Nautical ‘Rules of the Road’ are serious business

I would like to comment on an article that appeared in a recent issue that involved changes in the collision regulations (New rules in effect Issue 135, Jan./Feb. 2004). First, I find it interesting, in that this opinion is both anonymous and sarcastic in tone. The first paragraph of this article states: “The so-called Nautical Rules of the Road, a set of exhaustive, and at times confusing, rules set forth by the U.S. Coast Guard in an attempt to maintain moderate order for maneuvering vessels on U.S. waters and the high seas, is updated now and again in hopes that certain kinds of collisions may be avoided by a new rule.”

I wonder if this anonymous author could be referring to the “International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.” These regulations are promulgated through the International Maritime Organization, not the U.S. Coast Guard. The United States is, however, a member of this convention. I believe these regulations were created with the hopes of preventing all types of collisions and not just “certain kinds of collisions” as referred to in this first paragraph. I understand how the author of this article can find these rules “at times confusing.” He doesn’t appear to understand the basic premise on which they were founded. If the author truly finds radar-assisted collisions to be “so-called” (to speak in his own parlance) perhaps he could explain the more than 50 deaths that were suffered in the collision of Andrea Doria and Stockholm off Nantucket. This accident was a textbook radar-assisted collision: One ship turned to port to avoid a collision when in “extremis.” Non-adherence to existing rules and international agreements was contributory to that tragically fatal incident.

In reference to the final paragraph in this article, I would say it demonstrates a degree of ignorance and contempt to make light of things we don’t fully understand or agree with. My advice to the author is to get in the game; if one finds the rules to be confusing perhaps one should study them in greater depth before rendering an opinion.

Thomas “Rocky” Tomlinson holds a U.S. Merchant Marine masters license and a U.K. class four masters license. He is currently in command of a 105-foot Feadship transiting between Central America and Alaska.

Chartroom Chatter Editor Twain Braden responds:

Capt. Rocky Tomlinson makes some very good points regarding the seriousness of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, and I agree with his observations that they are, indeed, a set of laws to be taken seriously.

I should first explain that I didn’t intend for the piece to be considered anonymous. My byline appears on the first page of Chartroom Chatter, and I write all pieces in that section that don’t have a byline.

My satirical comments about the IMO’s ongoing attempts to prevent mariners from colliding with each other — as promulgated by the U.S. Coast Guard in this country and other national regulatory agencies around the world — were meant not to poke fun at the Rules themselves. I was commenting on the difficulty (perhaps impossibility!) of that ambitious proposition, especially since new types of vessels — like ground-effect flying boats that travel near the surface at unbelievable speeds and high-speed ferries — are being developed all the time. Every time some faster, smaller vessel is developed, every time someone comes to grief in some previously unforeseen way, it must be to the utter consternation of those agencies.

Regarding my use of the term “so-called,” it should be clarified, perhaps, that I wasn’t suggesting that the Rules of the Road are somehow unnecessary or to be regarded flippantly. I wrote “so-called” because the rules don’t refer to a road — i.e., tar, street signs, painted double lines, signaled intersections, etc. — but to the high seas and various waterways.

And regarding the “radar-assisted collisions” comments, I wasn’t suggesting that there is no such thing as a collision in which improper use of radar contributed to a collision; I was passing on a phrase that people in the maritime training industry use, somewhat derisively, to explain how two vessels, their officers fully trained and using their radar sets with impunity, could — nonetheless — allow their vessels to collide.

By improperly using radar, the thinking goes, one might actually create a collision situation that might not have existed if the mate weren’t staring at the radar and ignoring the ship’s controls (as though watching television). A post-mortem of an accident, like that involving Andrea Doria and Stockholm, to use the most famous example cited by Capt. Tomlinson, might show that the vessels would have been better off without radar altogether, since the operators might have been operating the vessel(s) more conservatively otherwise. Thus, the term “radar-assisted collisions,” a slightly cynical, macabre, I’ve-seen-it-all way of expressing one of the many ways that vessels can come into difficulty on the high seas, an area void of street signs and stop lights. (I should add that this is not my expression, although I have used it in numerous radar and piloting classes over the years that I have taught for the Ocean Navigator School of Seamanship and instructional institutions elsewhere.)

I stand by my assertion that the Rules are exhaustive and confusing, which is why, as Capt. Tomlinson urges, each year I do take several opportunities to review them, especially if it has been some months since I have taught a course or operated a vessel. Thanks to Capt. Tomlinson for the opportunity to clarify. I should also add that ON readers can sign up to receive free email newsletters on the Rules of the Road, ably (and not satirically) written by Dr. Jim Austin. Visit to sign up.

By Ocean Navigator