We had a close call this past weekend that required me to do a little rules-of-the-road research after the incident. My research really didn’t answer my questions so I’m hoping you can help. We were slowly motoring out of our harbor in the right-hand side of the channel, keeping well clear of the docks and piers on the other side of the channel. As we left the harbor, we approached a large motor yacht off our port bow. The starboard side of the yacht was against a pier that extended into the channel at a 90-degree angle, so we were lining up with their port quarter facing our port bow. As we approached the yacht, they sounded three short blasts on their horn, indicating that their engines were engaged astern. The crew on the yacht yelled over to us, “asking” us to give them room to back out of their berth into our path. I assume that a large yacht leaving its berth would be considered a “vessel restricted in their ability to maneuver” under the Navigation Rules but this is not clear since they were just then starting to move. Who is the “stand-on” boat under the rules in this situation?
Our reader is looking for guidance under the International and Inland Navigation Rules, also known as the “Rules of the Road.” The Navigation Rules were formalized 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 these Navigation Rules.
The scenario described by our reader requires us to look at the rules from a few different angles. Let’s start by asking whether the large yacht was still tied to the dock.
Vessels not underway (i.e., vessels that are tied to a dock or securely anchored) are neither the stand-on vessel nor the give-way vessel because they are outside of the scope of COLREGS Part B (Steering and Sailing Rules). If a boat hits a boat that is tied to a dock, it is not a COLREGS violation. It is a simple case of negligence just as if they had slammed into a dock. The answer is more complicated if the boat in question is making way in reverse, as may be the case here, where it appears that the larger yacht had just started backing up.
As noted in our reader’s description, the three-short blast sound signal made by the larger yacht is not an expression of the boat’s intent. As set forth in Rule 34, three-short blasts mean “I am operating astern propulsion.”
So, the yacht in this case is underway and slowly making way in reverse. This complicates our analysis because there is no specific section of COLREGS that deals with boats that are backing up. The closest rule to the described scenario is Rule 15, which deals with power boats in a crossing situation. But Rule 15 requires the boat that has the other boat on her starboard side to give way. That’s pretty simple in most cases. But in this case, where the larger yacht is backing up and our reader’s boat is crossing their backwards path, NEITHER boat has the other boat on her starboard side.
Our reader has looked into this and asked whether the larger yacht may have the right-of-way as a “vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver.” This is a rule that is often misunderstood, because it does not kick in just because a big boat is involved. COLREGS Rule 3(g) defines “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.”
The classic example of this is a dredge. There is no way a yacht – even a legitimate “Superyacht” would fall under this definition. Even if the larger yacht wanted to claim “restricted” status, the vessel would need to show the lights or day-shapes required under COLREGS Rule 27. That does not appear to be the case here.
Our reader’s case therefore seems to fall under a “grey area” of the Rules, in the sense that COLREGS don’t address this particular situation. But this ambiguous status is not unique – – – there are other situations that are left out of the Rules. For example, COLREGS rules do not consider rowboats or canoes or stand-up paddleboards. Similarly, where the right of way between two sailboats is often determined by which boat is on a starboard tack versus a port tack, kite-surfers are sailboats that don’s sail under either tack. So, who has the right of way under these “grey area” situations?
The drafters of the Rules considered this problem by including various “catch-all” provisions that apply under all scenarios. The most important of these is Rule 2(b), which provides:
“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.”
Similarly, Rule 17(b) provides:
“When, from any cause, the vessel required to keep her course and speed finds herself so close that collision cannot be avoided by the action of the give-way vessel alone, she shall take such action as will best aid to avoid collision.”
These provisions insert layer of common-sense into the interaction between vessels at sea, eliminating any justification for an ironclad adherence to the rules when a departure from the rules is necessary to avoid a collision. They also provide guidance for scenarios, such as in our reader’s case, that are not otherwise addressed in the Rules.
The Navigation Rules set forth in COLREGS provide enough certainty that fault can always be allocated between the parties in the event of a collision. As an attorney that is usually my first question.
David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.
David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (www.weilmaritime.com) in Seal Beach. He is certified as a Specialist in Admiralty and Maritime Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization and a “Proctor in Admiralty” Member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law, and former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-799-5508, through his website at www.weilmaritime.com, or via email at email@example.com.