Rules of the Road, Series III

Conduct of Vessels in Any Condition of Visibility

Now you’re aware of why we have rules and who they apply to recreational vessels. We have a better understanding of how different vessels are defined and how those definitions help in understanding and applying the rules. Next, we venture off into what I consider the most important rules which identify conduct or behavior.  I am hyperlinking the rules to save space but also to allow you to open up the actual rule for reference.  No matter what you take away from this series these are the rules that truly prevent collisions.  Having a proper lookout, operating at safe speeds, being able to identify the risk of collision and what actions to take to avoid a collision.  It all comes down to identifying risk and knowing what you do to mitigate or alleviate that risk.  Checking the applicability before diving in, Rule 4, Applicability, states that all the rules “applicable in any condition of visibility.”  So in the rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog, bluebird day or dark of night -every vessel on the water, from supertanker to Stand Up Paddle Boards have the responsibility to comply with this section of the rules.

Let’s start with Rule 5, Look-out:  Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.  So what’s proper?  In its basic form, proper would be the person behind the helm has their total attention focused on safely navigating/operating the vessel by continual observation of all traffic and hazards, without distraction.

Recreational boating accident data shows that operator inattention is one of the leading causes of collision between vessels, striking fixed or floating objects or groundings.  As risk factors increase, such as weather, sea conditions, visibility, vessel traffic density or unfamiliarity with the waterway, you need to put into place measures to mitigate or reduce that risk.  For example, if you’re in poor visibility you might recruit someone on the vessel to assist in keeping an eye out.  Another set of eyes in fog or heavy rain should be mandatory.  It’s using all means available to reduce your risk factors.  Even if you have radar you can’t rely on that or any one thing by itself to reduce your risk factors.  Additional lookouts help you keep your attention focused toward your situational awareness and getting others on board involved will reduce any anxiety your passengers may experience. The more the better.

If you’re sailing solo, another way to reduce your risk is to slow down.  Slowing down gives you more time to react and recognize potential risk when a collision situation might develop.  Rule 6, Safe Speed: “Every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed so that she can take proper and effective action to avoid a collision and be stopped within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions.”  Visibility and traffic density are an obvious reason to slow down but you need to also take into account the maneuverability of the vessel; how long it would take you to stop or safely turn at any given speed.  Sea state, wind, current, the proximity to navigational hazards or, simply how much time and distance traveled it actually takes you to come to a complete stop. These are the considerations you need to evaluate to determine what a safe speed actually is.

In restricted visibility, the most important thing you can do is to make yourself visible and give yourself ample time to be able to react. The standards for navigation lighting provide a means to quickly identify a vessel, its direction of travel and depending on the display/array of lights, their service, and their size.  All too often you see vessels operating without their navigating lights turned on or they’re not functional. Something else to consider is your surroundings.  Think about being out at night and how background lighting from buildings and light onshore affect your ability to recognize the navigation lights or presence of other vessels.  What happens when the fog sets in and you lose sight of the other vessels in the abyss?  These things increase the risk factors which should, in turn, increase your actions to migrate that risk.  More lookouts, slower speeds, navigation lights on -it’s all very important.

To determining when the risk of collision exists we look at Rule 7.  When operating a vessel, you are responsible for everything.  All too often operators get overly involved in the activity at hand and become distracted.  This is how accidents happen.  Failure to maintain situational awareness leaves you vulnerable and that’s why your behavior as the operator is crucial in the safety of everyone involved.  The foundation rules, Rule 5, 6, 7 and 8 are all intertwined but clearly set the standard for operator responsibility.  It’s all about operator attention or inattention to the existence of the risk of collision. (a) Every vessel shall use all available means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions to determine if the risk of collision exists.  If there is any doubt such risk shall be deemed to exist.  In my experience, the last sentence is the most overlooked part of this rule. If you have any doubt at all about the actions of another vessel and feel that they need to be watched, the risk of collision exists.

For the recreational boater, this is simply giving your undivided attention to where you’re going and paying close attention to the environment around you.  What is rarely considered is that if there is any doubt in your mind that a risk of collision exists -it does. I cannot emphasize it strongly enough that when the risk of collision exists you assume nothing and give it your undivided attention until such risk no longer exists. (c) Assumptions shall not be made on the basis of scanty information, especially scanty radar information.

