Yes! Believe It Or Not, Our Waterways Do Have Rules of the Road!
By Wayne Spivak, National Press Corps,
National Marketing and Public Affairs Department, U.S.C.G. Auxiliary
Could you imagine, given the sheer
number of cars on the road today, if we didn't have traffic laws? Cars
would zoom hither and yarn, with absolutely no rhyme or reason. Speed,
it would be the autobahn on your residential side streets!
Well, this happens to be the case
in some parts of our country, but generally, people obey the traffic
laws. In 2001, there were 221,230,148 vehicles registered. And even
with people obeying these traffic laws, there were 6,323,000 crashes
in the United States, which proved fatal for 37,795 people, according
to the US Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration. That's 0.6% of all accidents.
In 2000, the Coast Guard shows
12,782,143 registered boats, which resulted in 7,740 accidents and 701
deaths as a result of those accidents. If you do some non-scientific
statistical analysis, 3% of the registered vehicles were in accidents.
At the same time point 1 percent (0.1%) of all registered boats was in
an accident. Both figures are probably lower, since we all know people
who have multiple accidents in one year, and boats that also have been
in more than one accident.
In any event, one of the reasons
why there were 7,740 accidents on the water was that people did not
follow the Rules of the Road. These Rules (there are thirty-eight
Rules and 5 Annexes) were formalized in the Convention on the
International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972.
Commonly referred to as the COLREGS or the Rules, these Rules,
especially the Inland rules, have been in effect (for all Inland
waterways) since 1983.
Navigation Rules for Dummies
Here is a crash course on the
Rules. The Coast Guard Auxiliary can not stress enough the need for
ALL boaters to attend a safe boating course, and to take whatever
additional educational courses are required for all boaters to
properly understand the meaning and intent of the Rules of the Road.
As a recreational boater, you are
responsible for your actions. For the boater who studies and obtains a
captain's license from the Coast Guard, your liability, and
responsibility is set at a higher standard. In other words, your
wriggle room for negligence is eliminated.
For those boaters who have RADAR
on their vessels, you too have a higher standard, when it comes to
collisions at sea, since RADAR is considered an collision avoidance
tool (Rule 7), which should be monitored at all times.
Rule 5 states that all vessels
are required to have a look-out, on duty at all times, listening and
looking, to make "a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk
of collision". The excuse "everyone was down below while we were
making way" just doesn't work.
Rule 6 stipulates that a vessel
should travel at a safe speed for existing conditions. The
overriding condition is to have the ability to "take proper and
effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within a distance
appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions."
Rule 8 ("Action to Avoid
Collision") stipulates that you must take early and decisive actions
to avoid a collision. Decisive actions are defined as "Any
alteration of course and/or speed to avoid collision shall, if the
circumstances of the case admit, be large enough to be readily
apparent to another vessel observing visually or by radar; a
succession of small alterations of course and/or speed should be
Rule 2("Responsibility") tells us we can throw out the book, should we
need too, only as a last result, and only to avoid a collision.
However, Rule 2 first states
clearly that both vessels must comply with all provisions of the
Rules, and even if you have to dismiss the rules in order to avoid a
collision, you will still be held responsible for failure to abide by
the rules (early and decisive actions) in the first place.
Summary: Look, listen, analyze
and make changes to your course and speed that are overt and
noticeable to avoid a collision at sea!
That being said, all boaters must
understand their vessel's danger zone. It is the area represented by
the danger zone, which is at the heart of several of the most
At night, your vessel is required
to show specific colored lights in specified areas on your boat (read
on for more info). In the diagram above, you will notice that your
vessel is represented by the color lights. If you think about it, your
boat is like a traffic light, with red and green lights. These lights
signify to another vessel whether they can proceed or not. Any vessel
who is dead ahead to 112.5° off the starboard (right side) will always
see a green light.
And we all know a green light
means go. So, whether its daylight or night time, any vessel who would
normally see your green light, ALWAYS has the right of way. They are
supposed to maintain course and speed, and your vessel is to slow down
or change course so the other boat can pass safely in front of, or
behind your vessel.
The opposite is in effect, should
a vessel be sitting to the port (or left) of your bow. Then you have
the right of way, and must maintain your course and speed.
In all circumstances, be it a
head-on (or nearly head-on) meeting, a crossing situation (either from
port or starboard) or an overtaking situation, the vessel who wishes
to cross or overtake needs to inform the other vessel of its intent.
On the land, we use turn signals.
On the water, we use sound signals. Rule 34 Inland stipulates that
vessels are to use:
...shall indicate that maneuver by
the following signals on her whistle: one short blast to mean "I
intend to leave you on my port side"; two short blasts to mean "I
intend to leave you on my starboard side"; and three short blasts to
mean "I am operating astern propulsion"
(ii) upon hearing the one or two
blast signal of the other shall, if in agreement, sound the same
whistle signal and take the steps necessary to effect a safe passing.
If, however, from any cause, the vessel doubts the safety of the
proposed maneuver, she shall sound the danger signal...
The Danger Signal is five (5)
short blasts. It is used when a danger condition exists or a vessel is
confused by a situation, and needs all parties to focus.
There are two other sound signals
that you should be made aware of, astern propulsion and a vessel
"nearing a bend or an area of a channel or fairway where other vessels
may be obscured by an intervening obstruction" or when leaving a dock
The signal for astern propulsion
is three short blasts. The signal used to warn other vessels when
nearing a bend or leaving a berth is one long blast. Now you know why,
when a large vessel, like a fishing boat or a cruise ship begins to
leave port, it gives one long blast, and then three short blasts from
This article in and of itself can
not provide you with all the knowledge you need for safely using our
waterways. The only way to receive this type of instruction is by
starting your boating education. You can start by taking a safe