The First Rule of Seamanship! (COLREGS)

The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (aka the Col Regs) are the marine equivalent of the “Rules of the Road”. And within its long list of dos and don’ts, not crashing into other vessels is the number one rule of good seamanship!

How do vessels avoid each other?

The ColRegs are published online and in print form, and we all need to know the basics. Even if you haven’t read them, you’ll probably know that boats in a channel pass port to port, and most of us know what a visible green, red or white light at night means.

These are rules, by the way, not just guidelines, so if you break them you could end up in court. If it turns out your vessel was not following the Col Regs you could be in serious trouble. And your insurance may not be valid.

Right Of Way

The mistake most people make is imagining there is such a thing as right of way at sea. There is no such thing, because every situation is different. ‘Give way’ and ‘stand on’ are the correct terms, but when it comes to sailing on a small sailboat, even if you are the stand on vessel you should be prepared to give way.

The First Rule of Seamanship

Do the COLREGS apply to all vessels at sea?

‘Rule 1: These rules shall apply to all vessels upon the high seas and in all waters connected therewith navigable by seagoing vessels.’

They are simple… and complicated. Simple because you can apply any rule to a situation and have a definitive answer. Complicated because sometimes you have to apply one rule in accordance with another and, often, common sense over-rides the rules.

Ultimately, safety comes first.

Quick over-view of the ColRegs

These are our guidelines only. You should be fully apprised of the ColRegs if you are in charge of any sea-going vessel.


  1. Part A: General
  2. Part B: Steering and sailing rules
  3. Part C: Light and shapes
  4. Part D: Light and sound signals
  5. Part E: Exceptions
  6. Part F: Compliance

Part B is further split into three sections, depending upon the state of visibility:

  • Section 1 – any conditions of visibility (proper look out, safe speed, avoiding collisions, crossing traffic lanes etc)
  • Section 2 – vessels in sight of one another (two vessels approaching each other, overtaking, avoiding collision)
  • Section 3 – restricted visibility (safe speed, spotting targets on radar, fog signals etc)
What happened to us?

Which section did our ferry captain contravene, and how did he break the rules?

Part B, Steering and Sailing Rules Section 2 ‘Conduct of Vessels Within Sight of One Another, Rule 13, Overtaking’
In this situation we were the stand on vessel. According to our AIS screen, the CPA (closest point of approach) was closing down, which always makes us nervous. We tried hailing the boat, but received no answer. Unable to contact the vessel and clearly on a collision course, we took evasive action.

‘If to starboard port appears, ’tis your duty to keep clear!’

The most important rule!

There are many rules in the ColRegs, but perhaps the most important is Rule 5: Look Out.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it is the most consistently contravened. According to there are three crucial areas of maintaining a watch:

  • by sight and hearing (including the VHF)
  • by all available means, including ais, radar etc
  • appraisal of the situation and risk assessment, which means you need to understand the situation you are in (traffic zones, the boats around you, separation zones, hazards etc etc)

And there’s a separate rule, Rule 7, that covers how you assess the risk of collision, including ‘scanty information’

Common sense prevails!

Monitor the situation as soon as you spot any vessel within range, it is your responsibility to know which way they are heading.

  • Keep a regular eye on bearings.
  • Hail on 16, multiple times if necessary.
  • Don’t assume anyone will answer (could be noisy, there maybe no-one there who speaks English, they may be dealing with a problem, etc.)
  • Don’t assume the other vessel has seen you. We have been told by many commercial vessel Masters that we are just a speck which they don’t see.

Irrespective of whether your is the stand on/stand off vessel, always navigate defensively!

Always assume the worse case scenario
  • Confirm your position with the vessel via VHF (a commercial vessel may change course towards your sailboat if they have not seen you and you have not made yourself known).
  • Relay your intentions on 16
  • Change course, and make the change obvious
  • Back the sails or put the engine in neutral to stop and wait

In conclusion, remember that most commercial skippers are responsible and responsive. It is our experience that they will go out of their way to help a small sailboat. There have been many times when  large ships have made a course correction to allow us to sail on.

Remember, though, that there might be a multitude of reasons why they may not respond, and if that happens, assume they do not know you are there!  Monitor bearings, the CPA and your AIS/VHF/radar. And irrespective of the ColRegs, and that you are the stand on vessel, sail defensively.

Peace and fair winds!

For an explanation with pretty overlays and images of us sailing, check out the episode…

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