The “Col Regs”: Preventing Collisions at Sea

When you are driving a car, you are responsible for knowing the laws and regulations that you need to follow. Similarly, there are laws and rules for traffic on water that apply to all vessels. As a sailor, you must know a set of international rules. They guarantee the safety of boats and other watercrafts. In this article, I outline the most elementary of these rules.

The traffic of watercrafts is strictly regulated to guarantee safety and efficiency. The “International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea” were issued to generate an international standard of “rules of the road” (as they are sometimes called). Another short form of the rather extensive full name is also “Col Regs” (“Collision Regulations”).

In addition to the “rules of the road”, there are also racing rules issued by the “International Sailing Federation” ISAF. Many inland waters are private property and sailing might be prohibited on them – if it is allowed, though, the Col Regs generally apply. If you intend to sail on inland waters and you are not sure whether they are private property, ask a local sailing club for advice.

Where which Rules apply to your Boat

Similar to road traffic in most countries in the World (apart from the United Kingdom and some of its former colonies), traffic at sea follows the right side. That is, if you are in situations where you can define a narrow route. For example, if you intend to cross a channel, sail along a river or enter a harbor. In that case you need to sail on starboard (the right side) to ensure that the traffic can run efficiently and to minimize the risk of collisions. This rule applies to both motorized and sailing vessels.

Giving-way rules differentiate between sailing and power crafts. In a simplified summary of the giving-way rules one can say that the power craft has to give way to the sailing one. However, there are plenty of exceptions of this rule. Very big vessels in confined waters, for example, can change their course that easily and small boats such as dinghies have to give way to them.

Fishing boats enjoy similar privileges. If you row your dinghy (for whatever reason), its status changes from “sailing vessel” to “power vessel”. In this case, you will have to stay clear of other sailing vessels. Nevertheless, if you navigate a sailboat, try to stay clear and away of power ships in any case for the sake of your own safety. This applies in particular to vessels significantly bigger than yours.

Another rule that is similar to the ones of road traffic regulates overtaking maneuvers: An overtaking boat has to keep clear of the vessel that it passes. This rule does apply equally to power and sailing vessels. Rules that aim to avoid collisions of boats on crossing course become slightly more complicated.

Specific Rules for Giving Way

The so-called “starboard-tack rule” says that a vessel on starboard tack (with the boom to port/left) must be given way by vessels on a port tack (with the boom to starboard/right). A popular sailor’s rhyme summarizes this rule as “Starboard OK – Port: Give way”.

The “opposite-tack rule” says that the boat on the port tack (with the boom to starboard/right) has to give way to (pass behind) a boat on a starboard tack (with the boom to port/left), if they are sailing on opposite tacks. No fancy rhyme for this one.

The “same tack rule” comes without rhyme, too. It says that of boats on the same tack, the windward vessel has to give way (pass behind) the leeward one. All this sounds confusing? It is a matter of practice, really.

And the best thing about the “rules of the road” at sea compared to actual roads is, that it is fairly easy to avoid dangerous situations on open water. Simply stay clear, use common sense and pass other vessels astern and from a far distance.

Further Reading

Wikipedia on the “International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea”

Wikipedia on the International Maritime Organization

The International Maritime Organization

Legal Advice for Cruisers

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