Rules review

When you go to sea, you can face a “pop quiz” on the Navigation Rules at any time. When you are rapidly approaching another boat or ship, you must determine your responsibilities under the rules, and take the correct action. It doesn’t do to have a vague idea of the rules. You need to know them exactly and follow them specifically. While a 90% score on the Rules portion of a Coast Guard licensing examination is passing, 90% is not sufficient at sea. What good does it do to pass 90 ships correctly if you bungle 10 other situations? Not much. Just one significant error in applying the rules can spoil your whole tripnot to mention your whole life.

When I was going to sea for extended periods on a regular basis, I found it necessary to review the Navigation Rules about every three months. That was to keep sharp, and I suspect that others need to study them frequently as well. Maybe you don’t need to study as often as I do, but unfortunately it is more difficult for the person who sails occasionally to keep well informed about the rules. Often it has been a long time between trips, and perhaps even longer since studying the rules. Today there are several good methods of studying the rules, using traditional, computer, and Internet resources.

Traditional methods Reading or reviewing the book is the best-known method of studying the rules. The official book is Navigation Rules: International-Inland from the U.S. Coast Guard, and boats longer than 12 meters (39 feet) are required to carry a copy. The latest version is called COMDTINST M16672.C and is dated Oct. 1, 1995. You can buy it through some marine suppliers, Government Printing Office sales agents, or by mail from the U.S. Government Printing Office, at the address shown in the accompanying sidebar. (As of February 1999, it is out of stock. There should be a new version by the time you read this.) There are alternates: privately published copies of the rules that are complete are acceptable, and some of them are better indexed than the government version.

When studying the rules, it’s valuable to read the book through, underlining or highlighting significant phrases. Many of the rules must be used in conjunction with earlier or later ones, or the Annexes, and it is necessary to become familiar with these portions in order to avoid missing something important.

The Coast Guard book prints the International Rules on the left-hand pages and the Inland Rules on the right. There are some important differences, and I like to indicate these by bright high-lighting, usually on the Inland pages. There is little cross-referencing, and the direct references are by rule number. You have to check to ensure that you are making the link to the right reference. I find it useful to write in a phrase by the numerical reference to help the recollection.It is a bit messy to keep this book up to date; even the official version has errors. Changes are infrequent, and are listed in the Local Notice to Mariners. The Local is available, without charge, from the nearest Coast Guard district. The changes first come out in the Federal Register, which is also available. However, it has huge amounts of information in addition to the rules. There are some new ways to get corrections; more about this below.

As with studying any written material, making notes, drawings, or diagrams helps fix the information clearly in mind. This is a powerful technique that works well. So write and draw on a clean sheet of paper, and you will most likely remember moreor learn faster.

There are many other books that reprint the rules, and often expand on them. Some books and all of the pamphlets, however, give only a generalized summary of the rules. This is simply insufficient for a full understanding, in my opinion. The rules contain too many complexities to be summarized on a page or two. There are also laminated cards summarizing the rules. They are good for quick reference, but again usually are simplifications.

I have often used flash cards for the rules. The Navy once printed them, and I’m not sure where to buy similar ones. But it’s quite easy to make your own. Draw the lights of various ships as they appear from a distance, at different angles, and they will be handy references. You can use black, red, green, and yellow dots on a white card to make useful flash cards. Flash cards with the text of the rules are also handy for study at odd moments. Just making them up is a learning tool, and using them reinforces the information.

New technology If you have a computer there are several new ways to study the rules. There are at least four programs specifically designed for studying them available through various marine supply catalogs. If your computer is connected to the Internet, you have more options. You can download a copy of the book from the Coast Guard for Windows or Macintosh computers. Go to and click on the button labeled andamp;quot;Marine Safety and Environmental Protection.andamp;quot; Then choose andamp;quot;Marine Safety,andamp;quot; and click on the andamp;quot;Navigation Rulesandamp;quot; button to go to a page where you can download the entire book, in Adobe Acrobat format. The file is about 1.4 megabytes, so it takes a few minutes to receive it. You can get a free copy of Adobe Acrobat reader from the same page; then you can log off of the Internet and study the file.

