The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), on behalf of the UK Government, enforces the regulations to which vessels in UK territorial waters and under UK registration must adhere.
The Merchant Shipping Regulations apply to all vessels under the UK flag and vessels in UK waters or operating from UK ports.
Exemptions to the regulations are granted within the legislation; the size of a vessel, the number of passengers it carries on board and how the vessel is used are all factors which determine which of the regulations a vessel must comply with (such as manning requirements or mandatory equipment)
There are many terms used within the merchant shipping regulations to classify vessels. These are defined in full in the regulations. The following are a selection that you may come across with an indication of their meaning:
- “pleasure vessels” - used for the sport or pleasure of the owner or the immediate family or friends of the owner (read the legal definition of a pleasure vessel);
- “class XII vessels” - pleasure vessels of 13.7m in [registered*] length and over; * if a boat is registered this will be the length as shown on the certificate of registry. If a boat is not registered, length is measured from the forepart of the stem to the aft side of the head of the stern post or, if no stern post is fitted the fore side of the rudder stock at the point where the rudder passes out of the hull.
- "passenger ship" - carries more than 12 passengers regardless of its size and use.
If a boat is operated other than as a pleasure vessel it must comply with the relevant regulations, such as the regulations for small commercial vessels.
Many of the regulations that apply to pleasure vessels stem from international conventions, such as:
- International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (IRPCS or COLREGs)
- Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS)
- Marine Pollution (MARPOL)
- United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
They are brought into UK law through the Merchant Shipping Regulations.
If you go boating on or near the coast the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (IRPCS or COLREGs) will apply to you, as the COLREGs, as defined in rule 1, apply to all vessels upon the high seas and waters connected to the high seas which are navigable by seagoing vessels.
It is essential that you know these rules well enough to be clear when you are the stand on vessel, when you are the give way vessel and what the of correct action to take is when in close quarters with other vessels and to avoid a collision.
As well as the steering and sailing rules, the COLREGs dictate what day shapes and navigation lights a vessel must display to indicate its status to other vessels and when and what sound and light signals it must make.
Sailing vessels (as defined in the COLREGS) should note that although a tri-colour is permitted under the COLREGs (under 20m in length) using deck level port, starboard and stern lights in certain circumstances helps the officer of the watch on a larger vessel to identify you against background lights and establish the distance you are away from them more easily. Although the absence of a steaming light indicates that you are a sailing vessel, the COLREGs also have a provision for yachts to show an all round red over and all round green light at the top of the mast in conjunction with deck level port, starboard and stern lights. This instantly identifies you as a sailing yacht and your deck level lights remove the ambiguity a tri-colour can cause.
Many nautical publications include core information from the COLREGs. The full text of the regulations is available in MSN 1781. The RYA publication G2 - International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, available from the RYA shop, has been prepared with the pleasure craft skipper in mind and includes notes to help yachtsmen interpret and apply the rules.
Before you can apply the COLREGs you need to establish whether or not a potential collision situation exists. Then you need to establish what action is expected of the vessels involved, when the action should be taken and whether the action of the give-way vessel alone will be sufficient to prevent the collision. A key element in this process is deciding whether the other vessel has seen you.
If the vessel in question is large commercial ship, consider the size of your vessel and the distance it is away from you. If you cannot see the bridge of the ship from your boat, the chances are that the Officer of the Watch on that ship cannot see you!
The COLREGs do not give one vessel "right of way" over another and are clear that the stand on vessel must also take action if the action of the give way vessel alone is not sufficient to prevent a collision (or if the give way vessel takes no action). All the rules, relevant to a situation must be considered before decisions are made, as must the situation and the handling characteristics of the boats involved.
There were many issues contributing to the significant loss of life that occurred when the Titanic sank. These were addressed by the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) which is intended to preserve life onboard any ship or craft that goes to sea.
