COLREGS: Are You a Stand On Guy?

17 June 2009 By Kate Hubert

Since the invention of the first (and second) boat, it seems like captains have gotten into collision situations at sea because one of them refused to give way to the other vessel. So, as you know, the shipping world got together and in 1972, agreed on a set of rules governing right of way on the water – called COLREGS – everyone had to follow. Job done....

Well, maybe. The problem is that when you’re at the helm of a multimillion dollar yacht and you’re faced with a 200-meter supertanker bearing down on you at 25 knots, it’s very tempting to throw the Rules of the Road out of the window and just get the hell out of there.

“As a world pleasure sailor, in my mind, the guys at work have right of way – not to mention size counts,” one captain said. “Screw the Rules; be smart; give way and respect those at work. We are mere speed humps on their way....”

That may sound pretty sensible at first glance. But the thing is, COLREGS are there so that everyone is following the same set of rules – and hence can predict what another vessel is going to do. Problems can arise if you are the “stand-on” vessel and you suddenly make an abrupt change of course. It may be that the captain of the larger vessel knew he had to give way, but was waiting to make his turn and judging when and where to do it on the assumption that you, the stand-on vessel, would maintain the same heading and speed.

In the worst cases, inexperienced captains panic and start jinking or tacking in front of larger vessels like rabbits caught in the headlights on the highway – and we all know how that usually ends.

OK, a lot of captains would answer that they’re not going to “stand-on” if they really think the other boat is going to collide with them. That’s right – the rules don’t tell you to “stand on even to the edge of doom” (see Rule 17 below). This is when experience, nerve and good judgement come into play.

The rule for avoiding imminent head-on collisions is pretty simple: Turn to starboard. That’s it – if both boats turn to starboard, they’ll turn away from each other. But it seems that not everyone knows this – check out You Tube: “Massive yacht collision and destruction.”

It should be getting easier now that bigger yachts and other vessels are equipped with AIS (Automatic Identification System), which shows you at a glance what heading, speed and even rate of turn another vessel is achieving. With AIS, it’s much more straightforward to work out if the danger of collision exists, who has right of way and what action, if any, needs to be taken. So long as crew are well trained in the using AIS, radar and the good old hand-bearing compass – and know their COLREGS – then there should be no need to panic.

Luckily, it’s hard to find records of collisions involving superyachts outside of the race course, where close-quarters sailing and jockeying for position can have dangerous results. For example, Velsheda and Ranger clashed in the recent Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but several crew ended up in the drink....

And just to prove that the big boys do give way, here’s what Tom Perkins, owner of the 88-meter Maltese Falcon, had to say about her collision off San Francisco last October: “The Falcon had turned to port, to give the right of way to the smaller yacht, which was to leeward on the starboard tack.... After the Stann By had sailed past the Falcon’s bow, [she] rounded up, possibly to tack in order to follow the Falcon, when she lost control [and] was unable to bear away and avoid a collision.”

Most skippers sail for years without a single prang, but in our ever-busier oceans, with a lot of commercial ships controlled by something resembling a video game, when a collision does occur, it could be catastrophic. COLREGS can keep everyone a lot safer, but only when we all follow the rules.


Rule 17: Action by Stand-on Vessel

(a) (i) Where one of two vessels is to keep out of the way of the other shall keep her course and speed.

(ii) The latter vessel may however take action to avoid collision by her manoeuvre alone, as soon as it becomes apparent to her that the vessel required to keep out of the way is not taking appropriate action in accordance with these Rules.