Law of the Sea and the Coastal State

An introduction to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which provides a framework for the use of the oceans.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides a framework for the use of the oceans. The convention defines the territorial limits a country can claim and whether a vessel is under the laws of its Flag State or also those of the state whose waters it is lying in.  

Vessels are free to navigate the High Seas within the laws of their Flag State and only a warship of their own nation has the right to intercept them (other than to confirm the nationality of the vessel) unless they are committing an international crime such as piracy.

Under UNCLOS vessels have a right of passage through the territorial waters of another country; all vessels exercising this right of passage must undertake a continuous and expeditious passage through Territorial Waters and may not engage in any activity which does not have direct bearing on the passage. They must also abide by international conventions - such as Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) - and the Coastal State has the jurisdiction to ensure that they do so. Such passage is referred to in UNCLOS as “innocent passage".

The Coastal State may also have laws and regulations which such vessels must adhere to, to ensure safe navigation, regulation of maritime traffic, protection of navigational aids, facilities, pipelines, and cables, conservation and preservation of the environment and the living resources of the sea (including fisheries laws) and to prevent against infringement of customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations of the Coastal State.

The majority of cruising yachts will not however be regarded as being on a continuous and expeditious passage as they may be exploring the coastline, perhaps anchoring for lunch and they may also visit several ports within the Coastal State. These activities bring pleasure boaters under the jurisdiction of the Coastal State (as does launching from a foreign shore) and they could then be required to adhere to all of the Coastal State’s legislation, rules and regulations that apply to foreign flagged boats. This is in addition to any applicable Flag State legislation. 
UNCLOS also defines a country’s Internal Waters (waters which are landward of the Base Line) which includes many ports, harbours, estuaries and bays and of course the inland waters such as rivers and canals.

If a vessel makes a continuous and expeditious passage through territorial waters to a destination within Internal Waters such as a port, the right of passage ends on entering Internal Waters. By voluntarily entering a port or the Internal Waters of another country a vessel submits to the jurisdiction of that country i.e. the Coastal or Port State, as Internal Waters are considered to be an integral part of a country. The authority of a state over foreign vessels in its Internal Waters is the same as those for a foreigner on its soil, which of course includes boat crews going out for dinner, sight-seeing, shopping and generally making use of facilities ashore in their destination port. A foreign flagged vessel does not have a right to enter the internal waters and ports of another country. The Coastal State is therefore free to determine whether and, if so, on what terms a vessel may do so. 

Cruising within the territorial waters of another country will in most cases bring pleasure boaters under the jurisdiction of that Coastal State. Generally the Coastal State will refrain from interfering with the internal affairs of foreign flagged vessels as a matter of “comity” – courteous recognition accorded by one nation to the laws and institutions of another. Unless you attract the attention of the authorities for example because your boat is deemed not to be seaworthy, or it is unregistered, you will generally be allowed to go about your business as a visitor without hindrance. However, it is important to be aware that the Coastal State has the right to require foreign flagged vessels cruising within its waters to comply with its regulations.

There are some elements of Coastal State Law that a visiting boat may be expected to comply with and it is these regulations that the RYA does its best to keep abreast of.  The most common is for the skipper of the vessel to be required to prove that he or she is competent to be in command of the vessel.

In many countries the national legislation will require such items (including liferafts, flares and lifejackets) to be “in date” and where applicable that the relevant service paperwork is available for inspection. A country may also specify items of equipment and/or publications that must be carried.  Vessels navigating the European inland waters are generally required to carry a copy of the local rules (which may be written in the native language of the country concerned). It is important to ensure you are aware of all such requirements.

The RYA focuses on providing information for commonly visited countries such as the UK's near neighbours. This advice is intended for boaters with UK flagged boats making short visits abroad. 

The RYA is not in a position to give comprehensive advice on matters relating to non-UK registered boats, residency abroad, trading matters abroad or domestic legislation in the Coastal State. If you choose to base your boat abroad, have both property and your boat in a country, become resident abroad,  cruise a company owned yacht or use your vessel for commercial gain (including offering it for charter), the rules may differ considerably from those applicable to private vessels on short visits.

Different countries and even local areas within countries can have their own regulations. It is essential that you find out what these are, as failure to pay taxes for example can result in significant fines when the authorities become aware of your non-payment. Not knowing the regulations is no defence for non-compliance and you may find that in addition to the national regulations there are local variations or applications you need to be aware of. To do this you will need to contact the relevant national and local authorities.

Additional requirements may also apply to boats that are being launched from foreign shores - check the local regulations before launching as site specific rules may apply.

Different rules apply when chartering abroad.