Inland Navigation Rules – Simplified! 1 through 6 – By Tradewinds Instructor Virginia L.

Inland Navigation Rules

Nav Rules Made Easy

The Navigation Rules are also commonly called “rules of the road” and apply to you, me and all Tradewinds skippers.

The rules are nicknamed, “Colregs” which stands for International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.

Let’s stop for a minute and think about that.

The purpose of the rules is to prevent boats from getting in accidents with other boats on the water.

Why?  Why is so important to prevent boating accidents?

It’s important to prevent collisions because boating accidents can be much more serious than accidents on land.

Think about it.

If a boat gets into a “fender bender” with another boat, it’s possible that the damage, even if the damage is “just a small hole in the hull” can quickly cause a dangerous and even life-threatening situation.

If a boat gets into an accident on the water, the boat can’t just pull over to the side of the road.  There is no “side of the road”.

So, the Navigation Rules, or “Colregs” is a set of rules that tell us how to interact with other boats on the water.  The purpose of the rules is to ensure that everyone does everything possible to avoid a boating collision.  The rules apply to almost anything that floats with at least one passenger.

In this Nav Rules Made Easy series, we’ll explain each Inland Navigation Rule, with an emphasis on the information that’s most important for recreational sailing in the San Francisco Bay.  We won’t include portions of the rules that are highly technical and intended for commercial mariners.

Note: If you travel more than one mile outside the Golden Gate Bridge or if you charter a boat in another country, the International Rules apply.  Many of the International Rules are exactly the same as the Inland Rules.  However, there are also a few that contain important and significant differences from Inland.  Make sure that you study and learn International Rules if you are traveling in international waters.

 Rule 1 – Application

Rule #1 tells us when the Nav Rules apply.  To figure out if the Nav Rules apply to your boat or watercraft, just answer these few questions:

  • Does it float?
  • Is it intended to have at least one passenger?

If the answer to both of these questions is “yes”, then the Nav Rules apply.

The Nav Rules apply to almost anything that floats and was designed for at least one passenger.  That means that Nav Rules apply to all boats, ships, yachts, seaplanes, kayaks, dinghys, paddleboards, etc.


Rule 2 – Responsibility

Rule #2 tells us that there is no excuse for not knowing and following the rules.

If you don’t follow the rules, you are completely responsible for any and all consequences of your actions.

No excuses accepted.  None.

As skipper, boat owner, and/or crew, you are expected to know:

  • the limitations of the boat you’re driving
  • the limitations of other boats on the water
  • any hazardous areas where you are sailing (too shallow, lee shore, etc.)
  • when to break a rule in order to avoid a collision

 Rule 3 – General definitions

Some of the terms used in the Navigation Rules are very precise.  To understand the rules, you have to understand the definitions of certain words.  Here are some of the words defined in Rule 3.

Vessel – anything that floats and was designed to carry at least one person.  A vessel is anything used for transportation on the water.

Power-driven vessel – any water craft with an engine or motor that is powering it through the water (a sailboat is a power-driven vessel when the engine is being used).

Sailing vessel – any water craft that is powered by sails and the sails are being used to power the boat.  If the boat has an engine or motor, the engine or motor is off.

Vessel engaged in fishing – a boat with nets, lines, rods, trawls or other fishing gear that is in use. .  The fishing gear makes the boat difficult to maneuver.  This definition doesn’t include boats with trolling lines.  Trolling lines are fishing lines that trail behind the boat while the boat is underway.  Trawling is fishing by pulling a net through the water behind the boat.

Seaplane – a plane that is moving around on the water.

Vessel not under command – a boat or water craft that can’t be steered and cannot get out of the way of another boat.

Vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver – a boat doing work that results in the boat not being able to maneuver freely.  Here are some examples:

  • a buoy tender picking up or fixing a buoy or daymark
  • a barge dredging
  • a pilot boat transferring a pilot to a cargo ship
  • an aircraft carrier when planes are taking off or landing
  • a boat towing another boat and the tow boat is not able to maneuver easily

Underway – when a boat is on the water and not attached to anything.  The boat is not anchored.  The boat is not tied to a dock or mooring ball.  A boat is underway even if the engine is off or the sails are down.

Length – the total length of the boat from stern to bow

Breadth – the widest part of the boat (beam)

Vessels in sight of each other – when one boat can visually see another boat

Restricted visibility – any type of condition that makes visibility difficult.  This can mean fog, rain, mist, etc.

Rule 4 – Application

Rule #4 says that rules 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 apply all during all types of visibility.  If the weather is clear and visibility is good, the rules apply.  If there is fog, mist or rain and visibility is poor, the rules apply.

Rule 5 – Look-out

Every vessel on the water must always have at least one person who is designated as look-out.  The look-out is expected to look and listen for other boats, objects or obstacles.  Skipper and crew on the boat must use all tools available to assist with being an effective look-out.  Look-out tools include radar and binoculars.  The look-out not only needs to be able to see and hear boats and obstacles, the look-out also needs to be able to have the time and attention to determine if any risks exist.  If there are risks or hazards, the look-out needs to be able to have a full understanding of the situation.  In other words, the look-out should not be doing anything else when assigned to look-out duty.

 Rule 6 – Safe speed

Every boat on the water must always maintain a safe speed. A boat is traveling at safe speed when the boat is able to safely stop in adequate time to avoid a collision.

Here are the factors to consider when trying to determine “safe speed”:

  • Visibility – is it foggy? Are you able to see?  Is there sun glare?
  • Other boat traffic – are there lots of other boats around?
  • Maneuverability – are you able to stop the boat? Can you make a quick turn?
  • At night, are there lights from shore that make it hard to see what’s happening on the water?
  • Are there navigational hazards nearby? Are there shoals?  Jetties?
  • Environment – is it windy? Is there strong current?  Are there swells or choppy seas?
  • What is the water depth? Is there plenty of clearance under the keel?  Are you concerned about running aground?

If the boat has radar:

  • Do you know how to use radar?
  • What are the limitations of the radar equipment?
  • Is there scatter from waves, weather or anything else?
  • Are you reminding yourself that radar won’t “see” small boats or debris in the water?
  • Do you know how to read the radar screen to determine movement of other boats?

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1 Response to Inland Navigation Rules – Simplified! 1 through 6 – By Tradewinds Instructor Virginia L.

  1. Tony Johnson says:

    Although, as you say, “Nav Rules apply to all boats, ships, yachts, seaplanes, kayaks, dinghys, paddleboards, etc.”
    The rules, as far as I know, never designate where human-powered vessels fit into rule 18, which specifies the “pecking order” of vessels, for example, that a power-driven vessel underway shall keep out of the way of a vessel not under command. Heated online discussions argue, on the one side, that a kayak is “powered” because it is powered by a human. Others say that, as they are not powered by machine, they are not power vessels. It is not as though one never encounters rowboats (I have one or two or three); but the Colregs never mention human powered craft as far as I am aware. It is a puzzling omission since, as you know, the Colregs are very well organized, clear, and logical. I would be very pleased to be enlightened on this point, and am too lazy to do any more research on it.

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