Using a computer to display the Rules is most helpful. You can go back and forth to different sections of the book easily. You can search for a work or a phrase and find it quickly. You do have to search for the specific word; for example, searching for andamp;quot;lookoutandamp;quot; or andamp;quot;look outandamp;quot; doesn’t work. The Rules use the peculiar construction andamp;quot;look-out.andamp;quot; You can mark rules or paragraphs and store them on the andamp;quot;clipboardandamp;quot; with the copy command. Then you can then andamp;quot;pasteandamp;quot; the copied portion into your word-processing document. It gives great flexibility and is a help in study. Just be careful to distinguish International Rules from Inland; they’re in the same type style and labeled at the top of the page only.

If you want to study questions and answers, the commercial programs include them as part of the package. The Coast Guard site above also includes all the licensing questions (but not the answers) in electronic format. The questions on the Rules are in a file of their own. The Coast Guard site includes a most unusual feature: you can submit a Rules of the Road question by e-mail, and they will provide an answer. How’s that for service? If you get bogged down in studying a Rule or its application and need a clear answer, this is a valuable feature. There is an excellent website for navigation and Rules of the Road at, maintained by David Burch’s Starpath School of Navigation (311 Fulton St., Seattle, WA 98109, 206-284-8328). Starpath has a program for Windows computers that includes a nicely organized outline of the rules, supplemental information, and pictures. There is no charge for downloading the program. It comes as a self-extracting file of about 337 kilobytes. It works through the Windows Help function. There are separate International and Inland sections, so you don’t get mixed up in going to other rules. There are many links to other rules that apply to a section. You simply click on the reference and see the rule or the appropriate illustration. In addition, there is a good bibliography and some valuable explanations. There is a version for sale that includes questions and answers. Starpath also maintains a listing of all known additions and corrections to the Rules at the same site. This is valuable to correct a printed book from the Coast Guard.

International Marine publishes the book Get Your Captain’s License by Charlie Wing, which is valuable for studying the rules. It might be called mixed technology, since it comes with a CD-ROM that makes study easy and more complete with a Windows computer. Of course, it covers many other subjects as well. It has printed questions and illustrations from the Coast Guard licensing tests.

Advanced study A good textbook such as Farwell’s Rules of the Nautical Road by Richard A. Smith gives much additional information about the rules and how the courts have interpreted them. This is important, for you can gain insight into the meaning of the rules, and acceptable actions, by reading about actual situations and court rulings.

The rules change in two ways: by amendment and by court decisions. Amendments are rather straightforward, although it can take years to amend the International Rules. The courts amplify the rules and modify them as they decide specific cases. Professional Mariner magazine does a good job of reporting maritime accidents. Many of these cases go to court, and the decisions come years later. The law journal American Maritime Cases, edited by Anne D. Hopkins, comes out every month and lists significant U.S. and Canadian maritime court decisions. It is quite expensive, but if you can find a library or law library that carries it, you can find some interesting cases. For a fascinating case in which the singlehanded racer Coyote, sailing in a transatlantic race, was held 100% at fault in a collision with the drifting fishing boat Lady Olive Marie, see Yarmouth v. Scully in the March 1998 issue.

In addition to knowing the text of the rules, it is vital to know how to apply them. There is precious little guidance on this, and it takes much experience to develop rules of thumb. We all do this, and gain experience as we go to sea. Chapman’s Piloting, Seamanship, and Small Boat Handling has a valuable section on using the rules.

If you sail in Canadian waters, you should study the Canadian modifications to the rules. They are printed in the Canadian Sailing Directions or the Canadian Small Craft Guides. You can also download them from Transport Canada at Look under the Canada Shipping Act, then under Collision Regulations.

I consider it most important to know the maneuvering rules cold. These are rules 11 through 19. You simply don’t have time to learn these rules when approaching another boat or ship. I once made up cards for each of the Rules 12 to 17 for handy study, and it helped me. With a computer and an electronic copy of the rules, this becomes a little easier. Few printers will feed card stock, but you can make do with the thinner paper. Rules 2 through 10 are important, also, since they govern your actions in addition to the maneuvering rules. In fact, all of the rules are important at one time or another.

When you’re on watch underway, you see many boats and ships. It is most important to determine what you see, day or night, and to evaluate the andamp;quot;situationandamp;quot; under the rules. There are many ways to do this, from rules of thumb to ARPA-assisted radar plotting. We’ll cover many of the simple ways to make the determination, and decide on appropriate action, in a future article.

By Ocean Navigator