Sailing Collision Regulations & Right of Way Rules

Before setting out for a sailing adventure where you get to enjoy the freedoms of any other sailor, being aware of the proper sailing collision regulations and rules for right of way is crucially important. What do you do if you see a sailboat, powerboat, or even a tanker approaching your sailboat?

Just the thought of going through a collision situation where you’re uncertain what the rules are can be stressful. Luckily, there are some pretty straightforward rules that all sailing and power vessels follow to avoid collisions with just your boats, the water, and potentially some buoys.

Thankfully, everything you need to learn about sailing collision regulations and right of way is more or less common sense. When you understand the foundations of why the rules are set in place the way they are, it’s easy to derive each rule on the top of your head when the time is right.

International Regulations

All of the information laid out here are based on the regulations set forth by many countries around the world through the International Maritime Organization. These regulations are formally recognized as the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) and were developed back in 1972. While there have been many amendments since then, the most important core rules and regulations are covered below.

Basic Definitions

Whenever I set out to learn a new topic, there always seems to be a set of terminology and definitions that I need to learn before getting my feed settled. Well, that’s certainly the case when learning about sailing collision regulations. It’s a good idea to get these definitions drilled down so you can be in good shape before heading out on the water.

Vessel – any maneuverable object that’s able to fulfill transportation on water, including watercraft and seaplanes.

Power-Driven Vessel – any vessel that’s powered through the use of electric, combustible, or other types of engines or motors.

Sailing Vessel – any vessel that’s powered through the use of a sail provided any present engine or motor is not in use.

Vessel Engaged in Fishing – any vessel, either power-driven or sailing, that is fishing using nets, lines, trawls, or any other fishing items that remove the chance to maneuver easily. If the vessel is fishing and under power, it is considered a power-driven vessel.

Vessel Restricted in Her Ability to Maneuver – any vessel that’s unable to maneuver based on their current working conditions (e.g., towing, cable or pipe laying, etc.) and is therefore incapable of keeping out of the way of other vessels.

Vessel Constrained by Her Draft – a power-driven vessel that is severely restricted in its ability to deviate from their course due to ineffective draft in relation to the available depth and width of the surrounding water.

Underway – the situation when a vessel is out on the water and not anchored, tied off, or aground.

Restricted Visibility – the situation when fog, mist, snow, rain, or any other visibility restriction is present out on the water in proximity to a vessel.

These are just a few basic definitions that’ll help you out when reading up on the following rules and regulations, so it’s a good idea to keep them in mind as we walk through everything.

Never Forget This Rule

There exists a rule when going out on the water with your sailboat that, if nothing else, should be understood to the core. While every sailing rule is important, this is the big daddy when it comes to sailboat collision regulations and right of way.

The rule goes: “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.”

This rule is Rule 5 of the COLREGS and is often cited at the rule to remember at all times if any rule is to be remembered. It definitely makes sense, but it’s worth understanding now so all your bases are covered. If you want to be prepared for a serious event, if one ever arises, following this rule will hopefully give you enough time to plan accordingly.

Steering and Sailing Rules

Now that you have an idea of where all of the rules you need to learn come from, the terminology that’ll help you better understand the rules, and the absolute “do not forget” rule, you’re ready to start getting into the good stuff. Steering and sailing rules are central to sailing collision regulations because they are the fundamental actions you and your sailboat can take to avoid near disaster.

The following rules are all based on specific situations you’ll likely encounter when out on the water. Since none of us want to learn these kinds of things the hard way, it’s good to review these rules from time to time until they’re really engraved in your head for whenever you go out sailing.

1. Safe Speed

When you’re cruising along in your sailboat, you want to make sure you’re well in control. However, high winds can mean high speeds and high instability for a sailboat, so it’s definitely advised to keep your cruising speed at a reasonable level. This speed, of course, depends solely on the type of sailboat you have, so getting a feel for your sailboat should definitely clear this up for you.

Now, if you’re out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean sailing from the Canary Islands to St. Lucia, there’s most likely not going to be a big deal if you’re speeding along. However, any circumstance that allows for lack of visibility, high traffic density, difficulty maneuvering, flashing lights, or any other hindrance, you should use common sense in determining the most appropriate speed.

2. Determining Risk of Collision

Sometimes you’ll be surrounded by a number of vessels and you’ll feel like you’re in a beehive of boats. On the other hand, you might be one of two vessels in the area, but you notice that you’re going in similar directions or crossing paths. The ability to determine whether or not there’s a serious risk of collision between you and another vessel is a valuable and necessary skill to have.

It truly is up to you to determine if a risk of collision is possible. You should never depend on any other vessel to have the ability to come to this conclusion. You must take full responsibility and depend on yourself to assess the situation and act appropriately.

The best way to determine the risk of a collision is to monitor the compass bearing of an approaching vessel. If it doesn’t change by a reasonable amount, then you’re at risk of collision. Even if the vessel is large, there is a substantial risk of a collision even if the compass bearing doesn’t noticeably change.

If you have any doubt whether or not a risk of collision exists, you should assume a risk of collision exists and alter your sailboat’s course. It’s always best to default to risk-aversion mode when encountering any similar kind of situation so as to avoid a more dangerous situation to occur.

