Maritime Rules of the Road: A Primer for Boaters

A professional mariner and U.S. Coast Guard masters license instructor explains the view from the bridge, and lays out the basics of watch-keeping and the marine pecking order for pleasure-boaters.

25th January 2013.
By Tony Bessinger

To be fair, I’ll state at the beginning of this story that I spend a great deal more time than the average boater thinking about the Rules of the Road. In addition to teaching students how to pass the USCG Master’s exams from OUPV (Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels)  to 100-Ton in the winter, I spend summers driving fast ferries on regularly scheduled runs in New England, and portions of my spring and fall seasons are devoted to delivering boats. What I see in the classroom and on the water has led me to an inescapable conclusion: Very few boaters have a good, working knowledge of the rules, or how to deal with other vessels in crossing, overtaking, or meeting situations.


The author is the captain of fast ferries plying the crowded waters of New England in summertime, when navigation rules need to be known and applied quickly.

The people who know the rules best are, for the most part, professional mariners. Granted, it’s their job, and they’re paid to know the rules. Their livelihood depends upon a firm command of the rules, and if they screw up, they face large fines and possible jail time. The mantle of responsibility that comes with a USCG license is a heavy one, and nobody knows that better than the men and women who drive commercial vessels.

On the recreational side, all bets are off. You pony up enough cash and you’re on the water. You’re required to know absolutely nothing before you get behind the helm and frankly, it shows. Tugboat operators, Coast Guardsmen, and other professional mariners dread the start of the “Silly Season” in New England: Spring, when the covers come off the boats and those boats and their owners swarm the bays and sounds. They (usually) follow the one basic rule that’s jokingly referred to as the “Tonnage Rule,” where the larger vessel has the right of way, no matter the circumstance.

Not all boat owners fall into that category, of course. Some may have taken courses and gotten licensing, or have come from the commercial side. Some may have spent some time looking at the book that most vessels are required to carry on board — the Rules of the Road. Some may have taken Coast Guard Auxiliary classes, or watched videos or computer simulations in a wise attempt to know the rules better and be more responsible. Some may have simply spent enough years on the water to understand the importance of the rules and assimilate them.

Sadly, all those people combined are in the minority.

Let’s take a simplified, basic look at the Rules of the Road, also known as the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, or COLREGs.

Rule 1: the basic premise that the rules apply to all vessels.

Rule 2: the idea that nothing in the rules exonerates you from common sense. In other words, you cannot blindly follow the rules to the point of colliding with another vessel not following the rules. Rule 2 makes it clear that you can depart from the rules if the need arises, i.e. imminent collision.

Rule 3:  lays out the hierarchy of the waterways, also known as the pecking order. It seems complicated at first-read, but makes complete sense. The rule first defines what makes a vessel, and makes it clear that even seaplanes and Wing-In-Ground (skimming-type) vessels are subject to the rules.

The lowest of the low are Seaplanes and Wing-In-Ground (skimming) craft. Both of these vessels have no rights at all over any other vessels.

On the next rung up is your basic Power Driven Vessel, any vessel that is powered by any type of engine.

The next rung up on the ladder is the Sailing Vessel, but only when they are powered only by their sails. As soon as their engine starts moving them around, they take a step down and become a Power Driven Vessel.

Next up are Fishing Vessels, and we’ll start this rule up by correcting a common misconception. Fishing Vessels are vessels that use: “nets, lines, trawls, and other fishing apparatus,” but do not include vessels that are trolling, aka, sports fishermen.

bessinger at helm of fast ferry

The author at the helm of the Rhode Island Fast Ferry.

One step up from Fishing Vessels are Vessels Restricted in Their Ability to Maneuver. These are vessels that, “through the nature of their work are restricted in their ability to maneuver.” These vessels include dredges, minesweepers, cable-layers, buoy tenders, survey vessels, aircraft carriers conducting flight operations, and even (sometimes) tugs and tows. These vessels show shapes or lights and make Securite calls on the VHF radio about their situation.

Next up are vessels Constrained by Draft, but this is a tricky rule, because it applies only in International Waters. The bays and sounds we mostly use are not in International Waters, and therefore this rule does not apply. However,  deepwater vessels that enter bays and sounds must stick to the marked channels, and there is a different section of the rules that deals with vessels wanting to cross or use marked channels that don’t need the depth available and are interacting with vessels that do. A simple way to think about this? Don’t interfere with deep-draft vessels in marked channels.

At the top of the heap are vessels Not Under Command. By “command,” the rules don’t mean there’s no captain, they means that commands to the engine room or steering station can’t be followed; therefore the vessel is either close to incapable or completely incapable of following the rules. The strict wording is quite clear: “…a vessel which through some exceptional circumstance is unable to maneuver as required by the rules.”  These vessels show shapes or lights and make Securite calls about their situation, much the same as vessels Restricted in Their Ability to Maneuver.

The next section of the Rules deals with Steering and Sailing and the rules are for any visibility.

First, the rules define Safe Speed. Basically this means: don’t go faster than the situation allows. In other words, if it’s crowded, you have poor visibility, or are driving a vessel with limited maneuverability, you must take all these factors into account.

