Rules of the Road -Series II

By: Dan Shipman,US Coast Guard District 13 Logo
Recreational Boating Safety Specialist, 13th Coast Guard District


General Rules

In Series 1, Introduction, we went through the basic history and what navigation rules are all about. Moving forward in the future, I will be taking the rules one-by-one and explaining their intent and application.  Since there are a huge variety of vessels and ships plying the waters of the world, knowing the relevance and context of each rule will help in figuring out how it applies to you. Keep in mind with any federal regulation, or any regulation for that matter, always check the applicability.  Checking applicability will save you a lot of work and in some cases, embarrassment when you start quoting rules that may not apply.

When you look in the navigation rules book, you’ll find they are separated into international and inland sections.  The international and inland rules are very similar and, for the recreational boater, understanding the inland rules first will make recognizing the subtle differences in the international rules much easier.  With rare exception, International rules are only in effect in coastal waters and on the high seas and are governed by international committee. Inland rules, on the other hand, are governed by the U.S. Coast Guard.  When the rules refer to “inland waters of the United States,” it means inland waters where there is federal jurisdiction.  These inland waters are also under state jurisdiction, so there are some joint-jurisdictional responsibilities.  With regard to navigation, however, the federal rules take precedence.  Therefore, all states have adopted federal navigation rules into state law, in order that the application of the navigation rules remains consistent across all state and federal waters.  This means as the vessel operator, you and your crew are responsible to comply with the navigational rules of the road no matter where you are boating.

Let’s start with Rule 1, Application.  The only relevant portion of this rule for the recreational boaters is paragraph (a), which states: “These rules apply to all vessels upon the inland waters of the United States.” SO we know where these rules apply but we need to better define what “all vessels” means.  To figure that out, we need to jump to Rule 3, definitions, and define “vessel” for part of the answer,

In Rule 3 the Definition of a Vessel is: (a) the word “vessel” includes every description of watercraft, including non-displacement craft, WIG craft, Seaplanes, used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on the water.” As I explained in Series 1, Introduction, the only thing not considered a vessel under the navigation rules are swim or pool toys, inner tubes, air mattresses, inflatable swans, flamingos, etc.  This does not mean it’s a rubber stamp interpretation. We will dive deeper in future articles, but certain vessels have priority over others, depending on a specific situation or the operation in which the vessel is engaged.  The take away from this is that if you’re paddling, rowing, sailing or motoring on the water, these rules apply.

Next, Rule 2, Responsibility:  “(a) Nothing in these Rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner, master, or crew thereof, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these Rules or of the neglect of any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case.

 b) In construing and complying with these Rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.” 

2017 boat collision with a bridge abutment on the Columbia River

Paragraph (a) is quite ominous, but the real point here is that everyone on board is responsible for the safe navigation of the vessel and to attempt to use a strict adherence to the rules is not an excuse not to act to avoid a collision.  What most people don’t know or understand is that you are also responsible to take necessary precautions to avoid a collision -even if the other vessel fails to comply with these rules.  That’s why it is so important to recognize when the risk of collision exists and take early and positive action to avoid a collision.

In Paragraph (b) of this rule, it’s all about the application depending on the circumstances.  Not every vessel has the same maneuvering characteristics.  Also, the presence or proximity to shallow or shoal water, obstructions or vessel traffic density may pose an additional risk that if the rule was strictly adhered to, would put you or the other vessel in jeopardy.  All available information must be factored into your decision regarding your course of action to avoid a collision.  As an example, you may not be able to change course to starboard because it will take you into dangerously shallow water.  What other options do you have in that case? Maybe slowing your speed is sufficient to alleviate the risk. It’s about looking for alternatives, especially if your intended action does not resolve the situation or inadvertently increases the risk.  No matter, always have a way out.

Not under power lighting at night

So I know the question pops up, how exactly do non-motorized vessels fit into the application of the navigation rules?  Vessels under sail are addressed in the rules but what about paddlecraft?  As explained earlier, paddlecraft meet the definition of a vessel but nowhere in the rules are paddlecraft specifically identified other than in Rule 25 for Navigation Lighting.  When the rules are not specific or there is uncertainty, Rule 2 applies. This rule emphasizes that the ordinary practice of good seamanship requires precaution under all conditions and circumstances and not strict adherence to the rules.

