Skipper’s Tips #21 – Rules of the Road

I remember, many years ago, sitting down to learn the ‘Highway Code’.  It all seemed very logical, and I suppose it ought to be. After all, if you are going to commit something to memory and then expect to act on it in the future, whatever it is you are trying to remember needs to be kept simple; so it is with the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (IRPCS). 

However, not everyone who uses the roads abides by the rules and we have all seen the results of this cavalier approach on many occasions, of that I’m sure. Sadly, it is little different on the water. In fact, some would say it is even worse. We are all aware that anyone can buy a boat and set off from the shore at will. The question of whether there should be regulations in place to prevent people from doing precisely that and potentially putting their lives or other people’s lives at risk is one for another time but nevertheless this is how the law currently stands. The upshot of this is, in an environment where sticking to the rules is even more important in some instances than it is on the road, a large contingent of water users are blissfully unaware of how to conduct themselves when in the vicinity of other craft, especially commercial vessels.

To my utter dismay, I regularly witnessed incidents of people navigating their boats in busy, narrow waterways with scant regard for other water users around them. One example comes immediately to mind. Once, when coming into the Hamble River, I spotted a large motor cruiser coming from the opposite direction. The person on the helm had not spotted that his speed was so fast that he was creating a sizeable wake (against the local regulations in the river) and worse still, he was navigating on the wrong side of the river (against the IRPCS). Yachts and other motor cruisers alike were forced to duck for cover, shooting off in all directions to avoid being mown down by this lunatic who gave no indication that he was going to move out of anyone’s way.  I could imagine the chap at the helm being of somewhat ‘Toad’ like proportions and muttering under his breath, “Parp, parp”.

What I and surely the other boaters involved in this appalling display of ignorance would like to know, is why, when the rules are so simple to learn and abide by, did this ‘Toad’ drive his boat in this manner?

The IRPCS is as close as we can get on the water, to having a highway code. Naturally, without defined lanes to sail along, the chance of bumping into someone is greatly increased. It, therefore, makes sense to have a set of logical guidelines to follow in order that we can all go about our business without continually colliding with each other.

The ‘Coll Regs’, as they are often called, are hard work to wade through in one go, but try dipping in and out from time to time to keep yourself up to speed. I would also suggest to you that keeping a complete IRPCS on board your boat at all times would be good practice.

The regulations cover; lights, day shapes, sound signals, general rules about avoiding collisions and your responsibilities towards other water users.  Here are some of the general rules:

  1. It is the responsibility of the skipper to maintain a good look-out at all times.
  2. Vessels of less than 20m should not impede the safe passage of large (>20m) vessels in a narrow channel.
  3. Overtaking boats must keep clear.
  4. Power gives way to sail.
  5. Vessels should keep to the starboard side of a narrow channel.
  6. There is a risk of collision if the bearing of an approaching vessel remains constant.
  7. When boats under power are crossing, the vessel with the other vessel on its starboard side must give way.
  8. There is no such thing as ‘Right of Way’.

I am sure that nearly all of you will be aware of the obvious rules, such as keep to the right- hand side of a channel and power gives way to sail but there are some rules that don’t seem to be common knowledge.  Did you know, for instance, that if a sailing boat overtakes you, it is obliged to keep clear of you?  Did you know that the Solent, starting at the Needles, is regarded as a narrow channel with channels delineated by port and starboard markers?

Keeping a good lookout is commonsense, right?. What folk forget though, is this doesn’t just mean looking all around you but it also includes using your radar if you have one fitted. Not having your radar switched on and being able to operate it when you are out at night or in any reduced visibility situation means that you are not abiding by the rules. In fact, a collision caused by misreading your radar could see you taking the lion’s share of the blame for a collision with another vessel. Go and take a radar course this winter!

Here’s a little ditty for you: ‘If to starboard red appear, ‘tis your duty to keep clear’.  That should help decide who the ‘stand on vessel’ is and who the ‘give way’ vessel is in a crossing situation.

By the way, according to the IRPCS, there is no such thing as ‘right of way’.  We are ALL obliged to avoid a collision. There is little point in crashing into another boat when you could easily see what was going to happen and could have turned away, just because you were determined that you were the ‘stand on vessel’ and the other boat must move out of your way.  

This has been another Captain Corbett’s Adventure.  If I’m not in the office dreaming about delivering a boat or teaching Yachtmaster and Day Skipper courses then I’m probably off somewhere exotic on holiday!  Whichever it is, I will still be adding my adventures and skipper’s tips so click follow and you will never miss another update.

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