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Safe at Sea: The rules of the ‘road’ on the water

By Staff | Jun 11, 2019


(Editor’s note: This column is the first in a series regarding Navigational Rules. Content for it is taken from the text for America’s Boating Course, offered by United States Power Squadrons.)

In its entry-level course America’s Boating Course, a great deal of emphasis is placed on “The Rules of the Road” – the “navigational” road, that is.

The Navigation Rules are regulations intended to prevent collisions and accidents; therefore knowing these rules of vessel operation – in the presence of other vessels – is fundamental to being “Safe at Sea.”

The rules of the road apply whether you operate a 10-foot personal water (i.e. a jet ski), a 50-plus foot yacht, or an oceangoing ship. While a recreational boater is not expected to memorize all the navigational rules, all boaters should learn and fully understand the basic rules as they apply to their own boating experiences.

That said, there are two sets of similar Navigation Rules, depending on the location of your boat:

– International rules, which apply to all vessels on the “high seas.” Typically the navigational lines of demarcation for international seas appear roughly 3 miles off the continental coastline. (These rules are known as COLREGS.)

– Inland rules, which apply on all coastal in inland waters of the United States inside the navigational demarcation lines.

Most recreational boating occurs inside the demarcation line and for this series will reference inland rules.

Before learning the rules of the road, boaters need to know the general rule of responsibility and – for this series of columns – the definitions of a few key terms.

The general rule of responsibility states that the skipper is responsible for the safety of his/her passengers and vessel. This means, he/she “must comply with the rules and must take every precaution required by the ordinary practice of seamen, including departing from the rules to avoid danger,” according to the America’s Boating Course textbook.

While “including departing from the rule to avoid danger” may appear at first glance to be contradictory, it is not. To repeat: the captain is responsible for the safety of passengers and vessel and must take any action requisite to prevent danger/damage.

Before proceeding with the rules of the road, a few definitions are in order:

– Underway: A vessel that is afloat (not at anchor, aground or made “fast” to shore); by definition, a boat underway need not be moving through water.

– Stand-on vessel: A boat that is required (by the rules of the road) to continue in the same direction and at the same speed during a boating “traffic” situation unless a collision appears imminent; if the other vessel does not take appropriate action, the stand-on vessel must take whatever action is necessary to avoid collision or damage.

– Risk of collision: The captain of every boat must use all available means appropriate to determine if is of collision exists. The text from America’s Boating Course states, “If the captain has any doubt, then the risk of collision exists and he/she must take whatever evasive action is necessary to avoid collision.”

– Vessel not under command: A vessel unable to maneuver or keep out of the way of other vessels; examples include engine failure, being aground, inability to steer, et cetera.

The next few weeks of Safe at Sea columns will move into the rules of the road, themselves and their application.

Clearly, learning the rules of the road is essential to competent safe boating. While the intent of this column is to underscore their importance, it also serves to introduce boaters to America’s Boating Course, which earns boaters their Florida Boating License, a requirement for boaters born after Jan. 1, 1989. (And quite honestly, is important to all boaters – even very experienced boaters – new to the Southwest Florida coastal waters.)

Pat Schmidt is a member of America’s Boating Club of Sanibel-Captiva. For more information, contact 239-985-9472 or Commander@SanibelCaptivaSPS.org or visit online at sancapboating.club.