Making Sense of The Nautical Rules Of The Road

paulssearay2017This is Captain Paul Foer From The Foerpeak at with more ideas, facts,opinions and analysis to help you become a better boater and a safer mariner. This is the first column in a series to address some basics, or what should be basics about the Nautical Rules of the Road, and more specifically the Colregs or Collision Regulations. Most of us operate on inland waters as opposed to international and we should always be concerned about not hitting another boat–thus The Collision Regulations for both Inland and International Waters, which differ slightly from each other.

Let’s first begin with talking about rules for driving–the rules we were tested upon when we first got our automobile licenses. We know that when a light is red, we stop and most of us learned that from an even earlier age.  Red has come to mean danger, yellow means caution and green means you are okay or in the clear…more or less.  When it is green we go, but we could get more complicated but along with knowing that at an intersection with stop signs, when two cars stop at the same time, the one to the right goes first. It is more or less similar when two boats cross, but of course we don’t have stoplights on the water. 

What if we did not have those rules or nobody cared? Who questions the need for stoplights, stopsigns and the various laws about merging, right of way etc that exist to keep us from colliding while driving? Yet I have found that a lot of boaters don’t know the Rules or don’t think they apply to them, or they question them in general. They ignorantly pooh-pooh the rules thinking hat common sense, whatever that may be, will keep us out of trouble.

Spend a day on the water, especially a crowded holiday and even though you may be a cautious and prudent mariner and you know the Rules, you may find yourself in situations where other boaters are plain ignorant, careless or even clueless. Boats do crash into other boats and so do ships, but this is generally something we try to avoid as it can ruin your whole day and may involve a lot of paperwork. Now, spend an hour or two perusing online boating forums or Facebook boating pages and you could find yourself reading a whole lot of ignorant misconceptions from boaters about the Rules who are just spreading misinformation and who demonstrate a woeful misunderstanding of the Rules. Sad, but true–and you could become their next victim even if you do the right thing, and by that I mean following the rules.

The Rules of the Road have the force of law. Indeed they are federal regulations and should you violate them, you could receive a fine or worse. And should you be involved in a collision, you may be found guilty of violating those rules and could face stiff penalties, especially if someone is injured, or worse. (It may even be possible for your insurance company to refuse coverage if such a violation were deemed to have contributed to a collision and loss). In many such cases, courts find a way to “split the baby” and assign varying proportions of blame to each party. They do this based on law, and not on “common sense” whatever that may be. Common sense tells us to obey the Rules, not flout them.

There are many misconceptions that are floating around out there. One is the idea that some refer to as “The General Tonnage Rule” which they think simply means little boats stay out of the way of bigger boats, but that is patently false. Related to that is the idea that one simply has to stay clear of any boat to avoid a collision. False again. Others think that simply applying so-called “common sense and courtesy” is sufficient. But they reflect confusion, lack of clarity and will lead to highly subjective, uneven, serendipitous and unreliable actions.

Again, let me state that The Rules of the Road are law, codified and explained and taught and subject to interpretation in a court of law and based upon centuries of maritime custom. Clearly when we are talking about a 30 knot speedboat and a 10 knot freighter in open water, a fairway or a busy channel, there is something to be said about gross tonnage (but it is not a rule), but what about between a tug (without a tow) and a yacht of similar size? A fishing boat and a boat under sail? Who will “decide” who is bigger or more maneuverable? What about a 90′ Feadship crossing a 90.5′ Broward? What then? Who can determine gross tonnage by looking at a ship? Besides that, many boaters don’t even know that gross tonnage has nothing to with weight and is only tangentially related to size or length. It cannot be determined without measurements and a formula, and not by sight.

One boater on a Facebook forum recently made a Queen Elizabeth 2 analogue to “demonstrate” such a fake rule, and said we should forget what he called “the prudent mariner crap.” (!!!) But then he ironically stated without any sense of irony to “Remember, regardless of the rest of the rules, the most important rule is to avoid a collision”. OK, let’s unpack that. What he is saying is the most important rule is not to follow any actual rules but to make up your own rule, ie the general tonnage rule. The Rules, otherwise known as COLREGS or The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea are specifically designed to prevent collisions so why is the most important rule to avoid a collision by ignoring the rules? He was perhaps mistakenly referring to what we call the general prudential rule which states that if you are about to collide, you break the rules if necessary to avoid collision. But that’s a big leap of faith.

To restate this another way, the rules are based on hundreds of years of maritime navigation and have the force of law and can be interpreted and upheld by the courts, as I have stated above. They are specifically designed to avoid “in extremis” situations where you might have to and are expected break them in order to avoid a collision–i.e. the general prudential rule (as in “prudential mariner” a term he appeared to disdain by his comments) but if all mariners follow the rules, they are much, much less likely to get “in extremis” where breaking the rules becomes necessary. See the irony here? His ironic comment does not make sense for it says to disregard the rules (if I understand his “point about people arguing about the rules of the road and other regulations”) but it is those same rules that actually dictate the best way for all vessels to avoid collisions. He was asked to clarify his point, but instead he simply vilified the other party.

Watch out for mariners such as that.  In subsequent installments, I shall discuss some other common mistakes or misconceptions about the Rules. This is Captain Paul Foer from The Foerpeak at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Call Now Button
Show Buttons
Hide Buttons