3. Actions to Take When Avoiding Collisions

Once you’re able to properly assess a situation and determine whether or not your vessel is at risk of collision, you need to ensure you have the proper skill set for actually avoiding that collision. As I stated previously, even if you’re unsure whether or not you’re at risk of collision, you want to default to “a risk exists” and take action immediately.

The most obvious way to avoid any collision while out sailing is to alter your sailboat’s course. This could be as simple as changing your point of sail on the same windward side or performing a tack or jibe to make it obvious you’re altering your course. Either way, you want to ensure the action you take is positive, made in good haste, and obvious to the other vessel.

You can also lower your cruising speed as opposed to altering your sailboat’s course. Depending on your current situation, this may be an easier and faster option. By letting out your sails or reefing them, you’ll be able to drop the speed of your sailboat relatively quickly.

The most important point to get across here is that whatever action you take, you want to do it fairly quickly and make it extremely obvious to the other vessel. You definitely want to avoid small changes to your course or speed because this might not be sufficiently detected by the other vessel. Make it obvious so they know that at you are taking action now.

4. Actions to Take When in a Channel

Most of the time when you’re out sailing, you’ll have the luxury of space when having to come up with actions to take to mitigate any risks of collision. However, that’s a different story when passing through a channel since things can start to get tight and narrow. You most definitely want to avoid any potential issues or close calls.

The single most important rule to follow when in moving through a channel is to stay on the starboard (or right hand) side as you would on the road when driving a car in most countries (obviously excluding current and past Commonwealth countries). While there are some vessels out there that didn’t get the memo on this rule, you’ll be well equipped under these circumstances.

Sometimes a channel is especially narrow, which can provide a lot of difficulty for vessels since the number of “lanes” of moving through the channel is less than normal. Obviously, everyone wants to get through it as fast as possible, but also as safe as possible. If you’re traveling through a narrow channel, stay on the starboard side as near to the outer limit of the channel as is safe and practical.

If the channel’s so narrow that only one vessel can travel through it at a time, under no circumstance should a vessel less than 20 meters (~65 feet), a sailing vessel, or a fishing vessel block any other type of vessel. They are given right of way so they can safely navigate within very narrow channels.

5. “Give Way” or “Stand On”

I think by now it’s clear which actions to take if you’re potentially at risk of collision while out sailing. While it’s certainly important to be able to spot these situations as soon as possible and act immediately, you also want to consider whether the other vessel is aware of the same situation unfolding.

If the other vessel is under control by a responsible and competent captain, then the other vessel will clearly be assessing the situation as well. Under these circumstances, one of you will beat the other to the punch by altering your course or slowing down so as to avoid any risk of collision.

The vessel that decides to alter their course or reduce their speed is “giving way” while the vessel that continues onward with the right of way is “standing on”. These vessels are also known as the “Give Way” vessel and “Stand On” vessel, respectively.

If the vessel that learns it’s the “Give Way” vessel, it needs to take early and substantial action to avoid any and all collisions. We covered this pretty extensively already.

If the vessel that learns it’s the “Stand On” vessel, maintaining course and speed is the only action that needs to be taken. However, if you know you’re the “Stand On” vessel and the “Give Way” vessel is clearly not taking the appropriate actions to avoid a collision, then it becomes your responsibility to alter course and/or reduce speed. I’ve seen this play out a few times and it’s best to just do what you got to do. Not everyone’s aware of the rules even though they should be.

6. Overtaking

You know what it’s like to pass someone on the freeway that’s either going a tad too slow or they seem to be an irresponsible driver. When it comes to vessels out on the water, there are rules to follow when passing, or overtaking, other vessels to ensure everyone’s safe and under the same understanding.

There will certainly be a time you’ll overtake another vessel, so the most important rule to follow when doing so is to keep well out of the way of the vessel you overtake. A safe distance is your best insurance policy under these circumstances. You’ll know when you’ve officially overtaken another vessel when you’ve crossed the 22.5-degree mark abaft their beam. At night time, this means that only the stern light of the vessel will be visible before being overtaken.

To keep things absolutely safe when sailing out on the water, you want to always assume that your sailboat is doing the overtaking if at all it’s uncertain who of the two vessels is doing the overtaking. This ensures that you’ll be the one guaranteeing the appropriate amount of distance between you and the other vessel is set.

7. Right of Way with Sailing Vessels

Getting used to the sailing collision regulations is an important step to becoming a safe and responsible sailor, so being to determine the correct right of way sailboats should take when confronting one another is crucial. While it’s not always the case that every sailing vessel will be as clear of the rules as you, it’s nonetheless vital information for correctly operating out on the water.

The following sections will help you understand when and how you should either give way or stand on when avoiding the risk of collision.

Head on with Sailing Vessels

Being head-on with another sailboat simply means that both you and another sailboat are heading straight toward each other. Now, you might think this is obvious, but it takes a bit of thinking. Over time, you’ll be able to recognize right away what you and the other sailboat should do. At the end, which boat gives way and stands on depends on the direction the wind is blowing with respects to both sailboats’ sails.

