Rules Surrounding Collisions Depend Upon Who’s Involved

I recently sailed in a race that was governed by the International Sailing Federation’s ’Racing Rules of Sailing,’ and I was curious about the set of collision avoidance rules that are included within the racing rules. What is the legal effect of a collision rule within a set of racing rules such as this? Do those rules take priority over the International Rules of the Road?
Yes and no.

Whether racing in a local buoy race or an international ocean race, the racing rules will determine the rights and obligations for collision avoidance between the boats competing in that race. However, when racers encounter boats that are not participating in their race, they must adhere to the Rules of the Road (otherwise known, in navigable ocean waters, as the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, or COLREGS).

The interaction between private sailing rules and the COLREGS was explained in some detail by the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in a case involving a 1992 collision between the 72-foot sailing yacht Charles Jourdan (an ultra-light Whitbread racer) and the 120-foot restored J-Class yacht Endeavor.

The collision occurred during a race that was governed by the International Yacht Racing Rules (IYRR) that Charles Jourdan and Endeavor were competing in. The boats were on converging courses on the same tack, with Endeavor to windward and Charles Jourdan overtaking her to leeward. The IYRR Rules required Endeavor, as the windward boat, to give way, but she held her course and the boats collided. Pursuant to the rules, a protest jury was convened after the race, and Endeavor was found to be 100 percent at fault for failing to give way.

Based upon the findings by the protest jury, the owners of Charles Jourdan filed suit in U.S. District Court to recover for the damage to the boat. Endeavor owners filed a cross complaint against Charles Jourdan, noting that the protest jury ignored the COLREGS rule that requires the overtaking vessel to give way to the boat she is passing. The District Court agreed with the Endeavor argument, noting that the COLREGS are the controlling law for collisions at sea, and that private parties cannot establish their own rules. The District Court allocated 60 percent of the fault to Charles Jourdan and the remainder to Endeavor, which prompted the owners of Charles Jourdan to appeal the case.

The Appeals Court completely disagreed with the District Court, and its holding in the case accurately describes the law in this area. The Court held that the racing rules amount to a contract between the race organizers and all of the participants, and that there is nothing in the COLREGS that would prevent private parties from entering into such a contract.

In this case, the contract included its own set of collision rules that – as between the parties to the contract – governed the conduct of the boats in the race. The Court also held that the protest jury procedure amounted to a form of binding arbitration, which generally cannot be overturned on appeal to the court system.

The Appeals Court pointed out that the racing rules apply only to the parties involved in the contract (i.e., the race participants). Therefore, when a race participant encounters other (non-racer) traffic during the course of a race, the conduct of the vessels for collision avoidance is governed entirely by the COLREGS. Similarly, the COLREGS will control where a participant in one race encounters participants in another race (assuming the races are under different groups of race organizers), since those boats are not parties to the same contract.

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