The next rule says that all vessels must maintain a proper lookout at all times, using any and all available means of doing so. That means if you have a VHF radio, you are required to monitor Channel 16, and if you have RADAR or AIS, you must monitor them as well. You must also, of course, look around to determine if a risk of collision exists. The rule also states that any action that must be taken be positive, obvious, and made in good time. Slight course changes aren’t obvious, so make it clear to the other vessel what your intentions are, and do them before the situation becomes extreme. Although unspoken, this rule also means that distracted driving, such as using your mobile phone to call or text, is not OK, as it means you are not maintaining a proper lookout.

In narrow channels it doesn’t much matter if you’re a sailing vessel, or even a fishing vessel. You may not impede a larger vessel that needs to stay in that channel in order to avoid running aground. You must also stay to the starboard side of the channel.

The next section applies to vessels that are in sight of one another, and deals with sailing vessels first. For sailors, these are rules we know well. Port tack gives way to starboard tack, windward gives way to leeward, and if you’re on port tack and unsure of the other vessel’s point of sail, you must give way.

In all the situations there are two types of vessels, the Stand On, and the Give Way. The Give Way vessel must take early and substantial action to keep clear. The Stand On vessel must maintain her course and speed until it becomes clear that the Give Way vessel isn’t following the rules, and even when that happens the rules state that the Stand On vessel should avoid turning to port.

Overtaking is one of the most misunderstood rules. Quite simply, it does not matter what type of vessel you are. If you are overtaking, you must stay clear of the other vessel. Even if you’re a sailing vessel overtaking a power-driven vessel, you must stay clear. If you are the Overtaken vessel, you must maintain your course and speed — otherwise how can the other vessel stay clear?

Head On meetings between power-driven vessels require that both vessels alter course to starboard.

Crossing Situations are also often misunderstood. Simply put, the vessel that’s coming from your starboard side has the right of way, and you are required to either alter course or slow down so as to pass astern of that vessel.

view from fast ferry bow

The view from the bow of the fast ferry.

Dealing with Commercial Vessels:

Most commercial boaters have at least some idea about how to deal with commercial vessels (see the “Tonnage Rule” mentioned above). However they sometimes have a hard time knowing how to do that, and how to properly communicate with the commercial operators. By knowing the rules above and being aware of your surroundings, you can usually avoid issues with commercial vessels in the first place. Sometimes, especially in crowded waterways, you’re going to have to talk directly to the commercial vessel and make your intentions clear, or he is going to call you up and ask what your intentions are.

All commercial vessels monitor VHF channels 13 and 16;  13 is for bridge-to-bridge communications, and is the channel that commercial vessels use to speak to one another regarding their crossing, passing, or overtaking situations. The conversations are usually brief and the agreements are laid out very clearly, and often repeated twice. Like all vessels, including yours, commercial vessels monitor 16 so as to hear any Securite, Pan Pan, Mayday, or Coast Guard communications. We often hear commercial vessels trying to hail recreational vessels on 16; sadly, very few answer. If you are anywhere near a commercial vessel that’s underway, you should be listening very carefully to 16 and answer promptly if hailed. Chances are he’s not calling to chat, but to warn you that what you’re doing is putting you in danger.

If you feel the need to hail a commercial vessel, hail them on 13, and be as professional and brief as you can. Call them up and wait for their answer before launching into your spiel. Then, once communications have been established, tell them what you’re doing to avoid them, or ask whatever question you may have about what their intentions are. Things not to do include saying: “Tugboat off my starboard bow, this is the white sailboat, is it OK if I go ahead of you?” The answer you’ll get will go something like this: “Uh, Cap, which vessel are you, exactly? I have five white sailboats in sight right now and don’t want to steer you wrong.” This is where AIS is invaluable to both the recreational and commercial mariner. You’ll be able to contact the tug by name, he’ll be able to see exactly which sailboat you are, and you’ll quickly be able to agree on how to deal with one another.

Here’s how the perfect commercial/recreational radio conversation can go: “The Marjorie McAllister, the sailing vessel Moonbeam on 13.” “Marjorie back to the Moonbeam.” “Good afternoon Cap, I see you coming outbound in the East Passage, and I’ve got a Closest Point of Approach (CPA) of two-tenths of a mile with me crossing ahead of you. Does that work for you?” “OK Moonbeam, my CPA agrees with that, and I’m not comfortable with you crossing ahead, as I’m increasing my speed. Can you go astern of me please?” “Roger that Cap, I will alter course and pass astern.” “Thank you Cap, appreciate that. You have a nice day now.”

An understanding of the Rules, and the ability to communicate in a professional manner with commercial vessels, will make you safer, lower your anxiety levels, and help you enjoy the water even more than you do now. To give yourself even more confidence, take the time to learn the Lights, Shapes, and Sound Signals associated with the Rules of the Road. It takes a dedicated effort to do so, but it’s well worth it, and will make you a better mariner.

- Tony Bessinger

Tony Bessinger holds a USCG 100-Ton Master’s license and teaches at Confident Captain/Ocean Pros.








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About the author:

Tony Bessinger

Tony Bessinger is a USCG-licensed Master, an instructor at Confident Captain/Ocean Pro in Newport, RI., and a professional delivery captain.

One thought on “Maritime Rules of the Road: A Primer for Boaters

  1. Great overview of the Rules of the Road; I wish more of the folks we see out on the water had a better understanding of these. Your suggestion about Dealing with Commercial Vessels is interesting, but many of these are undermanned and difficult to maneuver; so the ‘Tonnage Rule’ trumps the normal Rules of the Road.

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