I cannot overstate the importance
of understanding that there are rules that govern the movement of
vessels that are designed to prevent collisions, especially between
boats that are in sight of one another.
Many of us have experienced what I refer to as the “Sunday
Afternoon Scenario (SAS).” The SAS typically involves 50-60
vessels of all sizes, including large commercial fishing vessels,
sailboats, big power vessels, small power vessels, single fishermen
in kayaks, vessels at anchor, and even peddle-driven tenders, all
converging upon and ultimately clogging the mouth of the harbor,
traveling at all sorts of speeds, moving in all possible directions,
on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Some operators are knowledgeable of
the rules designed to avoid collisions. Some operators have merely
heard of such rules. Finally, there are operators who have no knowledge
of, and have no idea that they are obligated to conduct their movements
in accordance with, rules governing the movement of watercraft.
To make matters worse, the SAS even occurs when there is fog or
reduced visibility conditions. Moreover, in many cases, alcohol
has loosened the operator’s abilities. To say a collision
is “possible” grossly understates the conditions. In
my opinion, it is only by the grace of God that the breakwaters
and beaches adjacent to our harbors are not completely littered
with broken fiberglass and shattered dreams.
According to the Coast Guard, collision is one of the most dangerous
and frequently occurring mishaps on our nations waters. Collisions
not only result in potentially serious and expensive vessel damage,
but may also result in serious personal injury or death.
Avoiding collisions on the water differs from avoiding collisions
while driving your car. In a car, it may be as simple as staying
in your lane and slowing down. On the ocean, however, there are
no lanes and it is not that easy to stop. It is also difficult,
if not impossible, to constantly monitor the movement of so many
vessels. In the fog, the radar screen can appear “speckled.”
Newer high-powered boats can reach speeds comparable to automobiles.
However, most boats do not have seat belts, brakes, or air bags.
Boats are limited in their ability to avoid collisions. Moreover,
the rules of physics applied to collisions between vessels suggest
that collisions will last longer, and can actually be more severe.
For example, if a 30-ton trawler crashes into a 3,000-pound bow-rider,
the energy transferred to the little boat will be considerable,
even if the trawler is only traveling at 1/4 the speed of the bow-rider.
Chances are, there will be little left of the bow-rider to salvage,
and someone will end up in the water.
The U.S. Coast Guard publishes the Navigation Rules. A copy of the
rules can be obtained from the Coast Guard or may be viewed on the
Internet. The 36 rules and five annexes are specifically designed
to govern the movement of vessels and to help prevent collisions.
All mariners are required to know and responsibly apply these rules
when operating their vessels. Some of the most important rules are
Rule 2 Responsibility, requires that due regard shall he given
to all dangers of navigation and collision. This rule allows the
mariner to depart from the rules as necessary to avoid the immediate
danger of collision.
Rule 4 Lookout, requires that every vessel shall at all
times maintain a proper lookout using sight and hearing as well
as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances.
Rule 6 Safe Speed, requires that every vessel shall at
all times proceed at a safe speed so that she can take proper and
effective action to avoid collision and stop within a distance appropriate
to the prevailing circumstances and conditions. Additionally, vessels
with operational radar must use it to determine the risk of collision.
Rule 7 Risk of Collision, states that every vessel shall use all
available means to determine if risk of collision exists; if there
is any doubt, assume that it does exist.
Rule 8 Action to Avoid Collision, provides specific guidance on
how to maneuver your vessel so as to avoid a collision. Changes
in course and speed shall be large enough so as to be readily apparent
to the other vessel.
Mariners should not limit their knowledge of the rules to this article.
In addition to the rules I have summarized, there are other rules
which apply to vessels operating in restricted visibility, in head-on,
crossing, or in narrow channel situations, as well as rules that
prescribe the type of navigation lights and sound signals required
by vessels. It is vital that all boat operators become students
of the navigation rules. This helps prevent collisions.
Regardless, the navigation rules should be considered a code of
conduct, not a "bill of rights." They do not bestow rights
or privileges. They impose a duty to either "give-way"
or "stand-on", depending on the circumstances. The rules
do not confer upon any vessel the “right of way.” The
rules govern the movements of vessels in sight of each other and
require that all vessels keep out of the way of others. The rules
are in place to prevent collisions.
Studies and experience demonstrate that strict adherence to the
rules may not always be prudent. In fact, the rules are very precise
in stating that nothing, "shall exonerate any vessel, or the
owner, master or crew thereof, from the consequences of any neglect"
(Rule 2). In other words, notwithstanding the fact that a particular
rule may appear to give your vessel priority in a particular situation,
if it appears that strict compliance with a rule will nevertheless
result in a collision, you have to avoid the collision even if it
means, “breaking” a rule. This is simply because you,
as operator of a vessel, cannot assume anything, especially that
the other operator knows the rules and will comply with them.
The "Rules of the Road" or Collision Avoidance Regulations
(COLREGS) were designed to give direction to vessels in order to
set a standard that everyone could follow in order to prevent collisions.
They are rules that cover almost every imaginable sequence of events
that may lead to collision. You do not have to memorize them all
but at least be aware of the basic rules which apply in order to
operate safely on the water.
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