelyhood of the boats colliding

We have hashed this thing around on SailNet a bunch of times.
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Re: Colregs Definition of Power Driven Vessel

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Originally Posted by Paul2000 View Post
Although I have wanted to get into sailing for decades, this is the year I am going to try to make it happen. I took a sailing 101 course last year and am taking a local course now on general boating as a refresher. When sailing in my 101 course the topic of rules of the road for powered vessels vs sailing vessels was discussed. I realize safety can dictate breaking rules to avoid a collision, but under normal circumstances if a sailboat is sailing and turns on the engine but leaves the transmission in neutral for safety, charging batteries, running the water maker, etc. is it now considered a vessel under power, or a sailboat? I also understand you self identify by the lights you turn on to let other vessels know if you are powered or under sail.

I looked it up under Colregs and under Rule 3 section b, it reads:

"(b). The term “power-driven vessel” means any vessel propelled by machinery."

I figure if the prop isn't turning and being used to "propel" the vessel, then it is still considered a sailboat. We have a river where barges travel and they have priority over sailboats due to “vessel restricted in her ability to manoeuvre”. Some sailboats will start the motor to make sure it will start and run but leave it in neutral "just in case" they need to get out of the way of one of these huge barges and the wind dies.

I asked in my current boating class, and the instructor who is suppose to be knowledgeable in sailing told me "if the motor is running, you are a power boat". I have conflicting information from 2 different instructors. Is this a topic that is a heavy debate, or is it a settled question? I just want to know how to safely operate the vessel, and confusion over who should have priority when you meet might be a contributing factor in a possible collision. Thanks to all in advance.

Here is a copy of the Colregs I found online. Is there a known place to refference the latest version?

https://www.jag.navy.mil/distrib/ins...OLREG-1972.pdf
Your instructor makes no sense...if there is no mechanical propulsion you are adrift, anchored, being towed or sailing...

pay attention... someone's life depends on it
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Re: Colregs Definition of Power Driven Vessel

Thank you. I would of course do anything and everything possible to avoid a collision, I just wanted to at least know what actions I should be taking or would be expected to be taking by another vessel to avoid any confusion that may lead to a collision. I am brand new to boating rules in general other than the ASA 101 course, and just want to make sure initially I am clear about when I should operate as a stand on vessel or a give way vessel. The very last thing I would want is to be responsible for property damage or injure someone because I didn't clearly understand the rules of the road.

Thanks again for the reply.
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Re: Colregs Definition of Power Driven Vessel

I think the key word is "propelled" by macinery. If the machinery is not propelling you, are you being propelled by machinery?
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Re: Colregs Definition of Power Driven Vessel

I agree that technically without the transmission in gear, you are not a power-driven vessel. But then that would make a powerboat that is likewise running their engine, but is out of gear, a boat adrift. This also comes with different colreg requirements.

Boaters observe others and make determinations based on what they can see. If I see a powerboat, I can only assume they are a power-driven vessel, which comes with different colreg demands for me. If I see a sailboat underway without sails up, I too assume it is a power-driven vessel. If I see a sailboat with sails up, but moving in a way that sails cannot account for, or I can see the engine water exhaust coming out, I assume it is a power-driven vessel.

This, btw, is why the colregs also require boats to fly both night and day signals to indicate the state of their propulsion. Night requires lights. Days require day shapes. Of course, this latter tool is virtually unheard of in North America (at least in my experience).

Point is, other boats can see signs that you are running an engine, and will then have to assume you are a power-driven vessel. There's no way for other boaters to see if your transmission is in gear, so as a matter of practical application, if your engine is on, the most reasonable assumption for others is that you are under power.

Since the colregs require everyone to take appropriate action to avoid collisions (there is no "right of way", for example), it means no one is devoid or responsibility. Given that other boats will have to assume you are under power if they can perceive your engine is running, I bet the courts would not accept this 'out of gear' argument.

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Re: Colregs Definition of Power Driven Vessel

I believe it’s pretty settled that you have to be in gear to be considered a power driven vessel. But that’s nothing more than a technical point. The real question is what should other other vessels be reasonable expected to think. Ultimately, nothing in the ColRegs allowS anyone to just stay the course and blame the other guy. Everyone is ultimately responsible to avoid a collision, by any means.

In the scenario where the counter party would argue they saw your sails up and full, but also saw exhaust coming out of your transom, they would then have to say they saw the dayshape inverted cone to claim they properly concluded you were motor sailing.

All technical, for which the thought exercise is useful to be sure one knows where to start. In practice, the rules are not straight forward enough to cover all circumstances.


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Re: Colregs Definition of Power Driven Vessel

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I believe it’s pretty settled that you have to be in gear to be considered a power driven vessel.
It seems under the definition the way I read them, that would be the case. You can open your throttle as much as you want on a running engine but if it isn't in gear, you have 0% mechanical propulsion through the water. As someone who has been sailing in risky locations I fully understand running a engine at idle as a safety precaution. I don't even want to think about a barge coming down the river towards me when the wind dies, and trying to decide if I should crank the engine longer and hope it starts, or diving off the boat and swimming for my life. If it is already idling, I will gladly follow motoring rules as I put it in gear and get the heck out of the way.


My ultimate goal is to become a safe and courteous sailor. The better I understand the rules, the better I will be able to operate my vessel safely. If I need to deviate from normal stand on / give way procedures to avoid a collision I am happy to do so.

I figured out how to switch from google search to board only search, so I will be able to do more specific topic research now before asking a question that has been asked many times, and sometimes is a subject of controversy.
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Re: Colregs Definition of Power Driven Vessel

Ironically, being conservative is not always correct either. If you would reasonably expected to act as a sailing vessel, you’d be in the wrong for causing a problem, because you did something else.

The real trick is to keep clear of a collision risk, before it ever becomes one. Therefore, the conflict rules never apply. Next, you’ll ask what exact distance they come into affect. No one knows......

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Re: Colregs Definition of Power Driven Vessel

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The real trick is to keep clear of a collision risk, before it ever becomes one. Therefore, the conflict rules never apply.
This is always my attitude. If I can avoid getting into a situation where the COLREGS ever even come into play, I will.
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