Fun with COLREGs – By Craig Walker

I get this question a lot: “Why do big ships have right of way (Stand on vessel) when operating in our SF Bay? I always thought a sailboat had right of way over power vessels.” During our Captain’s License course this weekend, the class engaged in a lively debate over this question. Of course, part of the class is devoted to in-depth study of Right-of-Way Rules, formally known as COLREGs – International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea or Navigation Rules. We get into the nitty-gritty detail of the International and Inland Navigation Rules.

At this point, I’d like to make a plug for obtaining (purchase or download for free) a copy of the Navigation Rules, studying them and keeping copy in your duffle bag. By the way, every vessel 12 meters or more in length must have a copy of these rules on board when under way.So what is the answer to the question above?  Drum roll, please…

The answer is Rule 10, Traffic Separation Schemes, part (j) which states: a vessel of less than 20 meters in length or a sailing vessel shall not impede the safe passage of a power-driven vessel following a traffic lane. This rule applies in both International and Inland Rules.For many of you, your exposure to the rules may only have been presented in terms of what you need to know to sail one of our boats or pass an exam according to ASA standards. You know, for example, that a sailboat on a starboard tack is the stand-on vessel vs. an approaching vessel on a port tack which is the give-way vessel. But, did you know that was Rule 12, Sailing Vessels, part (a), sub-part (i)?

(a)    When two sailing vessels are approaching one another, so as to involve risk of collision, one of them shall keep out of the way of the other as follows:        (i)                When each has the wind on a different side, the vessel which has the wind on the port side shall keep out of the way of the other; …

It’s kind of similar to when we learned to drive a car. We all got a Drivers Handbook. Remember that way way back when? It’s true for driving a car that you don’t need a copy of the CA State Vehicle Code  in your glove box or memory, but we are still responsible for following the laws prescribed. And, guess what, if something goes wrong, it is the Vehicle Code that is going to sort things out.  It’s the same for boating and the COLREGs. The good news is there are only 38 Rules. If you are serious about spending time on the water, I recommend learning them.

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