When does the risk of collision exist? (i) Such risk shall be deemed to exist if the compass bearing of an approaching vessel does not appreciably change.  We addressed relative motion in the introduction and it’s worth repeating, “Relative motion is the motion of an object with regard to some other moving object.” You notice that their position relative to yours is not changing, and they are getting closer. You automatically know that if something does not change, you’re going to collide.  If you’re in this situation the risk of collision exists.  In the boating world, this is called “constant bearing decreasing range. You can either slow down, speed up, turn, turn and slow down, slow down or stop.  The choices are dependent on the situation but if you’re required to give way you should let them pass.

Part of the reason for paying close attention to your surroundings is that when you operate at high speeds or there are other vessel operating at high speeds, the speed of closure between vessels can be very fast.  Being alerted to the other vessel’s presence and relative motion must be realized in plenty of time to maneuver.  Recognize, (ii) such risk may sometimes exist even when an appreciable bearing change is evident, particularly when approaching a very large vessel or a tow or when approaching a vessel at close range. Great care has to be taken when larger vessels are encountered and an unwritten but widely accepted rule is the “rule of gross tonnage.” It’s best to keep well clear of a large vessel which also complies with the rules of hierarchy in Rule 18 and narrow channels in Rule 9.

You’ve established that a risk of collision exists between you and another vessel. Rule 8, discusses the actions you should consider in order to deal with that risk, (a) Any action taken to avoid collision shall be taken in accordance with the Rules and shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, be positive, made in ample time and with due regard to the observance of good seamanship.  When maneuvering, you have to make it blatantly obvious you changed course.  You must take action after carefully observing the situation and deciding on the best course of action to take.  If you identify the risk in plenty of time, the action taken can simply be adjusting your speed in order for the other vessel to immediately recognize your change in course.  It also must be done giving each vessel involved plenty of time to make that maneuver in order to pass at a safe distance.  It is sometimes hard to recognize when another vessel has changed course or speed, especially if there is some distance between you and the other vessel.  Waiting until the last minute should be avoided and realizing that if you take “early and positive action” you can continue with little variation in your direction of travel.  Once you observe the vessels relative position from you is changing, right or left, constant bearing decreasing range no longer exists and you are no longer at risk of collision!

This is pretty simplistic but when you add in numerous vessels you have to be able to asses which one is your most immediate threat and if you make a maneuver, will that put you in a collision situation with another vessel, etc.  This is where you have to start to look at which vessel is the stand on or give way vessel.  The actions of the stand on vessel can be found in Rule 16, and the actions of the give way vessel in Rule 17.  We will discuss how these apply to each rule later but hopefully, the other vessels are looking at this situation as well and acting in accordance with the rules in a way that benefits all vessels involved.  But when you have doubt and aren’t sure how to proceed, the best option is simply to stop, let the situation develop and see how the other vessels end up moving relative to you.  Once there is a safe option, continue underway.  We have learned previously that rigid adherence to the rules may not work if the circumstances of the situation warrant another option. This is where we go back to Rule 2 and the practice of good seamanship.

There are two more rules to this section, Rule 9, Narrow Channels and Rule 10, Traffic Separation Schemes.  I’m going to leave Rule 9 for a separate discussion because it is one that really needs additional explanation in its application and when it comes to congested waterways, dealing with encountering vessels where there is limited room to maneuver considering geographical and bathymetric consideration.  Vessel Traffic Schemes (VTS) are not commonplace. There are 12 nationwide, to guide, provide active monitoring and navigation advice for vessels in confined and busy waterways.  If you are in a region where there is a VTS, you should consult Rule 10 and any other special requirements for that location.  The only Pacific Northwest VTS is Puget Sound.

What we can take out of all of this is that each and every person boating has an obligation to follow the rules and to avoid collisions.  This also means that we cannot impede the safe passage of other vessels.  This not only applies to motorized vessels but non-motorized vessels as well. A vessel, which by any of these rules, is required not to impede the passage or safe passage of another vessel shall, when required by the circumstances of the case, take early action to allow sufficient sea room for the safe passage of the other vessel.  Simply, give everybody some room.  When approaching and risk of collision exists, whether you are required not to impede or not to be impeded, you must still have full regard to the action which may be required and obliged to comply with the rules.  This becomes even more evident when we discuss Rule 9, but I’ll leave you in suspense for that until next time.

US Coast Guard District 13 LogoBy Dan Shipman,
Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
13th Coast Guard District


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