Originally the SOLAS Convention did not apply to vessels of less than 150GT. Such conventions are however periodically reviewed and since 1 July 2002 SOLAS Chapter V which looks at the Safety of Navigation, has applied to “all ships on all voyages” except warships, other government owned or contracted ships and ships navigating solely on the Great Lakes of North America. SOLAS V therefore applies to UK pleasure vessels, although there are many exemptions leaving the following applicable regulations:
- Regulation 19 - RADAR REFLECTORS
- Regulation 29 - LIFESAVING SIGNALS
- Regulation 31 & 32 - DANGER MESSAGES
- Regulation 33 - DISTRESS MESSAGES - Distress Situations: Obligations and procedures
- Regulation 34 - VOYAGE / PASSAGE PLANNING - Safe navigation and avoidance of dangerous situations
- Regulation 35 - MISUSE OF DISTRESS SIGNALS
An explanation of these regulations can be found on the SOLAS V Regulations page.
Along with COLREGs and SOLAS, MARPOL the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, stems from the United Nations (UN) and more specifically for marine matters the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the UN agency which looks after maritime safety and preventing pollution from ships. A pleasure craft’s obligations under MARPOL are detailed in the Planning & Environment Section of this website and holding tanks are discussed within Boating Abroad.
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides a frame work for the use of the oceans. It is this convention that defines the territorial waters of a country and whether a vessel is under flag state, coastal state or port state law. For more information see the Boating Abroad area of this website.
The legislation governing the evidence of competence required for the operation of a pleasure vessel is the Merchant Shipping (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping) Regulations 2015. The 2015 regulations do not apply to a pleasure vessel which is less than 80 GT or under 24 metres in load line length.
Therefore if your vessel is used within the legal definition of a pleasure vessel and is either less than 24m in load line length or less than 80GT, there is no requirement for you to have a certificate of competence to skipper the vessel in UK territorial waters or on the high seas.
For vessels of or exceeding 24m in load line length and 80GT or more, MSN 1858 details the manning requirements for deck officers and MSN 1859 details the manning requirements for engineering officers.
There are exemptions for pleasure vessels from the Merchant Shipping (Fire Protection: Small Craft) Regulations 1998 and the Merchant Shipping (Life-Saving Appliances For Ships Other Than Ships Of Classes III To VI(A)) Regulations 1999.
Class XII vessels (pleasure vessels of 13.7m in length and over) are required to comply with these regulation, however practical problems came to light and owners now have the choice of complying with the existing Merchant Shipping Regulations or agreed equivalent standards as detailed in the Exemption in relation to Life-Saving Appliances on Class XII vessels and the Exemption in relation to Fire Protection on Class XII vessels.The exemptions are published by the MCA in MGN 538.
For pleasure vessels of less than 13.7 metres in length, there are no statutory requirements for safety equipment other than those required under SOLAS V. That said, although safety equipment may not be required by law, it is essential that you properly equip your boat prior to putting to sea.
The Merchant Shipping (Radio Installations) Regulations 1998 do not apply to Pleasure Vessels, it is therefore not mandatory for a Pleasure Vessel to have a "radio installation" on board. It is however highly recommended that vessels are equipped with maritime radio equipment suitable for the area of operation. See Calling for help for further guidance on equipping your boat.
Where a VHF radio or other maritime radio equipment (such as an EPIRB, AIS, ATIS, Radar etc.) is carried, the equipment must be licensed.
A Ship Radio Licence (or Ship Portable Radio Licence) will be required
for most boats together with a maritime radio operator certificate
authorising the operation of maritime radio equipment if applicable.In
the UK Ship Radio Licences and Ship Portable Radio Licences are issued
For equipment capable of voice transmissions a maritime radio operator licence (such as the Short Range Certificate (SRC)) is usually also required for the operator. RYA Members can refer to Licensing Onboard Electronics [RYA Members Only] for further guidance.
Byelaws and Local Regulations
Harbour Authorities may have local byelaws in force which apply to leisure boats such as speed limits within the harbour, restricted areas, and requirements to monitor specific VHF channels. Establishing what these are should be part of your passage planning.
Some Harbour Authorities may have their own website and publish small boat guides e.g. The Port of London Authority website www.pla.co.uk. In addition, there are usually details of byelaws in Almanacs and pilot books and the more important rules, such as speed limits are posted up on notices within the harbour.
Local Notices to Mariners (LNTM) are often available on-line and many harbour authorities allow you to subscribe for email updates as and when a new notice is published. A list of sources for LNTM is published under Local Notices to Mariners.
Find books for your course at the RYA Shop
Our handy guide shows the books & DVDs that go with your course!