If you’re both head-on, then the sailboat who’s sailboat is being pushed by the wind on its port side must give way. What this boils down to is the sailboat on port tack gives way to the sailboat on starboard. This can be visually determined quite fast by simply checking the mainsail of your sailboat and the other sailboat. The best way to give way in this situation is to turn into the wind.

If both of your sailboats are side by side, thus both having the wind coming from the same side, then the sailboat closest to the wind must give way to the other sailboat. In sailor speak, the sailing vessel which is to windward must give way to the sailing vessel which is to leeward. Again, the best way to give way in this situation is to turn into the wind.

Crossing Sailing Vessels

Now, there is a situation where both you and another sailboat are on such a course where you’ll eventually cross one another. It’s fairly easy to determine who has the right of way when coming head-on with each other, which is not much different when determining the right of way when sailboats cross.

If you and another sailboat are on a course to cross one another, the sailboat that gives way is the one sailing port tack. This is under the assumption that you’re able to determine whether or not the other sailboat’s tack. As a matter of fact, you may be uncertain of which tack they’re truly on, so it’s best to be safe and just default to being the give way vessel if this situation comes up and you happen to be on port tack. If you’re on starboard tack, wait for them to give way unless they’re clearly not going to give way.

It’s important for me to emphasize that being able to understand the rules and regulations for avoiding collisions while sailing out on the water is extremely crucial. With a bit of study and practice, you’ll have it down in no time. Just make sure that you take responsibility of your crew and ship by giving way if at any time you’re in doubt. This is by far the safest thing to do.

8. Right of Way with Power-Driven Vessels

Whenever you run into the situation of having to decide who has the right of way when you’re in a sailboat and the other vessel is a powerboat, you are generally the stand on vessel. This can depend on the size of the power-driven vessel and the local rules, but this is generally the case. The reason for this is that it’s generally easier for a powerboat to take action by either altering their course or powering down a bit to avoid any risk of collision.

However, you might be moving along using your engine as your main source of power which would technically classify your vessel as a power-driven vessel. Under these circumstances, you definitely want to take into consideration the right of way rules that are laid out for powerboats.

Head on with Power-Driven Vessel

A head-on situation between two vessels under power is extremely straightforward: both alter their course to starboard. Just like being on the road in your car (again, not including present and past Commonwealth countries), you’ll keep your distance with other drivers by staying on the right side of the road.

Crossing Power-Driven Vessel

Deciding on who gives way when going head-on with another power-driven vessel is very easy, but that’s a different story when these two types of boats are about to cross one another. The rule is that if both vessels are crossing and at risk of a collision, the vessel which has the other on their starboard side must give way. Keep in mind not to cross their path when giving way, but instead slow down and pass them from aft their boat.

Just as a reminder, if you’re in the situation that the give way vessel that you’re potentially at risk of colliding into doesn’t appear to be giving way, it’s your responsibility to notice and act accordingly. You might technically be the stand on vessel when the give way vessel is a cruise ship, a fishing trolly, or a tanker, but be aware that some of these vessels will not give way to a sailboat like yours. As is life.

The 7 Inland Navigation Rules

We just went through a lot of extremely valuable information that should help you out whenever you’re uncertain of the rules and regulations you should be following when out sailing. Being able to tell which vessels have the right of way and acting accordingly if there’s ever a risk of collision is a huge responsibility that all sailors need to take on.

As an extension to the rules and regulation we already discussed, there are a number of other rules that are more specific to inland navigation. If you’re sailing the US, there are specific rules that you must abide by which are called the Inland Navigation Rules.

Here are the seven extra rules that need to be followed in US inland waters:

  1. Be aware that submarines must be avoided entirely and generally have the right of way. You can see a surfaced submarine if they’re showing a flashing amber light that pulsates three times ever three seconds.
  2. All power-driven vessels that are traveling downstream through narrow channels or fairways on the Great Lakes and all major rivers (e.g., Mississippi River) have the right of way over any vessel traveling upstream.
  3. The use of VHF communications may replace the communication of sound or visual signals, depending on the circumstances.
  4. All power-driven vessels crossing a river must give way to any other power-driven vessel that’s traveling up or down the same river.
  5. Any vessel that’s pushing ahead or towing alongside must indicate that this is occurring by using two towing lights over the stern light.
  6. Any vessel that’s being pushed ahead or towed alongside must present at the fore end of the vessel sidelights and a yellow flashing light that pulsates at a rate of 50 to 70 flashes per minute while also covering an arc fore the vessel of between 180-225 degrees.
  7. Any vessel that’s being towed alongside on both sides (port and starboard), a stern light must be shown on the stern of each towing vessel while also having a single set of sidelights as far fore and as far outboard as possible with a single flashing light.

Be Safe out There

We just went through a ton of sailing collision regulations and right of way rules that you should keep in mind whenever you head out sailing. While a lot of the time you just need to memorize a few simple procedures, most of the time you just need to follow a bit of common sense. The absolute most important point to take away from all of this is that you should always keep your wits about you and simply be conscious of your surroundings. As long as you do that, you can be sure you’ll have plenty of time to assess the situation and act accordingly.