Know The Rules of The Road

17th April 2023

While driving your car, you operate in a well-organized environment. There are roads, lanes, signs, traffic signals and rules. But on the water, it’s wide open. Except for marked channels, there is no roads, lanes, signs, or signals. Most of the time we are on the water, we spend travelling freely without any fear or risk of running into other boats. But there are times we must operate in close quarters with other vessels and there are rules to obey. So, it’s important to “know the rules of the road”!

The International Regulations for the Preventing Collision at Sea (COL-REGs) – known universally as the Rules of the Road – is published by the International Maritime Organization and comes under the jurisdiction of Transport Canada and the Coast Guard in the United States. COL-REGs apply to all types of craft whether power, sail, or human powered.

The penalties associated with failure to follow the rules are the same for both professional and recreational captains. Ignorance is not a free pass. Under the provisions of federal maritime law, the captain, the owner, and the boat itself may each be penalized for the same offense. And if you’re thinking that such penalties are comparable to the average traffic ticket, you can think again. Civil penalties imposed on anyone who operates a boat in violation of the International Rules of Navigation or the regulations there under can be fined up to $5,000.

The following are a few key points of these rules:

-Lookout – Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing as well as by all means available.

-Power Vessels Meeting Head-on – Each needs to change course to starboard so they pass port-to-port.

-Crossing Another Power Vessel – Rule states that boat crossing from the starboard side should “maintain course and speed. Vessel approaching from the port side is the one that must alter course or give-way. This vessel should also not cross ahead of the boat maintaining its course.

-Speed of Operation – Must operate your vessel at a safe speed in order to avoid collision and safely navigate your vessel. The rules do not, however, state what that safe speed is.

-Wake Responsibility – The captain of the vessel is responsible for the wake created and any subsequent damage.

Other topics addressed in the International Regulations for the Preventing Collision at Sea (COL-REGs) are:

-Overtaking Another Vessel

-When Powerboat Meets Sailboat Under Sail

-When Sail Meets Sail

-Aids to Navigation (ATN)

-Traffic Separation Schemes

-Special Circumstances (Vessels not under command, with restricted maneuverability, and commercial fishing vessels)

-Whistle (Horn) Signals

-Channels And Harbours

-Operator Expectations

-Local Knowledge

It would be smart carrying a set of the rules on board. The COLREGs exist to provide mariners with a set of best practices for preventing collision at sea; not to endow inalienable rights. Perhaps the most important rule (Rule 2) which states that when complying with the regulations, “due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to special circumstances…which may a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid danger.” Use common sense.

Boating is one of the great pleasures of life but knowing the “Rules of The Road” is every boat owner’s/skipper’s responsibility and will ensure safety for you and your crew.

Here is a link for additional reading: