An ancient Greek is credited with the saying, “A collision at sea can ruin your whole day.” In reality, a collision between recreational boats can have far more serious consequences. Every year boats are damaged or totally destroyed; people are injured, some are killed.

How much do you know about the rules that govern how vessels are required to maneuver and communicate to prevent collisions? Unlike the licensing requirements for driving a car, you can purchase a $500,000 boat and legally operate it almost anywhere on the waterways of the United States without a license or any previous boating knowledge. In 1988 there were no states requiring boat operator licensing. By 1995 six states had some form of licensing requirement and sixteen had mandated boating safety education classes. The trend continues, and more states soon will be enacting similar requirements.

The rules of the road for boats (officially known as the Navigation Rules) exist for one reason and one reason only: to prevent collisions. These rules are worth knowing. Would you send your child out in the family Chevy without being assured he or she knew the motor vehicle laws? Most people wouldn’t consider driving without knowing who goes first at a 4-way stop sign, or what the red, green, and yellow lights in the traffic signal meant, so why don’t boat owners feel compelled to know the appropriate maritime rules?

If you are involved in a boating collision, the Navigation Rules will be used to determine who is at fault, or in most cases, what proportion of the fault is attributable to each vessel involved, whether or not the involved parties have any knowledge of these rules. A basic understanding of the rules can prevent collisions in the first place, saving you the hassle and inconvenience of filing a claim to repair or replace your boat.

What is the level of knowledge out there about the nautical rules of the road? It ranges from Coast Guard licensed professional mariners who passed a comprehensive test to earn their “captain’s license” and are supposed to know the rules inside and out, to some recreational boat owners who don’t even know that rules exist! In between there are people with a working knowledge of the basic rules of the road and people who know just enough to be dangerous. No matter how well you think you know the rules for preventing collisions, you can always learn more.

For example, did you know:
• The Navigation Rules govern all vessels, recreational as well as commercial.
• There is a “pecking order” that defines which vessels “give-way” (keep clear) and which “stand-on” (hold their course and speed so a give-way vessel has a chance to keep clear).
• The law requires a copy of the Inland Rules be carried onboard every vessel of 12 meters (39’ 5”) or greater when on inland waters.
• The vessel required to stand-on, when there is a risk of collision, has an obligation not to stand-on into a collision if the “give-way” vessel is not taking appropriate action to stay clear. Therefore, the stand-on vessel has more to consider during an encounter than the “give-way” vessel.
• The term “right-of-way” is used only twice in the Inland Rules and is not used at all in the International Rules. Right-of-way implies an absolute right which is not actually present in these rules since the stand-on vessel must maneuver at a certain point if necessary to avoid a collision.
• Power-driven and sailing vessels have to give way to vessels engaged in fishing, but a boat trolling is not considered to be fishing.
• When a vessel under sail is also being propelled by its engine it is considered to be a power-driven vessel for purposes of staying clear. This vessel must, by law, communicate that fact during the day by displaying a black cone, point down, in the rigging where it can be seen by other vessels. (In Inland Rules, however, you
do not have to display this dayshape if you are under 12 meters.)
• If your boat is 12 meters or longer, you are required to carry a bell. The minimum size that is allowed is a 200 mm (7.9”) diameter. That
6” bell you have is as good as NO bell as far as the law is concerned.
• There are three places in the Navigation Rules that discuss radar and its required use to help prevent collisions. If you have an operational radar on your boat, you must, by law, use it. If you are involved in a collision and are not properly using your radar, the word “negligence” will start popping up all around you.
• When you are anchored, you are required to communicate this to others by displaying a black ball during daylight hours and an all-around white light between sunset and sunrise. The failure to display the dayshape is generally below the threshold of interest of law enforcement officials and you are not likely to be “busted.” But if someone collides with you while you are anchored and not displaying the anchor ball dayshape, you may be found negligent and may shoulder a portion of the responsibility for the collision.