Do Rules of the Road Prohibit Singlehanded Boating?

I have a couple of technical questions about the Rules of the Road. My reading of Navigation Rule 5 suggests that singlehanding a boat is always dangerous. I know many people who singlehand powerboats of 40 feet or more in length. They claim that Rule 5 does not prevent them from singlehanding a large boat. Is this correct? The other question concerns Navigation Rule 6 and speed limits within a breakwater. Many boat owners I have talked to are of the opinion that there is no speed limit near the end of a breakwater, where it is common to find small boats fishing. It seems to me that Rule 6 should be followed even if, technically speaking, there is no posted speed limit. Is this correct?
The reader is referring to two rules that are published in the International and Inland Navigation Rules, also known as the “Rules of the Road.” The navigation rules were established in 1972 in the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (commonly called COLREGS). Vessels registered in countries that have ratified the treaty (including the United States) are bound by the rules.

The reader’s first question concerned Rule 5, and whether singlehanding a boat may violate this rule. Rule 5 requires that “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.”

The Navigation Rules are, unfortunately, not black-and-white. They do not address every situation, and they do not expressly prohibit singlehanding a boat. In certain circumstances, it may in fact be possible for a singlehanded operator to maintain a proper lookout and therefore comply with Rule 5 and the other rules, regardless of the size of the boat.

The problem with singlehanding is that, regardless of the size of the boat, the operator will surely leave the helm at some point during his voyage — whether to use the head, to get a cup of coffee or, on long open-ocean voyages, to go to sleep. At that point, regardless of the size of the boat, the operator would be violating Rule 5.

The second question concerned Rule 6, which requires that “Every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed, so that she can take proper and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions.” The rule goes on to list factors that should be considered when determining a safe speed, such as visibility, weather conditions and maneuverability of the vessel.

The reader asked whether Navigation Rule 6 imposes a maximum speed under circumstances where there is no posted speed limit. This question is again complicated by the fact that the Navigation Rules do not impose black-and-white obligations upon every circumstance.

As discussed above, the Navigation Rules are a part of an international treaty for the prevention of collisions at sea. The rules do not address wake damage caused by a boat speeding through a crowded harbor, which is the primary purpose of a posted speed limit in a small harbor. However, regardless of the rules, and regardless of the speed limit, maritime law always holds a boat operator liable for the damage caused by his wake, whether inside a breakwater or in the open ocean.

The speed limit itself is a product of the local ordinances of the municipality that has jurisdiction over the harbor, and the municipality can extend the speed limit as it pleases within its jurisdiction. The municipality will, however, need to post that regulation on a sign or buoy, since there is no overriding state law that controls if there is no posted limit (such as the Basic Speed Law for cars).

Vessel owners and operators must be familiar with the rules, and ignorance of the Rules of the Road will not protect an operator in the event of an accident. Rule 2 provides that “Nothing in these rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner, master or crew thereof, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these rules.”

The Rules of the Road are published by the Coast Guard in a handy guide that is available for a few dollars in any marine chandlery. Every boat owner should have a copy aboard, and he or she should spend some time reading and understanding the guide before leaving the dock.

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