Top tips for learning the COLREGS
Whose responsibility is it to get out of the way? Who would be culpable if a collision, or even a near miss, occurred? Who should do what at what point to prevent a collision from occurring?
No vessel has absolute ‘right of way’ under the COLREGS – there are ‘give way’ vessels and ‘stand on’ vessels but there are times when a stand on vessel is obliged to take avoiding action…anybody using any sort of watercraft as a means of transport – whether motor or sail – should familiarise themselves with COLREGS.
The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, more commonly known as the COLREGS, are quite simply, the ‘rules of the road’ for ships and other vessels at sea; they set out the conduct of vessels in any condition of visibility, in sight of each other and in restricted visibility. The rules were introduced to make it clear when you are the stand on vessel, when you are the give way vessel and what the correct action to take is when in close quarters with other vessels to avoid a collision.
A commonly held misconception concerning the COLREGS is that it is a guidance document, something to help skippers understand who has ‘right of way’ in a potential collision situation. Wrong! They are rules and you have to comply with the lot!
Failure to comply with the COLREGS – not necessarily a collision but simply a breach of the rules such as motoring the wrong way in a separation lane – is a criminal offence that, depending on its severity, carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison and/or an unlimited fine.
Rule one of the COLREGS states, ‘These rules shall apply to all vessels upon the high seas and in all waters connected therewith navigable by seagoing vessels.’
Pleading ignorance in any prosecution case is not going to wash.
“There are 38 separate Rules within the COLREGS”, explains Gus Lewis, RYA Head of Legal and Government Affairs, “although some of them are clearly aimed at large commercial vessels, in principle they apply to all vessels. For any set of rules to be effective in avoiding collisions, all vessels need to be following the same rules.”
COLREGS were adopted as a convention of the International Maritime Organisation in 1972 but they have been amended several times since. The Rules are divided into five parts A-E covering:
There are also four Annexes which are often ignored. These cover the positioning and technical details of lights and shapes, additional signals for fishing vessels fishing in close proximity, technical details of sound signal appliances and distress signals.
Although all the COLREGS are important, the steering and sailing rules set out in Part B (Rules 4-19) are the ones likely to be most significant to small boats operating in daylight, with good weather or restricted visibility. Part B covers the following
Some of these are general good behaviour rules while others are very specific, prescribed obligations.
The RYA Day Skipper Theory course provides the first comprehensive introduction to COLREGS or if you are looking for shore-based instruction to learn them then the Essential Navigation and Seamanship course is a great supporting course for those new to boating, or as a refresher course, and is available in the classroom or online.
Visit the Courses and Training section to find which course would best suit your needs and experience.
If you are an RYA member and find yourself in need of legal advice relating to the COLREGS, the RYA Legal team can assist with free guidance on the interpretation and scope and application of the rules. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Find out more about joining the RYA.