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.

Skipper’s Tips #10 – Sound Signals

Plotter picture

Happy New Year everyone!  Let’s hope 2015 turns out to be a great year for us all and certainly better than the last few years.  The current economic crisis has put a bit of a downer on a lot of people’s boating but the signs are that things are starting to get better; cheaper fuel is one good sign, keep your fingers crossed for less demanding times ahead…

For those of you who know me well, you’ll be aware that like everyone else I’ve had my own issues to deal with in the last few years.  Going from being fully employed to working freelance again has been a bit of a wrench but I recently had some good fortune come my way in the form of an ongoing contract to run a medium sized motor yacht in the Mediterranean. This certainly takes the pressure off financially and will, I’m sure, prove to be a bit of a hoot too!

Needless to say, you can expect many exciting adventures to come and naturally, my personal thoughts on a whole list of new anchorages and restaurants!

In the mean time, I think a new Skipper’s Tip is long overdue.  Given that it’s winter and we are, yet again, in the grips of some pretty fluffy weather I’ll consider some of the theoretical side to boating…

Sound Signals:

It has to be obvious to those of you who operate boats and are also car drivers that, for the most part, we do not travel down clearly laid out tracks, we are not all going the same way and we do not have brake lights and indicators to make other ‘drivers’ aware of our intentions.  So, how do we let other water users know what we are going to do next?

Clearly, if we are in an open stretch of water, with plenty of distance between ourselves and nearby boaters we can generally see what people are up to by studying their track over periods of 5 or 10 minute intervals – most boats tend to hold a steady course for the duration of their passages, only making turns as they avoid hazards or navigate down narrow channels and a significant alteration of course in an open water situation is quite easy to spot and allow for.  In fact, if you want to make your intentions clear to another vessel, making a bold turn in good time is by far the best approach to safe navigation – everyone can see what’s going on and there should be no need for last minute, panic manoeuvres.

However, we need to take a different approach when in sight of other vessels and in situations that don’t allow for ‘bold manoeuvres’, such as in a narrow channel, in a marina or in a harbour.  This is where sound signals take the place of vehicle indicators. Learning the various sound and light signals that vessels make is vitally important.  Although, as with all the rules of the road, it’s not enough to simply know what lights you are required to exhibit or what sound signals you might have to make, you must also be aware of the signals other shipping may show/sound and what action you should subsequently take.

Though often misused by friends signalling jovially to each other across the water, the horn is an essential navigational and safety tool, that is not to be used indiscriminately. A toot to your buddy could easily be misinterpreted by another craft as an intention to turn…

During periods of reduced visibility or whenever a vessel needs to signal its intentions or position, a horn is essential. There are different meanings attached to different sound sequences and to further complicate matters, some vessels will sound different sequences when in reduced visibility situations.

These sound signals are formed by both the length of blast and the number of blasts in a sequence.

By the way, a ‘Short blast’ = 1 second, and a ‘Long blast’ = 3 to 5 seconds or 4 to 6 seconds, depending on which book you read.

Some manoeuvring sound signals that you should already be familiar with are:

  • 1 short blast – I am turning to starboard
  • 2 short blasts – I am turning to port
  • 3 short blasts – My engines are going astern
  • 5 short blasts – I do not understand your intentions
  • 1 long last – I am coming (normally at a blind bend in a river)

Incidentally, a good way to remember the manoeuvring signals is to think of the word SPA, as in the spring water baths that we get in some UK towns like Harrogate, Bath and Leamington.

In other words, Starboard is 1 short blast, Port is 2 short blasts and Astern is 3 short blasts.

In fog/reduced visibility when we are not in sight of other vessels we use a different series of signals to let other water users know that we are about. Normal power driven vessels, not hampered in any way, will sound 1 long blast every two minutes.  Everyone else and this means sailing vessels and anyone who is hampered in some way will sound 1 long blast, followed immediately by 2 short blasts.  This second group, the sailing vessels and those hampered in some way, are sometimes affectionately known as the ‘Lame Ducks’.  There is a hierarchy into which these vessels fit, determining who ranks highest in terms of expecting other water users to give way to them. Starting at the bottom and working up to the vessels that can reasonably expect everyone to keep clear we have: sailing vessels, fishing vessels, towing vessels, vessels constrained by their draught, vessels restricted in their ability to manoeuvre and lastly, vessels not under command.

Of these ‘Lame Ducks’ the two that probably need some explanation are those that are restricted in their ability to manoeuvre and those NUC (not under command).  Some examples of the type of vessel that could be restricted in ability to manoeuvre would be; a towing vessel with a large or awkward tow (this outranks the ‘normal’ towing vessel, a vessel surveying, a vessel dredging and a vessel with a towed underwater array.  NUC (not under command), is a term used to describe a vessel that has lost all or some of its propulsion or ability to steer.  Clearly, this vessel is unable to comply with the normal avoidance procedures laid down in the COLREGS and therefore all other vessels must make every effort not to impede the safe passage of such a vessel.

So, your bedtime reading over the winter months might include a bit of revision on the Collision Regulations and it really ought to include learning, off by heart, the full list of sound signals.

On a more practical note, it’s worth keeping a portable air horn on your boat, in case the boat’s fixed horn fails.

Lastly, here’s one more sound signal for you to consider.  One long blast, followed by three short blasts. Look it up and let me know what it’s for…

Happy boating folks.  Keep looking in for new adventures and skipper’s tips. Don’t forget, you can always post any questions you have in the comments section of the blog and I’ll answer it as soon as I can.

This has been another Captain Corbett’s Adventure.  If I’m not on Jersey teaching a private tuition Day Skipper theory or Yachtmaster theory course, then I’m either spending time with someone on their boat, giving them the confidence to take their boat out with their family and friends on board or I’m off somewhere exotic delivering a boat. Either way, I’ll write it up and put it on the Blog for you all to see, so keep popping back to see my most recent adventures.