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About Those “Rules of the Road”

The article below was first published in AMSEA’s quarterly newsletter, Marine Safety Updates, in Autumn of 2009. It discusses some realities of the Navigation Rules and safe vessel operation. You might want to have the greenhorn on your crew give this article a read before he or she stands an unsupervised wheel watch.

Heck, you might even want to review it yourself. I bet the guys piloting those two ships in the picture were plenty experienced and they still ran into each other. If you need a quick reference and picture guide of navigation lights to keep by the helm, you can download it here:

Or you can order a spiffy laminated copy from the AMSEA store.

Myths & Realities:

Rules Govern Vessels Sharing Waters

Navigation Rules (International - Inland), COMDTINST M16672.2D, also known as the Rules of the Road or the Nav Rules, were developed over several hundred years as a guide for vessels to avoid collisions with one another. Despite the fact that they have been available in print and have been taught for so many years, myths and misconceptions about these rules abound. Here are some realities regarding the Rules of the Road:

  • Rule 5 states “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means….” This means that if you have radar, radios, day signals, navigation lights and/or other means of communication, you are expected to use them to avoid other vessels.

  • Despite Rule 5, never assume others will maintain a proper lookout, have radios on, display day signals correctly, etc.

  • In fact, don’t assume other vessel operators know or follow any of the Rules of the Road. There is no requirement for unlicensed mariners to learn the Rules, although there is widespread expectation that mariners will follow them.

  • Never assume that the watch keeper or operator of another vessel sees or hears you.

  • Tugs with tows or large ships can take a half-mile to 1-1/2 miles or more to stop, so plan passing accordingly.

  • Don't try to "outrun" a large vessel. Its speed may be faster than you realize, and it may have to maintain a “slow” speed of six to eight knots just to maintain steerage.

  • If you cannot see the bridge of a large ship, it means its operators cannot see you. You are in their blind spot.

  • At night, know what the navigation lights of other vessels mean. Keep a picture guide of navigation lights handy in the wheelhouse for reference. Make sure you are visible and correctly lighted as well.

  • In many collisions, early radio communication between the vessels involved is missing, according to casualty reports.

  • Always display the proper day signal. When a commercial fishing vessel is not fishing, like when you are running to and from the grounds or in the harbor, the day signal should be lowered.

  • Constant bearing and decreasing distance always mean you are on a collision course, always.

  • Last, but hardly least, remember this one very big thing. When a collision case goes to a court to settle damages, it’s not like TV's Judge Judy where there’s a clear-cut judgment for one party and against the other. In almost all cases, each boat involved in a collision is held responsible for part of the damages. It is rare that one vessel pays 100% of the damages and the other vessel nothing. Even if it seems like the other vessel was “totally” at fault, you could be required to pay for your, as well as the other vessel’s damages if you, for example, did not have your radio on or incorrectly displayed your day signal for commercial fishing or did not take some early and obvious evasive action.

The complete Rules of the Road can be found online at

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