Collision Regulations

I’m fairly convinced that only a small fraction of those skippering boats on the water posses an understanding of collision regulations.

The collision regulations, known as ColRegs, are a set of…….

Well. I used to think of them as “regulations.” I suspect they are “sort of” laws governing mariners that are enforceable should there be property damage as a result of negligence on the high seas. It is clear, however, that one is not required to pass a written test to demonstrate an understanding of these laws prior to operating sailing or power boats on public waters. So, it’s difficult to call them laws though I wouldn’t wish to be on the wrong side of a legal dispute where they were applied as I’m sure the attorneys involved would argue that regulations imply laws. Perhaps they’re “rules” to guide decision making when the threat of a collision is imminent. If so, then people simply don’t understand the rules. Suggestions? Perhaps. Again, most mariners haven’t a clue. I believe that the critical importance of the ColRegs is such that they should be considered as more than suggestions.

I encounter at least three or more other vessels where the ColRegs are obviously not understood or followed during every day I spend sailing on the SF bay. I couldn’t really tell you the number of times I’ve had to blow five short blasts of the air horn toward other skippers who had put us in danger of collision. All too often, I have had to take evasive action by dramatically changing course direction in order to diminish the risk of collision. Once, the only course of action was to quickly jibe the boat! This is a real problem! Collisions…. are real. I’ve seen vessels at the various repair shops in the Bay Area that had been damaged in collisions. The costs to repair these vessels are enormous. Further, the risk to life and limb are perhaps more important when considering the consequences of a collision on the water.

The ColRegs are really not that difficult to understand. They are, actually, well designed such that the least maneuverable, and vessels most at risk as a consequence of a quick maneuver, are referred to as the “stand on vessel.” The stand on vessel is required to maintain course and speed. The “give way” vessel is supposed to take action to markedly decrease the likelihood of collision. While the ColRegs handbook is rather complex, and includes a great deal of information on related topics such as sound and light signals, most books of instruction for sailing vessels and powerboats have simplified the material so that it is easily understood and learned. The scenarios that require judgment on the water are not all that difficult to recognize and assess in real time. Quick decision making is often required to decrease the chances of catastrophe.

https://www.navcen.uscg.gov/pdf/navRules/navrules.pdf

My recommendation, when concerned about the risk of collision, is to take action to head off trouble while the risk is low. Pay attention! Anticipate what the skipper of another vessel in you vicinity might do. Does the skipper recognize the same risk? Is he seemingly going to maintain course? Is she distracted? Should you take evasive action sooner rather than later? Will your actions endanger other vessels? Time is of the essence. Think quickly. Act swiftly. Carry through with your plans once you begin to implement and change course. There is no harm done having to alter course even if you are the “stand on” vessel. It won’t ruin your day while a collision with another vessel could lead to loss of life, ruin your vessel, and even cost a fortune in legal fees if you were deemed to not have acted appropriately to avoid catastrophe.

Though there was no risk of collision this boater could have politely chosen to take our stern.

A final note…..the one thing that is, at best, more nebulous than “how does a boat sail upwind,” is related to the fact that, if one is deemed the “stand on” vessel and does not, in the end, take action to avoid a collision, but could have done so, he is considered responsible. What? It’s true. While the ColRegs are regulations and seem like law….they probably are best thought of as a little difficult to gauge when legal matters arise. It’s simply not as straightforward to determine fault with vessels on the water as it is when considering “right of way” in the world of automobiles on roadways. Many mariners like to consider CoRegs as an understanding of right of way when sailing. Sometimes it seems that this notion is the farthest from the truth. And, it is. Just learn them.

Two boats and it’s a race! Or….. a collision if you’re not careful.

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