Life is rarely that simple, but at the outset we can make one very clear observation: Contrary to the understanding of a lot of recreational boaters, there is no specific provision of the Rules that requires a recreational vessel to give way to a commercial vessel.
Unfortunately things get pretty complicated after we make that observation.
Throughout the world, the Rules operate under a body of maritime law that deals with collisions at sea. Under that system, the burden for safety at sea is shared by all mariners, and liability for damage caused by a collision will be allocated among the various parties according to their percentage of fault, as determined by a court.
The circumstances vary considerably from case to case, and the outcome will depend upon what expert witnesses have to say about the actions of the parties. This is the umbrella under which all cases like this will be evaluated. And, with that in mind, we can look at our reader’s concerns.
Our analysis begins in Section II of the Rules — “Conduct of Vessels in Sight of One Another.” Section II, Rule 18(a) states that “except where Rules 9, 10 and 13 otherwise require, a power-driven vessel underway shall keep out of the way of a sailing vessel.”
Rules 9 and 10 refer to large ships operating within a narrow channel or inshore shipping lane, where the large ships are expressly given the right of way. A tugboat, with or without a barge, is not considered a big ship, and it does not operate under those rules.
Rule 13 applies when a vessel is overtaking another vessel, in which case, the vessel being overtaken has the right of way, whether it is a powerboat or a sailboat.
Rule 18, therefore, provides the authority for the commonly accepted understanding that sailboats have the right of way over powerboats. But is there a special rule that applies to certain types of power-driven vessels? In some circumstances, yes.
Rule 18(b) requires a sailing vessel to keep out of the way of (i) a vessel not under command; (ii) a vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver; and (iii) a vessel engaged in fishing.” A vessel not under command is basically a vessel adrift with a mechanical problem, and a tugboat is obviously not engaged in fishing, so the only question is whether a tugboat with a barge could be characterized as a vessel “restricted in her ability to maneuver.”
Rule 3(g) defines a “vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver” as a “vessel which from the nature of her work is restricted in her ability to maneuver as required by these Rules and is therefore unable to keep out of the way of another vessel.”
A dredge that is currently engaged in dredging operations provides the most common example of a “restricted” vessel. But is a tug with a barge a restricted vessel?
Believe it or not, the answer is generally “no,” but we don’t have to guess. The Rules require these vessels to display lights (at night) and day shapes (during daylight hours) to identify their status.
Rule 27(b) requires a restricted vessel to exhibit: “(i) three all-round lights in a vertical line where they can best be seen. The highest and lowest of these lights shall be red and the middle light shall be white; and (ii) three shapes in a vertical line where they can best be seen. The highest and lowest of these shapes shall be balls and the middle one a diamond.”
So, the “short” answer to our reader’s question is that his sailboat has the right of way over the tug, unless the tug is exhibiting the lights or day shapes for a restricted vessel. But our analysis is still not over.
All of the Rules operate under the umbrella of Rule 2. Specifically Rule 2(b), which provides that “in construing and complying with these Rules, due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision, and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.”
As a consequence of Rule 2 and of the maritime law system of allocating fault between vessels, any boat that stubbornly insists on a super-technical adherence to the other rules will be found to have contributed to the collision, and in some circumstances may be found to bear the majority of fault.
So, for our readers who are still with us (and have not fallen asleep), here is what we should take from this analysis. Technically, a sailboat has the right of way over a commercial vessel, unless that vessel is a big ship or it is displaying the lights or shapes of a “restricted” vessel.
As such, commercial vessels should do their best to stay out of the way of sailboats. But this is not always possible, and sailboat operators need to stay diligent around commercial vessels and take steps to avoid collision when it appears that the commercial vessel will be unable to stay clear.