Last Updated on August 8, 2023
The sea is vast, but what if a collision takes place? Who would take the blame when it happens? Who is responsible for getting out of the way? What should be done to stop the collision in the first place?
Under the COLREGS, vessels of all kinds don’t have an absolute right of way. While there are stand-on vessels and give-way vessels, there are instances when stand-on vessels are mandated to take avoiding action. Anyone who uses any watercraft as a mode of transportation, whether sail or motor, must be familiar with the COLREGS.
To fully understand and master the COLREGS, consider enrolling in our comprehensive COLREGs course. This course provides an in-depth exploration of the 41 COLREG rules, preparing you for safe and responsible navigation.
What is COLREGS?
Popularly called COLREGS, the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea are the rules of the road that ships and other sea vessels should follow. COLREGS specifics the conduct of vessels in all visibility conditions, whether in restricted visibility or right in sight of one another.
These rules were developed to clarify when a vehicle is designed as the give-way or stand-on vessel and the proper action to take when in close quarters with another vessel to prevent a collision.
It is a common misconception that skippers use COLREGS to determine the right of way during potential collision cases. However, this needs to be more accurate. COLREGS are a set of rules that must be followed at all times.
Breaking the COLREGS rules, such as driving incorrectly in a separation line, is a criminal offense, even if it doesn’t result in a collision. The penalty for this offense can be an unlimited fine or up to two years in prison. It’s essential to follow these rules to avoid any legal consequences.
1972 Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea
The 1972 COLREGS was meant to replace and update the 1960 Collision Regulations, also adopted during the 1960 SOLAS Convention.
Among the most significant innovations in 1972, COLREGS was how it recognized schemes for traffic separation. Rule 10 guides in identifying the collision risk, safe speed, and the conduct of vessels that operate near or in traffic separation schemes.
It was way back in 1967 when the first-ever traffic separation scheme was established in Dover Strait. It was initially operated by voluntary means. Still, when 1971 came, the IMO Assembly adopted a resolution stating that observing the different traffic separation schemes should be mandatory. This obligation is stated loud and clear in the COLREGS.
There are 41 rules included in the COLREGS divided into a total of 6 sections:
- Part A – General
- Part B – Steering and Sailing
- Part C – Lights and Shapes
- Part D – Sound and Light Signals
- Part E – Exemptions
- Part F – Verification of Compliance with the Provisions of the Convention
COLREGS also has four Annexes that contain technical requirements concerning shapes and lights and their positioning, appliances for sound signaling, additional signals for the fishing vessels as they operate nearby, and international distress signals.
Part A – General
There are three rules in part A.
- Rule 1 – States that the rules apply to all vessels on all waters connected to high seas and all seas that seagoing vessels can navigate.
- Rule 2 – Covers the crew, owner, and master’s obligation to follow the rules.
- Rule 3 – It includes the definitions.
Part B – Steering and Sailing
Section 1 – Conduct of Vessels in Any Condition of Visibility
- Rule 4 – States that the section applies in any visibility condition.
- Rule 5 – Requires that all vessels maintain a proper lookout by hearing and sight.
- Rule 6 – It deals with safe speed.
- Rule 7 – It covers the risk of collision.
- Rule 8 – Details the actions that must be taken to prevent a collision.
- Rule 9 – States that a vessel that proceeds along the course of narrow fairways or channels must stay close to the fairway or channel’s outer limit lying on the starboard side because this is considered practicable and safe. The rule also disallows ships from crossing a narrow fairway or channel if this will impede the passage of other vehicles that can only safely navigate in that said fairway or channel.
- Rule 10 – Deals with the behavior of vessels near or in traffic separation schemes adopted by the Organization. It also states that ships that cross traffic lanes must do so as almost as practicable at right angles to the traffic flow’s general direction. Fishing vessels are also mandated not to impede the passage of ships that follow a traffic lane, although they are not prohibited from fishing. The regulations were amended again in 1987, stressing that the rule applies to traffic separation schemes that the Organization adopted and doesn’t relieve vessels of their obligation under other regulations.
Section II – Conduct of Vessels in Sight of One Another
- Rule 11 – It states that the section applies to vessels that are in sight of each other.
- Rule 12 – Tackles the action that must be taken every time two sailing vessels approach one another.
- Rule 13 – The rule covers overtaking. The vessel that overtakes should stay out of the way of the other vessel being overtaken.
- Rule 14 – This rule deals with head-on situations.
- Rule 15 and 16 – Covers crossing situations, while the action that the give-way vessel should take is stated in Rule 16.
- Rule 17 – This tackles the action of stand-on vessels, which includes the provision that they may prevent a collision by their maneuver alone once it becomes evident to them that the vessel that should stay out of the way doesn’t take the appropriate action.
- Rule 18 – The rule discusses the responsibilities between vessels and states the requirements for the vessels that should stay out of the way of the other vessels.
Section III – Conduct of Vessels in Restricted Visibility
- Rule 19 – This states that all vessels must proceed at a safe speed adapted to the current restricted visibility and circumstances. A vessel that detects another vessel by radar must identify if the possibility of collision is present and take the necessary avoiding action if there is any. Vessels that hear the fog signal of other vessels should minimize speed.
Part C – Lights and Shapes
- Rule 20 – Covers the rules concerning lights that apply from sunrise to sunset.
- Rule 21 – The rule provides definitions.
- Rule 22 – It tackles the visibility of lights. It indicates that lights must be visible at the minimum ranges of nautical miles that are identified depending on the specific kind of vessel in question.
- Rule 23 – This covers the lights that power-driven vessels underway should carry.
- Rule 24 – It indicates the lights for vessels pushing and towing.
- Rule 25 – This deals with the requirements of lights for the vessels under oars and sailing vessels underway.
- Rule 26 – It indicates the light requirements for the fishing vessels.
- Rule 27 – Covers the lighting requirements for the vessels that are not under command or have limited ability to maneuver.
- Rule 28 – Covers the lighting requirements for the vessels that their draught constrains.
- Rule 29 – It covers the requirements for lights for the pilot vessels.
- Rule 30 – Talks about the requirements for lights for vessels aground and anchored.
- Rule 31 – This discusses all the requirements for lights for the seaplanes.
Part D – Sound and Light Signals
- Rule 32 – This defines prolonged blast, short blast, and whistle.
- Rule 33 – States that vessels with a length of 12 meters or more should carry a bell and whistle, while those 100 meters or longer must also have a gong.
- Rule 34 – It covers warning and maneuvering with the use of lights or whistles.
- Rule 35 – Tackles the sound signals that must be used when the visibility is restricted.
- Rule 36 – It covers signals used for attracting attention.
- Rule 37 – Distress signals are covered in this rule.
Part E – Exemptions
- Rule 38 – States that ships compliant with the 1960 Collision Regulations and were established or already being built when the 1972 Collision Regulations first took effect might get an exemption from several requirements for sound and light signals for particular periods.
Part F – Verification of Compliance with the Provisions of the Convention
Adopted in 2013, the Rules bring all the requirements for the compulsory audit of the Parties to the Convention.
- Rule 39 – It states the definitions.
- Rule 40 – States that the Contracting Parties must use the Code for Implementation’s provisions in the execution of their responsibilities and obligations indicated in the current Convention.
- Rule 41 – States that all the Contracting Parties on Verification of Compliance are subject to the IMO’s periodic audits.
There are four annexes included in the COLREGS:
- Annex I – Technical details and positioning of shapes and lights
- Annex II – More signals for the fishing vessels that fish nearby
- Annex III – Technical details of appliances for sounds signal
- Annex IV – Distress signals, including the signals that indicate the need for assistance and distress