When determining the conduct of vessel in sight of one another the rules are set up so the burden is on the more maneuverable vessel to give way to the less maneuverable vessel.  This is derived from the basic intent of Rule 18, Responsibility between Vessels. So it is reasonable that the more maneuverable vessel gives way to the less maneuverable vessel but, ultimately each vessel has the responsibility to avoid a collision regardless of its status. Translated: When the risk of collision exists the power-driven vessel should take early action to avoid the paddle craft but this does not exonerate the paddle craft from ignoring their responsibility under the rules to avoid a collision.  Just because paddle craft may have some privilege, this does not mean that strict adherence to the rules negates their responsibility.  Paddlecraft cannot impede other vessels attempting to safely navigate in congested or restricted waters so it is important that paddlers understand these rules. I will better define that relationship in the future when discussing specific rules that apply.

The definitions section in Rule 3, is one of the most overlooked rules when it comes to understanding application. Most of the misunderstanding stems from individual confirmation bias.  Given a situation, people try to make a type of vessel fit their narrative to justify their bias.  Rule 3, General Definitions states:

  • The word vessel includes every description of watercraft, including non-displacement craft, WIG craft, and seaplanes, used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.
  • The term power-driven vessel means any vessel propelled by machinery.
  • The term sailing vessel means any vessel under sail provided that propelling machinery, if fitted, is not being used.
  • The term vessel engaged in fishing means any vessel fishing with nets, lines, trawls, or other fishing apparatus which restricts maneuverability but does not include a vessel fishing with trolling lines or other fishing apparatus which do not restrict maneuverability.
  • The word seaplane includes any aircraft designed to maneuver on the water.
  • The term vessel not under command means a vessel which, through some exceptional circumstance, is unable to maneuver as required by these Rules and is, therefore, unable to keep out of the way of another vessel.
  • The term vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver means a vessel which, from the nature of her work, is restricted in her ability to maneuver as required by these Rules and is, therefore, unable to keep out of the way of another vessel. The term, “vessels restricted in their ability to maneuver” include, but are not limited to:
  • a vessel engaged in laying, servicing, or picking up a navigation mark, submarine cable, or pipeline;

(ii)  a vessel engaged in dredging, surveying, or underwater operations;

(iii) a vessel engaged in replenishment or transferring persons, provisions, or cargo while underway;

(iv) a vessel engaged in the launching or recovery of aircraft;

(v)  a vessel engaged in mine clearance operations;

(vi) a vessel engaged in a towing operation such as severely restricts the towing vessel and her tow in their ability to deviate from their course.

  • [Reserved]
  • The word underway means that a vessel is not at anchor, or made fast to the shore, or aground.
  • The words length and breadth of a vessel mean her length overall and greatest breadth.
  • Vessels shall be deemed to be in sight of one another only when one can be observed visually from the other.
  • The term restricted visibility means any condition in which visibility is restricted by fog, mist, falling snow, heavy rainstorms, sandstorms, or any other similar causes.
  • The term Wing-In-Ground (WIG) craft means a multimodal craft which, in its main operational mode, flies in close proximity to the surface by utilizing surface-effect action.

One of the most misinterpreted definitions is that of a vessel engaged in fishing.  Sometimes people feel that because they are trolling that the definition of fishing vessel applies to them and they have some prominence of the right of away over other vessels.  This simply, by definition, is not the case.  In the same vein, some might think that when they are drifting, or pulling a skier or engaged in some other activity that they not under command or restricted in their ability to maneuver.  This also is not correct.  Other than a sailing vessel under sail and in some cases a non–motorized vessel, a recreational vessel will never be classified as anything other than a power-driven vessel.  So if you’re trolling or fishing with hook and line, skiing, wakeboarding, or tubing you are a power-driven vessel under the rules.

Hopefully, you can see exactly where a recreational vessel fits into the rules and see how misinterpreting or misunderstanding these rules can create confusion or easily create a high-risk situation.  As we move onto the 3rd article, we will explore the steering and sailing rules where the pieces should fall together and you will begin to understand that when it comes to the recreational vessel the rules are simple to understand -and apply.  Knowing when the risk of collision exists and what actions need to be taken to avoid a collision is the bedrock for all the navigation rules that follow which we will explore in more detail.


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