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Navigation Rules

What we call "The most important book in navigation." It is a nickname for the COLREGS, International regulations for preventing collisions at sea, also called the "Rules of the Road" or rules of the nautical road.

The USCG at one time published a book called Navigation Rules, but this book is actually not the official statement of the Rules. It is no longer published by the USCG, but copies are printed by several commercial companies. The USCG offers a pdf version online, but that too is not the official statement. The official wording (if they should differ, which in principle they should not) is in the Code of Federal Regulations. Find latest editions at the USCG Navcenter in pdf format. Since 2014 the book is published as a Handbook, which means most of the supporting documents are included in the same book or pdf.

For those studying for a test or for general knowledge, it might be interesting to note that there is no USCG test question that refers to specific rule numbers nor asks about rule numbers. We obviously need to know the Rules, but we are not obligated to know what the actual number is for any given rule.

Section 88.05 of Annex V to the Inland Rules requires that a copy of the Navigation Rules be carried on all vessels 12 meters (39 feet) or more in length at all times on Inland Waters. It is clearly prudent, however, to have these rules available on all vessels, in all navigable waters. The COLREGS Demarcation Lines specify the official boundaries between Inland and International Waters as regards the application of the Rules. Hesitating to stress the obvious, however, having the Rules on board is not adequate in itself for a safe and proper application of the Rules. This requires study. Having a copy of the Rules in hand is the first step.

Study of the Rules is a rewarding pastime, practical and captivating. They constitute a remarkable document with an immense assigned task the prevention of collisions between a vast array of vessels in a vast array of circumstances: vessels barely visible at 100 yards to vessels the size of horizontal skyscrapers; drifting without power or traveling at 30 knots or more; following unmarked lanes or crisscrossing open waters offering nothing more than an educated guess as to their intended course; in all conditions of weather, clear or fog, calm or storm; and often with no common language between their drivers.

But despite this enormous assignment, they do the job. Collisions can always be traced to at least one violation of the Rules by each of the vessels involved. The key to avoiding further proof of this is a thorough understanding of the Rules and how to apply them, including the rules on what to do if an approaching vessel does not obey the rules.

The Rules themselves, however, are not always adequate to teach the interpretation or application of the Rules. Good navigation courses are helpful with this or there are many fine commentaries on the Rules, such as:

Farwell's Rules of the Nautical Road (8th ed) by Craig Allen (Naval Institute Press, 2005)

Handbook of the Nautical Rules of the Road by Christopher B. Llana and George P. Wisneskey (Free online book)

Nautical Rules of the Road by B. A. Farnsworth and Larry C. Young (Cornell Maritime Press, 1990)

A Guide to the Collision Avoidance Rules by A.N. Cockcroft and J.N.F. Lameijer (Butterworth-Heinemann, 7th ed, 2012)

Collisions and their Causes by Richard A. Cahill (Fairplay Publications, 1983)

Collision Cases Judgments and Diagrams by F.J. Buzek and H.M.C. Holdert (Lloyd's of London Press, 1990)

The Collision Regulations by Richard B. Sturt (Lloyd's of London Press, 1991).

Skippers who travel between Inland and International waters, must know and use both sets of Rules. An inexpensive reproduction of the Rules which emphasizes these differences is:

Note that the Inland Rules apply only to Inland waters of the United States as specified by the COLREGS Demarcation Lines. In Canadian waters, a separate set of Canadian (Inland) Collision Regulations apply. The Canadian regulations are reprinted in the Canadian Sailing Directions, which are the Canadian equivalent of the United States Coast Pilots; they should be referred to for operation in Canadian waters.

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