Rules of the Road-The Forgotten Rules of Seamanship

Written by Capt. Juan Watson

“Unbelievable! What are they doing?”

This might be some of the dialog going on in your head on a typical summer weekend on the Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, or any busy body of water. More often than not this is the direct result of a near collision situation. A good understanding of the rules and good seamanship would go a long way to avoiding many of these scenarios.

I will be the first to say that the rules of the road is not as entertaining to read as one would like, and could almost be prescribed to insomniacs as an alternative to medication. However, the fact remains the same that it is essential for safe boating and practicing proper seamanship. After all, people’s lives and safety are potentially at stake, and you, as the captain, are responsible for them.

According to the Oxford dictionary, seamanship by definition is: “the skill, techniques, or practice of handling a ship or boat at sea”. Upon seeing that I find myself thinking (referring to The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea) immediately of rule 2, “the good seamanship rule”, in particular section 2(a) and to quote:

2a) Nothing in these Rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner, master or crew thereof, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these Rules or of the neglect of any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case.

That part mentioning nothing shall exonerate shortly followed by consequences of any neglect to comply with these rules does not leave me with warm fuzzies.  So you may ask, what does this essentially mean?

What it is saying is that in a collision situation, all parties involved are responsible for a piece of the blame- and will depending on the situation. Lets say that you are sailing and a powerboat is coming up to cross your bow and it is apparent you are on a collision course. Initially, you are the stand-on vessel (rule 17) required to maintain course and speed.  The power vessel that is approaching you is required to give way (rules 18 and 16) and is making no effort to avoid you. Under rule 17, with a collision being imminent the sailing vessel should take action to avoid the collision.  Although the sailing vessel is the stand-on vessel, he is required to avoid the collision if the situation becomes dangerous. There are several scenarios similar to the one above that occur on a daily basis. Below are a few things to consider next time you are out on the water:

  • Avoid close quarters situations as much as possible. If you think it is too close for comfort it probably is. At the end of the day, it comes down to this- would you risk a collision to prove you are right (referring to the stand-on vessel)? (rule 16)
  • Keep a good look out. If you’re on busy waters situations will develop quickly and you can be more proactive than reactive to situations (rule 5)
  • If you are the give-way vessel take early and clear action. Passing 50ft from another vessel when you have plenty of room to avoid them does not fall under good seamanship (rule 16)
  • Use an appropriate speed in your surroundings. On a busy day go slower to allow more time to assess situations, if the visibility is poor, slow down or stop completely if need be. (rule 6)

Safe boating to you all!

Juan Watson is a 14-year mega yacht veteran. Currently, he owns and operates Pelorus Yacht Consulting, LLC in Annapolis, MD. PYC focuses on educating yachtsmen and owners.